By Suhasini Haidar
India is “intent on strengthening ties” with Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, as he announced a slew of projects to be inaugurated while Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Sri Lanka on March 13th and 14th.
Mr. Modi, who is the first Indian Prime Minister to make a bilateral visit to the neighbouring island in 28 years, will be commissioning a railway line in Talaimannar, inaugurating the cultural centre in Jaffna, and also handing over homes that have been build by India in the Northern province.
“India has been a significant contributor to the rebuilding process in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jaishankar told journalists at a press conference to discuss the Prime Minister’s 3-nation ‘Indian Ocean foray’ including the Seychelles and Mauritius that begins on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister will reach Colombo on March 13, and will have talks with President Maithripala Sirisena. He will attend a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe who has set off a storm with his recent remarks on “shooting Indian fishermen” if they trespass into Sri Lankan waters. Seeking to downplay the controversy over those remarks, Mr. Jaishankar said the remarks had been clarified, and that since it was an “emotive issue” he would not like to comment further, but “all that needed to be said” had been conveyed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her meeting with Mr. Wickremsinghe on Saturday.
Speaking to The Hindu in Delhi, Sri Lankan analyst P. Saravanamuttu (Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo) doubted the Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s comments to overshadow Mr. Modi’s visit. “In Sri Lanka, Mr. Wickremsinghe is under criticism from all quarters with pressure to prove his ‘nationalistic’ credentials, and especially over a reliance on India,and his comments may be seen in that context.”
In Colombo, the highlight of Mr. Modi’s visit will possibly be his address to the Sri Lankan parliament. He had in a similar way addressed the parliaments in Thimphu and Kathmandu during his visits there in 2014. He will also go to Anuradhapura to see religious sites, along with his trip to Jaffna and Talaimannar, where he will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit.
He is expected take up India’s concerns over the implementation of the 13th amendment and rehabilitation of Tamil refugees in his bilateral talks as well as during his meeting with the governor of the Northern Province in Jaffna.
Mr. Modi will also look to “promote reconciliation” during meetings with leaders of all political parties, the FS said, including the Tamil National Alliance that rules in the Tamil-majority Northern Provinces, the ruling SLFP and UNP, including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. However no meeting has been planned with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during Mr. Modi’s visit.
While ruling out any defence cooperation agreement will be signed during the Sri Lanka visit, Mr. Jaishankar said there was a “common thread” to the Prime Minister’s outreach to all three countries vis a vis India’s maritime influence. In the Seychelles as well as in Mauritius, India has been assisting with patrolling and funding economic development. In Mauritius, where the PM is the chief guest at the National Day, Mr. Modi will also commission a “Coast Ship Barracuda” offshore patrol vehicle that has been acquired with Indian assistance.
Mr. Jaishankar refused to comment on why Prime Minister Modi wasn’t travelling to the Maldives as had been earlier planned. While a Maldivian foreign ministry statement had said the visit had been “put off by mutual agreement”, sources in the MEA said the trip had been cancelled because India didn’t want to get into “domestic issues” over the arrest of former President Mohammad Nasheed. “We are here to discuss the PM’s upcoming visit, and the Maldives was never announced as a part of his itinerary.”