The recent visit of Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena to New Delhi has opened a new chapter in India-Sri Lanka relations. During the earlier regime, bilateral relations were subjected to severe stresses and strains. Indian support was crucial in decimating the Tigers. The repeated assurances given by Mahinda Rajapaksa that the defeat of the Tigers will be followed by speedy steps towards ethnic reconciliation were forgotten. The Sinhalese hardliners started setting the pace of politics. After sustained pressure exerted by the Indian government, elections to the Northern Provincial Council were held. To the dismay of New Delhi, the elected government was soon sidelined and made irrelevant. Equally disconcerting were Mahinda’s attempts to involve Beijing and Islamabad to “cut India to size”. It is in that context that the presidential election was held. New Delhi heartily welcomed the victory of Sirisena. India naturally was the first country that minister for foreign affairs Mangala Samaraweera and president Sirisena visited.
To understand the implications of the visit, it is necessary to underline the principles and objectives of India’s neighbourhood policy, especially towards smaller neighbours. This policy is a mixture of idealism and realism. It must be highlighted that Pakistan, because of its close linkages with both Washington and Beijing and striving for parity with India, had to be tackled in a different perspective. Relations with smaller neighbours will be guided by the principle of asymmetrical reciprocity. These ideals, with particular reference to Sri Lanka, were articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru in a speech in Lok Sabha on May 15, 1954. To quote: “We want an independent Ceylon and a friendly Ceylon. In every sense Ceylon is nearer to us than any other country—culturally, historically, linguistically and even in the matter of religion. Why should we look with greedy eyes on Ceylon? We do not. But the fact remains there is fear and I would beg this house not to say at any time things which might add to this fear.”
The realism in neighbourhood policy was also highlighted by Nehru in a speech in Parliament on January 6, 1950, with reference to Nepal. To quote: “Much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened because that would be a risk to our own security.” In July 1983, after the communal holocaust, when president Jayewardene asked for external assistance, but deliberately excluded India, naturally there was righteous indignation in New Delhi. Indira Gandhi declared Sri Lanka is not just another country and what happens in Sri Lanka will have its immediate fallout on India. She telephoned president Jayewardene (she did not consult him) that she was deputing minister for external affairs Narasimha Rao to Colombo for an on-the-spot study of the situation. The rest is history. Similarly, Rajapaksa crossed the lakshman rekha when he permitted Chinese submarines to use Sri Lankan facilities. In such a situation, it is but natural that New Delhi would strive for a change of regime in Sri Lanka. Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wikramasinghe, Samaraweera and Sirisena—important leaders of the opposition united front—wanted to put an end to “tilt” towards Beijing and bring back India-Sri Lanka relations to earlier warmth.
If we analyse the voting pattern in the presidential poll it was the overwhelming support of the minority groups—Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims and Hill Country Tamils—that enabled Sirisena to get elected. The Sinhalese votes were divided; in fact, Mahinda was able to get more Sinhalese support than Sirisena. It is but natural that the Sirisena government should lay priority on winning over Sinhalese support and thus consolidate its Sinhala base. Such a strategy is also essential before the parliamentary election is held. While the government has made positive gestures towards Sri Lankan Tamils like appointing a civilian governor in the Northern Province, appointing a Tamil as chief justice of the Supreme Court and progressively withdrawing the armed forces from the Northern Province, bold initiatives to solve the ethnic conflict will take some time. The Tamils should understand and appreciate domestic compulsions. The Sri Lankan government’s request to the UN to give time so that it could hold a credible domestic inquiry into human rights violations has to be seen in this background. What India should do is to persuade Colombo to associate Indian and international legal experts with this enquiry, get the report out within a short span of time and ensure the guilty is brought to book.
The major outcome of the visit is the signing of the agreement on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Other agreements pertained to agricultural cooperation, cultural cooperation and association of Sri Lanka with the functioning of the Nalanda University. Needless to say, there were wide-ranging discussions relating to fishermen issues, ethnic reconciliation and economic cooperation between two countries.
Sri Lanka’s position on India becoming a nuclear power has undergone sharp twists and turns. When India “imploded” the nuclear device in Pokhran in May 1974, Sri Lanka criticised this initiative. Colombo, at that time, was striving to make the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace. Sri Lankan diplomat Shirley Amarasinghe remarked that Sri Lanka did not want the superpowers to be replaced by a littoral state. When the Vajpayee government exercised the nuclear option the Lankan foreign minister welcome the step. It should also be pointed out that the Rajapaksa government had expressed its reservations about the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. But since the project is functioning efficiently, Sri Lanka is silent on the issue. The nuclear agreement is a pointer that India has the capability to assist its smaller neighbours on civilian uses of nuclear energy.
India can play an effective role in bringing together progressive sections of the Tamil diaspora and the Sri Lankan government in their search for a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), after considerable heart searching, has declared that it stands for a peaceful solution and is eager to open a dialogue with New Delhi. Such a dialogue can lead to spelling out of broad areas of agreement. The next step could be triangular dialogue among New Delhi, Colombo and GTF. Another plus point must be highlighted. The GTF is in touch with the Tamil National Alliance and recognises it as the representative organisation of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.