Will India-Maithri and Ranil honeymoon be over?

The United National Party (UNP) Government that was installed in office in 2001 after toppling the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government was blessed by the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) of India. It’s no secret how the UNP was brought to power. Similarly, it’s an open secret that Chandrika grabbed three ministries of the UNP Government to topple Ranil’s Government a few years later with the help of the Office of the Indian High Commissioner located in Colombo. The base of that blessing was to hand over the reconstruction contract of the Palaly Air Base to India as requested by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. It is clearly embodied in the book ‘My Belly is White’ authored by then Defence Secretary Austin Fernando. The following passage clearly defines the backdrop to that position.

I kept the file with this order and before anything positive could happen with Milinda Moragoda’s intervention or not, Chandrika Kumaratunga grabbed the MOD on constitutional grounds and I was unemployed with immediate effect from 3rd November 2003. I do not say for a moment that this Indian Intervention had any influence on the grabbing of the MOD. That ended the Palaly Air Base rehabilitation with Indian assistance under RanilWickremesinghe Government.

Having lost power in 2004, Ranil was only able to return as Prime Minister only this year after Maithri won the presidential election. The Mahinda faction accused India of having backed Maithri to victory. Though that accusations stands to clarity, Maithri certainly received the blessings of India towards his victory. Now, as it happened in 2003, the Maithri-Ranil Government is facing resistance from Indian quarters over an issue. That is based on an action of Mahinda Rajapaksa who was in power earlier. Mahinda’s Government had entered into combat aircraft deals with Pakistan and that the present Maithri-Ranil Government has decided to proceed with, those purchase deals.

According to highly placed sources in the diplomatic circles, India has expressed its strong opposition to a deal the Sri Lankan Government entered into with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to purchase 10 JF-17 combat aircraft.

The deal was entered into apparently when Former Air Force Commander, Jayalath Weerakkody, was serving as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Pakistan.

It is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. The JF-17 can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack and aircraft interception. Its designation ‘JF-17’ by Pakistan is short for ‘Joint Fighter-17’

PAF’s requirement
The JF-17 was primarily developed to meet the PAF’s requirement for an affordable, modern, multi-role combat aircraft as a replacement for its large fleet of Dassault Mirage III/5 fighters, Nanchang A-5 bombers, and Chengdu F-7 interceptors, with a cost of US$ 500 million, divided equally between China and Pakistan. The aircraft was also intended to have export potential as a cost-effective and competitive alternative to more expensive Western fighters. The development of this aircraft was headed by Yang Wei (aircraft designer), who is considered China’s ‘ace designer’. Wei also designed the Chengdu J-20.

According to sources, Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, had personally expressed India’s concerns on the deal to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Doval who telephoned both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had told them outright that New Delhi is against the deal.

He warned that Sri Lanka will have to face serious repercussions if Sri Lanka was to seal the deal with Pakistan.
Sri Lanka on the other hand had offered to purchase three naval ships from India. This, however, was not favoured by India and New Delhi was firm on its stance.

To give in Sri Lankan Defence Ministry had asked for 10 JF-17 aircraft or a similar aircraft. India came up with a counter deal where it offered a credit line to SL Government to purchase combat aircraft. The condition is that the government would buy the aircraft from any country other than Pakistan.

10 F-7 combat aircraft free
Pakistan, as things developed, renewed their offer by stating they would give 10 F-7 combat aircraft free, if we are going for an outright purchase.
Pakistan also plans to announce the deal during Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sheriff’s impending visit to Colombo in January 2016.
The Sirima Bandaranaike Government of 1970-77 was quite friendly with India like the present Maithri-Ranil Government. But India was annoyed when Sirima Bandaranaike allowed fuelling to Pakistani war planes in Colombo during the Bangladeshi war. Following is an excerpt of the book on Non-Aligned Policy which relates to that episode.

During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, Sri Lanka initially kept aloof, expecting a solution of the East Bengali crisis which would preserve the integrity of Pakistan. Even after the crisis was over, in order not to offend Pakistani susceptibilities, Sri Lanka did not accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh until March 1971. In the process, however, Sri Lanka did unwittingly offend Indian susceptibilities. For the Sri Lanka Government granted air transit facilities through Colombo from West to East Pakistan, after over flights over India had been stopped for Pakistan aircraft, and although these transit facilities had been granted to Pakistani civilian aircraft, which had rights through Colombo, the possibility appears to have been over-looked by the Sri Lanka government that military personnel disguised as civilians and perhaps even equipment which could be used for war purposes in East Bengal, might be carried in these aircraft. Long after the event, the reputed Indian defence analyst R. Subrahmanyam wrote in the ‘Indian and Foreign Review’:

JVP insurgency
There is no reciprocity of commitment between India and its neighbours in regard to each others’ security. Bandaranaike got Indian help when Sri Lanka was in deep trouble during the JVP insurgency, but repaid her debt by permitting the ferrying of Pakistani troops to Bangladesh to continue their genocide.

This charge was of course specious insofar as it implied the connivance, or prior knowledge of the transport of Pakistani troops via Colombo to Dacca in 1971. Actually as early as 1965, when similar speculations were entertained in Indian circles, Pakistani military aircraft were being routed through Colombo from West to East Pakistan, after over flights through India had been stopped. The Sri Lanka Government had made its position clear to all diplomatic missions in Colombo, that the country’s airports and seaports would be closed to aircraft and ships of all countries carrying troops or armaments on warlike missions, and on this occasion Pakistan had been permitted to fly one plane carrying medical supplies.

When one analyzes that history and the 2003 Palaly Air Base episode, it is sensitive to deal with India. Mahinda did not realize that fact. Leaving alone Maithri, Ranil who burnt his fingers in 2004 need not be re-taught that lesson.