Modiís visit will herald a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations
The ongoing political transition in Sri Lanka has generated hope in
India about the prospects of an improved bilateral relationship. In view
of the coldness exhibited towards India by the previous Rajapaksa
government, the relationship had unmistakably taken a dip despite the
NDA governmentís enthusiasm for fast-tracking its proactive
With Rajapaksaís defeat in the presidential elections earlier this
year, the new leadership in Colombo has demonstrated a willingness to
address Indian sensitivities and work with India in a spirit of
friendship and amity.
Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modiís visit to Sri
Lanka, the first by an Indian head of government in 28 years, may
catalyse positive changes in the bilateral relationship.
A great deal of optimism emanates from the fact that the new
government in New Delhi has displayed keenness to engage neighbours with
all sincerity. This has to some extent contributed to dispelling the
long-held view that Indiaís neglect of its immediate neighbours stemmed
primarily from its unwillingness to build relationships based on mutual
trust and genuine partnership.
In this context, Modiís visit to Sri Lanka becomes extremely
significant in terms of symbolism and political content. As the Prime
Minister has himself explained, the visit to Sri Lanka is a ďpart of my
objective of maintaining frequent contact with our neighbouring
This is matched by Maithripala Sirisenaís commitment to reshape Sri
Lankaís foreign policy. In his election manifesto, he had, in fact,
acknowledged that Sri Lankaís foreign policy was in ďdisarrayĒ (read,
under the Rajapaksa government) and assured that he would act ďto have
closer relations with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor
Sirisena and his foreign minister chose India as their first foreign
destination after the elections, indicating their foreign policy
priority of repairing the frayed relationship with India.
The itinerary set for him clearly indicates the political and
cultural significance that Sri Lanka has for India. Given the multi-sectoral
engagement that both countries have already had in the past two decades,
it would be unrealistic to expect any major breakthrough in terms of
political, economic and strategic announcements.
Nevertheless, the visit will significantly improve the atmospherics,
introduce a positive vibe into the process of engagement and serve as a
stepping stone for deepening the relationship further.
Modiís visit is significant for three reasons. The first and most
important is political. Indiaís neighbours have come to believe that
Indian leaders do not consider their countries as important enough
places to visit. Further, of even the little attention that India deigns
to give to the neighbourhood, a disproportionate percentage goes to
Pakistan. Against this backdrop, Modiís successive visits to Bhutan,
Nepal and now Sri Lanka within a year of assuming office is being
considered as a significant departure and an important political
Second, Modiís choice of places to visit in Sri Lanka was important
from political and cultural perspectives. His visit to Anuradhapura,
which is, in a way, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, is quite
significant here. It is not only the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, but
also the place where Arahat Mahinda, son of Ashoka the Great, arrived to
spread Buddhism in the third century BCE (Before the Common Era).
India has made use of cultural diplomacy with Sri Lanka in the past.
The decision to lend the Kapilavastu relics to be displayed in Sri Lanka
for the second time in 2011 was received well there and large numbers of
devotees rushed to have a look at them.
This decision was taken in spite of the earlier directives not to
allow the display of sacred relics outside India due to their
inestimable value and delicate nature and the huge logistics and
planning needed for their exhibition.
Sri Lanka is also one of the countries involved in setting up the
international Buddhist University in Sanchi and is part of the Buddhist
circuit that India is developing in the subcontinent.
Modiís visit to Anuradhapura and the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo,
which are part of the two countriesí common cultural heritage and strong
historical connection, will definitely be a huge step forward in public
Both countries have agreed to undertake joint activities to
commemorate the 2600th year of Buddha attaining Enlightenment and the
PMís reiteration in this regard will go down well with the majority
Third, Modiís visit to Talaimannar and Jaffna was extremely
significant and should be seen in the context of Indiaís engagement in
infrastructure development in Sri Lanka.
It would be important for India to stay away from the internal
political wrangling of the Tamil political conglomerate, the TNA,
especially in the aftermath of the passage of the Ďgenocide resolutioní
in the Northern Provincial Council last month.
If possible, India needs to convey the message that Tamils need to
concentrate on redressing their immediate grievances related to post-war
displacement, rather than exerting pressure on Colombo at this point of
time when the government is steering an important constitutional
amendment that will go a long way in strengthening democracy and
restoring inter-institutional balance.
Greater democracy and strong institutions would benefit the Tamils in
terms of political resolution of their longstanding grievances in the
Modiís visit to Sri Lanka and before that to Mauritius and Seychelles
underlines Indiaís quest for a cooperative maritime security approach in
the Indian Ocean region and its willingness to play a critical role in
ensuring peace and prosperity in the littoral countries.
There is no denying the fact that Sri Lanka is an important maritime
neighbour and an integral element in Indiaís larger maritime strategy in
the Indian Ocean. India and Sri Lanka have .instituted an annual
bilateral defence dialogue and they have had significant cooperation in
defence and security in the past.Nevertheless, a sense of mistrust and
suspicion persists between the two countries. The Rajapaksa governmentís
strategic engagement with China and its decision to allow the PLA Navy
to berth nuclear submarines in Lankan ports, in clear disregard of
Indian sensitivities, had led to a dip in the bilateral relationship.
Modiís visit provides an opportunity to take stock of the ground
realities after the changes in governments in both countries. India and
Sri Lanka must take care to reinvigorate their political and economic
relationship taking into account the overall security dimension and
geographic, cultural and social closeness. Modiís visit has all the
ingredients to herald a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations.
Smurti Pattanaik is a Senior Researcher attached to the New
Delhi-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis