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India-Sri Lanka Relations Hamstrung By Unfulfilled Neighborly Expectations – Analysis

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While Colombo has expectations from neighboring India, New Delhi has unfulfilled expectations from its neighbor.

In his recent telephone conversation with the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakasa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured that India “will not do any injustice to Sri Lanka,” says the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Adm. Prof. Jayanath Colombage.

India’s support is critical for Sri Lanka as the line-up against it in the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the resolution on human rights violation is formidable. The hostile resolution calling for intervention and sanctions is likely to be carried.

While China, Pakistan and Russia are firm supporters of Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena claims that the Asian bloc will support his country, it appears that there is no such firm commitment on their part.

India has taken a stand that does not back Sri Lanka but is not hostile either. Its Representative, Indra Mani Pandey ,raised the issue of power devolution to the provinces under the 13th.Amendment and called for its implementation if there is to be ethnic reconciliation and national unity in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Hope

However, considering the precarious position Sri Lanka will be in, when the noose tightens in Geneva and the resolution comes for a vote, Sri Lankan opinion makers earnestly hope India would commit itself in its favor and lobby for it among the Afro-Asian countries even if only in the eleventh hour.

But for the minority Tamils and Muslims, who very largely expect the UNHRC to take a stern view of Colombo’s human rights record as perceived by them, the majority Sinhalese would want India to vote against the West-backed resolution.

They would want India to uphold Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  “Neighborhood First” policy and come to Lanka’s aid when it needs it most. They recall that India has time and again reiterated its historical, cultural and religious ties with Sri Lanka and its commitment to the maintenance of its sovereignty and say that this is the time to give effect to the ties.

It is also argued that Sri Lanka has cooperated with India on maritime security by becoming part of the India-inspired Indian Ocean Maritime Security architecture and setting up a Secretariat for it in Colombo. Sri Lanka has offered the West Container Terminal project in Colombo port in lieu of the East Terminal. ECT could not be given to India or any foreign entity because of nationalist opposition. Sri Lanka had suspended the solar power projects in the North which were earlier given to a Chinese company. Sri Lanka has also indicated that it will hold provincial council elections soon.         

India’s Concerns

But politically aware and neutral Sri Lankans also realize that India has its concerns and grievances vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. India has a long-standing commitment to the Tamil minority in the island, which has huge support among the Tamils of Tamil Nadu. In the past, India had had to intervene in Sri Lanka substantially because of domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu. And Tamil Nadu is going for State Assembly elections in April in which Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is contesting as an ally of the ruling All Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). If the BJP gets a decent number of seats in the Assembly it will be a huge step forward for it as it will mean that Tamil Nadu is coming under the sway of Hindu nationalism, the BJP’s stock-in-trade.

Secondly, devolution of power to elected Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka is India’s brainchild. India is interested in its survival. The system  stems from the July 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. Despite stiff opposition, the 13 th.Amendment (13A) creating elected provincial councils with a measure of autonomy, was passed by the Lankan parliament and has been in operation till recently. The councils have not had elections to enable the government to change the election law and go for a fresh delimitation of constituencies.

However the utterances of some key Lankan Ministers calling for the repeal of the 13A has raised an alarm in New Delhi. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is committed to bringing about a new constitution, where provincial autonomy might be pruned in favor of greater centralization, it is feared.

It is based on these apprehensions that Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly called for a full implementation of the 13A – which was reiterated by the Indian envoy in UNHRC.

Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now said that Provincial Council elections will be held in June. But the legal decks have to be cleared first. The government has to decide whether it will go by the old electoral law and old delimitation of constituencies or have a new legal framework. According to reports efforts are being made to speed up the legal deck-clearing.

Colombo Port Terminals

India has still not gotten over the disappointment over its removal from  the project to build the East Container Terminal in Colombo port after signing an MOU on it in 2019. Piqued by this, the Indian government did not take the alternative offer of the West Container Terminal leaving it to be negotiated by the Adanis, a private Indian port operators’ company.

India feels that while Sri Lanka seems loathe to give it development projects, China is handed projects without a fuss. New Delhi seeks a level playing field, while Sri Lanka feels that China has certain advantages, principally an ability to finance projects and execute them fast.     

Engagements Continue

However, despite irritants and hiccups, India and Sri Lanka continue to engage each other in various fields. India was the principal foreign participant in the event related to the 70 th. Anniversary of the Sri Lankan Air Force. It sent its indigenous fighter aircraft Tejas and its aerobatic teams to give stunning displays for three days. India is also the only supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to date. Recently, it gave LKR 22 million worth of teaching equipment to the Sri Lanka Maritime Naval Academy at Trincomalee and inaugurated the construction of 114 housing units for Catholic pilgrims who come to the historic Madhu Church in North Sri Lanka. India has also extended a grant of US$ 15 million for the preservation of Buddhist places of worship and institutions.

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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