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India, Sri Lanka: So near, yet far

By Sugeeswara Senadhira

New Delhi’s decision to keep away from Canada’s call for shifting the venue of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled later this year in Sri Lanka has been strongly welcomed in the power corridors in Colombo, and the step is considered soothing balm over the “hurt feeling” that existed in the Sri Lankan capital over India’s decision to vote for the US sponsored resolution at the UNHRC in Geneva two months ago.

Colombo felt that if India, which represents 60 percent of the Commonwealth citizens, had succumbed to Tamil Nadu pressures and supported Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s call for a boycott of the Colombo CHOGM, Sri Lanka would have been in a diplomatic tight corner. Officials heaved a collective sigh of relief when UK, Australia and India distanced themselves from the Canadian call at the Commonwealth Ministerial Meeting earlier this week.

After the passing of the UNHRC resolution calling on Sri Lanka for credible investigations into alleged human rights violations and early implementation of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Sri Lanka swung into hyper action to ensure confirmation of Colombo as the venue for CHOGM, believing that if the venue is shifted out it would be a major setback for Sri Lankan diplomacy.

New Delhi too played with caution despite vehement demands from two major Tamil Nadu political parties for a CHOGM boycott call. It was obvious that the Tamil Nadu opposition was more a ‘one-upmanship’ between the two Tamil parties than a show of solidarity with the Sri Lankan Tamils. Furthermore, the Tamil Nadu campaign against travellers from the country affected Sri Lankan Tamil traders and Tamil and Christian pilgrims visiting holy shrines in Tamil Nadu, than Sinhala Buddhist pilgrims as the latter could bypass south India and travel direct to Bodh Gaya or Varanasi for their pilgrimage.

Although India is not too happy over the slow progress in promised devolution to Tamil majority areas, New Delhi is keen to ensure that the age old Indo-Lanka bilateral ties remained strong. New Delhi has taken steps to expedite the construction of houses in the North and much awaited Sampur coal power plant in the East.

Both countries utilized the eighth Indo-Lanka Joint Commission meeting in New Delhi to give a positive spin to bilateral ties, with both parties expressing satisfaction that “the discussions had helped to further deepen understanding and friendship between the two countries to work together, to reap full advantage of opportunities that are beneficial to the people of both countries”.

Though India played a significant role in helping to end three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka, its decision to support the US backed resolution, which Sri Lanka deemed as an insult to its sovereignty and ‘great war victory’, was considered an unforgivable infringement of regional trust. This to a large extent helped tilt Sri Lanka’s balance of friendship scale more in favour of China, much to the consternation of India.

In hindsight, Colombo understood the dilemma of New Delhi. The Indian government has been in what’s called ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ situation over its diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka, while trying to quell Tamil Nadu’s anti-Sri Lankan sentiments without alienating the state.

Other Indian states did not see eye to eye with Tamil Nadu on its anti-Sri Lankan visitors’ campaign. While Sri Lankan players were not allowed to play in IPL matches in Chennai, the same players played in all other states including Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian neighbours Andhra, Kerala and Karnataka. Tamil players in IPL teams did not have any objections about playing with Sri Lankan players.

Tamil Nadu’s anti-Sri Lanka tirade is considered a temporary aberration and interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan small time traders is continuing unabated.

Not only people-to-people contacts, India’s military cooperation with Sri Lanka too is expanding, which includes joint military exercises, sharing intelligence and training, although China provides military hardware to Sri Lanka.

China is the biggest lender to Sri Lanka, and big ticket projects like the Hambantota port have highlighted it. However, Sri Lanka had offered two major projects – Hambantota Port and Mattala Airport – to India first. As there was no positive response, Colombo asked for Chinese assistance. However, Chinese loans come with higher interest rates and premiums. Yet, the US remains the single largest source of portfolio investments in stocks and shares of private companies and government securities in Sri Lanka.

In spite of halving the number of flights from Chennai to Colombo and back due to Tamil Nadu protests, Indians still are the number one travellers to Sri Lanka. Of Sri Lanka’s annual tourist arrival of one million, nearly 400,000 are Indians. More than 300,000 Sri Lankan travellers also visit India annually.

(Sugeeswara Senadhira is Associate Director, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)

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