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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Significance of South India-Sri Lanka Sub-Regional Cooperation | Gull Mohammad Wani

Friday 8 July 2022


by Prof Gull Mohammad Wani *

History tells us that crises can be negotiated in a useful manner to resolve problems facing the world. This can happen if we revisit approaches ,paradigms in vogue for a long time. It is during extraordinary moments that behaviors can shift from confrontation to cooperation and from enmity to intimacy. It is for the second time that Prime Minister of Sri-Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe during an interview to NDTV called for the development of the "South India -Sri Lanka" sub-region as single market which can yield many opportunities for economic growth of two countries. These saner voices generally in South Asia are heard during economic/political crises. This is equally true of how integration process took shape in Europe also. However ,this need not be taken as a distress call from a country caught in the vortex of a serious economic crisis but a policy vision articulated and expressed by many other leaders in the larger region from time to time. These calls were heard during Covid -19 times and the basic motive was to help people and enhance people to people cooperation and connectivity across borders .In jammu and Kashmir there were similar calls during 2005 earthquake .The Cuban doctors were able to reach to Muzafarabad but medical help from neighboring places couldn’t be moved . The cooperation at sub-regional level can prove useful to stop the march of ethnic nationalism taking toll of societies and sociology of the people.

Ranil Thesis

The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe who represents United National Party has assumed charge at a turbulent time in Sri Lankan history .Because of his neo-liberal ideology he is the darling of international donor community. In his interview to Indian TV channel PM said he "would easily fit into Chennai or Kerala without a problem, while people in the Southern part of India can fit in the northern part of Sri Lanka" . Earlier in 2003 as PM Ranil raised his voice for development of the South India-Sri Lanka sub-regional cooperation which can grow into a single market leading to the development of two countries. In 2016 in his opportunities of convergence speech to the South Asian Diaspora convention in Singapore , Ranil emphasized" we recognize that poor infrastructure ,obsolete policies and unfavorable business environment constrain the ability to do business across border and act as a drag on competitiveness in South Asia". He further added "the five Indian Southern states viz, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka ,Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Kerala with a total population of 250 million had a combined gross state domestic product of nearly $ 450 billion, with the addition of Sri Lanka,s $80 billion GDP the sub-region would have a $500 billion economy having an aggregate population of around 270 million. India has reached out to Sri Lanka at different levels to help it to overcome the economic distress. Tamil Nadu has supplied aid of Rs 123 crore, comprising 40,00 tonnes of rice ,137 types of life-saving drugs and 500 tonnes of milk powder and the consignment was flagged by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Mr. M K Stalin. The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Baglay handed over the same to Sri Lankan government. The crisis in Lanka has also given impetus to collaboration in the domain of infrastructure building. Some sections in policy community think of linking Sri Lankan electricity grid with that of India. If this takes off, the first point of inter-connectivity on the Indian side will most likely be in Tamil Nadu. There are equally other sub-regional spaces in South Asia where people across the border clamor for more trade, visit to pilgrimage sites and more impetus to people to people contact.

Two Punjabs

During 2000-2010 peace process between India and Pakistan I was told by many former Indian diplomats that peace to Kashmir has to pass through Punjab. This was also the reason that peace process got under way between two Punjabs and many initiatives were taken keeping in view the baggage of partition. At Attari-Wagah border in April 2012 the then Chief Minister of Punjab Prakash Singh Badal underlined Punjab’s interest in reconciliation with Pakistan. In September, 2012 an Indian delegation with the then Punjab chief secretary visited Pakistan where it was decided to dismantle the negative list by the end of October and 600 items were to be traded through the Attari-wagah border .It was also decided to open Husseniwala and Abohar routes. A decision was taken that relics of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Pakistan shall be brought to Punjab in India for a six month exhibition at the Gobindgarh fort .The private sector in India was planning to lay an oil pipeline from a new refinery located in Bhatinda to the Pakistan Punjab. The opening of the kartarpur is equally important for Punjabi Muslims. An exhibition of painting done on Sikhism and its related themes curated by the Lahore based Fakir Khana Museum at the Sikh shrine reflects the common interest and culture of harmony .Within the Shrine , there is presence of local Muslims of the nearby villages(mostly peasantry) of Pakistani Punjab.

Two Bengals

Bengal in its long history has seen partition in 1905 and then the great partition in 1947 . In March, 2022 while inaugurating 45th edition of the international Calcutta Book fair Chief Minister Mamta Bannerje underlined the eternal connect of two Bengals on two sides of the border .She emphasized that borders and barbed fences cannot come in the way of the relationship between Bangladesh and this side of the border. In April 2022 the Bangladesh commerce Minister Tipu Munshi praised West Bengal chief Minister Mamta Bannerje and expressed his eagerness to invest in west Bengal. India already has cross-border energy trade with Bangladesh .After opposing Teesta River Treaty Mamta Bannerjee paid a visit to Bangladesh in February, 2015 during which she told reporters :"have trust on me on the Teesta issue...I will have talks on the matter with Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina". In May 2022 Indian chamber of commerce organized an interactive session where the Deputy High commissioner of Bangladesh in India Andalib Elias stressed the need to improve bilateral relationship. The West Bengal agriculture minister Sobhandeb Chatterjee emphasized on exploring tremendous opportunities in the economic relationship and stated that West Bengal can also export agricultural products to Bangladesh. According to president of Dhaka Chamber of commerce and industry Rizwan-Ur-Rahman Bengal is the second largest trade partner of Bangladesh and almost 54 percent of the foreign medical visitors to India are from that country. It is a happy moment that under "Mango Diplomacy "Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hassina sent one metric ton of ’Amrapali’ variety of mango to president Ram Nath Kovind and PM Narendra Modi .In 2021 Chief Ministers of West Bengal,Tripura, and Assam also got these gifts. Similarly, lot of state and civil society energy got invested to improve and connect two parts of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State.

Two Kashmirs

At the time of writing this column the bad news is that Pakistani officials were not invited to offer ’Chadar’ this time at the annual fair at the Baba Chamliyal shrine along international border in Samba district and no traditional exchange of ’Shakkar/Sharbat’. The annual fair saw about one lakh devotees on June 23, 2022 at the shrine site. Be that as it may addressing a rally at the launch of the Amritsar-Nankana sahib bus service on March 24, 2006 the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said" borders cannot be redrawn but we can work towards making them just a line on the map. The people on both sides of Line of Control should be able to move freely and trade with one another. I also envisage the two parts of Kashmir can with active encouragement of the governments of India and Pakistan work out a cooperative and consultative mechanism in solving problems of social and economic development of the region". From 2005 the LOC was opened for movement of divided families and later for trade. Since 2019 there is a reversal of confidence- building measures taken during the hey days of India- Pakistan peace process. New Delhi and Pakistan have exhausted the energy that pushed their engagement in the year 2000.Most of those Confidence building measures lie in ruins with connectivity at a 20-year low. On the positive side ,a happy augury is that 2003 ceasefire still holds on LOC and the international border. During and after March 9,2022 accidental firing of a missile 100 Km inside Pakistan territory was also the occasion when two hostile nuclear neighbors have given the entire South Asia a real time determination of how neighbors can behave as rational states to prevent a crisis. Modi government has spent lot of time to persuade Pak officials to ensure it could send 50,000 MT of wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan. There are indications from both sides that some low hanging fruits can be plucked the moment a political go ahead is given by both sides.


The Ranil thesis has three shades: one, that liberal economy has potential to liberalize borders between nation-states. Second, authoritarian regimes tout the doctrine of "every nation for itself" . Third, the fear of Indian state among Sinhalese of Lanka can be removed by greater people to people cooperation. The fear in Pakistani mind can also be removed in a similar way .The thesis can be replicated in other parts of South Asia where there is enough good will among people especially at the periphery to connect across the border. The Ranil thesis is inextricably linked with the concept of enlightened sovereignty and humane borders. The concept has its advocates and detractors in contemporary times. The basic catalyst of change shall always remain the people of South Asia .A country like India with great power ambitions and a regional hegemon must study the causes of the economic mismanagement that brought recent change in some neighboring countries .New Delhi also needs to study vulnerabilities of neighboring states .A great power can easily fill up the vacuum created by a myopic vision. Former foreign minister of Israel Abba Eban stated : history tells us that men and nations behave rationally after they exhaust all alternatives". American sociologist Daniel Bell put it so beautifully that a "nation-state is too small to solve big problems and too big to solve small problems". We need to give ear to saner voices and proceed on the premise that there is no full stop in diplomacy.

* (Author: Prof Gull wani is Kashmir based Political scientist)

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