India-Sri Lanka relations appear to be reaching a phase of stagnation. While bilateral relations at the political level are still cordial, Colombo does not seem to be interested in or solicitous of Indian advice and suggestions with regard to its constitutional experiments concerning devolution of administrative and financial powers to the provinces. India’s economic and trade relations with Sri Lanka are also not picking up as per their potential. To compound this situation, the inter-party competitive politics among Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu over the issue of severing military-to-military linkages and cultural intercourse between India and Sri Lanka, has come into play. This has consequential negative fallout on Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral relations.
The onus for this state of affairs lies more on the failure of Government of India to assert its primacy vis-à-vis the political constituents of the UPA combine and the latter’s local-cum-regional compulsions, than on the Sri Lankan Government’s obduracy towards acceptance of a wider package of devolution for its northern Tamil-inhabited areas. Sufficient damage was done by India being party to the USA sponsored UN Human Rights Council Resolution of March 22, this year, wherein, the progress in implementation of recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission“was criticised and Sri Lanka Government was advised to take adequate steps for redressal of grievances on human rights and put in place proper institutional arrangements for land dispute resolution, etc.
The UNHRC Resolution has not had any perceptible impact on the Sri Lankan Government. Colombo has not so far adopted any ameliorating measures to satisfy the psyche of the Tamil people or for rehabilitating the Tamils of the northern war zone based on transparent policies, as per international standards. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in fact, now feels more at ease and justified in cultivating China with a posture of even-handedness while dealing with New Delhi and Beijing.
As the situation stands today in Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa’s political base among the lower middle class Sinhalas, particularly of the central region and the south of the island, is intact and likely to remain so for some more time. In this context, India’s pressing for devolution under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution and beyond (popularly termed 13th Amendment ‘Plus‘) does not seem realistic. In fact, there are demands from some sections of the Sinhala intelligentsia1 that given the strong public positions for and against the 13th Amendment (still viewed as coercively imposed by Rajiv Gandhi and his Govt. in 1987 as a virtual concomitant of the India-Sri Lanka Accord on 1987), it is necessary to hold a referendum (Sri Lanka’s Constitution : Article 86 provides for this) and ascertain the views of its citizens on what should be the unit of devolution, i.e., whether devolution should be to the provinces – and that too, to provinces ethnically delineated, or to the districts with the extent of devolution to the northern districts specifically indicated. The progressive and liberal elements among the Sinhala elite, may even be willing to consider some limited power sharing with the Tamils at the central level, but as a trade-off, propose restricted devolution to the northern province with selective powers bestowed on a Government Agent (the equivalent of India’s District Magistrate or Deputy Commissioner) directly responsible to Colombo with only a limited array of subjects within the legislative domain of a future provincial assembly.
India’s offering of expertise on constitutional, legal and federal institutional governance to Sri Lanka may not be of significant consequence at this juncture, given the present political will and proclivity of the Rajapaksa regime. The Tamil Nadu factor in Government of India’s decision-making process has already served to constrain the latter’s manoeuvrability vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. It is only in the realms of security and cultural exchanges as well as in the economic domain involving the promotion of entrepreneurial and manufacturing skills of the Sri Lankans through India’s own expertise in the matter, where convergence of Indian and Sri Lankan interests can be possible and bilateral relations strengthened.
India should do its best to bring about a trade balance which is not adverse to Sri Lanka and make the process sustainable. Sri Lanka’s economy is significantly dependent on exports. In 2011, buoyant domestic demand and recovery of exports helped Sri Lanka achieve a GDP growth of more than 6.5 per cent.2 For example, India’s assistance to Sri Lanka in producing designer clothes and high-end jewellery, to mention an example, could be an opportunity to boost Indo-Sri Lanka economic relations with skills available in India but not confined to Tamil Nadu in particular. This will insulate the bilateral relations from the vagaries of Tamil Nadu politics. Moreover, India could help Sri Lanka in diversifying its exports at present substantially dependant on food and beverages and textile and clothing manufactured items.3 This will also open up opportunities for increasing the volume of exports from Sri Lanka to India with consequential impact on the mutual trade balance.
Exchanges on training of Sri Lankan security personnel – both from their defence forces and police – in respect of anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency best practices and inter-operability of forces, in regard to anti-piracy operations, may be centred on the operable milieu in India’s western seaboard and north-east, away from Tamil Nadu. In India, Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Vairengte (Mizoram), Army College of Combat at Mhow (near Indore in Madhya Pradesh), the newly set up Officers’ Training School at Gaya (in Bihar), and some of the Army Regimental Centres in north and central India, as well as some of the establishments under Central and Eastern Air Commands, have adequate capacity and physical environment to provide such skills to the Sri Lankan forces. This is not detrimental to India’s own security needs and will not attract local political interventions as had occurred during the recent training of Sri Lankan pilots at Tambaram near Chennai.
Under the canopy of the Nalanda International University project, a strong bond of Indo-Sri Lanka cultural ties could be built. President Rajapaksa, interestingly, has a deep affinity for such Buddhist cultural linkages with India. His faith in Lord Venkateswara of Tirupathi as well as the Sai Baba is no secret. Promotion of such linkages or affinities may pay dividends to India.
While India should continue to provide a high quantum of assistance to Sri Lanka for rehabilitation of its northern war-ravaged area in an organised manner with oversight of Indian representatives to ensure that the benefits accrue to the local inhabitants, pressurising the Sri Lankan Government on devolution should be avoided beyond a point. A multi-party approach on such a sensitive issue may be a more desirable method like the one attempted through the visit of the recent all-party Indian Parliamentary Delegation led by Sushma Swaraj, apart from suitable back-channel dialogues. While the devolution issue cannot be put on the backburner, the Govt of India has to adopt, perforce, a multifaceted approach on the cultural, economic and security fronts for stability of the bilateral relations in the overall interest of India.