India is not Sri Lanka; and, Sri Lanka is not India. Our island neighbour is going through an economic meltdown. Its foreign currency reserves have dried up; inflation is skyrocketing; food prices are going through the roof; fuel shortages have led to miles long queues; power cuts have become endemic; and the health system has ground to a halt due to lack of medicines.
India is facing major problems of unemployment and inflation. Foreign currency reserves have dipped. Growth rates are sluggish, the informal sector is hurting, consumption has not picked up, and the rupee is sliding. Yet, India is not in the throes of an economic crisis. Sri Lanka is an island economy. It is over dependent on one source for revenue — tourism — which has taken a huge hit due to the pandemic. India is a continental economy. Its productivity spectrum is far more diversified. And, decades of investment in institutions for the management of the economy, have made it far more resilient in weathering transient global crises.
This being said, there are striking parallels in the social and political developments in both countries. Like India, Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, multilingual and plural country. Like India, Sri Lanka too has a majority community, the Sinhalas. The Sinhalas are Buddhist. They constitute some 70 per cent of the population. Tamils, mostly Hindus, account for 18 per cent. And Muslims total around nine per cent. Like India, therefore, Sri Lanka has been grappling with how to live in a society where there is harmony and goodwill between the various communities that constitute the nation.
Sri Lanka has done a very bad job on this score. Successive governments have, for short term political dividends, encouraged Sinhala entitlement, rooted in mytho-history, discriminatory policies, politics, hyper-nationalism and communalism. As a result, the country witnessed a deadly civil war with Tamil insurgency in which over 100,000 people were killed. The economy was set back by decades. The war against the Tamils was pursued ruthlessly and ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE. The person who claimed credit for this “victory” is the current President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Not surprisingly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa reaped short-term political rewards for aggressively representing the Sinhala cause. He won the 2019 presidential election with a huge majority. His inauguration ceremony was triumphantly conducted at a Buddhist temple. Next year, his party, the Sri Lankan People’s Party, swept the parliamentary elections. This led him to believe he was invincible. Riding on the support of the majority Sinhala community, he took decisions on the spur of the moment which were disastrous. He ordered wide-spread tax cuts when the economy was starved of revenue. In a move reminiscent of the disastrous demonetization step in India, he suddenly banned the import of fertilisers, declaring that all farmers should rely only on organic fertilisers. The farm crop was badly hit, as were export sectors like tea and rubber production.
On the socio-political side, he continued to encourage Sinhala dominance. Promises made to the Tamils after the civil war for economic relief, rehabilitation, and better political representation, remained unimplemented. The Muslims were targeted too.
Since 2012, Buddhist monks and their supporters had begun to attack Muslim neighbourhoods, mosques and businesses with impunity. He did not think it fit to stop this. His regime became increasingly autocratic. Civil society was threatened, as were human rights lawyers. Generals in the army, close to him, began to run civilian departments. He did not take kindly to dissent or criticism. The pandemic was his alibi, but he deliberately chose to ignore that tourists to Sri Lanka dwindled also because of the deadly bomb attacks on churches, and the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 267 innocent people.
Linguistic chauvinism also contributed to internal unrest. From its very beginning as an independent nation, the ultra-right among the Sinhala community wanted Sinhalese to be imposed as the sole national language. For them, Sri Lanka was not a plural society but a Buddhist monolith, Sinhadipa, whose primary purpose was to make the country a Dhammadipa. The analogy with attempts by certain quarters to impose Hindi in India as the national language, is stark. The concept of Dhammadipa is also worryingly similar to the myopic demand for Hindu Rashtra.
Alas, while Gotabaya Rajpaksa won the last elections with a resounding majority playing precisely on such divisive politics, his country is up in flames today. People of all communities, Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala — the constituency he considered his vote bank — are up in arms and out on the streets against him and his repressive regime.
Thus, there are, indeed, some important lessons to be learnt from Sri Lanka. The first is that countries that are not at peace with themselves internally can never enduringly achieve economic prosperity. Social harmony is the bedrock on which the edifice of economic development can be built. Deliberately majoritarian policies, in plural societies, appear politically expedient, but ultimately unleash endemic social instability that vitiates stable economic progress.
The second is that hyper-nationalism appears a good way to garner votes in the short term but, ultimately, leads to authoritarianism in the name of “national security”, stifling dissent and discourse so essential to a democracy, and destroying due processes of law. This creates serious fault lines in society, and devalues the belief system in established institutions of the Republic.
Thirdly, Sri Lanka teaches us that once the genie is let outside the bottle, it is difficult to bottle it back. The divisiveness and bigotry so unleashed acquires a momentum of its own. It’s a fire that spreads, beyond the control of those who encouraged it in the first place.
And lastly, Sri Lanka is a living example of a country where the political hubris generated by ethnocentrism and divisive politics often leads to the real problems of the people being ignored. We have only to see what dominates the media in our country today — azaan, Hanuman Chalisa, burqa, halaal, temple, masjid, Vishnu Stambh, etc., etc. — to understand that nobody seems to be concerned about the burning problem of lack of jobs and skyrocketing prices.
India is not Sri Lanka. But, perhaps, there is much we can learn from Sri Lanka.