Reports that a diplomat in the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo accused of spying was ‘withdrawn’ even before a dossier on him prepared by New Delhi reached Colombo, have taken speculation relating to these events — which has been going on for some time — to a new level. A Press Trust of India (PTI) [...]


India, Pakistan and some unexpected complications


Reports that a diplomat in the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo accused of spying was ‘withdrawn’ even before a dossier on him prepared by New Delhi reached Colombo, have taken speculation relating to these events — which has been going on for some time — to a new level. A Press Trust of India (PTI) report from Delhi on Wednesday said Counsellor (Visa) Amir Zubair Siddiqui had been withdrawn even before India’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA)’s request under Mutual Assistance Legal Treaty (MLAT) reached Colombo ‘as his presence had become incompatible with his diplomatic duties.’

Indian media reports in the past several months have referred to Siddiqui as the handler of a Sri Lankan, Zakir Hussain, who was arrested in Chennai on April 29 on suspicion of various charges including circulating fake currency notes in India. More specifically, the reports cite police in India alleging Hussain was part of a ‘larger mission’ of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to target the consulates of the US and Israel in Chennai and Bangalore. In mid-May, police in Malaysia arrested another Sri Lankan near Kuala Lampur, believed to be a ‘close aide’ of Hussain. This suspect Mohamed Hossaini’s revelations to police in Malaysia were similar to those of Hussain in Tamil Nadu, relating to the alleged plot to attack the consulates.

Pakistan authorities have been noncommittal about the diplomat’s withdrawal. A spokesperson for its Foreign Ministry at a press briefing in Islamabad on Thursday responding to a question from a journalist, who cited Indian media reports, said “Yes, I have seen some of these reports. As a matter of policy we do not comment on unconfirmed media reports, selective leaks and the motivated spin given to these reports. We see it as an effort to create a wedge between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Our two countries have excellent relations. As you know, the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary was here yesterday and we had very fruitful discussions on further strengthening our bilateral relations and increasing economic ties. Co-inciding these baseless reports with her visit was another attempt to create a rift between the two countries.”

Combating extremist threats

For Sri Lanka, any use of its territory to plot attacks against a friendly country is without doubt a matter of serious concern. Especially when it allegedly targets Sri Lanka’s only and most important neighbour, India. The matter gets further complicated when the ‘accused’ represents one of its closest allies. Pakistan was one of Sri Lanka’s most robust supporters in recent years when hostile resolutions were brought against it in the UN Human Rights Council. This presents a situation that needs to be navigated with utmost care to preserve the excellent diplomatic relations Sri Lanka enjoys with both states.

According to the ‘Times of India’, Hussain, the Sri Lankan national arrested in Chennai, said he had been ‘chosen by the ISI’ because he had been engaged in human trafficking, forging passports and smuggling fake Indian currency.

While India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would need to cooperate in the matter of combating extremist threats originating within their boundaries, it would be important for us in Sri Lanka to be able to distinguish between the activities of hired mercenaries — as Hussain would appear to be, going by the reports — and the allegations of a ‘jihadist threat’ made by the Bodu Bala Sena and some Sinhala nationalist extremists in government, that have fuelled a vicious hate campaign against Muslims. Sri Lankan intelligence reports have contradicted these claims. Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has no history of militant extremism; on the contrary it has typically thrown in its lot with the Sinhalese-majority government.

According to the PTI report, Pakistan maintained that Siddiqui’s tenure in Sri Lanka was over and he has since returned to Islamabad. It cited the Indian External Affairs spokesperson saying that “appropriate channels” would be used to address issues “of sensitive nature that impinge on our security” in Sri Lanka. “India and Sri Lanka have a multiplicity of channels to address each other’s concern. They may not always be in the public domain. ” he is quoted as saying.

India’s centre-state relations compromised
It could be seen as a sign of maturity in the Indo-Lanka equation, that the two sides are able to address an issue of this nature through discreet negotiations. The new BJP Government in India recently conveyed, through a delegation that visited Colombo, that as a friend of Sri Lanka it would raise sensitive issues only in private. Against the background of increasingly favourable understanding, Sri Lanka’s blunder of carrying an article targeting Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on the website of the Ministry of Defence, comes across as a huge faux pas. The article in question, which dealt with the fisheries issue, had the dubious headline “How meaningful are Jayalalithaa’s love letters to Narendra Modi?” and was accompanied by an illustration in poor taste.

Although a swift apology was made and the article promptly removed, the fallout of this incident is said to have wrought immense damage to the Indian central government’s relations with Tamil Nadu. The BJP policy is that it wants to have very good relations with Sri Lanka. The centre has now been faulted for that policy. Anti-Sri Lanka demos were held, effigies burnt, sittings of the Indian upper house of parliament were disrupted, Sri Lankan’s under-15 cricket team was forced to return.

Analysts say Jayalalithaa is set to be Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister for the long haul, seeing that she will have no rival once Karunanidhi is gone. Contrary to popular belief in Sri Lanka, she is said to have a very good rapport with the BJP and prime minister Modi. If Sri Lanka’s dispute with Tamil Nadu over the fisheries issue comes to a head, the BJP-led NDA Government would be in the best position to act as mediator. This would not be possible if relations between the Centre and Tamil Nadu state have been compromised. The MoD website article, by doing just that, proved to be nothing but counterproductive.

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