India-Lanka Ties

By S Saraswathi

After a long gap of 28 years, the visit of Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka is an event bound to attract regional reaction as well as global attention. The visit is part of India’s mission to establish and promote mutually beneficial international relations – an item on top of the agenda of the NDA government. It has immense significance for both countries and for keeping peace and balance in this region.

The visit was arranged in connection with the United Nations Vesak Day — the Day to commemorate Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing away. The apparently non-political purpose has acquired political significance in view of several sticky problems between the two countries affecting not only India’s national interests, but also a part of its internal Union-State relations.

It may be recalled that former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa once stated: “All countries are friends of Sri Lanka, but India is Sri Lanka’s relative”. It is literally true as overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan population are ultimately of Indian origin. Over 15 per cent are Tamils. The Prime Minister made a tactical reference during this trip to the fact that Tamil Nadu’s unforgettable Chief Minister MGR, was born in Sri Lanka.

Any discussion on Indo-Sri Lankan relation these days is grabbed by Tamil Nadu politicians to focus it exclusively on the status of Tamils and their future. There are two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. One is Sri Lankan Tamils comprising descendants of Tamils of the old Jaffna Kingdom and the other is Indian Tamils who are descendants of plantation labourers sent to Sri Lanka in 19th and 20th centuries during British rule. Considerable number in the latter group were repatriated to India after independence and those who remained there acquired Sri Lankan citizenship and came to be known as Sri Lankan Tamils.

They constitute, as per 2012 census, 11.21 per cent of the total population of this island concentrated as overwhelming majority in the Northern Provinces, and as the largest ethnic group in Eastern Provinces.

The first Indian Prime Minister to address a gathering of tea plantation workers, Modi labeled them Indian-origin diaspora who were providing the bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

Friendship and cooperation between them cannot begin or end with or depend on the demographic phenomenon. Ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious factors may naturally be predominant in shaping the attitudes of people in the southernmost parts of the country vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. But, for the nation as a whole, whether it is sharing Brahmaputra with China, or Indus with Pakistan, or Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka, State-level problems, however, important, cannot be the sole deciding factors in international relation while the views of affected states are taken into consideration. Hence, the Union government has a very difficult job of protecting the legitimate interests specially affecting Tamil Nadu and Tamilians and adopting at the same time a realistic foreign policy in the region. Unfortunately, regional leaders in any State of India are unwilling to cultivate a national outlook in foreign relations.

Sri Lanka holds an important position in India’s geo-strategic interests.  Its location, pictured as a vanguard of peninsular India overseeing the Indian Ocean astride the sea lanes, is one of the crucial points of Indian strategic planning. Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean are extremely important for South Asia as lifeline for supplies and trade.

China is engaged in enlarging its sphere of influence in South Asia. But, Sri Lanka cannot be expected to allay the anxieties of India and forget its own nervousness due to the Tamil factor.

Ethnic affinities between Tamils in India and Tamils in Sri Lanka are not any rare case of cross-border ethnicity in the world. There are several such cases all over the world binding people separated by national borders. European countries under refugee influx, and the historic melting pot of multi-racial, multi-religious, polyglot population of the United States are bound to face very many problems of plural societies. People living in border regions in India — Punjabis, Bengalese, Assamese, Kashmiris, etc., — have some special relations with people across international borders.

China always had an eye on Sri Lanka for its location in the centre of the Indian Ocean. Its interests are not confined to development and trade. Along with India, China has got the rights to explore for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mannar in north-west Sri Lanka. This has practically given justification for semi-permanent presence of China in Sri Lanka. Chinese engineers have built the port and oil bunkering/storage facility in Hambantota in the south-east coast of Sri Lanka.

China is in recent years taking special efforts to promote friendly ties with countries around India as part of its diplomacy. It extended support to Sri Lanka in the United Nations over the years on the question of violation of human rights of Tamils – the basic grievance of political parties in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka helped China to get Observer status in SAARC, and China reciprocated it with supporting Sri Lankan demand for a similar status in the ASEAN. India’s Sri Lankan relationship inevitably has to react to Chinese Sri Lankan policy.

China’s latest initiative to inaugurate the Belt and Road Forum to construct a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and open it for all countries has immense significance both for geo-politics and geo-economics. The Forum was attended by around 30 countries. All neighbours of India including Sri Lanka, and USA participated in the Forum. The proposed corridor runs through the Pak Occupied Kashmir. China used the occasion to pose as the champion of globalisation, free trade, investments and peace ironically invoking the historic Panch Sheel – the five principles of peaceful co-existence declared by India and China over 50 years ago.

Sri Lanka provides an ideal naval base for any kind of operation in the Indian Ocean. This alone is sufficient for India to go smoothly with Sri Lanka even on long-pending issues like Katchatheevu and seek solutions compatible with reality and safeguarding mutual interests.

Fishermen issue is separate and is not really a part of India’s international relations. It is a complicated economic issue involving laws of the sea and fishing rights. It is to be tackled as a livelihood problem and addressed as a humanitarian question and should not be allowed to raise tempers and spoil international relations which have many other dimensions with vital national interests. Union-State relations within India or emotional ethnic attachments may be useful electoral issues, but cannot and should not dictate India’s Sri Lankan policy.

Sri Lanka’s unity, sovereignty, and integrity as well as its stability and domestic peace are as important for India as for Sri Lanka. India has cultural and linguistic ties dating back to several centuries with almost all South and South Asian countries. Such ties have to take their place along with economic and strategic interests.

Nevertheless, the Centre seems to be showing some genuine concern for safeguarding the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka and rights of Indians over the Ocean resources. Political leaders of Tamil Nadu have to accept that international relations cannot be determined as an emotional issue. It is a national and not State subject.—INFA

(The writers is former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


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