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Indo-Lanka Relations: history and reality

25 August 2016 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



A lot is often made of alleged historical ties between India and Sri Lanka. Too much and too often, perhaps. ‘Historical Ties’ is an oft used sweetener to help one force unpalatables down the throats of another party, typically by the stronger on the weaker. It is not for nothing that democracy has been described as the opportunity for the downtrodden to choose the sauce with which they are to be eaten by the oppressor in a capitalist society. ‘Historical Ties’ are like that too.   

But let’s not get ahead of things here. First and foremost there is the issue of ‘India’. What’s India? Where is it? When was this ‘India’ formed into some kind of coherent political entity that covers more or less the geographical space it is associated with today? These are questions that need to be asked and answered before we talk about ties between ‘India’ and ‘Sri Lanka’. Indeed, such questions could (and should) be asked about ‘Sri Lanka’ as well.   

Sri Lanka, being a small island, has the proverbial inside track (compared to ‘India’) in terms of ‘long history’ associated with the territory associated with the present-day name. While there can be disputes about what ‘state’ is and whether entities from a long time ago were ‘states’ like the ones we have today, it is clear that political authorities had jurisdiction over the entire island for considerable periods of time.   

Writers, cartographers and travellers had single names for the island. Descriptions speak of a single political entity. A less-known or perhaps known-but-ignored example is the reference etched in inscriptions at Hindu temples built by Raja Raja Chola I with wealth plundered from conquered territories. The name is ‘Ila-Mandalam’, ‘Ila’ being a corruption of ‘Hela’ or its four-part elaboration ‘Sihala’ (from ‘Siv-Hela’, made up of Yaksha, Naga, Deva and Raksha, each associated with a vocational sphere), later to be further corrupted by European invaders into ‘Ceylon’ (not ‘Sri Lanka’ which one could argue is an aberration that should be done away with and replaced with the more logical ‘Sinhale’). Importantly, by the way, the inscription offers the following elaboration: ‘the land of the warlike Singalas’. This, in the 10th Century AD. Of course, there’s ample evidence of the island being a single political entity long before this. What was India ‘back then’? The largest empire established on the land that covers today’s India was that of the Mauryas. It lasted less than 150 years (332-185 BCE) and did not cover all of ‘India’. The ‘All of India’ did not get ‘covered’ until the British arrived.   

So what do we make of the so-called Indo-Sri Lanka ties of the historical kind? We could talk about the wars, in particular the many invasions of the island by South Indian armies, none of which identified with the ‘India’ of today in terms of areas controlled in the sub-continent. Movement of people and trade, obviously, didn’t begin just the other day, but it’s stretching things too far to use such ‘ties’ as examples of ‘friendship between states’ and downright silly to use the name ‘India’ in describing such transactions.   

In recent times, we had the infamous Indo-Lanka Accord which was an act of aggression which followed the funding, training and arming of terrorists by India to wage war on the Sri Lankan state. Such actions indicate ‘relations’ but certainly not friendly, although one could interject the term ‘historical’ in terms of the rank interference it amounted to and the violence it engendered. One could add India’s role in ‘cornering’ Sri Lanka in Geneva, which again came with the tag ‘in the best interest of Sri Lanka’, as understood and defined not by Sri Lankans but forces most certainly arrayed against Sri Lankans.  

Between these there was of course the Emperor Asoka and the much-talked-of ‘bringing of Buddhism to “Sri Lanka” from “India”.’ No aggression there. No forcing stuff down people’s throats. It was a gesture, yes, but not one done in the name of friendship between two countries. Arahat Mahinda has often been mis-labelled as an emissary of Emperor Asoka. He was nothing more, nothing less, than a shraavaka (student) of the Dhammataught by the Thiloguru, the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama. The “Jambudveepa” he came from is conceptually, culturally and cartographically different from ‘India’. The history of “Jambudveepa” is not written anywhere in India and indeed the British officials had to draw heavily from the Sinhala chronicles to make sense of the ruins they came across in the territory they named ‘India’. In fact the world would not have known of Emperor Asoka if not for the Mahavansa and the Chinese records.   

But let’s get back to “India”. Where did the word come from and what territory did it refer to? The general consensus is that the name is drawn from the Indus River whose original (Sanskrit) name was Sindhu which had become “Hindus” to Persians who conquered that relatively small piece of land in the 5th Century BCE. It was thus the Persians who dropped the ‘s’ and the Greeks who dropped the ‘h’ to yield an ‘India’. That name has been drawn over the entire landmass of the subcontinent subsequently to give us the ‘India’ of these so-called ‘friendly Indo-Lanka relations’ whose ‘historical’ nature as the above indicates remains un-established. If one were to condense the past 25 centuries into a one minute roll-out of changing land-area(s) associated with the name ‘India’ we won’t see a still picture that corresponds to the current map of the country by that name. We would see lines that contain relatively tiny territories which on rare occasions burgeoned out and yet never gave the present-day boundaries.   

India exists. As of now. Sri Lanka does too. There are bi-lateral agreements and other agreements forged in multi-lateral forums. There are ‘ties’ whose friendliness is up for debate. Not all of it is bad of course, but there’s enough bad-blood in recent times to raise eyebrows at friendship-claims. There is trade. There is friendship. Thousands of Sri Lankans obtain visas from the Indian High Commission every year, a significant portion of who are pilgrims. Such pilgrims obtain their visas from the INDIAN High Commission, but they visit not India but ‘Dambadiva’ (Jambudveepa). It would be good to do a survey at this point of general perceptions of India in terms of a) existing and possible trade, and b) India’s political, military and diplomatic actions with respect to Sri Lanka, especially the perceptions of such visitors (pilgrims). It might very well turn out that for the majority of them the India that gives them visas is very different from the Dambadiva they visit.   

 Yes, a lot is often made of alleged historical ties between India and Sri Lanka. Too much and too often. So much that it is beginning to sound ridiculous.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: Twitter: malindasene.   

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