Building bridges to India: the BJP/VHP factor
By Susantha Goonatilake
The Indo-Lanka Accord, in my opinion, was one of the most traumatic experiences of this country leading to what Amnesty International and the European Commission estimated to be over 60,000 innocent deaths. The foreign press at the time was devastatingly critical.
The British Guardian noted: "India's pact with Sri Lanka is the most infamous contract imposed on a small country - short of military occupation - since the Munich Agreement of 1938." The London Evening Standard said, "India ... is the colonial power in the region today". The New York Times editorialized about "Mr. Gandhi's.... big-stick diplomacy in Sri Lanka". Another leading American newspaper Wall Street Journal editorialized that India was like "A rogue elephant trampling upon its neighbours".
As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visits India for a new relationship, we have to keep in mind that trauma, learn from it and see in what direction our relationship with India has to develop.
First, let us make a detour to our knowledge of India. Not the knowledge we have in our history books, although India's history was partly constructed from the Mahavamsa. But the knowledge that is useful for our current relationship.
Let me state that both our main parties have had a woeful lack of knowledge of the Indian situation and for that matter of the world at large. On the contrary India knew us and the world better. This is because we have lacked a strong commitment to the study of our foreign relations. Let me illustrate.
In India, there are presently nearly 50 academics studying Sri Lanka, spread over four centres at New Delhi, Chandigarh, Jaipur and Chennai. In our case, there is no serious centre studying foreign relations. The BCIS remains an amateurish place.
Given this background, what are the areas that Mr. Wickremesinghe could and should fill in as he aims at a new relationship. First, he must understand the nature of the BJP government and its views on Sri Lanka. It should be noted that the present BJP leadership maintains a close relationship with Hindu ideological groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
The BJP and VHP views on the LTTE, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, the West and foreign-funded NGOs are very instructive.
The VHP was formed in 1966 with "Hindu" being defined to include all aspects of Indian culture including Buddhism and Jainism. In fact, the Dalai Lama was at its inauguration and even now works on common platforms with the VHP, as do several other Buddhist leaders. The VHP's present leader Ashok Singhal has gone on record calling the LTTE "the armed wing of the Christians". VHP sees Church involvement in Tiger activities as directly parallel to the role of the Church in India's separatist movements in their North/East.
But the Sri Lankan connection goes to the very formation of the BJP that was created out of the earlier party, Jan Sangh (Sinhalese "Jana Sangha", People's Gathering). Last year, in Saranath, the Indian leader Advani mentioned at a Buddhist festival that Mukerji, the third Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society founded the Jan Sangh. The Maha Bodhi Society's founding leader was of course our Anagarika Dharmapala, a principal architect of Sri Lankan nationalism. Advani went on to add that Mukerji had trained not only him, but also Vajpayee. In any other country, this news would have been given prominent space. But the Daily News report was tucked away in its inside pages, again confirming the deliberate anti-national infiltration of the media, especially the state media.
So if there was an ideological meeting of minds between Sri Lanka and the BJP at the latter's very founding, we should also see the other facets that filter India's present rulers' eyes.
Muslims came to Sri Lanka in peace and got integrated with the rest of the community. The Sinhalese kings gave them land and sanctuary in the Eastern Province when persecuted by the anti-Islam Catholic Portuguese. It is from that province of tolerance that today's Muslim leaders are stoking religious fires.
But Muslims came to India differently. They came through the sword, in the process, torching thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples and killing tens of thousands of monks. Key centres of Buddhist learning like Taxila and Nalanda known to every Sinhalese child were some of the victims.
BJP and VHP concerns in many fields including on Pakistan and the Babri Mosque built on a Hindu site are coloured by these painful historical experiences.
The other foreign religion to the region is Christianity, which came to Sri Lanka with the sword of Portuguese barbarism. Christianity, although insignificant in India, again bothers the VHP. Apart from concern about Christians stoking separatism in India's North and East, there is intense concern about unethical conversions, as well as about the past historic injustices done in Goa.
Recent VHP/BJP literature gives details of past Portuguese atrocities (which one should note were insignificant when compared to Portuguese barbarism in Sri Lanka). There is also much discussion on unethical conversions through foreign Christian money and subversive activities of foreign-funded NGOs, although both these activities in India are much smaller-scale than in Sri Lanka.
Last month saw a major conference in Delhi attended by Vajpayee and the Dalai Lama whose real agenda was against unethical conversions. And a Christian minister of the BJP dominated government Fernandez, wears his nationalism on his sleeves and goes to great extents to boost Indian pride.
At first sight, it may appear, that elements within the UNF and its alliance partners have strong links with those very groups that are looked at suspiciously by the BJP/VHP. A Muslim party is part of the UNF, key ministries like the foreign and interior ministry come under Christians, the "peace'' propaganda is heavily infiltrated by Christian groups, including fundamentalist churches and is driven by foreign-funded NGOs. These would appear as the opposite of what the BJP/VHP stands for. The holding hands campaign by fundamentalist Christian and Catholic bosses in the private and state sector as well as the Churches' deliberate attempts to get rid of nationalist feelings would, if the real facts were known, send shudders up the VHP.
Ranil Wickremesinghe's uncle and mentor J.R. Jayewardene fell foul of the then Indian government by his sponsorship of Western interests such as the Trincomalee harbour lease and the Voice of America facilities. Sri Lanka was seen as a sword aimed at the underbelly of India.
Mr. Wickremesinghe's genuine efforts to develop good relations with India could flounder on the ground that his UNF government is seen as a sword aimed at the core cultural and religious interests of the BJP/VHP. Avoiding this requires a fast reading of the BJP/VHP literature by our foreign ministry and by our new Prime Minister.
More importantly, it also requires an examination of seen and unseen power holders of his government to see whether there are definite reasons for the BJP to be concerned.
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