North-Eastern Diplomacy of the Rajapaksas

by Jathindra, Uthayam News, Jaffna November 10, 2021

[Translation from the original Tamil by Google Translate]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently opened a new international airport in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India. Kushinagar is believed to be the final resting place of Gautama Buddha. Namal Rajapaksa, the son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was present at the event along with one hundred Buddhist monks.

On this occasion, Prime Minister Modi was presented with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita translated into Sinhala. We have also stated that his father (Rajapaksa) had ordered that the Bhagavad Gita be translated into all the languages ​​spoken in Sri Lanka. At first glance this may seem like a normal occurrence. But this is another face of Sinhala diplomacy. That is, the trick is to try to get closer to them through what they like.

The Congress Party has been India’s main political party since independence.  It was against this background that the Bharatiya Jana Sangha was formed in 1951 with the support of the RSS. This is what the BJP was renamed in 1980. In the 1984 general election, the BJP won only two seats.

In 1998, the BJP formed a coalition government led by Vajpayee. It was followed by Narendra Modi-led government in 2014 with a majority. This is the first time in Indian political history that the BJP has ruled with a majority.

At the same time, it is the first time in a long time that a party has won so many seats. In the 1984 general election, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Indian National Congress won the largest number of seats alone. In today’s context, there is a very strong position among the BJP. To that extent a wave of Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged in India. The RSS has been expecting this for a long time.

Ever since the BJP came to power with a majority, the Rajapaksas seem to believe that they can handle New Delhi by appeasing the BJP. Within two months of the Rajapaksas regaining power in 2020, Mahinda Rajapaksa had proposed a bill in the cabinet against slaughtering cows for meat.

The Cabinet had given permission for it to proceed. In a “Stone – Like Two Mangoes,” at first it was an attempt to appease the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, i.e. a cultural approach to proclaiming that it was a Buddhist nation. The second stone is to show close ideological solidarity with the ruling BJP government. On this basis, the Cabinet has now approved the submission of a bill in Parliament to prevent cow slaughter. The government expects to pass this law before the election.

Following the BJP’s takeover of power in 2014, the RSS, the BJP’s parent organization, campaigned to stop the slaughter of cows for meat. As a result in 2017, the BJP government announced a ban on cow slaughter. However, the Supreme Court of India later quashed it.

According to the RSS, the cow (Hoshalam) is a symbol of Hindutva ideology. About 80% of the population in India is Hindu. Most of them do not eat beef based on belief. Politically and ideologically, this is a very positive thing for the BJP.

This approach was a great success for the BJP in the central Indian states. These areas are the ‘cow zone’ as far as the BJP is concerned. The ideology of cow protection has given historic victory to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Cattle slaughter is still banned in all states under the BJP rule.

The Rajapakse PA is now seeking to replicate the same approach taken by the BJP. It is on this basis that they have resorted to ‘Hindutva’ diplomacy. Is it possible to come to such a conclusion by keeping only the matter of preventing the slaughter of cows for meat? – Such a question may arise.

There is another example of the Rajapaksas recently adopting a new diplomatic approach to dealing with New Delhi by appeasing the BJP. This is a very good example of their ‘Hindutva’ diplomacy. Milinda Moragoda was recently appointed Ambassador to India.

Although his appointment was confirmed a year ago, he had only recently assumed his duties. On his way to New Delhi from his home, he had taken a stone from the Seetha-Amman temple in Kandy. Moragoda had said that it would add strength to the construction of the Ram Temple, which was laid by Modi last year. He also mentioned that the Ram Temple in Ayodhya would be a foundation for strengthening Sri Lanka-India relations.

Which diplomacy does this convey? The present site of the Seetha Amman Temple is believed to be the place where Ravana attracted and detained Seetha. Summarizing such matters – I define this as the ‘Hindutva diplomacy’ of the Rajapaksas.

The goal of this diplomacy is to present themselves as close to the North Indians, i.e., closer to the cow zone. When the BJP talked about preventing cow slaughter, the main state that opposed it in India was Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam strongly opposed it.

MK Stalin, the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has vehemently opposed the BJP’s move, claiming that the government is interfering in their food freedom. There were also protests in Tamil Nadu against the BJP’s decision, prioritizing beef. Chennai University students protested against this by holding a beef feast. When such people now speak in favor of Eelam Tamils, how will the North Indians view it? This is the place the Rajapaksas are targeting.

Because in the case of Eelam Tamils, Tamil Nadu is the only state that puts pressure on the Indian central government. This is due to the identity of the Tamils. At the same time, Tamil Nadu is a state that challenges the Hindutva ideology of the RSS. The RSS, formed in 1921, has not been able to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu to date. That is, Dravidian ideology could not be confronted by Hindutva. It is against this backdrop that the Rajapaksas can predict that if they are closer to the North, they can easily handle the pressures of Tamil Nadu. It would not be wrong for the Rajapaksas to make such a prediction.

There is another important reason why the Rajapaksa administration has resorted to this diplomacy. That is, the Sirisena regime came to power and was soon ousted from power by Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the meantime, there has not been a smooth relationship between the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and the Modi administration.

The Modi administration was deeply dissatisfied with the issue of Chinese submarines anchored in the Colombo port in 2014. It was against this backdrop that the regime change in Colombo in 2015 took place. The defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa immediately blamed Rowan, the Indian foreign intelligence service. However, he said Modi was not involved in the matter. Due to pro-Chinese suspicions, the Rajapaksas believed that India had devised strategies to defeat them. This gave them anger as well as fear.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – This was revealed during an interview given to an Indian media in 2008. “That is, the Congress government and we had a good relationship. But the Modi-led BJP misunderstood us – especially the BJP bureaucracy – and looked at us with suspicion in relation to China. This caused cracks in the relationship between us.” Gotabhaya’s statement reflects the Rajapaksas’ fears about the Modi-led BJP.

It is against this backdrop that the Rajapaksas, who have regained power, are looking for new ways to manipulate the BJP. While Modi is a Hindu nationalist, the Rajapaksas believe they can manipulate the BJP by moving closer to a Hindutva approach. Their activities indicate the same thing. In the foreign policy of the Modi administration, there is a view that the Hindutva forces are acting as internal thinkers (kalasanapai n pladi uliwelasala enasavala). It is in this context that the Rajapaksas predict that Modi’s approach to Sri Lanka can be softened by appeasing Hindutva forces.

But in practice it is not an easy one. Because the foreign policy of a superpower like India is a continuum. That is the basis of a country’s foreign policy in general. Neither individuals nor an organization can radically change foreign policy.

Indian foreign policy is one of derived from Nehru. That is, Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation for the foreign policy of modern India. As the party that has ruled India for the longest time (about 54 years), India’s foreign policy has been one of influence under Nervian thought. It was predicted that this would change following the arrival of Modi. This is the first time since Nehru that someone with a more precise ideological (Hindutva) background has had strong popular support.

In an interview a few days before the 2014 elections, Modi mentioned that his Hindutva face would be an asset to deal with foreign affairs with other countries. In all matters following Modi’s victory, the prediction that Hindutva ideology might exert influence was put forward by some.

It is on this basis that opinions have emerged that the RSS may influence Modi’s foreign policy. But in the opinion of many Indian foreign policy experts it is not an easy one because Indian foreign policy has a strong foundation. It cannot be abruptly changed to suit the wishes of the Hindutvaa forces. And no such trend can be seen in Modi’s attitudes. There may be some changes in attitudes but fundamentally changes are unlikely. Hindutva is largely the one that determines the internal politics of the BJP.

But the Modi administration seems to be interested in the Hindu-Buddhist relationship in Sri Lanka. This is a soft diplomatic approach. Modi had great respect for Buddhist monks during his visit to Sri Lanka. He fell at their feet like Sinhala leaders and worshiped.

This is a good example of Modi’s soft approach. The Prime Minister of a regional power has fallen at the feet of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks. As far as the Hindutva forces are concerned they do not see Buddhism as one against themselves. They see it as an extension of the Hindu identity. The Rajapaksas are trying to use this to their advantage.

But Modi is a Hindu nationalist. His ideology is Hindutva. He was for the propaganda of the RSS organization. None of this is secret. Against this backdrop, we have no doubt that the RSS can influence Modi’s decisions. Despite some limitations, the influence of the Hindutva forces and the BJP cannot be separated.

A recent move by the US State Department is clear evidence of the RSS’s influence. Atul Keshap, the US ambassador to India, had met Mohan Pawat, the leader of the RSS, in his office. There is strong criticism of the RSS in the United States. In American political circles in general, the RSS is seen as a paramilitary organization.

In this context, the US ambassador’s meeting with the head of the RSS organization provoked widespread condemnation. This was vehemently opposed by the Indian Muslim diaspora community in the United States. But the US State Department did not respond. Because this is an American move. We need to understand this meeting in the context of the recent US-India strategic closeness.

Despite rumors circulating among the Biden administration about the BJP’s approach to India on human rights issues, the US is not prioritizing them now. Strategic relations will be affected if prioritized. India is inevitably a partner in the US tactic of paralyzing China to a limit. This is a good example of how human rights concerns can be secondary when it comes to geopolitics.

What is our understanding of Rajapaksa diplomacy towards the North? The Tamil homeland, the Northeast, is inhabited by a majority Hindu population. Even though Eelam Tamils ​​prioritize political secularism, Eelam Tamils ​​have the potential to be culturally categorized as ethnic groups. In 2014, following the BJP’s victory with majority strength, Sampanthan, the leader of the federation, had once said, first and foremost, that the majority Hindus in the North East have been affected.

That was the only occasion when the Federation spoke in relation to Hindus. As far as the island of Sri Lanka is concerned, only the Eelam Tamils ​​have the energy to go into Tamil Nadu as Tamils ​​and as Hindus all over India. Sinhala historians acknowledge that there was once a Pancha Easwara administration on the island of Ceylon. In this context, it is the Eelam Tamils ​​who have the potential and the social background to pursue relatively ‘Hindutva diplomacy’.

But it has now been taken over by the Sinhala ruling class. They are trying to accurately assess the interests of the ruling BJP and move things forward accordingly. There may be another reason behind the Rajapaksas thinking like this. That is, given the political climate in India, there are serious challenges to Congress coming to power in a strong position. Because the BJP is so strong. By getting closer to the North Indians in this situation, they may also be planning to lay a solid foundation for permanently confronting the Sinhala opposition of the South Indians.

It is against this background that we must try to understand the Sinhala rulers’ refusal to grant political rights to the majority Hindu-Eelam Tamil people in the North East and their attempt to resort to Hindutva diplomacy to stabilize themselves politically. By moving closer to the Hindutva North, they may hope to repeal the 13th Amendment, the result of the Indo-Lanka Accord, with the support of the BJP. It is in this context that we must try to understand Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s promise of a new constitution. It does not matter whether the new constitution comes or not. But its goal is to repeal the 13th Amendment. The Modi government, for example, has lifted the special provision for the state of Kashmir. The Rajapaksas may think that special arrangements cannot be made for the Tamil people. The 13th Amendment can be repealed and a more authoritative provincial council can be introduced. They predict that the opportunity available through Hindutva diplomacy will be used for this. Beyond whether this is possible or not, they are trying. That is why Milinda has gone to New Delhi with the stone of the Goddess Temple. Why did this idea that erupted in Milinda Moragoda not arise in the heads of our Tamil leaders? So much diplomatic poverty? They are trying.

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