Another step forward with Sri Lanka

Another step forward with Sri Lanka

Although no deals were done or pacts signed during the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to India, it was productive. Talks between the two sides seem to have provided greater clarity on the path ahead. India and Sri Lanka discussed ways to take forward the use of a $400 million Line of Credit for development and a $50 million soft loan for combating terrorism that India announced during President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s visit in December. They discussed counter-terrorism co-operation and intelligence sharing and reiterated that security would be the main focus of the bilateral partnership. India has had huge concerns over the Rajapaksas coming to power in Sri Lanka. It was during Mahinda’s stint as president that Sri Lanka’s economic, defence and security cooperation with China grew exponentially. New Delhi feared that a debt-ridden Sri Lanka would be compelled to concede China’s demands on security issues, to India’s detriment. Such apprehensions gained strength when Lanka allowed Chinese warships to dock at Colombo port. The implications of Sri Lanka’s debts for India’s security were underscored when in a debt-equity swap, Mahinda’s successor handed over Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease. 

The Lankan Prime Minister is reported to have asked India to defer loan repayment for a period of three years. India should be generous. Not only will it ease Sri Lanka’s debt repayment pressures, it would be a positive step towards weaning Colombo away from China’s embrace. As in the past, Mahinda has used effusive words to describe India; India is family, others are friends. Delhi should not interpret this as indicative of any new willingness on the part of the Rajapaksa government to prioritize India over China and Pakistan. How India-Lanka intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation can progress side by side with Colombo’s close ties with Pakistan is something that India will need to work out.

On the question of Sri Lankan Tamil rights, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Mahinda to ensure full implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. This has been the stand of successive Indian governments, but it was based on the principle that India could recommend only as much autonomy to the island-nation’s Tamil provinces as Delhi gives its own states. In the context of the Modi government’s denial of autonomy and political rights to Kashmiris, Modi’s espousal of Tamil rights rings hollow. It is unlikely to be taken seriously by the Sri Lankan government.

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