Millennium Post

Securing ties and the region

With the ascension of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the presidency of Sri Lanka, India can look to some change in the equation between New Delhi and Colombo. Taking matters forward, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended a $450 million line of credit to the island nation  after talks with the new President Rajapaksa. In the wake of rising competition between China and the US for influence in the Indian Ocean region, the south Asian neighbours have agreed to work more closely on matters related to economy and security—the primary concerns on which ties between India and Sri Lanka are pegged. The opening gesture has been that Rajapaksa has announced the release of Indian fishermen's boats held by Sri Lanka. Offering a credit line of $400 million for infrastructure projects and $50 million for counter terror measures to Sri Lanka during President Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi is a significant move in stepping up the ties. Given that the $400 million credit line offered by New Delhi will be primarily invested in infrastructure projects, the boost to Sri Lanka's economy will also give momentum to projects of mutual benefit. Further, speeding up utilisation of an earlier $100 million credit line was also agreed upon. Prime Minister Modi has held that development and peace in the two Indian Ocean countries are closely linked and assured Rajapaksa that India was committed to Sri Lanka's development and security. "India's cooperation is always with Sri Lanka. A stable, safe and prosperous Sri Lanka is in the interest not only of India, but also of the entire Indian ocean region…India is Sri Lanka's closest neighbour and a trusted partner... I have offered India's commitment to Sri Lanka's development," The Prime Minister announces at a joint press conference. This announcement effectively encapsulates the interests and concerns that bind India and Sri Lanka in contemporary times, considering that security has assumed vital importance in bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka after a series of bombings in luxury hotels and churches by suspected terrorists that killed over 250 people in the island nation in April on the occasion of Easter. With reference to the frequently occurring issue of fishermen, Rajapaksa expressed at the briefing that "We discussed at length the fishermen's issue. We will take steps to release the boats belonging to India, in our custody."

The highlight of Rajapaksa's three-day visit to India has been his engagement with Indian leaders with "very high expectations" on matters of security and economy. India has offered cooperation in developing the eastern and northern parts of Sri Lanka that house large populations of minority Tamils. The Sri Lankan President has a vision of ethnic harmony in the island nation. Prime Minister Modi expressed in solidarity that "I am fully confident that the Sri Lanka government will further the process of reconciliation to meet the aspirations of the Tamil people regarding equality, justice, peace and dignity. This also includes the 13th amendment to the (Sri Lanka's) Constitution. India will be a trusted partner in developing the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka". This Constitutional amendment provides for greater regional autonomy to Sri Lanka. Although India is engaging adequately to gain the confidence of Sri Lanka and have it in its favour, a major hurdle in this ambition is China with its expansionist tendencies that has already made a mark in a strategic point in Sri Lanka with garnering and advantage and territorial edge over the Indian Ocean Region. The new Sri Lankan President is widely expected to deepen ties with China and it remains a challenge for India to prevent this from taking a form that will be difficult for India. Sri Lanka's deep ties with China in recent times is arguably a result of how the Tamil question has played out between Colombo and New Delhi. The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has sufficiently shown the political will as well as the requisite space to reset the ties with Sri Lanka. With respect to the ethnic overlay of the Tamil-speaking people across the Palk Straits, which divide peninsular India and Sri Lanka, Colombo's ties with Delhi are unique in contrast with relations with any other state. The Tamil question has, in fact, been a key driver of the relationship between India and Sri Lanka all these decades. Although there have been valuable lessons to be learnt from the negative impact of India's involvement in the conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and the ensuing deterioration of bilateral relations from the early 1980s to the mid-2010s, contemporary times could well serve to turn this into an opportunity to step up ties and further the bilateral association. The longstanding friendship between India and Sri Lanka historically, culturally, and politically may be expected to be taken to a new dimension.

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