Indo-Sri Lankan relations are currently in the doldrums. The bonhomie seen in the early stages of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka when India rushed US$ 4 billion worth of fuel, food and medicines, is now missing.
Apparently, New Delhi is deeply aggrieved that while accepting Indian largesse, Sri Lanka has not shown due regard for India’s economic, political and strategic concerns. Colombo has not followed up on important economic, strategic and political agreements already entered into by the two countries.
Perhaps this is the reason why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to give an appointment to Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe despite repeated efforts by Sri Lanka to secure it. Perhaps this is the reason why Samant Kumar Goel, head of the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), reportedly visited Colombo on November 21 to meet President Wickremesinghe and the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s chief organizer, Basil Rajapaksa.
Goel is believed to have discussed all the irritants in the relationship. But the emphasis would naturally have been on the security aspects of the relationship given the heightened activity of China and Pakistan in certain parts of the island which are of strategic interest to India.
Goel’s reported visit indicates the seriousness with which the top echelons of the government in New Delhi are taking some recent happenings in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in Sri Lanka continues to be dire with prices of essentials hitting the roof, though the supply of essentials has greatly improved. Sri Lanka’s efforts to restructure its external debt of US$ 35 billion are yet to bear fruit. The IMF bailout of US$ 2.9 billion, which is expected to clear the way for restructuring, is still some months away. China, to which Sri Lanka owes US$ 7.4 billion, is yet to discuss a haircut. Beijing has been willing to refinance a part of the debt but not restructure debt repayment.
India has been wanting Sri Lanka to implement a slew of joint venture infrastructure projects for which MOUs were signed on April 25, 2017 in the presence of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
The projects include the following: a re-gasified Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)-fired 500 megawatt power plant in Kerewelapitiya near Colombo; an LNG Terminal/Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Kerawalapitiya; a piped gas distribution system and retail outlets for the supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector; a 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) solar power plant in Sampur in the Eastern Province; joint development initially of 10 of the 84 giant oil tanks in the Upper Tank Farm in Trincomalee; development of the Trincomalee port and the setting up of industries in the hinterland; Industrial Zones or Special Economic Zones in identified locations in the island; roads linking Mannar and Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee and Dambulla and Trincomalee; upgrading of the railway rolling stock; construction of a Container Terminal in Colombo Port; and agricultural development including livestock development, water management and agro-based industries. All these projects have been in limbo.
If at least some of the 2017 MOUs had been implemented, the Sri Lankan economy would not have broken down as it did in 2021-2022. India has also been urging Sri Lanka to encourage foreign investment instead of seeking foreign loans and getting into a debt trap as it has done vis-à-vis China and other creditors. But New Delhi’s appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
On the political plane, India has been urging Sri Lanka to fully implement the 13 th.Constitutional Amendment (13A) devolving powers to the provinces. The degree of actual devolution has been minimal keeping the Tamil issue alive. The 13A stems from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 which was meant to meet the minority Tamils’ demand for provincial autonomy. With the 13A not fully implemented, the Tamils have now dumped it and are demanding a fully federal constitution.
President Wickremesinghe’s reported statement that he would abolish the Provincial Councils only infuriated the Tamils and raised the hackles in New Delhi. In 1987, India had to intervene politically and militarily to solve the Tamil issue through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 and the deployment of an India Peace Keeping Force.
India has grave security/geopolitical issues vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. New Delhi appears to fear that China and Pakistan have colluded to challenge India’s pre-eminent position in North Sri Lanka, which is geographically close to India and where the minority Tamils are in a majority. The North also has a very significant Muslim population. While the Chinese are investing in fisheries projects to win over the common man in the North, Pakistan is concentrating on the Muslims, especially in Mannar district which faces Tamil Nadu.
Recently, the Pakistan High Commissioner Maj.Gen. Umar Farooq Burki was on a week-long tour of the Northern Province during which he distributed sewing machines and inaugurated a rural water supply project in Mannar. The Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong also had gone on a well-publicized tour of the North. He even worshipped at the Nallur temple in the traditional Hindu fashion to endear himself to the Hindu Tamils. China had swung a renewable energy project in three islands off Jaffna facing India, but Colombo canceled the deal when India raised security issues.
India has an advantage in the North over China because the Tamils believe that, unlike India, China will invariably support the Sri Lankan government on the Tamils’ demand for provincial autonomy. Significantly, a recent attempt by China to set up an Agricultural unit in Jaffna University was thwarted by the Jaffna University Students Union. The union alleged that the unit is a ruse to grab the Tamils’ land in collusion with the Lankan government. India fears that Colombo would subtly encourage the Chinese and Pakistanis to get a foothold in the North to check India’s influence there.
“Visit” of Intelligence Chief
More recently, what prompted India to engage Sri Lanka at the highest level, was the supply of fuel to a second Chinese research and surveillance (spy) vessel Yuan Wang 6 off Hambantota port in early November. Without informing India, which is a maritime security partner, Colombo allegedly helped the vessel refuel in international waters off Hambantota port.
Earlier, in August, India had objected to the docking of Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota port on the grounds that it will spy on vital Indian installations in South India. The vessel eventually docked at Hambantota after Sri Lanka gave some assurances regarding security.
India had wanted Sri Lanka to consult it before allowing Chinese military and dual-purpose vessels. But Sri Lanka was constrained by the fact that China had taken Hambantota port on lease for 99-years, and also has a terminal in Colombo port.
Absence of Reciprocity
Some Sri Lankans wonder how Bangladesh manages to have good relations with India and China while Sri Lanka is unable to. Bangladesh is a major recipient of Chinese economic investment and also arms, but still it has good relations with India.
The answer lies in the fact that Bangladesh, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has been able to satisfy India on vital security matters and also meet its economic needs. Sheikh Hasina has seen to it that Bangladesh does not become a sanctuary or a cockpit for terrorists intending to strike India.
On the economic front, she has allowed transit for Indian traffic between the Indian State of West Bengal and India’s North Eastern States. She has not allowed the dispute over the Teesta river waters to bedevil cooperation with India on other matters. Most importantly, peace with India has allowed Bangladesh become a South Asian economic tiger.
Well-wishers hope that Sri Lanka will see the futility of being indifferent to India’s concerns and begin cooperating with it for the betterment of both countries.