India-Sri Lanka Relations

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  • Akhila Reddy Asked: What is the current status of India-Sri Lanka relations especially in view of the outcome of the elections in the Northern Province?

    Gulbin Sultana replies: The historic northern provincial council elections were held on September 21, 2013. In this election, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 out of 38 seats. It is being speculated that despite its overwhelming victory, the TNA is going to face many challenges in the council to deliver on the commitments made to the people during its election campaign. Attempts to weaken or even eliminate the provincial council through constitutional changes too cannot be ruled out.

    Though India had expressed its satisfaction on the conduct of the northern provincial council elections, it remains wary of the fact that the Sri Lankan Government is yet to implement various other commitments made to the international community, including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Though Indian prime minister’s decision not to attend the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo could be disappointing for the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, it is too early to assess its likely impact on the Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

    Meanwhile, it is also important to take note of the developments in the Indo-Lanka relations immediately after the provincial council elections. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had made a two-day official visit to Sri Lanka on October 7- 8, 2013. During Khurshid’s visit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for technical assistance in support of the 10-year National Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka, and eight agreements related to construction of Sampur coal power plant in Trincomalee District, were signed. Khurshid also visited Jaffna and distributed certificates to some of the beneficiaries of the Second Indian Housing Project, whereby houses are being constructed with the grant provided by the Indian Government amounting to INR 2,30,000 per house. He also distributed certificates to some of the beneficiaries of small business enterprises which were destroyed during the war.

    The issue of fishermen continue to pose a major challenge for the India-Sri Lanka relations. In 2011, two Indian fishermen were killed by the Sri Lanka Navy. Though no Indian fishermen have been killed since then, but several of them have been arrested and continue to be detained in Sri Lankan jails. In recent times, Sri Lanka has moved away from its earlier ‘catch and release’ approach and has adopted the method of detaining and producing the fishermen in the court. Under the new method, the fishermen will be released only after they plead guilty and their boats will be confiscated. The issue was taken up for discussion during Minister Khurshid’s visit as well as during the 23rd International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) Meeting onboard the Indian Naval Ship INS Sukanya off Kankesanthurai on November 1, 2013. During the IMBL meeting, the Navy officials of the two countries also discussed several other issues of bilateral concern like smuggling of narcotics across the IMBL and strengthening of the maritime security in the area. Subsequently, in order to enhance the capability of maritime interdiction operations through Visit Board Search and Seize (VBSS) operations, Search and Rescue (SAR) demonstrations, asymmetric threat exercises and helicopter operations, the Joint Indo-Lanka Maritime Fleet Exercise – SLINEX 2013 - was held in the seas off Goa during November 4-8, 2013.

    Manish Singh asked: After India voted in favor of a UN resolution against Sri Lanka, how has it impacted or affected the ties between the two countries?

    Gulbin Sultana replies: Since the end of Eelam War IV in May 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has passed three resolutions on Sri Lanka: (i) First was during the special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka held on May 26-27, 2009 (ii) the second resolution came during the 19th session of the UNHRC on March 22, 2012, and (iii) the third and most recent one was during the 22nd session of the UNHRC held on March 21, 2013. In 2009, India had voted in favour of Sri Lanka, but later it voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013. India’s vote in favour of the UN resolution in 2012 was a huge disappointment for Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately wrote a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa conveying that though India voted in favour of the resolution, it worked behind the scenes to make it "non-intrusive". However, this did not seem to have convinced them much. The Sri Lankan media remained critical about India’s stand at the 19th session of the UNHRC. At the official level, though Sri Lanka declared that voting would not have any impact on India-Sri Lanka relations, their displeasure over India’s position was obvious. No high level political visits took place since the voting in March 2012 until President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India in September 2012 to lay the foundation stone for the University of Buddhist and Indic studies in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh.

    As far as trade figures are concerned, Sri Lanka´s imports from India amounted US$ 3,483.74 million and exports to India amounted US$ 518.71 million, registering a decline of 19.51 per cent and 1.91 per cent respectively as compared to the corresponding period of 2011. India had a share of 19.52 per cent and 5.69 per cent respectively in the global imports and exports of Sri Lanka during 2012. The decline in exports from India to Sri Lanka in 2012 was largely due to steep increase in the excise duty imposed on the import of vehicles on two occasions during the year that seriously affected the competitive advantage enjoyed by the Indian auto companies. Sri Lanka has increased excise duty on utility vehicles to 173 per cent from the previous 100 per cent. Total duty on cars less than 1000cc increased from 120 per cent to 200 per cent, including a 47 per cent increase in excise. The excise on three-wheelers was raised from 45 per cent to 100 per cent, and on two-wheelers from 61 per cent to 100 per cent. Colombo has also imposed an absolute levy of Sri Lankan rupees 109,000 on commercial vehicles, besides a 12 per cent excise duty. Thought the new policy applies to all the countries and doesn’t single Indian firms out, yet it affects Indian automobile companies the most because they account for 95 per cent of the auto market in the island nation.

    Sri Lanka is the largest export market for Indian automobiles. In 2011-12, out of India’s $6 billion worth of auto exports, Sri Lanka accounted for $800 million. Despite this setback to Indian auto industries, India continues to be the largest trading partner of Sri Lanka. In 2012, 176,340 Indian tourists visited Sri Lanka. Despite the travel ban issued in 2012 on Sri Lankans visiting Tamil Nadu, around two lakh visas were issued by the Indian High Commission in Colombo to facilitate travel between India and Sri Lanka. Both the countries held the first round of talks on comprehensive civil nuclear cooperation in New Delhi on October 11, 2012.

    Regular defence interaction continues between the two countries. The 21st International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) meeting was held onboard the Sri Lanka Naval Ship ‘Sagara’ at the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Line off Kankasanthurei on July 6, 2012. The Indian Naval Ship ‘Chetlat’ made a goodwill visit at the Port of Trincomalee on July 18, 2012. The coast guards of India and Sri Lanka held four-day meeting to discuss maritime issues during August 26-30, 2012. The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited India on October 25, 2012 at the invitation of Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon.

    In short, it can be concluded that though Sri Lanka was disappointed with India voting in favour of the resolution at the UNHRC, at the official level it has not affected the Indo-Sri Lanka relations much. Reportedly, the Sri Lankan Cabinet has given its approval for the proposal made by its External Affairs Minister G .L. Pieris to expand its diplomatic and consular representations in India.

    Why India must vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC?

    India must vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC in order to force the latter to set up its own enquiry commission on war crimes, implement the recommendations of the LLRC pertaining to the rights of Tamils, and evolve its own ‘home grown’ solution to the ethnic issue.

    March 20, 2013

    The Sri Lanka File at the UNHRC: Need for India to Adopt a Balanced and Firm Approach

    It will be in keeping with the normative principles of India’s foreign policy to support a resolution that does not undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty but stipulates a time-bound and monitorable implementation by the SLG as well as UNHRC of remedial measures in accordance with the LLRC recommendations.

    March 12, 2013

    Mahinda Rajapaksa's India Policy: Engage and Countervail

    Mahinda Rajapaksa has emerged as perhaps the only Sri Lankan leader who has managed to secure some strategic autonomy in conducting his country's foreign policy vis-à-vis India. He engaged India effectively during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and simultaneously countervailed India by improving his country's relationship with India's traditional adversaries such as China and Pakistan. In the post-LTTE scenario, he has maintained a defiant posture vis-à-vis India over the latter's persuasion to evolve a political solution to the ethnic issue.

    January 2013

    The ‘Ethnic Question’ in India–Sri Lanka Relations in the Post-LTTE Phase

    The ‘ethnic question’ in Sri Lanka, even after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), evokes a sense of suspense, uncertainty and even a possible conflict of interest in the otherwise robust and multifaceted relationship between India and Sri Lanka. The article adopts a multi-agent model derived from the positional analysis and identifies three principal agents in Indo-Sri Lanka relations—the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), the Government of India (GoI) and Tamil Nadu.

    January 2013

    Stagnating India-Sri Lanka Relations: Need for a Diversified Approach

    India-Sri Lanka relations appear to be reaching a phase of stagnation. 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.

    September 13, 2012

    The Tamil Nadu factor reappears in India-Sri Lanka Relations

    The much-talked about Tamil Nadu factor in India-Sri Lanka relations has come to the fore recently again in the wake of strong reactions of the provincial government to the training of two Sri Lankan defence personnel in the state in August 2012

    September 12, 2012

    Ganesh Pol asked: Why do Indian fisherman often run into problems with the Sri Lankan authorities in the Indian Ocean? What are the causal factors?

    Gulbin Sultana replies: Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have been fishing into Palk Bay area for centuries. Problem emerged only after a maritime agreement was signed by India and Sri Lanka in 1974. In fact, initially the 1974 border agreement did not affect fishing on either sides of the border. In 1976, through an exchange of letter, both India and Sri Lanka agreed to stop fishing in each other’s waters. However, the agreement could not stop the fishermen from fishing in these waters, as fishermen know no boundary. They go wherever they can get maximum number of catch. They, knowingly or unknowingly, often violate the International Maritime Boundary Lines in search of a good catch, at times at great personal risk.

    Both India and Sri Lankan fishermen have been known for entering into each other’s waters. However, cases of arrest of Sri Lankan fishermen by Indian authorities are comparatively less since they mostly fish in the high seas by using multi-day crafts. On the other hand, due to the dearth of multi-day fishing capability, Indian fishermen cannot shift their fishing effort from the Palk Bay area to the offshore areas of the Indian waters or way beyond the continental shelf. Therefore, Indian fishermen have no other option but to fish into the Sri Lankan waters. While for the Sri Lankan authorities protecting their maritime boundary is important, for the Indian fishermen the priority is of securing their livelihood.

    It is noteworthy that despite the signing of maritime boundary agreements, fishermen communities of both the countries continued their fishing in the Palk Bay area peacefully until the Eelam war broke out in 1983. Nonetheless, after the end of War in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishermen have been raising their objection to Indian fishermen fishing in their waters. According to an estimate, more than 500 trawlers from Tamil Nadu cross the International Maritime Boundary Line and fish in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, threatening the livelihoods of the fishermen in the north of Sri Lanka, who have just commenced fishing after the end of war in 2009.
    Thus, the main problem with Indian fishermen is that a large number of them are dependent on fishing in Sri Lankan waters, which is prohibited by the 1976 Maritime Boundary Agreement. Also, a large number of Indian fishermen are dependent on trawling which is banned in Sri Lanka.

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