Still incomplete: on India-Sri Lanka ties and their vision  

India’s ties with Sri Lanka are bound by the Tamil question 

Updated - July 25, 2023 10:46 am IST

Published - July 25, 2023 12:20 am IST

With a joint statement on economic cooperation, India and Sri Lanka outlined a forward-looking vision for their relations. The statement, entitled “Promoting Connectivity, Catalysing Prosperity: India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision”, released after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Delhi last week, lays out the vision in five areas: maritime, air, energy, trade and people-to-people initiatives. New investments in maritime and air connectivity will involve developing ports and airports in Sri Lanka, resuming ferry services and expanding flight networks to connect Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces. A major surge in energy connectivity will include developing renewable energy wind and solar plants in Sri Lanka. Both hope to increase trade, and continue Indian support for Sri Lanka’s economy that crashed last year and is slowly working out its debt restructuring process. A memorandum of understanding was signed to operationalise UPI digital payments in Sri Lanka and to designate the Indian Rupee as currency for trade. They also agreed to explore ways of enhancing tourism and cultural and religious travel, and educational collaboration.

While the vision statement revealed a comprehensive plan for the future, what it lacked was conspicuous: none of the written documents released during Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit acknowledged previous commitments by Sri Lanka on honouring the 13th Amendment for devolution of powers to the North and Eastern provinces, and for resolving the long-pending issues over arrest of Indian fishers. It was left to Mr. Modi to make a sharp appeal in his speech for devolution and the conduct of Provincial Council elections, and he emphasised the need to ensure a “life of respect and dignity” for the Sri Lankan Tamil community. In Colombo, the ruling SLPP that provides support for President Wickremesinghe made it clear that his government lacks the “electoral mandate” to discuss these issues, for long the cause of tensions between India and Sri Lanka. The fact that neither Mr. Wickremesinghe’s comments in Delhi, nor the joint statement referred to such crucial issues may be the bigger message from the meeting: that despite Sri Lanka’s other dependencies on New Delhi, the Indian government is no longer welcome to bring its historical concerns over the Tamil issue into bilateral negotiations. Regardless of the strong familial bonds between India and Sri Lanka, history has tripped up ties in the past, and any vision for the future that does not include an amicable resolution of these issues will be considered incomplete.

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