Can India stave off the waves of anarchism in Sri Lanka?


Sri Lanka's economic misery is forcing an exodus to India — Quartz India

by Punsara Amarasinghe     13 July 2022

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst”. The very words uttered by Greek thinker Aristotle seems to be conspicuous in describing the current pandemonium faced by Sri Lanka as its series of crisis reached the point of no return on the 9th of July. On the 9th of July last week city of Colombo saw a gigantic wave of protesters marching to the city regardless of the fuel crisis that whole island has been facing. Despite the brutal suppression came from the military forces, the protesters stormed into the president’s house and transformed it into a bastion akin to a picnic camp, where people were allowed to come and take selfies in the presidential suite. On the same day angry mob set ablaze the private residence of the prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe showing the antipathy among the protesters toward both Rajapaksa family and Wickramasinghe. Undoubtedly the unprecedented crisis that have encompassed the whole nation is the ultimate offshoot of a political cocktail ushered through dynastic narcissism and the economic mismanagement of the Rajapaksa family. Yet the vacuum created after the expulsion of Rajapaksa family from the national politics seems to be more problematic as the power vacuum in the political apparatus in the island nation give no clear indication. In particular, majority of the Sri Lankans seem to have developed a practice of launching protests and hartals recently to show their displeasure towards the government, which has sabotaged the normal daily living routine of the country. On the other hand, the faces of the protest movements have taken a tectonic shift from peaceful movements to macho typed rallies intending to occupy the state symbols such as president’s house, prime minister’s residence and the presidential secretariat. It is by no means an exaggeration to assume that all incidents imply an wave of anarchism in Sri Lanka.

In their seminal work “How Democracies Die” Steven Levitz and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracies can be dissolved in spectacular fashion like from a coup d’etat or a less dramatic but equally destructive manner. The circumstances which are visible in the island nation are more or less proving how corruption and nepotism have killed democracy in a country which was one time used by the British as their political laboratory in the East. Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa came into power with overwhelming support from the Sinhalese Buddhist community, the policies he adopted accelerated the militarization of the civil government institutes and reversal of the important constitutional safeguards such as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s real economic problems began long before Gotabaya took power in 2019. Since 1977 successive governments cemented the state on foreign debts and the imports exceeded the exports. Still, all the governments boasted of the welfare status of the country in South Asia. Sri Lanka’s economy for decades resembled a time bomb that awaited its explosion. The arrogance of power and pure economic mismanagement amidst the COVID 19 crisis during Goatabya Rajapaksa’s administration exploded this time bomb resulting in the chaos paving the path to shake off the state of Sri Lanka as its citizens have begun to question the democratic institutions and their validity. The common slogans that arose from the angry protesters such as “No to Parliament” and their distrust in seeking a remedy through a constitutional mechanism reflect that the island nation is on a brink of anarchy.  The seizure of the state-owned Television Station by the protestors on the 13th of July and their forceful mannerism raises the question of whether a leaderless protest moment can lead the crippled nation from an economic Armageddon to a safer zone.  Moreover, the dominant groups in the protest movement such as Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Front Line Socialist Party have a penchant for anti-Indian, anti-Western rhetoric that would further undermine the situation.

The economic and political paralysis of Sri Lanka is bad for the South Asian region, especially the anarchism looming across the island can be crucial in the security nexus of India. In this context, New Delhi should be more cautious in preventing the Sri Lankan state apparatus from falling into an anarchic limbo as it might upset the whole regional stability. Indeed, India has already played a bigger role in keeping the Sri Lankan economy afloat with its steady supplies of essential items. Nonetheless, Indian diplomacy in Colombo has adhered to changing ground realities to keep its balance. First, it approached the Rajapaksa administration in 2019 after their overwhelming victory which was followed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s famous India first foreign policy in 2020. In reality, the Rajapaksa rule played a sheer game of duplicity while balancing both Delhi and Beijing. Today Sri Lanka owes $ 6.5 billion to China emerging as a classic example of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. The Colombo Port City project and Hambantota harbour remain Chinese investments that can hamper the security interests of India in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, it’s an indispensable factor that India should succour its neighbour in securing its democracy, which is at stake currently due to the decadent system practised by the Rajapaksa family. Preserving Sri Lankan polity from crumbling would secure India’s interests in the long run and simultaneously it can be legitimized through the deep rooted civilizational tryst between the two countries.

However, the post independent Sri Lankan history has shown that Indian intervention was not given a favourable reception in Sri Lanka. The first time that India sent its troops to Sri Lanka was in 1971 when then Sri Lankan premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government faced a leftist insurrection from Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP). The next intervention, which happened during Sri Lankan president J.R Jayewardene and Indian premier Rajeev Gandhi led to a massive mass agitation in Sri Lanka as the majority of Sri Lankans opposed to Indo-Lanka accords in 1987. Therefore, this is a crisis that Sri Lanka will have to cope with under their own terms while Delhi can assure its steady support to Colombo through other diplomatic means.