Calling it his “bias” of empowering states, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a forceful pitch Friday for devolution of powers and resources to provinces in Sri Lanka, a key demand of the island’s Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces. But in careful calibration, he underlined that the unity of Sri Lanka was “paramount”.
The first Indian prime minister to visit Sri Lanka after Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, Modi will be travelling to Jaffna Saturday where he will be meeting Tamil politicians, including the northern province chief minister C V Wigneswaran.
Addressing the Sri Lankan parliament, Modi said: “When we empower states, districts and villages, we make our country stronger. You can call this my bias. I have been a chief minister for 13 years, a prime minister for less than a year.”
“Today, my top priority is to make states in India stronger. I am a firm believer in cooperative federalism. So, we are devolving more power and more resources to the states. And, we are making them formal partners in national decision-making processes.”
“All of us in this region, indeed every nation of diversity, have dealt with the issues of identities and inclusion, of rights and claims, of dignity and opportunity for different sections of our societies. We have all seen its diverse expressions. We have faced tragic violence. We have encountered brutal terrorism. We have also seen successful examples of peaceful settlements.”
“Each of us has sought to address these complex issues in our own ways. However we choose to reconcile them, to me something is obvious: Diversity can be a source of strength for nations. When we accommodate the aspirations of all sections of our society, the nation gets the strength of every individual.”
Underlining that Sri Lanka has lived through decades of tragic violence and conflict, he said: “You now stand at a moment of historic opportunity to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society. The recent elections in Sri Lanka have reflected the collective voice of the nation, the hope for change, reconciliation and unity.”
Describing the steps taken by the new government as “bold and admirable”, he said: “For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount.”
After talks with Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena, he turned to an expression first used by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009 that they will implement 13th amendment-plus. “I believe that early and full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond it would contribute to this process,” he said. Rajapaksa did not fulfill the commitment he made shortly after ending the war with the LTTE in May 2009.
Sirisena, who called Modi’s visit a “fortunate event” and a “blessing”, said: “I trust it (the visit) will help to further improve current relations between the two countries and assist in taking the relationships with minority communities to greater heights.”
On the issue of fishermen of the two countries who stray into each other’s waters, Modi said this “complex” issue involved “livelihood and humanitarian concerns” on both sides, and should be handled from this perspective. Last week, Premier Ranil Wikcremesinghe kicked up a row when he said intruding Indian fishermen would be shot by the Sri Lankan navy.
Modi also spoke on the Indian Ocean being “critical” to the security of the two countries. Arriving in Colombo after visits to Seychelles and Mauritius, he said they can be more successful if they build a “climate of trust and confidence” and remain “sensitive to each other’s interest”.
“We deeply value our security cooperation with Sri Lanka. We should expand the maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to include others in the Indian Ocean area,” he said, in the wake of growing Chinese interest in the region.
The two sides signed four agreements on visa, culture, youth and customs, and India announced a slew of steps — visa-on-arrival for Sri Lankans from April 14, a new line of credit of $318 million for the railways sector.
Wickremesinghe was there at the Colombo airport to receive Modi when he arrived early Friday morning. A ceremonial welcome was accorded at the Presidential secretariat. In the evening, Modi also paid homage at the IPKF memorial.