This week's VVIP traffic from India signifies the continuing importance of our neighbour to the life and times of Sri Lanka. It has been the case for several millennia and continues to be so today and will be in the future for sure.
Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna arrived in the early part of the week on an official visit and it would appear ex-facie (on the face of it) that both sides took pains to display a normalcy in bi-lateral relations. It was not the highs we have had when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India, nor the lows when J.R. Jayewardene was the President of Sri Lanka and Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister of India. It was warm if not temperate, cordial and quite civil, probably the ideal climate for two neighbouring countries.
It was clear from the outset that it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was in charge from this end. The immediate backdrop to the visit was not particularly encouraging. Negotiations within the Joint Working Group on Fisheries, one of the more thorny issues between the two countries were rocky with Sri Lanka complaining that Tamil Nadu fishermen were poaching by their hundreds, if not thousands, in its waters and India introducing new theories about "traditional fishing rights" as if "traditional smuggling" then should also be recognised. An MoU contemplated on this vexed question is several nautical miles away, according to negotiators, even though the Sri Lankan External Affairs Ministry says it will be signed at the "earliest".
President Rajapaksa displayed his trademark public relations prowess to good use, at least this time for the good of the country. He invited the visiting Minister to a special Pongal ceremony at 'Temple Trees' and conveyed a message thereby about respect for minority rights. Then, the day after, he had a one-on-one breakfast meeting with the Indian Minister shutting out even his own External Affairs Minister from the proceedings, one who otherwise accompanied Mr. Krishna, like Mary and her little lamb around the country.
That breakfast meeting only confirmed what was well known; that Indo-Lanka relations are, and will be, handled by the President himself and that the Ministry of External Affairs will remain a mere post box. This, unfortunately, has devalued the role of the Ministry. The Minister has offered no resistance to safeguard his Ministry's turf, and meekly capitulated. The exercise on the part of both, the President and the Minister has only weakened the effectiveness of the Ministry as an institution dealing with foreign governments and foreign policy.
The traditional bilateral talks between the two Ministers were a protocol formality it would seem. With no joint communiqué issued after these talks, for reasons unknown, the Sri Lankan and indeed the Indian people are none the wiser about what happened behind those closed doors. Or did they just have a cup of tea and a chit chat about all kinds of everything? It was at the formal dinner though that the Indian Minister spoke of current issues between the two countries, but neither was this formally released to the public.
What emerged, however, were the brief statements made by the two Ministers at a truncated media conference after their 'talks'. Both Ministers scratched each other's back politely with little substance emanating. The waiting media corps was permitted only three questions and the problematic 13th Amendment (13A - on devolution of power) was one of them, to which the Indian FM said he had the authority of the Sri Lankan President to say that the Government of Sri Lanka would pursue with 13A and more.
One of the MPs representing a minority party hit the nail on the head. He said that even if Mr. Krishna came ten times, the Sri Lankan President would not fully implement 13A leave alone 13A plus. Absolutely. And why so? Must the President of Sri Lanka implement because India wants 13A implemented or is it because one minority party locally wants more political power in its hands or because he must introduce a model of devolution that is best suited for a country like Sri Lanka and all its people?
The two outstanding negatives in the bilateral relations are what the Indian side refers to as the 'political solution to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka' and what the Sri Lankan side refers to as 'the poaching issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lanka'.
But there are a host of other outstanding issues that didn't come within the radar or surface to the public gaze during this visit. Among them the Indian keenness to push through CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement); India's nervousness on the strategic value of Colombo harbour (from where 70% of transshipments are to India and 30% of India's cargo arrives) being given to the Chinese for development; Sri Lankan concerns over the nuclear plants in Tamil Nadu and the Sethusamudra Canal project; the restrictions on visas; the safety of Sri Lankan pilgrims in Chennai and Rameshwaram, quite apart from raising the current level of trade, cultural and religious contact and tourism. While there was a deafening silence on the former there was only a fleeting reference on the latter.
The other visit to the island was by former Indian President Abdul Kalam, a widely respected leader. He came to inaugurate the Sri Lankan Government's ambitious Tri-lingual programme. In the aftermath of a three-decade ethnic flavoured insurgency, it is understandable that the nation's leaders will have a hang-up about a country being split on language. Statistics that say that 90% of Sinhalese cannot understand Tamil, and 70% Tamils cannot understand Sinhalese can be worrisome. Such stats probably need to be taken with a pinch of salt. English is a link language and the minorities speak the language of the majority in the bigger cities and in many rural areas where the communities have lived for years in relative harmony, they not only speak each other's tongue but have mixed names.
Beneficial as such an initiative however would be, it is also prudent to consider priorities; should English be given more preference both as a link language and an international language? While there can be some reluctance towards learning a second local language there will not be any objections from any community towards learning English. The study of German, Cantonese, Hindi and Arabic etc., need not be treated as over-reaching a nation's goals if one were to think of the future of Sri Lankans in a world beyond Sri Lanka and the state of Tamil Nadu.
President Rajapaksa must have breathed a sigh of relief as the Indian stance on the allegations of 'war crimes' remains that an "independent and credible mechanism" is required to investigate what the recent LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) report says might warrant investigation. That stops short of asking for an international mechanism. He has no doubt bought some more time on this hot topic, but with the UNHRC (Human Rights Council) scheduled to meet in a little over a month's time in Geneva for how long more the President can prevaricate and keep spinning what is required from him is anybody's guess; but for right now, Indo-Sri Lanka relations seem quite 'normal', and the way they ought to be.