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Modi’s Visit will Herald a New Chapter in India-Sri Lanka Relations

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 12, 2015

    The ongoing political transition in Sri Lanka has generated hope in India about the prospects of an improved bilateral relationship. In view of the coldness exhibited towards India by the previous Rajapaksa government, the relationship had unmistakably taken a dip despite the NDA government’s enthusiasm for fast-tracking its proactive neighbourhood-first policy. With Rajapaksa’s defeat in the presidential elections held earlier this year, the new leadership in Colombo has demonstrated its willingness to address Indian sensitivities and work with India in a spirit of friendship and amity. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian head of government in 28 years, seems evenly poised to catalyse positive changes in the bilateral relationship.

    True, the Lankan prime minister’s rant on the Indian fishermen issue, which was given disproportionate coverage by the media in India, queered the pitch to an extent. But reasoned analyses have subsequently replaced passionate declamations on the Lankan PM’s off-the-cuff remarks and there is a general acknowledgement by commentators in both countries about the importance of this visit and the possibility of engagement at the highest level recasting the contours of the relationship.

    A great deal of optimism emanates from the fact that the new government in New Delhi has displayed keenness to engage neighbours with all sincerity. This has to some extent contributed to dispelling the long-held view that India’s neglect of its immediate neighbours stemmed primarily from its unwillingness to build relationships based on mutual trust and genuine partnership.

    In this context, Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka becomes extremely significant in terms of symbolism and political content. As the Prime Minister has himself explained, the visit to Sri Lanka is a “part of my objective of maintaining frequent contact with our neighbouring countries”. This is matched by Maithripala Sirisena’s commitment to reshape Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. In his election manifesto, he had, in fact, acknowledged that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was in “disarray” (read, under the Rajapaksa government) and assured that he would act “to have closer relations with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependent”. Sirisena and his foreign minister chose India as their first foreign destination after the elections, indicating their foreign policy priority of repairing the frayed relationship with India.

    Significance of the Modi Visit

    According to the itinerary set for him, the Prime Minister will visit the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo, the ancient capital and historic Buddhist religious place of Anuradhapura, and also Talaimannar and Jaffna, apart from addressing the Sri Lankan parliament. The itinerary clearly indicates the political and cultural significance that Sri Lanka has for India. Given the multi-sectoral engagement that both countries have already had in the past two decades, it would be unrealistic to expect any major breakthrough in terms of political, economic and strategic announcements. Nevertheless, the visit is likely to significantly improve the atmospherics, introduce a positive vibe into the process of engagement and serve as a stepping stone for deepening the relationship further.

    Modi’s visit is significant for three reasons. The first and most important is political. India’s neighbours have come to believe that Indian leaders do not consider their countries as important enough places to visit. Further, of even the little attention that India deigns to give to the neighbourhood, a disproportionate percentage goes to Pakistan. Against this backdrop, Modi’s successive visits to Bhutan, Nepal and now Sri Lanka within a year of assuming office is being considered as a significant departure and an important political statement.

    Emphasis on Shared Culture

    Second, Modi’s choice of places to visit in Sri Lanka is important both from the political and cultural perspectives. His visit to Anuradhapura, which is, in a way, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, is quite significant here. It is not only the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, but also the place where Arahat Mahinda, son of Ashoka the Great, arrived to spread Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE (Before the Common Era). It is well-known that the cultural linkages between the two countries have continued in spite of political and diplomatic reverses over time. For Sri Lankans, India remains a major place for pilgrimage. Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka from India and remains a main source of religion and culture for a majority of its people. Modi’s symbolic visit to Anuradhapura is therefore a very welcome idea.

    It is appropriate to mention here that India has made use of cultural diplomacy with Sri Lanka in the past. The decision to lend the Kapilavastu relics to be displayed in Sri Lanka for the second time in 2011 was received well there and large numbers of devotees rushed to have a look at them. This decision was taken in spite of the earlier directives not to allow the display of sacred relics outside India due to their inestimable value and delicate nature and the huge logistics and planning required for their exhibition. Sri Lanka is also one of the countries involved in establishing the international Buddhist University in Sanchi and is part of the Buddhist circuit that India is developing in the subcontinent.

    Modi’s visit to Anuradhapura and the Mahabodhi society in Colombo, which are part of the two countries’ common cultural heritage and strong historical connection, will definitely be a huge step forward in public diplomacy. Both countries have already agreed to undertake joint activities to commemorate the 2600th year of Buddha attaining Enlightenment and the PM’s reiteration in this regard will go down well with the majority Sinhala audience.

    Developmental Engagement

    Third, Modi’s visit to Talaimannar and Jaffna is extremely significant and should be seen in the context of India’s engagement in infrastructure development in Sri Lanka. In Talaimannar, Modi will flag off the first train service between Talaimannar/Medawachchiya sector and Colombo. Earlier, the Pallai-Jaffna 38-kilometre railway service, which led to the resumption of the famous Yal Devi Express, was inaugurated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in October 2014. These infrastructure projects are part of the US $800 million credit-line provided by India to build the Northern railway that was devastated during the three decades of civil war and finds mention in the Indo-Sri Lanka Joint declaration signed on 9 June 2010. India is also building a pier in Talaimannar to resume ferry service between Talaimannar and Rameswaram. During his visit to Jaffna, Modi will inaugurate the Jaffna Cultural Centre funded by India.

    Jaffna Factor

    The significance of Modi’s visit to Jaffna lies in the fact that he would be the first Indian Prime Minister to do so – politically quite vital in the context of Tamil politics in both countries. This will provide him firsthand experience of the developments there. Be that as it may, it would be important for India to stay away from the internal political wrangling of the Tamil political conglomerate, the TNA, especially in the aftermath of the passage of the ‘genocide resolution’ in the Northern Provincial Council last month. If possible, India needs to convey the message that Tamils need to concentrate on redressing their immediate grievances related to post-war displacement, rather than exerting pressure on Colombo at this point of time when the government is steering an important constitutional amendment that will go a long way in strengthening democracy and restoring inter-institutional balance. Greater democracy and strong institutions would benefit the Tamils in terms of political resolution of their longstanding grievances in the long run.

    Strategic Dimension

    Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka and before that to Mauritius and Seychelles underlines India’s quest for a cooperative maritime security approach in the Indian Ocean region and its willingness to play a critical role in ensuring peace and prosperity in the littoral countries. There is no denying the fact that Sri Lanka is an important maritime neighbour and an integral element in India’s larger maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. India and Sri Lanka have already instituted an annual bilateral defence dialogue and they have had significant cooperation in defence and security in the past.

    Nevertheless, a sense of mistrust and suspicion persists between the two countries. The Rajapaksa government’s strategic engagement with China and its decision to allow the PLA Navy to berth nuclear submarines in Lankan ports, in clear disregard of Indian sensitivities, had led to a dip in the bilateral relationship. Modi’s visit will provide an opportunity to take stock of the ground realities after the changes in governments in both countries. India and Sri Lanka must take care to reinvigorate their political and economic relationship taking into account the overall security dimension as well as their geographic, cultural and social closeness. Modi’s visit has all the ingredients to herald a new chapter in India-Sri Lanka relations.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India