Prof. Karori Singh, former director of South Asian Studies Centre, University of Rajastan, was in Sri Lanka. In an interview with Dailymirror , the renowned South Asian academic shared his thoughts on the evolution of relations between Sri Lanka and India, the future of South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The Excerpts:
Q How do you look at the future of SAARC because of conflicts between some member states, particularly involving India and Pakistan?
SAARC evolved in a particular context with the main initiative by Bangladesh. The Indian perspective was that if India took much interest in the organization, the smaller states may have some apprehension about its role and intention. So, Bangladesh took the initiative.
On the initiative of Bangladesh, SAARC was institutionalized. All the seven countries agreed on cooperation and the SAARC Charter was prepared. In that Charter, basic principles, institutional network, organization, finances and all were made clear. There was no problem at that point of time. It was clearly mentioned in it that bilateral issues of South Asian countries would not be raised. It will be a kind of collective effort to cooperate in different aspects including economic, cultural, technological matters.
It was made clear that political issues would be kept out of the SAARC. This was the beginning of SAARC. But, over a period of time, certain problems started coming in. SAARC led two roles. One is the collective effort during the SAARC summit. Secondly, during the SAARC summit, bilateral meetings of different SAARC country leaders in South Asian countries developed a kind of certain understanding to resolve issues. Certainly, SAARC played some positive role. Apart from that, SAARC played a very important role. SAARC has contributed a lot in bringing these countries together.
When we compare it with European Union and ASEAN, I think SAARC is lagging behind. How we can take SAARC forward is a challenge before us. The extant relationship between India and Pakistan is somewhat determining SAARC’s role and contribution. How India and Pakistan can come closer and develop an understanding is the challenge for SAARC though India – Pakistan relations are not within the purview of SAARC. That is what I am feeling about it.
When we compare it with European Union and ASEAN, I think SAARC is lagging behind. How we can take SAARC forward is a challenge before us. The extant relation between India and Pakistan is somewhat determining the SAARC’s role and contribution
Q There is an allegation that India is developing in other regional bodies to belittle SAARC. Do you see that so?
India’s policy has somewhat shifted. When India’s new government came into power in 2014, the government was initially having somewhat idealistic positions. The Indian Prime Minister invited all the SAARC leaders in his oath taking ceremony. It was thought that SAARC would be strengthened. There is some misunderstanding remaining between India and Pakistan. Gradually, India shifted to isolate Pakistan from the general global condition. A clear indication is the Goa BRICS summit. There would have been a SAARC-BRICS initiative. But, India focused on a SAARC –BIMSTEC initiative. Pakistan was somewhat isolated. Later on, Pakistan-India relations deteriorated on the issue of terrorism. That issue is still standing. India always adopted a policy so long as Pakistan pursues the policy to support terrorism, we cannot have meaningful talks with Pakistan.
This determines SAARC. That is why the SAARC summit did not take place. If Indo-Pakistan relations improve, it will be great for SAARC to realize its full potential.
Q What is your position on Sri Lanka’s role?
Sri Lanka always remained somewhat positive as far as its relations with India and its role in SAARC are concerned. It was always pursuing a positive role. Right from the beginning, there were certain irritants between India and Sri Lanka like citizenship issues and maritime boundary issues. In the 1980s, there were certain problems. But, Sri Lanka and India always had cordial relations despite some irritants. Sri Lanka has raised, at SAARC platforms on the sidelines , the issues such as terrorism, extremist activities. India also wants to use SAARC as an instrument to curtail terrorism in South Asia. I think Sri Lanka always played a positive role in strengthening the SAARC vis-à-vis cultivating coordinal bilateral ties with all the SAARC countries.
Q What are the new dynamics in Indo-Sri Lanka relations?
I think India and Sri Lanka have developed a model kind of relationship. The two countries have reached a kind of understanding that Sri Lanka’s developmental needs should be fulfilled. For that, if Sri Lanka cooperates with Japan, China and any of the countries, India is sensitive about the developmental needs of Sri Lanka. At the same time, Sri Lanka is sensitive to India’s strategic, security interests in the Indo-Pacific region. This sort of understanding is there on both sides. It is a model relationship. Such kind of relationship can be emulated. Both sides are sensitizes of each other’s requirements. There are sometimes apprehensions when the governments change in India and Sri Lanka. When a government changes in Sri Lanka, the new leader visits Sri Lanka. Whichever the government in Sri Lanka, it is sensitive to India’s security and strategic needs.
Cultural links are the strong bond between the two. They are sensitive about each other’s requirements and sensitivities. Whenever a government changes in Sri Lanka, its leader visits New Delhi and asserts certain positions. I don’t think any problem will crop up even in the distant future. We may view India- Sri Lanka relations in four phases- smooth during the first three decades, the dangerous decade in 1980s, the decade of indifference in 1990s and greater cooperation and partnership from 2000 onwards.
India’s position is very clear. India is against any kind of terrorist activity anywhere in the world. It was India that proposed International Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the UN General Assembly
Q India used to stress much on the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution and power devolution based on it. Now, there is less focus on it. Is there a change or shift in India’s policy in this regard?
If you remember Sri Lanka’s role to strengthen the Non-Aligned Movement, Sri Lanka was the main partner with India to do it. When there was the war between China and India in 1962, it was Sri Lanka that brought the two countries together to sit and talk across the table. Sri Lanka played a positive role. When it comes to the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils, India’s position initially was that there was a problem of ethnic misunderstanding in the island nation. India wanted to develop an understanding that this problem should be solved. India was having its own problem in the southern state called Tamil Nadu. There was certain pressure on the central government to play some role. Reluctantly, India tried to solve this problem. India tried to pacify the Tamil community in the southern states as well as India wanted to play a positive role in Sri Lanka’s developmental process. And, the agreement between the Sri Lankan President and the Indian Prime Minister was entered into. In pursuant to that agreement, it was Sri Lanka’s decision to have the 13th Amendment. I don’t think India pressurized for it. There was this understanding between the two countries that some kind of devolution should take place.
Q Actually, what I am saying is that the 13th Amendment was stressed upon by India in very official statement on bilateral matters. Recently, nothing like that happened. Is there a change of policies or priorities?
The change is like that. There was an attempt to develop an understanding. In some circles, it was construed that India pressurized. India does not want to give any impression that it interferes in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. India is now thinking that it should maintain a distance from any of the controversial issues. India does not want to remain as a factor of the internal political dynamics of Sri Lanka. India’s role is that Sri Lanka should embark on its development path and there must be partnership in terms of technology, education etc. At the same time, Sri Lanka should not indulge in any kind of activities which are detrimental to India’s security and strategic interests in the Indo-pacific region. India does not want to give the impression that India intends to play a role in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. It is quite obvious. A model kind of relationship is coming up. India’s responsibility is greater than small neighbours. I think India is realizing it.
Q How do you look at defence cooperation between the two countries after the 2019 Easter Sunday attack?
India’s position is very clear. India is against any kind of terrorist activity anywhere in the world. It was India that proposed the International Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the UN General Assembly. Of course, it has not yet been passed. If there is terrorist, extremist violence anywhere in the world, that should be condemned. India should play a positive role on that.
Q India seems to be having some apprehension about major Chinese investment projects in Sri Lanka. In that context, how can Sri Lanka balance out its relations?
So far, my personal understanding is that Sri Lanka is balancing both the powers. It is difficult to balance. But, Sri Lanka is maintaining a relationship between both the countries. China and India are the two biggest Asian powers. They are somewhat competing to provide leadership to the Asian century. As far as developmental needs are concerned, I don’t think India has any reservations. But, in some circles, there is apprehension that developmental projects will be converted to strategic and security related issues in the long run. India must be aware of that situation. That is the only thing. The Indian government has no apprehension about Sri Lanka’s developmental needs.
Sri Lanka is the first South Asian country to embark on the liberalization path but could not get the full fruits of it. Just after liberalization, the conflict started. Expected foreign investment did not come. Sri Lanka has to import a lot. It increases the living costs for Sri Lankans so much. Still I appreciate Sri Lankan society has so much resilience.
China and India are the two biggest Asian powers. They are somewhat competing to provide leadership to the Asian century. As far as developmental needs are concerned, I don’t think India has any reservation
Q In South Asia, democracy is facing challenges. Our governing models were introduced by the British colonial rulers. Are such models compatible enough with our cultural and civilization norms?
We, in the scholarly community, are debating on this issue for a long time. Democracy is under strain not only in South Asia but also all over the world. In the United States, European Union countries, the United Kingdom said it. They said, according to what they achieved during the last 250 years in terms of individual liberty, nation state system, the world may move towards one government through European Union and ASEAN. European Union is an example of the supranational government. Things are now reverting. The state is somewhat having an overbearing attitude. There is assertion of different nationalities. There is some kind of conflict. Assertion of identity is a spontaneous process in a democratic system. Democratic process is the only way to negotiate different identities. If there is any problem, it can be discussed.
Individual freedom is becoming subordinate to state security.
ganeshberwal Wednesday, 08 January 2020 10:01 AM
Dharmendra Naaharavaar Sunday, 16 February 2020 08:53 AM
Bruce Ellis Benson Wednesday, 17 June 2020 02:45 PM
A very thoughtful and informative interview.
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