In May 2014, the newly elected Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi kickstarted his tenure by inviting the heads of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony, suggesting that contact with neighbours should be made a matter of routine rather than treated as exception. This has held true most aptly for Sri Lanka, with seven bilateral state visits on record between the two sides in three years.
Inheriting an unfortunate legacy of three difficult decades of mistrust between India and Sri Lanka, PM Modi’s commitment to restructure ties with its island neighbour deserves credit. A closer look at specific deliverables on four key issues of deliberation between the two sides will create a fuller picture.
The Tamil Question: Moving Beyond
Before the 2014 Indian general election a common perception in Sri Lanka, mostly of the Sinhala community, was that India’s policy toward the island nation was largely dictated by Tamil Nadu politics. A perceived Indian intrusiveness riding on concerns of the Tamil question had been a significant itch that overshadowed most Sri Lankan debates on India. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing an absolute majority and the subsequent turn of events, including arrests of political leaders from Tamil Nadu (some were even BJP allies) while protesting former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s New Delhi visit, the perception among most sections of the Sinhala nationalists has gradually been recalibrated.
The same events, on the other hand, caused Sri Lankan Tamils to worry about loss of leverage vis-à-vis Tamil Nadu. The Modi government, however, carefully addressed this concern early on through discussions with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation and gave assurances to the relevant stakeholders that India and Tamil Nadu would not be at variance with regard to their political needs.
What PM Modi has achieved is sort of a careful balance in assuaging Tamil concerns while lowering the Sinhala nationalists’ criticism. He clearly stated India’s support for a 'united' Sri Lanka but also stressed the need to go beyond the Sri Lankan Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment for the political empowerment of the Tamil minority. While New Delhi backed the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolutions that give Sri Lanka more time to protect Tamil interests, PM Modi made a symbolic visit to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna stressing ethnic reconciliation and rehabilitation.
The implications of these moves on the Tamil problem aside, by establishing this balance, PM Modi has been successful in moving India-Sri Lanka relations away from the prism of the Tamil question.
Cultural Diplomacy: Renewed Focus
The Sri Lankan outreach provides a clear and immediate example of Modi's use of cultural diplomacy as the regional trump card. Moving past the baggage of Tamil politics, PM Modi has perpetually sought to place India-Sri Lanka relations within the ambit of cultural unity - a move that was initiated by the UPA government - but got a personal push from Modi.
From cooperation in developing the 'Ramayana Trail' in Sri Lanka and the 'Buddhist Circuit' in India to the unveiling of the statue of Anagarika Dharmapala in Sanchi by incumbent Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, almost every state visit between India and Sri Lanka since 2014 has prominently featured an emphasis on cultural ties. At the height of this trend was PM Modi's May 2017 visit to Sri Lanka earmarked solely to attend the 'Vesak' Day celebrations with no formal talks.
Political commentators view this as the Modi government’s strategy to counter China's growing imprint on the island. Notwithstanding this motivation, cultural diplomacy has undoubtedly become a crucial part of India’s engagement in Sri Lanka.
Economic Engagement: All Talk No Action
The single most important agenda that has spanned most political engagements between India and Sri Lanka in the past three years is economic cooperation. The two countries have discussed ways to promote Indian investment, proposed ambitious economic partnerships such as the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and South India-Sri Lanka sub-regional cooperation, and have listed a range of opportunities to work together, but very little has been achieved on the ground.
Indian investments in Sri Lanka dipped significantly in 2016-17 compared to the previous two years. The ETCA appears far from being finalised, despite Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s announcement that it would be signed by end-2016. In fact, both sides are yet to resolve issues related to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that was operationalised in 2000. Cumulatively, the only significant economic arrangement realised by India and Sri Lanka in the past three years is the memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperation in economic projects signed during PM Wickremesinghe's April 2017 visit. The significantly delayed MoU is essentially a "roadmap for the future" that outlines a few broader agendas and agreements that are unlikely to materialise given, for instance, the present trust deficit and resistance to Indian presence on the island.
Fishermen Issue: Awaiting Results
Another issue that clouds India-Sri Lanka bilateral ties is the long-festering problem of fishermen straying into each other’s territorial waters. Renewed calls from the Modi and Sirisena governments to find a permanent solution to this issue of "highest importance" has ensured sustained diplomatic negotiations and engagement between fishermen communities on both sides. In particular, 2016 saw the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries and a hotline between the Indo-Lanka Coast Guards. The JWG is expected to meet every three months while the Ministers of Fisheries on both sides would meet every six months beginning January 2017 along with the Coast Guard and naval representative to discuss the protracted issue.
The proposed meetings have ensued but the setup has failed to achieve much. Only two months after the first meeting of the JWG, tension escalated after the Sri Lankan navy allegedly shot at six Indian fishermen near the Katchatheevu islet resulting in one death. The incident snowballed into a diplomatic row after the Indian Coast Guard arrested ten Sri Lankan fishermen a day later. While high-level discussions managed to bring tensions down, the fact remains that many fishermen continue to be arrested and the measures taken so far have not been able to address this problem. Perhaps one positive development that has come about pertains to the practice of bottom trawling, which New Delhi now officially acknowledges as an environmentally harmful practice that needs to end. However, without actual time-bound measures and healthy alternatives, status quo will remain.
In sum, the Modi government warrants merit for taking India-Sri Lanka relations away from a discourse dominated by Tamil politics, placing it in the ambit of cultural engagement, and orienting it toward questions of economic development. However, the government is severely lacking on the implementation front, as is its determination to strike effectively at the core of contentious issues like the fishermen dispute.