India-Sri Lanka relations are critically poised. Since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, both countries have moved to normalise their relations. High-level visits have been exchanged and political will on both sides will be required constantly to take the relationship to a higher trajectory. However, many obstacles remain.
Post 2009, India has launched a major effort towards rehabilitation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka. India is committed to build 50,000 houses in the North to help Sri Lanka settle the internally-displaced persons. Many other high visibility Indian projects are also underway.
Thanks to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which became operational in 2000, bilateral trade has crossed $5 billion mark making Sri Lanka India’s largest trading partner in South Asia and India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. India has a cumulative foreign direct investment (FDI) of over $800 million in Sri Lanka. Many Indian companies are in Sri Lanka and others are expanding their footprint in Sri Lanka. Indian tourists form 20 per cent of all tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka thus contributing in a major way to Sri Lanka’s economy.
India did help Sri Lanka in a low key manner in the latter’s fight against the LTTE. While Sri Lankans acknowledge that help, they also say that it was inadequate. Since 2009, however, defence cooperation between the two countries has been expanding. India is helping Sri Lanka with the training of armed forces personnel. An annual defence dialogue has been instituted between the two countries. The Indian Army chief will be visiting Sri Lanka shortly.
Domestic factors play a critical role in bilateral relations. The Indian government has been urging the Sri Lankan government to make visible progress in devolving powers to the northern and eastern provinces within the framework of a sovereign and united Sri Lanka and the 13th constitutional amendment that provides for greater autonomy to provincial councils, particularly in the areas of land and police powers. The Sri Lankan government appears indifferent and even opposed to implement the 13th amendment. Opposing any ‘sell out’ to India, the widespread Sri Lankan public opinion holds that the 13th amendment was imposed by India and is unworkable. However, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the party claiming to speak for the Tamils, wants the Indian government to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to implement the amendment. The government sees the TNA as a party linked with the LTTE remnants in the powerful Tamil diaspora abroad. Political negotiations so far have not resulted in any progress. The TNA complains of highly intrusive military presence and high-headedness of the authorities in the North despite the end of the war.
The international community has been concerned about human rights violations towards the end of the war. In March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a United States sponsored resolution which asked the government to implement the recommendations of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a commission appointed by the Sri Lankan government. Critics of the government point out that the government has been tardy in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC.
India, departing from its past practice of abstaining on country specific resolutions, voted in favour of the Sri Lanka related resolution. This came as a shock to the Sri Lankan government. The vote has cast a shadow on bilateral relationship despite Indian explanations. Another vote will likely take place in March 2013. The Sri Lankan record on human rights will be under scrutiny once again.
The government of India is in a dilemma. It cannot ignore the enormous pressure within India to see that the legitimate grievances of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka are addressed quickly and meaningfully. Yet, it cannot afford to put pressure on the government of a sovereign state beyond a point. It may not have enough leverage to do so.
Fisheries is an emotive issue in bilateral relations. Often Indian fishermen are caught fishing in Sri Lankan waters. The problem is linked with the livelihood issues of the fishermen. Sri Lankan fishermen complain that the narrow stretch of the Pak Straits has already been overfished and the practice of bottom trawling has severely damaged the ecology of the region. New Delhi has impressed upon Colombo to treat the Indian fishermen humanely and not to fire upon them. There is good cooperation between the two sides but a long term solution to the issue has been eluding.
Another issue that is rearing its head is the increasing presence of the Chinese in Sri Lanka. The Chinese are executing the Hambantota port project, have built a power station, and have undertaken a number of high visibility infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. The strategic community in India is concerned that the inroads the Chinese have made in Sri Lanka may be detrimental to India’s strategic interests.
Interestingly, a debate has arisen in Sri Lanka whether Chinese assistance is cost free and whether or not Sri Lanka is becoming too dependent upon the Chinese to the detriment of its relations with India. Sri Lanka would need to ensure that its relations with China are not at the expense of relations with India.
India-Sri Lanka Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was close to being signed in 2008, has become a contentious issue. There is a strong lobby of businessmen in Sri Lanka that has been agitating against the CEPA although many Sri Lankan analysts point out that Sri Lanka stands to gain considerably from the agreement. A political push will be required to take it forward. The CEPA may help improve Sri Lankan economy that is presently not in so good a health with total debt rising to dangerously high levels.
The way forward should be for both sides to take a balanced view of their relationship. India should continue to urge upon the government of Sri Lanka to take effective steps towards devolution but be also aware that the present ruling dispensation is politically in an unassailable situation and may not be easily persuaded. International pressure may also not work beyond a point. A visible progress on the devolution issue will greatly help Indo-Sri Lankan relations and bridge the trust gap.
The Sri Lankan government should also not give the impression that it is playing the Chinese card against India. New areas of cooperation such as maritime security, climate change and science and technology cooperation should be explored. Track two level contacts among think-tanks should be expanded. The relationship should not be made hostage to just a few issues. A pragmatic but progressive approach to bilateral relations is needed.
Arvind Gupta is director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.