Pushing for economic diplomacy
India puts the Tamil question in the backburner and
Indian External Affairs
Minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
greet each other - gettyimages
The visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on
February 5-6 indicated the direction in which New Delhi wants India-Sri
Lanka relations to proceed.
India appears to want the relations to be based on economic and
strategic co-operation and engagement, rather than political engagement
to solve the long-standing Tamil question (as had been the case since
With the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration becoming manifestly
accommodative towards the Tamils (even if only to safeguard itself
against challenges from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa), New Delhi
thinks that it can put the Tamil issue on the backburner, give it lip
service at best, rather than put any kind of pressure on Colombo to
The other reason for sidestepping the Tamil issue is the
non-cooperation of key elements of the Tamil polity. The formation of
the extremist Tamil Peoples' Council (TPC) under the leadership of
Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, is seen as an
impediment to India's efforts to build a strong common Tamil front to
fight for the community' political rights.
Common Tamil front
If political compulsions result in the moderate Tamil National
Alliance (TNA) also getting radicalized (if the past is any guide, this
could happen), India will have no motivation to push the Tamil case. New
Delhi may then have to choose between two options: Either push its
economic and strategic interests by cultivating good relations with
Colombo or back the Tamil cause and fail on both fronts. Given the
increasing hopelessness of the Tamil cause, thanks to growing Tamil
radicalization, New Delhi may choose to team up with Colombo, which
appears to be more accommodative.
In the talks which Sushma Swaraj had with the Sri Lankan leaders, the
subjects related to economic engagement dominated, with Tamil demands
being on the margins, if they were discussed at all. The Indian Foreign
Minister did hear out the leaders of the TNA leaders but in the end, she
got them to say that they are ready to cooperate with the Sri Lankan
Government to find a political solution acceptable to all people.
Sushma Swaraj was also to visit Jaffna to ceremonially hand over the
rebuilt Alfred Duraiappah Stadium to the people of the North, but
eventually called off the visit.
The officially stated reason was lack of time, but it is believed
that she did not wish to meet Chief Minister Wigneswaran who is seen as
a spoke the wheel of India's efforts to get Colombo and the Tamil
leadership to meet half-way, instead of sticking to their positions and
grandstanding on the issue.
The United Nations, of which India is an ally, is also slowly veering
away from the Tamil cause.
The UN High Commissioner of Human rights, Prince Zeid, ending his
four-day visit to Colombo on February 9 said that Sri Lanka is facing
danger from 'extremists of both sides' - Tamil as well as Sinhalese. He
appealed to the moderates on both sides to raise their voice so that
extremists are heard less.
On the critical question of having foreign judges in the proposed
Judicial Mechanism to try war crimes cases, Prince Zeid said that it is
Sri Lanka's sovereign right to determine the type of mechanism it puts
The UN's concern is only that the mechanism must inspire the
confidence of the victims about its impartiality. The UN human rights
establishment is, thus, virtually on the side of the Sri Lankan
Government, in a perceptible departure from the past.
Meanwhile, utilizing the 'transformational change' in Sri Lanka
brought by the January 8 and August 17, 2015 elections, and the new
regime's friendly disposition towards it, New Delhi is keen on pushing
its economic agenda and this was manifest in the communiqué issued at
the end of Sushma Swaraj's two-day visit.
The Indian Foreign Minister obtained Sri Lanka's consent for the
establishment of a Special Indian Economic Zone (SIEZ) in Trincomalee, a
place of strategic value to India. On the long-delayed project to set up
a 500 MW power plant at Sampur, she was assured that environmental
clearance had been got and work should start soon.
As regards the yet unused oil tanks in Trincomalee, it was agreed
that a team from India's oil major - Oil and Natural Gas Commission
Vidhesh -, will visit the site to chalk out plans for the use of the
tanks in line with the Indian Petroleum Minister's plans to use the
tanks as a major storage depot for India's oil.
Sushma Swaraj also got her Sri Lankan counterpart, Mangala
Samaraweera, to 'explore' the establishment of an India-sponsored IT
Park in Trincomalee, to attract foreign investment. It is significant
that as the Indian Foreign Minister was pressing for an IT Park, the
Indian IT sector should hold a highly sophisticated exhibition to
highlight India's advances in this sector, 'Digital India.'
Pushing hard for the signing of the Economic and Technical
Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) in the face of opposition from Sri Lankan
professionals and entrepreneurs, Sushma Swaraj said that India will hold
a workshop in Colombo in early March to clear doubts and
misapprehensions in the Sri Lankan minds and address concerns.
Since the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement is beset with
unattended issues like Non-Tariff and Phytosanitary Barriers, the
Colombo seminar will address these concerns too.
The Indian Foreign Minister persuaded the Sri Lankan side to allow
India's continued involvement in the island's rail and port development,
despite the adverse comments and reports of the just concluded US$800
million Indian rail development project in the island.
To push India's case, the Indian Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu,
will be in the island soon. Given that India has a strategic and
political interest in the airport/airbase at Palay in the Jaffna
District, a team from the Indian Air Force will visit the base to
India will also be upgrading the Kankesanthurai harbour, also located
in the Jaffna District.
Indians are the single largest group among tourist arrivals in Sri
Lanka. New Delhi would like it to be that way even against growing
competition from China. Sushma Swaraj, therefore, suggested that India
and Sri Lanka develop the 'Ramayana Trail', connecting places in the
island mentioned in the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' .
To attract Buddhist pilgrims to South Asia, she suggested the joint
development of the Buddhist circuit in the region.