Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Colombo on Thursday evening on a two-day visit to participate in the UN Vesak Day celebrations, amid elaborate security arrangements.
While New Delhi and Colombo have termed the visit as primarily a “religious” engagement, while emphasising that no agreements will be signed, Prime Minister Modi on his official Facebook page said: “This will be my second bilateral visit there in two years, a sign of our strong relationship.”
The Prime Minister’s first visit in Mach 2015 highlighted renewed ties between the neighbours following what many called Sri Lanka’s watershed election that saw the defeat of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, an ally of China.
Mr. Modi on Thursday took part in a traditional lamp lighting ceremony in the well-known Gangaramaya temple in Colombo, and later attended a dinner reception hosted by President Maithripala Sirisena during which the two leaders are understood to have reviewed the status of the bilateral relations.
In an apparently unscheduled late night meeting, PM Modi met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo. The meeting was at the former President’s request, Indian High Commisioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh Sandhu told reporters.
The meeting comes 10 days after a parliamentarian close to Mr. Rajapaksa called for a black flag protest around Mr. Modi’s visit.
Mr. Rajapaksa had earlier blamed India for his defeat in the January 2015 presidential polls, but in a recent media interview said that he admired Mr. Modi.
Mr. Modi will on Friday inaugurate an international conference and celebration around UN Vesak Day, or Buddha Poornima. His participation in the event is in keeping with the importance he has placed on Buddhism, as “a bridgeacross national borders, faith systems, across political ideologies,” signalling an apparent shift in diplomatic outreach, using religious and cultural ties.
On Friday, Mr. Modi will travel to Sri Lanka’s scenic hill country, to inaugurate a hospital facility built with Indian aid amounting to Rs. 50 crore. He will also address a huge gathering of upcountry Tamils.
His visit to the hospital will mark its formal inauguration, though the facility has been partly functional since 2015. Once fully operational, it would make a big difference to the community, Medical Superintendent Thilina Wijeytunga told The Hindu, amid preparations for Friday’s event.
“Earlier, expectant mothers from this area would have to travel 40 km for a C-section emergency. That could take up to two hours in these hilly areas,” he said, adding that upcountry Tamils had the poorest health indicators in the island. “Now the situation is improving slowly with better primary and secondary care.”