Why India Needs To Have Strategic Relations With Sri Lanka For A Regional Stronghold

Posted on May 26, 2014

By Akshara Damle: 

May 16th was a remarkable day for India. The election results brought an end to the era of coalition government. As we have seen in the history of Indian politics, coalition governments cannot take decisions easily as every decision has to get the assent of different political parties with different ideologies. Regional parties exerted pressure and influenced the previous coalition governments on both domestic issues and foreign policies. As a result many decisions were withdrawn or kept pending. The new central government will not face such hurdles. However, it is the responsibility of the government to heed to other parties’ views and seek consensus.

india-sri-lanka11Mr. Narendra Modi’s decision to invite the heads of the SAARC countries is well received and appreciated by foreign policy analysts as a step in redefining India’s foreign relations. Only the state government and leaders of regional parties in Tamil Nadu have criticised the invitation of the president of Sri Lanka. Their concern is legitimate with regard to the treatment of Tamil minorities in Northern and Eastern province in Sri Lanka. In fact, United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has severely criticized Sri Lankan government’s governance deficit in the region and has also passed a resolution against it. It is also seeking a credible international inquiry into killing of Tamils, war crimes and human rights violations in the last leg of the civil war in Sri Lanka. The UNHRC is concerned about the continuing trend of attacks on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association; rising levels of religious intolerance; and continued militarisation in the Northern Province. The video clip released by British television broadcaster Channel 4 accusing the Sri Lankan armed forces of having an underlying culture of systematic brutality and sexual violence poured fuel to the fire. Though human rights violation must be condemned, Tamil Nadu’s demand to boycott Sri Lanka harms India’s national interest.

While there can’t be any justification for mass killing of innocent Tamil minorities or the still prevailing discrimination towards Tamil dominated areas, the problem cannot be solved by closing the doors to Sri Lanka or by stopping bilateral dialogues. Instead, India should enhance its bargaining power and get justice for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka by cultivating better relations.

In fact, the relation between the two countries turned positive when India abstained from voting during the last resolution of UNHRC on March 26 this year. Sri Lankan leadership was delighted and welcomed India’s stand and ordered the release of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody. It is the responsibility of the new government to continue in the positive direction initiated by its predecessor. Earlier in 2013, Tamil Nadu government had successfully deterred the then Prime Minister of India from attending the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka, thereby putting regional interests above national interest for political mileage and this can never be justified.

Apart from the Tamil issue, India needs to consider other developments going on in Sri Lanka, which is a strategic location in the Indian Ocean. As the India-Sri Lanka relationship worsened, the presence of China in Sri Lanka increased significantly. Sri Lanka is one of the important countries with which China wants to enhance its partnership in infrastructure development and establishing free trade zones under the revival of Maritime Silk Route (MSR) policy. China has already built two ports, one in Colombo and another in Hambantota. China has thoughtfully kept India away from its new foreign policy, except for the mention of Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and China (BMIC) pipeline network, even though India is one of the largest markets for Chinese products. This shows the double standards between overt gesture and covert actions of China. China has also collaborated in satellite launching activities with SupremeSAT (Pvt.), Sri Lanka’s only satellite operator.

To counter China, good relations with Sri Lanka and other countries in the Indian Ocean region are very essential. Therefore, strengthening multilateral organizations like SAARC, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic cooperation) and IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation) is a necessity. Sri Lanka, being an important member of these organizations, can never be neglected or sidelined in the foreign policy. Both the countries will have to work together in order to check piracy in the Indian Ocean. Support of Sri Lanka is essential for India to emerge as a Blue water navy in the Indian Ocean and also to get permanent membership in United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Sri Lanka is a good market for India’s automobile industry and it supplies spices, rubber and other plantation crops for us. India has also emerged as a hub for medical tourism, many patients from Sri Lanka and other neighbouring countries come here to get medical treatment.

India must follow the policy of friendly relations with its neighbours guided by the Gujral doctrine. Therefore Mr. Modi’s decision is a good start in the right direction. The states must cooperate with the Centre to find the right balance between national interest and regional interests.

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