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The Big Picture – Indo-Sri Lankan relations: Has it been recalibrated?

Summary:

The first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister, in the last 28 years, to Sri Lanka has been

followed with great interest in both the countries and across several other key countries. The new

government in Sri Lanka received the Indian PM with open arms. PM’s visit to the northern province

of the country and meeting with Tamils has also been watched with great interest. The relationship

between the two countries, which had gone through some rough times in the past, is sought to be

recalibrated by the new leadership.

The ongoing political transition in Sri Lanka has generated hope in India about the prospects of an

improved bilateral relationship. In view of the coldness exhibited towards India by the previous

Rajapaksa government, the relationship had unmistakably taken a dip despite the NDA

government’s enthusiasm for fast-tracking its proactive neighbourhood-first policy. A great deal of

optimism emanates from the fact that the new Indian government has displayed keenness to engage

neighbours with all sincerity. This has to some extent contributed to dispelling the long-held view

that India’s neglect of its immediate neighbours stemmed primarily from its unwillingness to build

relationships based on mutual trust and genuine partnership.

India and China are increasingly jostling for influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean and former

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to let Chinese submarines dock in Colombo port

and the real estate deal were very worrying for India. But, Sri Lanka has now clarified that it will keep

China out of India Sri Lanka bilateral relations. India has long urged greater autonomy for ethnic

minority Tamils who have close ties to south India, based on Sri Lanka’s 13th constitutional

amendment introduced by an Indo-Sri Lanka pact in 1987 under former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv

Gandhi. The significance of PM’s visit to Jaffna lies in the fact that he would be the first Indian Prime

Minister to do so – politically quite vital in the context of Tamil politics in both countries. This will

provide him firsthand experience of the developments there.

Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka and before that to Mauritius and Seychelles underlines India’s quest for a

cooperative maritime security approach in the Indian Ocean region and its willingness to play a

critical role in ensuring peace and prosperity in the littoral countries. There is no denying the fact

that Sri Lanka is an important maritime neighbour and an integral element in India’s larger maritime

strategy in the Indian Ocean. India and Sri Lanka have already instituted an annual bilateral defence

dialogue and they have had significant cooperation in defence and security in the past.