Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi last week, on his third visit to the capital since January 2015, is in keeping with the refreshed Indo-Lanka ties that followed the regime change in Colombo. Flagging off partnerships in a host of economic and development projects through a Memorandum of Understanding, the two Prime Ministers have set the stage for long-term collaboration in spheres ranging from energy and infrastructure to special economic zones. There are no surprises here, for India’s Sri Lanka policy, following the defeat of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa , has been centred on economic cooperation and security concerns, and far less on political matters. In fact, the line ministries executing specific projects are playing a prominent role in taking bilateral negotiations forward. Preoccupied with an ever-growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka , India has been channelling its energies towards countering it, especially focussing on Trincomalee. India and Sri Lanka have agreed to jointly revive a World War II era oil storage facility in the strategically located eastern port town and build infrastructure around it. Enhanced economic and development ties are welcome and crucial for the neighbouring countries, but they should not bypass robust engagement on traditional political concerns in the island nation, where scores of Tamils and Muslims in the north and east are yet to return to normal lives eight years after the civil war ended.
Hundreds of people have been protesting, voicing concern about the mysterious disappearance of their relatives and about their land still under military occupation. Frequently faced with political pressures from their rival parties, President Maithripala Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe are only inching ahead in their promise to deliver a new constitution devolving a greater measure of political rights to all its citizens. As a long-time negotiator in Sri Lanka’s political question, India must continue to closely engage on these fronts and build a holistic relationship that transcends the mere transactional. Even as it has pledged $2.6 billion in development assistance to Sri Lanka, India should explore the potential for generating livelihoods in the war-battered northern economy where agriculture and fisheries, its key drivers, are facing a crisis. Resolving the long-standing Palk Bay conflict between fishermen of both countries is central to this, and New Delhi must address the valid concern of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen about incursions from Tamil Nadu into Sri Lankan waters. Several factories in the north, destroyed or defunct during the war, await attention and investment. While New Delhi’s anxiety over Chinese presence might be justified, it should avoid using the China lens to view Sri Lanka, respecting the country’s autonomy to engage with any willing partner. The more India treats Sri Lanka as an equal partner, the stronger the relationship is likely to grow.