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New Opportunities For India -Sri Lanka Relations

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By Gaurav Dixit *

India and Sri Lanka share a long historic relationship. The relation saw a new multi-faceted phase post Eelam War IV in 2009, after the complete elimination of the Sri Lankan rebel group LTTE. The new phase represented extensive economic and political cooperation for the comprehensive development of the Northern and Eastern provinces. India today is one of Sri Lanka’s largest trading partners and has been the first to make foreign direct investment.

Income from Indian tourists forms a large part of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector that is developing its economy. India plays an important role in developing the war torn provinces and has been assisting in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs).

However, the role of ethnic demographics in Sri Lanka and in India plays a significant role in promoting conflict between the two nations. The domestic Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka and the same ethnic group in Tamil Nadu in India has been a key factor in conflicting relationship between the countries. Tamil ethnic rebellion is also found to have significantly harmed inter-state geopolitical relations, mutually impacting the regional political affairs. In the recent past, India has been caught in an apparent anti-Sri Lankan stand due to pressure groups in Tamil Nadu.

Similarly, Tamils in Sri Lanka want India to push for their rights and demands. In the new geopolitical set up after the defeat of the pro-Tamil rebellion, the role of India has substantially changed from being an anti- rebellion partner to development and reconstruction partner of Sri Lanka.

On the last day of 2013, Indian High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha announced that India has been working hard to rehabilitate the IDPs in the war-torn provinces. According the high commissioner, the Indian government built around 10,000 houses last year (2013) for IDPs in Sri Lanka and 33,000 more will be constructed in the next two years as part of large-scale assistance programme for housing in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

India is working on various development projects in Sri Lanka in areas ranging from infrastructure and hydroelectricity to agriculture and industry to education and health. Sri Lanka is one of the principal beneficiaries of India's Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programmes.

Question mark

However, skipping of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under coercion of Tamil political groups has put a question mark on India’s strong foreign policy under regional political compulsions. India has shown hostile attitude towards the island nation by consecutively supporting the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution against Sri Lanka, and has also put bilateral trade and cooperation at risk by its erring political and business sentiments.

Even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a powerful Tamil group, had time and again pressurised India to heed the sentiments of Tamil Nadu political leaders over the UNHRC resolution and on India's participation in CHOGM. TNA itself had boycotted the CHOGM conference citing human rights abuses against the Tamils during the war. The recent arrest of a Tamil Nadu journalist by the Sri Lankan police for photographing military camps in Jaffna district triggers apprehension of Indian support to rekindle the Tamil conflict. Such political and diplomatic lapses would only lead to breach of relations.

Meanwhile, the political compulsions of the Indian coalition government have certainly put off the strategic advantage we had over the Indian Ocean due the friendly relations with Sri Lanka. The narrow political trade off with the regional political groups supporting the Tamil cause has created counterproductive relations with the neighbouring country.

Various Tamil groups in Sri Lanka are also hurting our bilateral relationship. At the same time, the changing dynamics of various neighbouring countries like China and Pakistan in pursuing their ties with Sri Lanka has been a matter of concern for India.

According to Bharat Karnad, research professor in the Centre for Policy Research, China's growing influence on Sri Lanka, which is India's back gate, should be a matter of concern for the country. India’s preoccupation with other neighbouring states has also hampered our engagement with Sri Lanka. India is certainly losing to China in the contemporary battle for supremacy over the Indian Ocean.

Opportunity

The end of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka has created huge opportunity for India to invest in Sri Lanka as it is marching towards economic and social development. India, considering the status of its economic clout, can be a significant player in the island. India has initially helped Sri Lanka in its relief and rehabilitation and now is moving towards reconstruction and development of the war-hit areas. India now needs to expand its scope across the country beyond the narrow and limited engagement in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The poor participation of Indian firms during the latest Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF) is not going to help India in its long-term vision of being a regional economic power.

Secondly, unwarranted intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation is only going to backfire. At the end of the day, India needs to work out some solution for other problems like Sri Lankan Tamil refugee and illegal detention of Indian fishermen. India also needs to tackle the Kachchatheevu island crisis, which is slowly but surely becoming a bone of contention between the two nations. A long-term solution for all the problems needs intensive cooperation and agreement, which in the current situation seems a pipe dream.

* Gaurav Dixit is an independent researcher on Conflict in South Asia. He can be contacted at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This article originally appeared on South Asian Monitor on January 24, 2014 with the heading India, Sri Lanka and changing regional dynamics and is being reproduced with their permission.

[Source: 2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters]

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