Despite protests from fringe groups in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India from 19 to 22 September 2012. Anti-Sri Lankan sentiments were on the rise in the southern Indian state ever since the holding of Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO) in August 2012. These were followed by protests against training of Sri Lankan defence personnel, threats to Sri Lankan pilgrims touring the state, turning over of Sri Lankan sports teams, and agitation over attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. All these resulted in an unusual response from Colombo in the form of a travel advisory directing its citizens to avoid visiting Tamil Nadu. Yet, the fact that Rajapaksa has stuck to his schedule shows that the fundamentals of bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka are strong.
Rajapaksa’s visit is of course not a full-fledged state visit. His stay in the country for few days was put to maximum use to take forward the ties that took a slight dip when India voted for a US-sponsored resolution this March advising Sri Lanka on post-conflict reconciliation measures. Three broad issues in the bilateral relations came up for discussions between Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: political settlement to the island’s ethnic question, the fishermen issue, and economic/trade interactions.
On the ethnic issue, India’s consistent position has been in favour of “a politically negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lanka.” India wants Colombo to deliver a meaningful devolution package to the minorities. New Delhi believes that with the military defeat of the LTTE, the armed component of the Sri Lankan ethnic issue has come to an end, making the conflict resolution easier. However, to India’s disappointment, Colombo has not taken the political process forward. The report of much-hyped All Party Representative Committee has long been forgotten. The focus then shifted to the report of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) submitted in November 2011.
Yet, to India’s disappointment, the implementation of recommendations of LLRC has been lethargic despite gentle reminders. It was in this context India supported US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. The move was not to upset Colombo, but with positive intentions to move the process of reconciliation forward. India is convinced that a successful reconciliation is the first step in arriving at a meaningful long-term solution to the ethnic issue. In the present situation, devolution of powers to the island’s provinces going beyond the present ‘13th Amendment’ framework is a realistic option. New Delhi once again reiterated that Colombo moves forward in resolving the ethnic issue at the earliest and in all seriousness. India also suggested the present United People’s Freedom Alliance government under Rajapaksa to hold talks with Tamil National Alliance that represents minority Tamils.
The issue of straying of fishermen from both countries on each other’s territorial waters and the consequent harassments by naval forces also came up for discussion. Despite the existence of certain practical arrangements to deal with the issue, firings on fishermen continue. A comprehensive and humane approach, therefore, is required. Rajapaksa has assured issuing directions to his Navy for maximum restraint. Yet, to avoid shooting incidents due to “mistaken identity”, ‘coordinated patrolling’ between the navies of both countries can be considered. Additionally, developing fish farming extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen from venturing into other waters in search of a ‘big catch’. Until then, India can consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka. Through this, Sri Lanka could also earn much required foreign exchange.
In the economic sphere, India could contribute immensely in putting the Sri Lankan economy back on track that is presently shaken by three decade-old ethnic conflict. Although the present economic growth rate is good, the island has been suffering from expensive short-term foreign debt, declining foreign exchange reserves and a high deficit. Global economic recession has further added to the woes of outward-looking Sri Lankan economy by hitting key export sectors like tea and garments. Using the FTA between the two countries, India could boost the affected sectors of Sri Lanka.
It may affect India in the short term, but in the long run it will certainly help both the economies. However, both countries have to go beyond the present FTA to reap maximum benefit from complementarities. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has been on cards for quite some time, but without much movement forward. The resistance, in this regard, is from the Sri Lankan side fearing domination of Indian goods, services and labour in the island’s economy. New Delhi should allay these apprehensions by suggesting an experimental CEPA for a limited period of time and to make it long-term as and when both sides are satisfied with the experiment.
Thus, the visit of Sri Lankan President has overall improved confidence and communication between the two neighbours. The task now is to take the bilateral ties forward. The key is in understanding the concerns of each country by the other. For Sri Lanka the country’s image and development seem to be its major concern. For India, regional peace, security and development remain the key drivers of its neighbourhood policy. The concerns of both countries are not mutually exclusive, but reinforce each other.