Hot on the heels of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister’s ‘pilgrimage’ to New Delhi comes the state visit by President Maithripala Sirisena to India starting today. There’s no gainsaying that bilateral relations with India need some fixing; but it takes two to tango. At the latter stages of his first term, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took [...]


Indo-Lanka relations; a new beginning


Hot on the heels of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister’s ‘pilgrimage’ to New Delhi comes the state visit by President Maithripala Sirisena to India starting today. There’s no gainsaying that bilateral relations with India need some fixing; but it takes two to tango.

At the latter stages of his first term, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took Indo-Lanka relations directly under his wing. The troika comprising his Secretary and two of his brothers took the Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs out of the equation. They managed to win India’s tacit support to defeat the LTTE — even in the midst of an election in India in early 2009. The fact that Sonia Gandhi was at the helm of affairs in New Delhi helped. She was no admirer of the LTTE, which was responsible for killing her husband, quite unlike her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi who bred in India’s neighbourhood guerrilla groups such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the Mukthi Bahini in East Pakistan.

The entire Indo-Lanka relationship, however, soured post-2009 when Sri Lanka went back on promises for devolution, and even more so, tilted heavily towards China. That tilt was not particularly nuanced and used quite brazenly as a bulwark against Indian hegemony. India hit back supporting the US-backed human rights resolution at the UNHRC in Geneva. It was only when that resolution called for an international probe that India pulled back fearing it would implode on its own Kashmir crisis, but only by abstaining.

President Rajapaksa completely misread India even at the tail end of his term. He believed he had struck a personal rapport with the new Indian Prime Minister; that Indian film stars could win him votes and that by releasing Indian fishermen he would be popular in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that despised him.  He had already capitulated to Indian pressure in setting up the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) after shooting his mouth off promising even greater autonomy than was envisaged in the controversial 13th Amendment. The China bogey, however, remained paramount on India’s watch list.

That is why India did not hide its joy that a new Government, not overtly pro-China, had been voted into office on its southern flank. The bilateral ledger between the two South Asian nations is clearly weighed in favour of India. It might be too much to ask the current Indian Government to denounce the Indira Gandhi Sri Lanka policy of the late 1970s and 80s which triggered and later fermented a bloody and costly insurgency in this island-nation.

Twenty plus years of trade talks between the two nations have dragged along. Rubber slippers from Sri Lanka that had a huge demand in Tamil Nadu, Kandos chocolates, Noritake ceramics, all these and more could not find markets in India due to central government and state government taxation policies. But a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is being proposed at India’s behest nowadays. The policy of ‘On Arrival’ visas for South Asian nationals has left out Sri Lankans. No consideration has been given even to Buddhist pilgrims who consider India the holy land and the ‘deveni maubima’ (second motherland).

Poaching in the waters of the Palk Strait continues unabated and in an even more robust manner of late with the Sri Lankan Government giving the wrong signals by releasing the offending fishermen before the Minister’s visit and releasing their boats before the President’s visit. Critics point out to the fact that in addition to the volatile politics of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs — the ‘South Block’ — is run by southern Indians with a prejudicial mindset on Sri Lanka and argue that a course correction by the political establishment is required to offset this trend. Sri Lanka’s mission in New Delhi must also pitch its tent higher than at the Joint Secretary level at the MEA to reach out to its political leadership.

The outstanding poaching issue shows how, despite a new Government in office in New Delhi, the bureaucracy has ensured the status quo remains unchanged.  The Indian Government has made a substantive contribution towards the redevelopment of Sri Lanka’s post-war Northern Province, but its intensions are not entirely altruistic. One may even treat it as ‘war reparations’ for starting an insurgency in Sri Lanka.

This week’s Northern Provincial Council resolution calling for an international probe into ‘genocide’ in Sri Lanka is curiously timed. India has distanced itself from such a demand through ‘inspired leaks’ to the Indian media but question marks remain given its hard to forget track record of destabilising neighbouring countries.

The umbilical cord between the NPC and India gives rise to unnecessary tension in the south of Sri Lanka. The Indian Consul General in Jaffna once telephoned the local Magistrate over a case. That is not the action of a good neighbour. India must refrain from treating the North of Sri Lanka as an enclave, or a colony. Old wounds must not be reopened so that it becomes counter-productive in the long run to stability of the region. No doubt, Colombo has to reach out further to Jaffna without isolating it from the mainstream of national affairs.

Should India discard its Tamil Nadu centric foreign policy towards Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka reach out to the southern Indian states while keeping a healthy dialogue with New Delhi, there is no reason for relations to deteriorate to the depths they had sunk to in recent years. Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar referred to Indo-Lanka relations as “irreversible excellence” and the Indian PM Narendra Modi just a few days ago tweeted “the bonds of history, culture and shared values that we share are unbreakable”.

President Sirisena’s visit must essentially be a goodwill visit; it must be devoid of joint statements which the Indian MEA will draft. They see things with their heads, not their hearts. It is too early for the Sri Lankan Government to get into the crux of substantive bilateral issues on such a visit. That can be left for a subsequent visit by the Prime Minister or during a reciprocal visit by the Indian PM to Colombo.

India has already indicated that the 13th Amendment, the IDPs, the Sampur coal project, and the return of refugees are on the agenda for the talks with visiting Sri Lankan President. What is it that Sri Lanka has on its agenda?

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