Pangs of proximity

India-Sri Lanka Relations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Sri Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickremesinghe ahead of a meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, on October 20, 2018. PTI

India-Sri Lanka relations took a terrible turn following the constitutional crisis that unfolded in Colombo after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26. Interestingly, President Sirisena appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, against whom Wickremesinghe and Sirisena had joined hands in 2015 to form a coalition government, as the new prime minister. President Sirisena cited “political problems, economic troubles, and the strong plot to assassinate me” as the reasons for sacking Wickremesinghe.

Significantly, Wickremesinghe was sacked within a week of his official visit to India. New Delhi responded to the constitutional crisis in Colombo by stating that “democratic values and constitutional process must be respected.” However, the unprecedented political situation that has arisen in Sri Lanka has at least two broad implications for India-Sri Lanka relations: the state of Indian infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and the ethnic issue on the island nation.

India has initiated several infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka aimed at economic development of the island nation. Some notable projects include upgrading the Colombo-Matara rail link, reconstruction of the historic Medawachchiya to Madhu, Madhu to Talaimannar and Omanthai to Pallai railway lines, the 500-MW Trincomalee power plant, inter-connection of electricity grids between India and Sri Lanka, restoration of the harbour at Kankesanthurai and the airfield at Palaly that became dysfunctional due to the ethnic conflict and a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal near Colombo.

All these projects, however, remain incomplete, mainly due to delays caused by the host nation. The change in regime is expected to further delay these projects or even lead to their scrapping.

Though Sri Lanka tried to offer projects to both India and China, the latter is the preferred choice. China has a track record of timely completion of projects, but mainly due to Beijing’s disregard for issues like ethnic reconciliation and a long-term political settlement on the ethnic question. When he was President from 2005 to 2014, Rajapaksa was comfortable with China. Also, since China is far away, any extra-regional power’s involvement in Sri Lanka is not an issue as long it serves its strategic and economic interests. India is not anxious about China’s involvement in Sri Lanka but looks at the long-term strategic implications. The possibility of military use of port and other infrastructure by the Chinese in Sri Lanka against India assumes importance. But India stands out because of significant benevolence in its economic involvement in the island nation.

On the settlement of the ethnic issue, India has consistently maintained that it favoured “a politically negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights.” For India, the full implementation of the 13th Amendment provisions as an interim arrangement, and going beyond it towards permanent settlement, matters most.

However, Colombo thinks differently after the decimation of the LTTE. Then President Rajapaksa initially promised to look “beyond the 13th Amendment” through an All-Party Representative Committee (APRC). But, in a fit of military triumphalism, he changed that stance and started to denounce that “there is no ethnic issue, but only development issue.” Later, he went to the extent of constituting a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to look into even the existing 13th Amendment framework that devolved powers to the provinces in the country.

Unfortunately, from the outset, the 13th Amendment has proved to be a political challenge. Apart from the non-participation of opposition parties in the PSC, Sinhala hardline parties like the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the National Freedom Front (NFF) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) wanted to delete the 13th Amendment that made provisions for the provinces. A dominant section of the then Rajapaksa government had supported this stance of the hardline parties, through the so-called “13th Amendment Minus” arrangement. India was disappointed with this development.

However, with the regime change in 2015, the political situation had looked positive. The new President Sirisena proposed a new constitution in January 2016 and subsequently a Constituent Assembly was established in March 2016 to draft a new document. 

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who headed the Steering Committee of the Constituent Assembly, submitted an interim report in November 2017.  The report highlighted issues like the principles of devolution, State land, provincial subjects, a second chamber, the electoral system and public security. Although the interim report talks of “aekiya raajyaya” and “orumiththa nadu” (respectively, Sinhala and Tamil terms for undivided and indivisible country), opposition to the draft has already emerged from the Buddhist clergy and Sinhala hardliners.

India has also pushed for ethnic reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka both at bilateral and multilateral levels. New Delhi firmly believes that without ethnic reconciliation, it is difficult to find a lasting political solution and bring about harmony in the island nation. India’s stand at the Human Rights Council was progressive and positive: to push the reconciliation process seriously so that war-torn Sri Lankan society could rebuild itself in a sustainable manner. But, with the return of Rajapaksa as prime minister, the situation seems like it would regress rather than progress.

Lately, some of India’s South Asian neighbours have found it a challenge to uphold democratic values in their countries. The sudden developments in Sri Lanka have come as a challenge for New Delhi’s neighbourhood policy. India has always supported Sri Lanka during crises and safeguarded the island nation’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The trajectory of India-Sri Lanka relations since independence have evolved and, in the present context, serve as a model of good neighbourly relations. No wonder Mahatma Gandhi once rightly referred to Sri Lanka as India’s “daughter state”. This maxim should be borne in mind to ensure that India-Sri Lanka relations do not deteriorate further.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru)

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