“INDIA GO HOME”. This was a large hand-painted sign on a wall in Colombo harbor, in the fifties, in full view of the ships that called there.  An American ex-serviceman, when he first found out that I was from Sri Lanka, wanted to know what it was with us Sri Lankans and India. He had seen the sign when he passed through Colombo by ship.

Only those of us who lived there know the potent anti-India sentiment that prevailed, and still does, among the Sinhala people. It is in this context that I find the current hysterical calls for India to come back, truly astonishing.

The first significant legislative act of the newly independent Sri Lanka was the twin legislations of 1948 and 1949, to disenfranchise a million people, who were characterized as ‘people of recent Indian origin.’ They were stripped of their citizenship and voting rights, and strident demands were made of India to ‘take them back’. The successive Sinhala governments were so persistent with this demand that, after nearly two decades of this badgering, an irresolute Prime Minister of the time (Lal Bhadur Shastri) finally relented.

Indian traders were singled out in the fifties with punitive regulatory measures, and unjust taxes, that they finally left in frustration. Import of Indian magazines and journals were selectively banned in the sixties. Magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India and Femina (read by all segments of the population) and Ananda Vikatan and Kalki (read by Tamils) were no longer available. Import of Indian produce (eggs, onions, spices, etc.) was banned in the early seventies, despite the resultant skyrocketing prices for these commodities.

India’s accommodative unconcern to these measures, considered minor matters by India, only led to further India baiting. A diplomatic crisis was created over a useless piece of land. Ownership of Katchativu, a tiny barren island housing only a church, belonging to India was made into a major issue. India again relented and gave up the island.

India baiting and India bashing are a regular chase among the Sri Lankan (Sinhala) people. Indians living in Sri Lanka are often referred as kalla thonis (illegal boat people) and sakilis (untouchables) – distinctly derogative terms in the Sri Lankan lexis.

Although most of these overtly anti-Indian invectives occurred under the premiership of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike (mother of the current President), other Sri Lankan leaders are not less blameworthy. The more recent history of President Jayewardene’s drift towards the United States, in detriment to Indian interests, is well known. Mrs. Indira Gandhi could never forgive Jayewardene for this, till she died. Jayewardene, like his predecessor Mrs. Bandaranaike who exploited the gentleness of Shastri, took advantage of the charismatic but inexperienced Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded Indira Gandhi.

The violent response of the Sinhala masses, who failed to understand the strategy of the scheming Jayewardene in ‘inviting’ the Indian troops to fight his war, is recent history. Aggressive demonstrations against India at that time, led by the Buddhist clergy (who threatened self-immolation), the striking of Rajiv Gandhi by a soldier in the guard of honor lineup, the violent anti-India campaign by the JVP, are events fresh in the minds of the Indian public.

The resumption of anti-India rhetoric soon after the usefulness of Rajiv Gandhi ended is also recent history. The Indian people cannot forget the public humiliation of India by President Premadasa, when he dispensed with diplomatic niceties, and gave the ultimatum to India for withdrawal of troops (IPKF) at a public meeting.

Now, there are throngs of Sinhala people, led by the Buddhist monks, begging India to come back and save them from the Tamils!

Does this mean that the Sinhala people have had a change of heart about India?

Name Withheld
May 3, 2000