The two-day visit by Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka, the first trip to the island nation by an Indian prime minister in 28 years, will hopefully build on the momentum India-Sri Lanka relations have achieved since Maithripala Sirisena was elected president in January. Bilateral engagement at the highest levels has helped calm New Delhi’s apprehensions about Colombo’s foreign policy preferences.
The externalities that have shaped relations between the neighbours in the past few years — mainly the civil war in Sri Lanka and its impact on Tamil politics in India, which in turn had a bearing on coalition governments in New Delhi — have altered. Both governments must seize the moment, and lift the relationship to the next level.
Admittedly, the intemperate remark made by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with regard to Indian fishermen during Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s Colombo visit has stirred up some unpleasantness. Wickremesinghe was quoted as saying that his navy was justified in firing at Indian fishermen who trespass into Lankan waters. Indian fishermen are periodically arrested by Colombo for allegedly crossing the international maritime boundary line (IMBL). These “intrusions” must be seen against a larger backdrop, the livelihoods of the fishing community, both Indian and Sri Lankan. Certainly, “trespassers” could be warned, even apprehended, but firing at unarmed civilians who may have unintentionally crossed national waters is extreme. Colombo’s complaints about overfishing in the waters the two countries share are valid: India may have to reduce the fisheries capacity that grew exponentially during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Both countries could work together and ensure that maritime resources are equitably shared. Meanwhile, they should institute a mechanism for the early release of fishermen held for crossing the IMBL.
Wickremesinghe’s unusually belligerent remark could also have a local context. With parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka likely in summer, perhaps his was an attempt to pander to the nationalist discourse. Such domestic compulsions must not hold back Lankan politicians from making the most of Modi’s visit by firming up ties with India.