The Elusive Promise of Democracy in India and Sri Lanka

February 19, 2016

modi mask
Supporters at a 2014 political rally for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Coming off one of the world’s most destructive civil wars, Sri Lanka is making a big change in its political landscape as a result of the 2015 election.  However, is it democracy in the making?  India’s fast growing economy has run into the wall of its own shortcomings. Can the Modi administration deliver on its promises, or is the “shining India” more mirage than reality?  On Saturday, February 20th at 3 pm, Derek Monroe – a reporter on international and U.S. foreign policy issues and a columnist at – visits EPL to discuss his impressions after his recent visits to both countries.  In anticipation of his visit, we spoke with Mr. Monroe via email about the echoes of civil war in Sri Lanka, building tension in India and Pakistan, and continuing conflict in Kashmir.

Evanston Public Library:  Many Americans are not terribly familiar with Sri Lanka.  What is its political significance, and why should we be concerned?

Derek Monroe:  Well, Sri Lanka is an interesting example of existence on the edge of regional powers and the U.S. empire.  Under the previous Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old civil war ended, and they got very close politically and economically to China.  The Chinese government even presented a Supreme Court building to the people of Sri Lanka which was somewhat ironic considering the condition of the rule of law in China.  India – with a U.S. backing – has been influencing Sri Lanka’s newest administration to get into the Western orbit which had both positive and negative outcomes.  From a foreign policy perspective, the U.S. isn’t much concerned with Sri Lanka.  With 20.5 million people, its market is small especially compared to the giant India next door.  Strategically, however, the change in the Sri Lankan government has been a win for the West as it’s halted China’s influence and the building of a Chinese naval base that would have given China access to the Indian ocean.

EPL:  Could you talk more about the civil war between the Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers?  What led to this conflict?  Since it ended in 2009, how are the people of Sri Lanka putting their lives back together?  Are there still echoes of the ethnic and separatist influences that led to the war?

DM:  The war is over, but in many peoples’ minds it is still going on.  The conflict produced a staggering number of war crimes and atrocities.  The end was very much brought about by war weariness and the fact that the Tamil side ran out of men to fight it.  The genesis of the conflict is very complex, but it has roots in a regional power rivalry between India and China and the fact that the Sinhalese majority simply refused to allow the Tamil to participate politically in their rule over the island.  Throw in the religious aspect – Buddhist vs. Hindu – and you have a deadly mix that resulted in the third longest religious war in history after the Crusades and Europe’s Thirty Year War in the 1600s.

modi and sri lanka
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (left) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

EPL:  The bulk of our foreign policy news and focus is on the Middle East, largely due to fears about terrorism.  Why should we be thinking about India and Pakistan?

DM:  First and foremost, both countries are nuclear powers.  India and Pakistan have both misled the U.S. and the international community in their attempts to gain nuclear weapon capability.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the threat of nuclear war, this area is probably second only to North Korea as the most dangerous and will be for years to come as both countries are involved in low-intensity conflict.  For Pakistan, this includes an ongoing rivalry with India in Afghanistan, undercover support of its ISI branch (intelligence service) in fermenting unrest in Indian-occupied Kashmir, and occasional acts of terrorism in India (Mumbai attacks).  For India, this involves a game of rivalry in both soft and hard power scenarios.  India has been arming itself with an incredible speed that mirrors its economic rise while projecting power vis a vis Pakistan.  Many say that their newly-acquired weapon systems – India is currently building its first aircraft carrier – are a sign that a future conflict is on the horizon.

EPL:  With India, it seems we either see images and stories about intense poverty or extreme high-tech wealth.  Can a society with such stark disparities ever have a functioning democracy?

DM:  The Indian version of democracy is dysfunctional, and some are even calling it an institutionalized kleptocracy.  I think the truth is somewhere between disorganized chaos and a military dictatorship considering the chaotic scenes of Mumbai, the military occupation of Kashmir, and the brutal pacification war against the Naxalites.  It is a society based on the strict common laws of English colonialism and influenced by both the omnipresent caste system and religious undertones that are more visible under the Modi administration.  It is a paradox filled with both hope and despair.

EPL:  Could you talk more about Kashmir?  To what degree is it still an issue of concern?  What other major political issues are facing India in 2016?

DM:  Kashmir is very much still an issue of concern.  It is India’s Iraq in that the government gave up on the cultural and economic integration of the Jammu-Kashmir into India proper.  The violence is down, but the religious aspect of Islam vs Hindu is keeping the conflict alive from generation to generation.  In a weird way it parallels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The time frame is almost identical.

India is facing enormous internal pressures in 2016.  If not addressed, they could lead to the implosion of the country and possibly to a bloody regional and civil war.  The Modi administration’s credibility and legitimacy is hanging only on the prospect of economic growth.  The country needs to create 1 million jobs every month just to stay even with its increasing population.  It is also very aggressively encouraging immigration to the developed world in order to alleviate its economic pressures which is detrimental to host countries like the U.S. that welcome H1B visa program recipients.  This translates into a very strong and increasingly politically active Indian diaspora that is driving neo-liberal economic policies in India itself while shifting its political scenery to the extreme right to the detriment of India’s numerous minorities.

Interview by Lesley W.;  Edited by Russell J.


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