Colombo, February 10: India and Sri Lanka had been at odds for most of the 20 th.Century. The question of the economic and political rights of the people of Indian origin troubled both pre-independence and post-independence governments in the two countries. Then, there was the dispute over Katchchativu island. From 1983, for about 30 years, the question of the political rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils bedevilled India-Lanka relations.
But now, there is a noticeable change in the ground situation that augurs well for a stable relationship between the two countries.
Questions relating to the Indian Origin Tamils’ status have been settled with the grant of Sri Lankan citizenship to them. The Kachchativu issue is a thing of the past after the demise of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa. And with the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, the Sri Lankan Tamil political question has also receded into the background at least as far as India-Lanka relations are concerned.
However, a new factor, the intrusion of China into the economy of Sri Lanka through its massive Belt and Road projects in 2010, raised the hackles of the Indian government. New Delhi saw these infrastructural projects, especially the ports, as having a strategic/military dimension that could, in course of time, pose a security threat to India. China’s acquisition of the strategically located Hambantota port on a 99-year lease only underscored the fear, which was fed further by the notion that China is deliberately pushing Sri Lanka into a debt trap to acquire real estate of strategic value.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government which brought China into the picture, believed that its ouster in the 2015 elections was an India-engineered plot. The successor government of President Mithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, were, at the outset, friendly to India. It signed many MoUs signalling a policy of being open to Indian investments also. But many of the MoUs were soon shelved and forgotten, creating disillusionment in New Delhi. The next government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, paid lip service to the commitment to give India a level playing field vis-à-vis China, but in fact, took away the Eastern Container Terminal project from India and asked India to execute the Western Container Terminal project, from scratch, at double the cost. India had no option but to accept the offer. The other MoUs signed in 2017 remained in the shelf.
However, despite these discouraging developments, the Narendra Modi government did not disengage or take a hard stand on Sri Lanka. It went in for a cooperative approach based on Modi’s oft-repeated ‘mantra’ that India will only execute those projects sought by Sri Lanka and will execute them at a pace with which Sri Lanka is comfortable.
New Delhi corrected its decades-long pro-Tamil tilt and began to address the concerns and sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Promotion of Indo-Lankan Buddhist ties was emphasized like never before. The primordial cultural and religious ties with India were emphasized along with a periodic demonstration of humanitarian concern which India has for Sri Lanka as part of its “Neighbourhood First Policy.” New Delhi has frequently demonstrated its claim to be the “First Responder” whenever there was a natural disaster in Sri Lanka.
On Chinese investments, the fear psychosis appears to be receding as Sri Lanka has repeatedly stated that it needs Chinese investments for infrastructural development which had been stalled by 30 years of non-development thanks to the war. To assuage India’s anxieties, Sri Lanka has been repeatedly assuring India that it will not do anything that jeopardizes India’s security.
Only recently, Colombo called off a Chinese renewable energy project on three islands in North Lanka that are close to India. The Chinese are miffed, but Colombo stood by its decision not to give the project to the Chinese. It is likely that Colombo will continue to respect New Delhi’s security concerns vis-à-vis North Sri Lanka which is largely Tamil with cultural and emotional links with India.
While there is no movement in regard to many MoUs signed in 2017, there has been significant forward movement vis-à-vis the Trincomalee Oil tanks, a long-standing issue with Sri Lankan governments. On January 6, this year, Sri Lanka and India signed a fresh agreement on the 99 giant oil tanks to supersede the controversial one signed in 2003. The 2003 agreement had given all the tanks to India for 35 years. Through the new agreement, 85 of the 99 tanks will be under the control of Sri Lanka, either directly or indirectly, the latter being through a joint venture with India in which Sri Lanka will have a 51% share. India will manage only 14 tanks.
This is a major Indian concession to Sri Lanka which should warm the cockles of Sri Lankans’ hearts. Referring to this deal at his meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar on February 7, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L.Peiris said that the oil tank agreement “signals a closer integration between two countries, resulting in substantial benefits; a win-win situation for both.” The deal lays the ground for the implementation of the already envisaged renewable energy sectors.
Peiris and Jaishankar also discussed potential Indian investments in priority sectors such as pharmaceuticals, food processing and manufacturing. The two Ministers agreed on the early finalization of several agreements and MoUs in the areas of defence, culture and education, that are pending.
Peiris appreciated the financial assistance to the tune of US$ 2.4 billion that India has extended to Sri Lanka at this critical juncture when Sri Lanka is facing an economic and forex drought. He then went on to state that the “relationship between India and Sri Lanka has evolved from a transactional relationship into a strategic partnership.” Peiris stated that “it is increasingly recognized by the people of Sri Lanka that India is a true friend whom Sri Lanka can rely on at all times.”
India’s generous help during the COVID pandemic and also its US$ 1.5 billion aid to overcome the ongoing forex crisis, and Sri Lanka’s fulsome appreciation of them, indicate that the two countries have found common ground and that the fears of the past have begun to recede.
Both India and Sri Lanka are aware of their respective compulsions and national developmental and security imperatives, and both are prepared to take these into account in formulating their policies.
However, two issues which will continue to bedevil bilateral ties are the Sri Lankan Tamil demand for devolution of power and the issue of poaching of Tamil Nadu fishermen in North Sri Lankan waters. In regard to the Sri Lankan Tamils’ demand for a federal structure, New Delhi can do little because the demand will never be conceded by Colombo and India has no leverage to force anything of this sort on Colombo, especially when India is itself not a federation in the true sense of the term. India’s advice to the Tamil parties has been that even as they agitate for their aspirations, they should unitedly fight to get the existing devolution system under the 13 th. Constitutional Amendment fully implemented. They should also concentrate on economic development, an area in which India can help without alienating Colombo.
On the issue of poaching, the two countries have agreed to urgently activate the dispute solving mechanisms. With mid-sea clashes taking place now, Colombo is worried. Peiris said that the situation has reached a flashpoint. The situation should worry India too partly because the impoverished fishermen of North Lanka could become anti-India, and also go into the waiting arms of China which is eyeing the North Lankan fisheries sector for its investments. Two Chinese aided projects are already functioning and more may be on the cards. The ball is now in India’s court. How India will play it, remains to be seen.