RECOGNITION OF TAMILS ASPIRATION IS INDISPENSABLE FOR THE GLOBAL POWERS TO ENHANCE THEIR INDIAN OCEAN AMBITIONS
With the super power rivalry permeating the contours of Indian Ocean towards the strategic sea lines of communications, most littoral countries of this region are impelled to take sides. In its attempts to anchor a firm military hold in this ocean, the US had concocted a partnership with India, Japan and Australia, called as QUAD.
QUAD alignment is the consequence of the US’s Indo-Pacific policy framework that envisages increased cooperation with India on military and political spectrum. In its quest to secure access to the geo strategically important coastal regions, US had been engaging India for two decades since the end of cold war. This had resulted in the signing of two important agreements- LEMOA (2016) and COMCASA (2018)– between US and India that gave mutual access to each other’s military facilities. It is the backdrop in which the scheduled visit of Pompeo to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives next week gains significance. His visit is aimed to conclude agreements with India and Sri Lanka that were on negotiation for years. India has already given its consent to sign the BECA agreement during Pompeo’s visit, thereby completing the three foundational agreements required for military alliance with US. These three agreements give access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are a vantage point for the Malacca strait, and also the coastal regions in India, of which the Tamil Nadu coast is of much significance as it oversees the East-West shipping lanes. As India was quickly agreeing to US’s agreements recently, the Sri Lankan government is certainly bargaining hardly with both US and China concurrently. Thus, Sri Lanka is definitely proving to be a trouble maker for the QUAD. This is a consequence of the US’s convergence with India’s policy against Tamils in the island and its inability to fathom that India’s support for Sri Lanka is impeding its Indo-pacific policy.
DETERIORATING INFLUENCE OF INDIA
One of the notable aspects of this alliance is the pronounced incoherence in the foreign policies of its member countries, especially between India and US. As the competition for control over the island countries is increasing, the diverging foreign policies of India and US have significantly undermined the US initiatives. On September 10, 2020 Maldives signed a SOFA agreement with America that aims to focus on “framework under which US military personnel operate in a foreign country and how domestic laws of the foreign jurisdiction apply toward U.S. personnel in that country”. It was India that pressured Maldives to abstain from concluding the SOFA agreement back in 2013, leading to a delay of seven years for it be concluded only this year. This clearly shows the fact that India does not like Indian ocean island countries having bilateral military partnerships with America before India had signed its own military agreements with US. Being the only regional country of the QUAD, India’s stature as perceived by its neighborhood, plays an important role in the augmentation of the military outreach over the strategic islands that the US is attempting to secure. Recently, almost all of its neighbors barring Sri Lanka have voiced their distress with India’s evolving attitude towards them. From a sanction against Malaysian palm oil imports to a backlash from the population of Bangladesh against an Indian Prime minister visit in the aftermath of the CAA that targets Bangladeshi immigrants and an unprecedented territorial dispute with Nepal, India’s foreign policy has wreaked havoc in the Indian ocean littoral countries. India and Sri Lanka share a special relationship, the Fons et origo of which is their Hatred against Tamils. Therefore, the foreign policy of India vis-à-vis Sri Lanka is exclusively based only on this motive, negating all strategic rationale, logic and reasoning. The clear victim of this approach is the United States. By not reckoning this India-Sri Lanka nexus, America’s approach towards Sri Lanka has for the past decade been highly imprudent.
SRI LANKA- A FAILED COUNTRY
Interestingly, the Sri Lankan government is sceptical of the proposed SOFA agreement with US and the Sinhalese population is vehemently opposed to any treaties with America. This was evident from the opposition of the Sinhalese population that put the proposed conclusion of this agreement last year in jeopardy, thereby leading to the cancellation of the scheduled Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. America’s concern over the increase of Chinese influence in the island of Sri Lanka under the Sinhalese government has been evident from the frequent citation of Sri Lanka as an example of debt trap policy. America had not always been treading water in the island before. As long as America aligned with India’s interests in the island, it was able to influence the Sri Lankan government, and whenever it’s policy slightly diverged from that of India’s, it faced hindrances. When the peace process between the LTTE and GoSL was intact, the US had a considerable influence on the island to an extent influencing even its internal affairs. The entire peace process was moderated by its allied countries such as Japan, UK, Norway, and EU (collectively called as Co-chair countries). As soon as the Tamil Eelam freedom struggle was crushed through military means in accordance with India’s foreign policy, Sri Lanka started acting as a swing state between the super powers. The most important factor to the decline of American influence in this island is the Foreign policy of India that is intrinsically racial and blatantly against Tamils. India wanted to end the ethnic conflict in the island by destroying the Tamil side. As a result, a politically belligerent and economically development-phobic Sinhalese government had consolidated its influence on the entire island, the consequences of which are obvious for the west by now. The island of Sri Lanka is in a debt crisis for more than two decades. With a debt accounting for more than 90% of its GDP, and a constitutional dictatorship hovering over the horizon, the country is in no condition to find a path towards any economic development. If countries deep rooted in either religious or racial dimension can create unrest across the world (Myanmar, India, Saudi Arabia, being examples), gauging the destabilizing capabilities of Sri Lanka, whose government is an ethno-religious amalgamation, is not difficult in the post COVID stagnant economic paradigm. Quite often it is forgotten that the Hambantota port was first offered to India whose reluctance in accepting the offer led to the debt swap agreement with the Chinese government and cash deprived Colombo. Sri Lanka is also treaty bound, through the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, to get India’s assent for giving access to any country in its territories. This proves the fact that India’s open participation in the QUAD itself is a policy shift that happened as an outcome of the stand-off between India and Chinese armies at the LAC. As long as it perceives China as a threat, India will entertain the QUAD. But if its perception of china becomes amicable in near future, US will have to face the dilution of India’s participation in its Indo-Pacific policy. A perfect example for this is the exclusion of Australia from the MALABAR naval exercises between the QUAD members until this year. The natural harbour of Trincomalee is on the radar of US for many years now and it is failing to recognize India’s role in preventing US-Sri Lanka negotiations regarding it coming to fruition. India deems Trincomalee harbour as its own strategic asset which cannot be shared with western powers.
THE TAMIL FACTOR
Indo-pacific is a vast domain which contains culturally and politically diversified communities across the Indian ocean region. Tamils are the only ethnic group who live on many strategically important places of this region. From Tamils Mainland (Tamil Nadu) that is positioned at the pivot of this ocean their outreach to many islands of this ocean have historically influenced the politics and trade for several millennia. Tamil Nadu’s GDP is the second highest contributor to India’s GDP. Tamils economy is widely diversified and contributes 25% in manufacturing sector which is the highest in the Union. Its performance is also overwhelming in Education and Health sector. To sum up, Tamil Nadu is the economic powerhouse of Indian Union and Tamils are one of the most educated and successful ethnic groups of Asia. Their presence in Europe and America also amplifies their performance in IT sector and various other research areas. While Sinhalese population is struggling to run their own country individually, the Tamils are running the economy of the entire Indian Union. Weirdly, western powers have chosen to depose this successful community for the sake of an unreliable republic. One possible explanation for their decision would be that they hoped to secure the island after destroying the Tamil aspirations with the help of India. This is a flawed decision making in multiple levels considering the fact that India does not entertain any western influence in the island. It is for this reason US is still struggling to get hold in the island even ten years after the destruction of Tamils’ de facto state of Eelam. It is specifically because of this, the visit Pompeo to Colombo cannot get Sri Lanka on board in SOFA.
India’s influence in this ocean directly stems from the legacy of Tamil empires and their cultural soft power. Evidently, no other ethnic groups of the subcontinent had any decent sea faring capabilities, let alone far ocean expeditions on the scale performed by Tamils. Without exaggeration it can be fairly asserted that India’s influence in Indian ocean is a direct consequence of this Tamil legacy. Unfortunately, it’s on the decline due to the incapable administrations, and policy makers. Again, the US is trying the age-old tactic of using symbolic gestures like delivering a court verdict questioning the legitimacy of the ban on LTTE in its closely allied country United Kingdom, just ahead of Pompeo’s visit, to get some leverage during its SOFA negotiations in Sri Lanka. For a country with such vast resources on intelligence and diplomatic services, America could certainly do better than this by evaluating the failures of its previous similar attempts like the co-sponsorship of war crimes resolution in the UN human rights council with the accused country. Sri Lanka will not be deterred by these acts as it clearly knows US cannot put pressure on it with these moves by having the primary perpetrator of Tamil genocide, India, on its QUAD alliance.
It is pertinent here to cite the unanimous passage of Tamil Nadu government’s resolution in the State assembly demanding the United Nations to conduct a free and fair Referendum to declare the Eelam Tamils aspiration for independence. Former United States’ Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the former chief minister of Jayalalitha adduces America’s recognition of the primacy of Mainland Tamil’s political mandate in support of the Independent state of Eelam in the island. The significance of the Tamil factor in the Indian ocean region was correctly assessed by the Chinese leadership and it was evident from the Xi’s Mamallapuram visit in 2019. Hence, as an initial step, US should start recognizing the Tamil Genocide by genuinely increasing its efforts both in the United Nations and multilateral level with its allies. If it wants to maintain its status quo position of being a global super power, this region is too important for it to lose. These reconciliations with Tamils will only widen its footprint in the Indian Ocean region. On the contrary, if America chooses again to ignore the voices and aspirations of Tamils, as it has done before, even after all these failures, the loss for it would not just be an island, but the entire Indian ocean region and its stature as the global power.