By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, October 4: Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s current visit to Sri Lanka has come against the backdrop of the settlement of the Colombo port investment issue with the signing of the US$ 700 million West Terminal deal between India’s Adani Group and Sri Lankan stakeholders last week.
The compromise on Colombo Port came after Sri Lanka’s refusal to give the Eastern Terminal to India even after nearly 10 years of prolonged discussions. The current deal over the West Terminal has ended the bad patch in bilateral relations.
Pro-active new High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda’s much-researched plans for reinvigorating ties between the two countries will be augmented by Shringla’s engagement with the top leadership of Sri Lanka during his four-day visit. This visit was planned in the backdrop of Colombo’s efforts to bolster defense ties with India.
High Commissioner Moragoda has drafted a paper titled: ‘Integrated country strategy paper’ envisaging a hike in bilateral cooperation in the next three years. Shringla’s visit is taking place at a time when Sri Lanka expressed keen interest in strengthening defense ties with India.
Moragoda’s documents also call for bolstering defense and security ties with India including enhanced cooperation with frequent joint-military exercises and high-level military exchanges and the utilization of India’s US$ 50 million counter-terrorism line of credit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had allocated US$ 15 million for the development of Buddhist heritage and Hindu temples in Sri Lanka and urged Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay to take measures to spend at least US $ 3 million annually.
Foreign Secretary Shringla, son of a Buddhist father and Hindu mother, is likely to discuss plans for utilization of the fund. Born as Harsh Vardhan Tshering La, a mix of his father’s Buddhist ancestry and his mother’s Hindu faith later changed his surname to Shringla.
New York Correspondent K. P. Nayar said in an article in Indian Express that Shringla’s parents are Sikkimese from Darjeeling and spoke Nepali at home. Harsh Vardhan’s birth and school documents, made in Mumbai, where the name Tshering La is not well known, recorded his surname as Shringla. Tshering La and Shringla are phonetically identical.
This was in the 1960s when Sikkim was not a part of India and was ruled by monarch, the Chogyal. He fled to the United States with his American wife when India annexed Sikkim in 1975.
Nayar recalled that when Shringla accepted an honorary doctorate from the ICFAI University in Sikkim, his acceptance speech was made partly in Nepali: “My native language… also a language of Sikkim.”
Incidentally, Sri Lanka’s much respected Buddhist monk poet Ven. Sikkim Mahinda is widely known in the country as a Tibetan Bhikku. Shringla is the second Indian Foreign Service officer from Sikkim to rise to the top post after Sikkim became a part of India in 1975. The first was Chokila Iyer from Sikkim who was married to a Tamil.
Shringla is no stranger to Sri Lankan issues, as he headed the Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives (BSM) Desk in the External Affairs Ministry a decade ago as Joint Secretary. He is known as an anti-corruption crusader and had intervened to stop a sleazy deal in India’s gift of 50,000 houses to Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka in 2011.
When the contract was given to build 50,000 houses through a line of credit to Sri Lanka, the BSM Desk found out about alleged corrupt practices with the direct involvement of the then External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna’s office. Because of the revelation by Shringla, the corrupt deal was cancelled and fresh tender process was commenced.
Earlier, Shringla was involved in exposing malpractice by an Indian External Affairs Minister in Iraq’s “Oil for Food” programme in 2005. The Indian Express reported that Shringla, as a senior diplomat (Minister at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations) in New York, got hold of the report of the Independent Inquiry Committee that looked into huge bribery in Iraq’s “Oil for Food” programme and through Ambassador Nirupam Sen, reported it directly to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, by-passing the then Minister K.Natwar Singh. The Prime Minister asked a reluctant Natwar Singh to resign to avoid a major scandal.
Shringla was instrumental in strengthening India’s relations with Bangladesh under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighborhood diplomacy’ when he was sent as High Commissioner to Dhaka.
In a precursor to the Foreign Secretary’s visit, the Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay in Sri Lanka, called on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and discussed with him ways to strengthen bilateral ties in areas of mutual interest.
“We discussed areas in which both nations can work together to mutually benefit each other,” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted after the talks.
“Honoured to call on HE Mahinda Rajapaksa @ Presrajapaksa and take his guidance for developing bilateral ties in a number of areas of mutual interest,” Baglay tweeted.
Prior to this, the Indian Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, had met his Sri Lankan counterpart Prof.G. L. Peiris on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York last week. During the meeting Jaishankar highlighted the need for a fair and just resolution of residual issues in the interest of both countries. Peiris told Jaishankar that Sri Lanka is working to address the post-war issues, including releasing LTTE prisoners and revisiting the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
As indicated by the Indian Foreign Minister last week, both countries believe that Indo-Lanka relations should not be limited to a single issue. Foreign Secretary Shringla’s current visit is expected to provide the platform for building the required confidence to move forward towards enhancing bilateral friendship and cooperation.