Mahinda Rajapaksa, The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka who is perhaps the de facto President of Sri Lanka, was in India from 7th February for 5 days. The visit was a mix of spiritual, personal and official engagements. Having done the official meetings with the Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, and the President, and others in the Opposition, he dashed off to other parts on a temple tour. It was Mahinda’s maiden visit abroad after he became the Prime Minister last November. The new President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the youngest brother of Mahinda made New Delhi his first port of call. Does this signify any special importance Sri Lanka attaches to India? How are the relations between New Delhi and Colombo vis-a-vis Colombo, Islamabad and Beijing?
Considering the assertions made by both Prime Ministers, the relations between Sri Lanka and India appear to be on a sound footing. Mahinda said, “Our relations with India are much strong and very important for us”. He added even greater emphasis as he said, “The other neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka friends but Indians are relations? After the meeting Narendra Modi warmly reciprocating said, “The stability, security, and prosperity in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest, but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean region. India is a Trusted Partner”.
If we were to discard some of the diplomatic platitudes, and focus on the relations as they stand today, we may reach a logical conclusion on India-Sri Lanka bilateralism. Goes without saying that people of Indian origin located in two neighbours, Sri Lanka and Nepal make the relation with these two countries tenuous. Besides, the predominant religion and culture in both countries have Indian origin. However, even though cultural diplomacy helps smoothen relations, the hard realities of trade, aid and security-alliances constituting the National interest become the major determinant of one’s foreign policy.
In view of the foregoing premise, the deliberations between Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister and his counterpart percy Mahendra Rajapaksa (Mahinda) consisted of trade, commerce, investment, security, terrorism and so on. The meeting with Indian PM was preceded by the meeting with Foreign Minister that discussed defence, security, and trade.
The major demand-qua-request hinted by Mahinda was about debt repayment of. Sri Lanka owes upto $60 billion in foreign debt. Mahinda’s plea was if India were to give a moratorium for 3 years on loan repayment, other countries might follow giving Sri Lanka a breathing space. New Delhi is yet to respond to that.
Mahinda expressed his gratitude to the Prime Minister for neighbourhood first policy, and setting up BIMSTEC. He acknowledged the financial assistance of $450 including $50 million to fight terrorism. He was inviting Indian investment housing and community related projects. India has helped in rebuilding the Jafna area that was ravaged by war. Sri Lankan Government plans to extend similar housing projects across the country, and invited India to give a hand. He underlined that the East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo Port was being developed with India-Japan collaborative investment. The LNG terminal also has India-Japan joint contribution.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister asserted that Sri Lanka intends to benefit from many economic sectors where India is in strong position. This is backed by close historical-cultural links that provide a solid foundation for building on the ties.
Between India and Sri Lanka there is always a host of issues in addition to or accompanied with the economic relations. The front-runner is that of fishermen. There are persistent irritants on fishing between Sri Lanka and India. The Indian fishermen are alleged by Sri Lankans to be indulging in bottom trawling which Sri Lankan Government objected to. Sri Lankan police has impounded Indian fishing boats and arrested the fishermen. After the meeting, Modi said it was agreed to deal with the fisherman issue with a humanitarian approach. To assuage Sri Lanka’s concerns, Modi announced that Rs.700 crore has been allocated to train fishermen to go for deep-sea fishing. Both sides assured that the matter would be settled sooner than later.
The second issue that figured is usual Tamil question. Government of India urged the Sri Lankan Prime Minister to speed up the process of restoration of Tamils, displaced by the Civil War. Mahinda assured that Tamil refugees in India could go anytime back to Sri Lanka. When, his attention was drawn to the much-talked about Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which ignores Hindus (Tamil) migrants from Sri Lanka. Mahinda, to the relief of Government of India said, “CAA is an internal matter of India”, and Sri Lankan Tamils are welcome back in their country.
On ethnic conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and majority Sinhalese, the Minister accompanying Mahinda, Arumugam Thomann debunked the suggestion that Sri Lankan National Anthem could be sung only in Sinhalese. Although Mahinda argued that National Anthem of any country is in one language, there are no several renditions of it, Sri Lankan Tamils could sing it in Tamil, as the music and lyrics are similar. In fact, on 72nd Independence Day of Sri Lanka the Tamils sang in their mother tongue.
Terrorism in both countries came up for discussion. Narendra Modi demurred, “Both Sri Lanka and India have faced the scourge of terrorism”. While India has had recurrent terrorist attack emanating from across Pakistan, Sri Lanka, in April last year had a dastardly bomb attack killing more than 250 people. Mahinda, of course, turned this tragedy onto his predecessor.
Despite early warnings provided by Indian intelligence, Sri Lankan Government did not act promptly and foiled the attack. It was their incompetence. Mahinda reiterated that they would continue to work with India to enhance their competences, capabilities and intelligence in counter-terrorism operations. Mahinda urged to revive the pre-2015 trilateral terror and security cooperation between Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka.
Questioned on Sri Lankan collaboration with Pakistan, the hub of terrorism in South Asia, and Pakistan, Navy, Air Force and Army Chiefs air dashing to Colombo to nudge it to condemn the abrogation of Article 370, Mahinda, an astute diplomat, longest serving leader in South-Asia said, “Quite often your domestic compulsions also drive you to formulate foreign policy decisions”. He qualified his premise by acknowledging that in 30 year long Civil War, Pakistan gave us weapons and planes. “We have a relationship with them, but that will not influence our relation with India”. He added, we would like SAARC to work, but since India refused to let it go forward, we are working in BIMSTEC.
On China, Mahinda argued that it is the previous Government that leased out the port of Hambantota to China. We have made a promise to the electorate that we will get it back. He admitted, it may be difficult. He dismissed the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s bold declaration that there will be no outside interference in Sri Lanka in an oblique reference to India and USA. Mahinda said they did not understand what he meant.
The ball is in New Delhi’s court really. It made a mistake in Nepal by siding with Madhesis, the people of Indian origin, not the whole country as an ally and a friend. It need not repeat the mistake of speaking for Tamils only, and not the country. India has had historical links with Sri Lanka predating Tamil entry into the country. The earliest contact came from Odisha when King Ashoka sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to spread Buddhism. So to build or rebuild relations, let it not be ethnic foreign policy, but a national policy dealing with countries.