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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2586

Mutual Cooperation Or Neo-Colonialism?

By Ven. Aggamaha Pandita Dr. Walpola Piyananda

India has the second highest population on the planet, just about 10% less than China, and four times as much as the United States, which is third. India’s recorded history is among the longest in human memory: the ancient civilization of the Indus valley goes back some 5,000 years. The entire civilized world knows at least in passing of the ancient Indian literary works; many an educated person knows of Patanjali; everybody knows about yoga. In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi led a move against British colonialism, and to this day he is one of the most respected figures of the 20th century, and rightly so.

For Sri Lankans, all of this is part of our knowledge base, but even more important is that we owe Buddhism, the cornerstone of our culture, to India. There the Buddha was born, lived, taught, and passed to parinibbana. Later, Arahat Mahinda, the son of the most famous Indian emperor, Asoka, brought Buddha’s teaching to Sri Lanka, virtually transforming the civilization of that time. The Sri Maha Bodhi tree was brought to Sri Lanka from India; Buddha’s tooth relics were brought to Sri Lanka. The contribution of India to our civilization is unmatched by any other.

The proposed economic and technological cooperation agreement (ECTA) between India and Sri Lanka

So there is much to be admired. However, our current government in Sri Lanka seems unduly influenced by India, to the point where they are on the verge of signing the ECTA (Economic and Technological Agreement) joining the two countries in these areas. In theory, there might be much to admire about such an agreement. But when we look at a little recent history and examine the details, we have to wonder if it is really a positive thing for our country.

India’s cultural heritage has long spread to the surrounding smaller nations. In addition to Sri Lankan, India has had tremendous influence in Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim. And that is where we start to find some problems. Many educated Sri Lankans have traveled to India to visit, on pilgrimage, or, like me, to purse advanced studies. In general we have found the Indian people both inviting and open to us, and we benefitted from our stays in India. However friendly the Indian people are in their own country; to allow the Indian government unrestricted immigration rights to our country is another matter.

Ostensibly, India has tried to provide assistance of various kinds to their neighbors. This is a good thing, since India has a lot of advanced technology as well as the full weight of 5,000 years of civilization. But they sometimes seem to be throwing that weight around in a way that could be considered bullying.

In the early 1970’s, I was secretary to Ven. Neluwe Jinaratana, General Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society of India, while I was doing graduate studies at the University of Calcutta, so I was close to what was going on in India at that time. Those of you who are closer to my age will remember the tiny kingdom of Sikkim, up in the mountains to the north of India. It is east of Nepal, south of China, west of Bhutan and north of West Bengal. At the time, Sikkim was mostly Buddhist, and Buddhism was the state religion. It was a poor country, short on resources with a small population. India signed an agreement with the King of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, the 11th – and last – Chogyal of his people.

Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership, India signed an agreement to help Sikkim’s overall situation. Badly needed doctors and other professionals were sent there, so the country could become modernized. However, within a couple of years, the Indian presence became dominate, and in fact, in 1975, under pressure from India, a referendum was held, as a result of which Sikkim became a state of India, and the monarchy was abolished. The country just disappeared. The Chogyal was against the annexation, but it seems nobody in the outside world cared. Sikkim was a victim of geopolitics: while China was heavily criticized for interfering in the affairs of other countries (most notably Tibet), India got a “pass” from the world. So, Sikkim passed into history. Actually China refused to recognize Sikkim as part of India, until 2003, at which time both China and India flexed their bullying muscles in a quid pro quo, by which India recognized Tibet as part of China while China recognized Sikkim as part of India.

More recently, we’ve seen India interfere in Nepal (rather ironic for Nepalis, as many of them who lived in Sikkim supported India’s interference in Sikkim). But more directly troublesome for Sri Lanka has been India’s meddling in Sri Lankan affairs.

With the rise of the Tamil Tigers, there was great support in India, especially in Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi’s son at first supported the Tigers’ efforts. It is believed that he either turned a blind eye or actively helped the Tigers, which included airlifting food and supplies to the Tamils fighting the majority population of Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi entered into an agreement with Sri Lanka’s President JR Jayawardena, who was scared of India. His successor, President Premadasa, asked India to withdraw their troops from Sri Lanka. They didn’t want to, but gave in. Ironically, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated later by Tamils who felt he had abandoned their cause.

For at least 2000 years of recorded Sri Lankan history, Sri Lanka has never been under India. Sri Lanka has developed quite a bit, and has very high standards of medical training and other technology. It’s a small country, but through the ingenuity and fortitude of its residents, it has made its way in the world. We need to be very cautious about entering into any agreements with India. One worry, for example, is that the Sri Lankan physicians, who are well-paid, will find themselves competing with doctors from Indian who will work for less than half the income of Sri Lankan doctors. Following these doctors will be an onslaught of Indian family members, who will need the Sri Lankan government to provide for their education and health benefits. They will be taking much more from our economy than they will give, while putting it at risk. Someone should go back and read the details of the agreement between India and Sikkim, comparing them to the current proposed ECTA to make sure that Sri Lanka is not setting itself up to be the next victim of the regional bully, who is interested only in self-aggrandizement and outmaneuvering its great regional rival, China.

I encourage Sri Lankans to let the government know that they do not agree with the Indianization of Sri Lanka. We have no problem with the wonderful cultural heritage we have inherited, partially from India. But we have a long tradition of being Sri Lanka, a nation, and we need to defend our sovereignty. Let’s make sure our democratically elected officials hear and heed the voice of the people.

- Asian Tribune -

Mutual Cooperation Or Neo-Colonialism?
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