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Sunday, 15 March 2015

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Sri Lanka and India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's official visit to Sri Lanka, which ended yesterday, is hailed as the first such formal visit by an Indian governmental head since the visit by the late Rajiv Gandhi. The contrast in ambience and popular sentiment between the two visits could not be more stark.

In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi arrived here in the midst of two anti-State insurgencies with whole communities mobilized in armed struggle in the North and South. Social violence swept the land articulating tensions and antagonisms between ethnic communities and socio-economic classes.

The intervention of Indian military forces in the country to enforce a ceasefire was welcomed by the country's social and business elite. But at the grassroots level, there was much hostile perception of the Indian Peace Keeping Force as an invasion rather than a peace-keeping operation.

The '1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord' was seen by many Sri Lankans as a very one-sided bilateral agreement that tied Sri Lanka to a framework of a provincial system of administration as well as a regional security framework that centred on India?s security concerns.

For India, the IPKF was not simply an altruistic support action to save either the Tamils or the weakening Sri Lankan State. Rather, the jawans were deployed here as an urgent and significant action by the regional big power to ensure the stability and integrity of a smaller State of the region.

The concern was that neighbouring India and other states in the region would not be affected by disruptive forces on the island that promoted either ethnic secession or class warfare. Indeed, in his very short visit to Colombo, instead of pomp, ceremony and acclaim, Premier Gandhi narrowly escaped assassination and injury.

Today, however, Shri Narendra Modi arrived at a time of peace, albeit a fragile one, given the continuing inter-ethnic tensions. He arrived to a very warm and effusive welcome that reflected the broadest political consensus that this island society has, possibly, ever experienced.

His visit, packed with symbolism and poignant religio-cultural intimacy, also reflected the most significant foreign policy change by Colombo in over a decade and may well be the harbinger of some significant policy shifts on vital internal issues, namely the ethnic conflict and democratisation.

More than any other country, India is best positioned and best resourced to help Sri Lanka in its endeavours to bring about social peace and development. If properly negotiated, India?s geographical proximity and huge market will catalyse our economic growth.

Her cultural affinity and common political legacy deriving from colonial rule provides a wealth of experience and knowledge on which we can draw in re-ordering our polity that is recovering from a harrowing period of crude crony capitalism and authoritarianism.

In his speeches during his visit and, in the nature of the many bilateral cooperation agreements and investment initiatives, Premier Modi has come not merely to mend fences in a relationship that had hit stormy seas in recent years.

His visit clearly aimed not just to repair but to place the Indo-Lanka relationship on an entirely new footing of mutual appreciation of each other's unique positioning in the south Asian region.

The tenor of his speeches placed Sri Lanka on a special pedestal in bilateral relations in the region in which the two countries, with the most dynamic economies, will lead the way in development.

At the same time, the importance to India of Sri Lanka's geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean was presented in a manner that indicated the high value and respect India gave to this little island.

The Modi visit must be seen as part of a larger Modi initiative encompassing the whole India Ocean region in which India is transparently reaching out to its neighbours with gifts and friendship rather than with manoeuvres and 'deals'.

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