One of the saddest experiences I had in the Foreign Service was in Sri Lanka while serving in the Mission as First Secretary. The year was 1983, the turning point in the Tamil insurgency. During the anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo, known as Black July, over a hundred Tamils perished and hundreds of Tamil homesteads were ransacked and burned down by marauding mobs.
Most destitute Tamils took shelter in Kathiresan Kovil, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the city, dedicated to Murugan (Skanda), the god of war. It was there in the temple in Bamabalapitiya, which had turned into a refugee camp, that I came across a senior Sri Lankan Tamil civil servant whom I had known to be an erudite scholar of South Indian history whose forefathers had belonged to the ancient dynasty of Sethupathi Rajas (guardians of ‘Ram Sethu’) in the region of Rameshawaram. I won’t mention his name (‘S’) because he held a very senior position in the Sri Lankan government. S, clutching my shirt, began shaking me, ranting about India’s ‘perfidy’. His house was burned down by the mobs (with its wonderful collection of rare books), his family fled to Malaysia and he was all by himself. S lamented that Tamils in Sri Lanka were hundred percent sure that Indira Gandhi would protect them, but when the moment came, India looked away.
Only a few weeks earlier, South Block had summoned Sri Lankan High Commissioner to protest about a new legislation empowering Sri Lankan security forces to summarily dispose of dead bodies of Tamils killed in ‘encounters’. Tamils took it as a stern warning by ‘Indiramma’ that India was preparing the ground for military intervention. What could I say to S? I lapsed into stony silence.
History is now repeating. Another powerful leadership has appeared, determined to uphold India’s cultural, civilizational heritage in foreign lands, which apparently took Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mongolia in May last year. In retrospect, it was a carefully-choreographed performance in ‘muscular diplomacy’. PM Modi pledged a princely sum of $1 billion as aid to Mongolia. It might have been a mere fraction of the $46 billion that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Pakistan a month earlier, but it carried a unique message of ‘territorial marking’ in China’s backyard.
Of course, China diligently followed up with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, whereas India is yet to spend out of the $1 billion pledge. Meanwhile, India did a smart thing by encouraging His Holiness the Dalai Lama to pay a 4-day visit to Mongolia in November. To be sure, China reacted. The reaction has been swift and forceful, rolling back the generous financial support for Mongolian economy and trade. Mongols feel devastated.
Like Sri Lankan Tamils in the eighties, the elites in Ulaanbaatar were under the illusion that PM Modi had gone to the steppes with a game plan and if push came to shove, India would not hesitate to have an eyeball-to-eyeball with China. Indeed, PM Modi created in the Mongol mind a warrior-like impression. (Watch the MEA’s Youtube Modi tries hand at archery.)
Unsurprisingly, Ulaanbaatar has approached South Block seeking help to stand up to China. Times of India newspaper reports: “We have a long spiritual relationship with India,” said Gonchig Ganbold, Mongolia’s ambassador. “It’s important that India raises its voice against the unilateral measures China is taking against us which is hurting our people specially when severe winter is upon us.” Silence, he said, could be construed as giving China a “pass” for its behaviour.” However, it is S syndrome all over again. PM Modi is preoccupied with demonetization and nobody in South Block wants to carry the can of worms. To my mind, Foreign Secretary should at once receive Ganbold. And the minimal decent thing to do will be to transfer latest by next weekend the amount of $1 billion to the Mongolian government. Let us close this ridiculous chapter in ‘muscular diplomacy’.
Forget about using $1 billion to promote Indian exports to Mongolia. Make it an outright grant as penance for misleading those innocent folks in the steppes and generating delusional hopes in their minds. Of course, $1 billion is a lot of money for Mongolia whose GDP hovers around $35 billion. For India, it becomes a small gesture to the tragic memory of Buddhism in its land of birth.