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
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
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
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'.