India-Lanka ties: Another step forward

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Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent out a message by choosing India as the destination for his first trip abroad after assuming office. Although no deals were done or pacts signed during the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to India, it was productive. The visit has signalled hope of beginning a new India-Sri Lanka chapter. Contrary to their last stint which ended in 2015, when Mahinda was President, and his younger brother Gotabaya was Defence Secretary, and ties underwent a strain for several reasons. Talks between the two sides seem to have provided greater clarity on the path ahead. India and Sri Lanka discussed ways to take forward the use of a $400 million Line of Credit for development and a $50 million soft loan for combating terrorism that India announced during President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s visit in December. They discussed counter-terrorism co-operation and intelligence sharing and reiterated that security would be the main focus of the bilateral partnership. India has had huge concerns over the Rajapaksas coming to power in Sri Lanka. It was during Mahinda’s stint as president that Sri Lanka’s economic, defence and security cooperation with China grew exponentially. New Delhi feared that a debt-ridden Sri Lanka would be compelled to concede China’s demands on security issues, to India’s detriment. Such apprehensions gained strength when Lanka allowed Chinese warships to dock at Colombo port. The implications of Sri Lanka’s debts for India’s security were underscored when in a debt-equity swap, Mahinda’s successor handed over Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.

India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are expected to revive their trilateral on security, including joint maritime security talks and anti-terror cooperation. The Lankan Prime Minister is reported to have asked India to defer loan repayment for a period of three years. India should be generous. Not only will it ease Sri Lanka’s debt repayment pressures, it would be a positive step towards weaning Colombo away from China’s embrace. As in the past, Mahinda has used effusive words to describe India; India is family, others are friends. Delhi should not interpret this as indicative of any new willingness on the part of the Rajapaksa government to prioritize India over China and Pakistan. How India-Lanka intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation can progress side by side with Colombo’s close ties with Pakistan is something that India will need to work out.

The bonhomie is palpable, but the faultlines were also visible. Prime Minister Modi said India hopes that the “expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect” would be realised and that devolution of powers according to the 13th amendment would be taken forward. On the question of Sri Lankan Tamil rights, this has been the stand of successive Indian governments, but it was based on the principle that India could recommend only as much autonomy to the island-nation’s Tamil provinces as Delhi gives its own states. In the context of the Modi government’s denial of autonomy and political rights to Kashmiris, Modi’s espousal of Tamil rights rings hollow. It is unlikely to be taken seriously by the Sri Lankan government.

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