By Srimal Fernando and Prateek Joshi*
“The ties of friendship between India and Sri Lanka go back centuries and have matured over time to include all areas of contemporary relevance”. These were the words of the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee who extended his wishes to the Island Nation on the occasion of Sri Lanka’s 68th Independence Day.
Separated by the narrow Palk Strait, both nations have a rich history of ethnic, religious cultural and economic interaction. Sri Lanka was also known as “Serendib”; a name which was first used by early Arab and Persian traders to refer to this Island. The teardrop shaped island is geographically situated 22 miles off the southern coastal tip of the Indian subcontinent. A nation with apopulation of 20.2 million , Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with the Sinhalese forming the predominant ethnic group, and the other large ethnic groups being Tamils and Muslims.
With Buddhism and ethnic ties being strong links, both nations were expected to be natural allies in the post-colonial era. It was equally hoped that the good and bad legacy of colonialism would have tied them up in a bond of empathy, but then history had to run a different course.
Both nations have faced equally turbulent times, especially at the time when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement was on the rise. India’s involvement through the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the subsequent assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE cadre member was a turning point in their relationship. Trading allegations of interference and indifference, it was at this very time that they realized that a deeper engagement is the only guarantee for a stable and prosperous Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.
Since then, both nations have made sincere efforts to reach out to one another and chart a relationship which is durable. The recent developments on the bilateral front speak of this deepening association, making it instructive to evaluate them to gauge where India and Sri Lanka are headed from here.
The Presidential elections of 2015 undoubtedly opened a new window of opportunity for Sri Lanka. On February 15, 2015, on his maiden foreign trip after assuming the Presidential post, the newly-elected President Sirisena arrived in India on a four-day state visit where he held talks the with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The two sides inked several agreements including one on civil nuclear cooperation, taking the ties to a level higher than ever. His decision to visit India on his first overseas trip signaled a reaffirmation of Sri Lanka’s commitment to a strong partnership with India. Even Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015 made him the first Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka since Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1987.
Also, following the visit of India’s External Affairs minister to Sri Lanka this February, a festival (named Sangam) showcasing the confluence of Indian and Sri Lankan cultures was launched.
The present upward trajectory of mutual ties is a result of alignment of government of India’s “neighborhood first policy” with the desire of the Sri Lankan establishment to engage with its neighbor more closely.
Economic ties got a boost with the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries in 1998. Coming a long way since then, the bilateral trade in 2013-14 was spread over USD 5.2 billion worth of investment, including a USD 500 million Sampur Power Station which is one of the Indian initiatives to strengthen strategic ties through economic cooperation. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was in the pipeline to further enhance mutual economic cooperation, but which has now been replaced by Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement.
The Palk Bay, which connects northern Sri Lanka and the central part of the Tamil Nadu coastline, constitutes a unique ecosystem. Crossing of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) by large Indian trawlers for fishing in Sri Lankan waters has added a new dimension to current situation. This has brought the Indian fishing trawlers into regular conflict with the Sri Lankan navy and has created tension in the state of Tamil Nadu, from where such fishing activities take place. Time and again this issue has been brought to the notice of Indian authorities, regarding which the Indian side has assured the Sri Lankan government of appropriate help and support.
On the other hand, a common maritime boundary has also made these neighbors realise their strategic maritime ambitions as key powers in the Indian Ocean Region. To tap their maritime potential, SLINEX series of bilateral maritime exercises were initiated in 2005. The last exercise took place in October, 2015 at Triconmalee, after a six-year gap. It is in the interest of both the nations to aspire for a stable Indian Ocean Region and have strong and capable naval forces working in coordination to deal with the menace of piracy as well secure the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) through which freight worth trillions of dollars is traded.
Even though the war in Sri Lanka between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE has ended, the main problem based on ethnicity is still remains. India has also been sensitive to the issue of post-civil war nation building efforts in Sri Lanka. The initiative to build housing and industrial projects in the Northern Province has given a big boost to Tamil aspirations and has the potential to become the gateway towards their prosperity in near future.
The international community could also play a positive role in Sri Lanka’s progress towards reconciliation as Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationship with India is deeply linked to Sri Lanka’s domestic issue of reconciliation with the Tamil minority. India has also been pressing Sri Lanka for implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution which envisages the devolution of powers to the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of the country where most of the minorities live.
Infrastructure is a major driver of the peacebuilding efforts in the area. Housing needs are the expectations of conflict affected communities in the former war torn area. Under the Indian Government assistance a total of 43,000 houses will be re-built in the post-conflict areas of Northern and Eastern Provinces in the next few years. After more than 23 years, a single track line between Colombo, Jaffna and Killinochchi has been re-constructed by the Indian Railway Construction International Ltd (IRCON) (a part of this railway line was destroyed by the LTTE).
The number of Indian tourists visiting Sri Lanka and vice versa is on the rise. Buddhism is a key factor. It was King Ashoka’s son who took the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 4th Century BC which laid the foundation of this organic relationship. Bodh Gaya and Sarnath are two key holy sites where large number of Sri Lankans visit to seek spiritual peace. The Government of India’s initiative (in partnership with the World Bank) to develop a Buddhist Circuit linking pilgrimage sites with upgraded infrastructural facilities is all set to attract a greater number of tourists.
The above highlighted facts are a proof of the warmth both the nations have shared and will continue to. In fact, this relationship has the potential to transcend all the conditionalities which characterize the conventional give-and-take in diplomacy. Nevertheless, it still has a long way to go and it is only mutual cooperation which will lead both the nations towards a bright and prosperous tomorrow.
*Srimal Fernando is the Global Editor for Foreign Exchange, South Africa. Prateek Joshi is a Post Graduate student at the South Asian University, New Delhi and is currently interning with Wikistrat. They can be reached at: [email protected]