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How to regain friends in Sri Lanka

India has lost the moral high ground. But there are concrete steps it can take towards repairing the relationship with its southern neighbour.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian |
Updated: November 29, 2019 11:26:25 am
Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Sri Lanka PM after Ranil Wickremesinghe resigns Mahinda was appointed as Sri Lankan PM on Wednesday. He has served as Sri Lanka’s President from 2005 till 2015, making him South Asia’s longest-serving leader. (AP File Photo)

Two quick developments took place in India-Sri Lanka relations in the days following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka. First, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar upended at least two decades of established practice by taking the first flight to Colombo to greet the new president. Until now, it used to be a newly elected Sri Lankan president or prime minister who would make tracks to India for their first official visit abroad. The Colombo press used to describe the ritual as “doing puja to Delhi”.

This is the first time India did puja to Colombo, and it must have been immensely satisfying to Gota, as he is called by both critics and admirers. After all, just six years ago, he was summoned to Delhi when he was defence secretary during his brother Mahinda’s presidency, and given a dressing down for not keeping India informed of a visit by a Chinese submarine. Jaishankar’s visit was seen as India going the extra mile to get a foot in the door ahead of China with the new dispensation.

The second came on Jaishankar’s return from Sri Lanka, when somewhat counter-intuitively, Delhi put out a statement that the minister had “conveyed to President Rajapaksa India’s expectation that the Sri Lankan government will take forward the process of national reconciliation to arrive at a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality justice peace and dignity”. This is the first time in several years that India has pushed upfront its interest in the Tamil question.

Together, the two developments are seen as a signal that India is ready to go out of its way to repair its rocky relations with the Rajapaksa family, but would not hesitate to wield the Tamil issue as an instrument to prevent a pro-China tilt, and keep Gota on the straight and narrow.

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Jaishankar’s Colombo trip yielded a commitment from Gota, who arrived in Delhi on Thursday, that he would come to India for his first official foreign visit. For a government in Delhi obsessed with perception management, it would have been terrible optics had he gone off to Beijing first instead.

But let’s face it. Gota will go to Beijing soon. As for the Tamil card, India’s leverage in the matter at this point is overstated, if not misplaced.

From Gotabaya’s inaugration at the ancient Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura, built by King Duttugemenu, the icon of Sinhala-Buddhism, whose fabled defeat of a Tamil king of the Chola dynasty has been immortalised in the epic Mahavamsa, to his appointment of a general accused of war crimes as the defence secretary, there is no sign that the new regime is worried about Indian or global concerns about Sri Lanka’s minorities, both Tamil and Muslim.


After all, the new Sri Lanka, the one that has elected Gota, has modelled itself after the new India. In its majoritarian sweep, Gota’s victory is a mirror of the BJP’s victory in India. The Sinhala-Buddhist extremist group Bodhu Bala Sena, with which he has links, and which has fomented communal violence in the island against Muslims and Christians, has made no secret of its admiration for Hindutva, for groups like the BJP and RSS to “protect” Buddhism, and for a “leader like Narendra Modi”.

Gota has made plain that he does not need those who vote “against” him. Tamils did not vote for him because of their memories of the war. Facing majoritarian wrath in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, the Muslim community too did not vote for him. His 51-member cabinet, has 49 Sinhalese, two Tamils and no Muslims.

Not just India’s majoritarian swag, the democracy deficit in how India has dealt with Kashmir is being watched not only by liberal western democracies and what Jaishankar described as their “liberal English-language media”, but also by other nations with similar problems. The former watch, with concern, the latter with admiration. Certainly, Gota, the architect of the LTTE’s military defeat, needs no lessons on how to handle a recalcitrant population. But India’s handling of the Kashmir issue on the world stage must have encouraged him. The external affairs minister is on record that he does not care what a newspaper in New York thinks about India. Among the very first statements from the new president was that the war crime enquiries against the Sri Lankan army were imposed by “biased western NGOs”. Soon perhaps, Gota may say he does not care what a newspaper in Delhi, or for that matter Chennai, writes about Sri Lanka.


In short, India no longer occupies a moral high ground when it preaches to Sri Lanka about equality and justice for Tamils. Such words will be measured against India’s own knuckle-duster policy in Kashmir, the NRC, lynchings, and other acts of bigotry now commonplace.

As for the Tamils, it’s been at least a decade since they stopped placing their bets on India. Forget Delhi’s decision to turn away from the 2009 end-of-war civilian massacre in northern Sri Lanka, India was unable — or unwilling — to influence a friendly Sri Lankan government that took charge in 2015 to get on with constitutional reform.

Worried about the Chinese gaining ground, over the last five years, Delhi put the Tamil question on the backburner. In 2015, Narendra Modi, the first Indian prime minister to visit Jaffna, advised Tamils to be “patient” with the new government. Now the Tamil community is leery of getting its hopes up.

But despite its own loss of a high pedestal, Delhi is not without options. For starters, it could appoint a Tamil as the next High Commissioner to Colombo. It has never been done before and it would send a stronger signal than a preachy statement from Delhi. India’s pockets are not as deep as China’s but appointing a Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, in the manner of US special representatives to Afpak, someone who knows China as well as Sri Lanka, may be another modest beginning toward making friends and regaining influence in Sri Lanka.

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First published on: 29-11-2019 at 12:22:45 am
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