Sri Lanka and India haven’t had a bilateral engagement at the top-most levels in governance, reflecting the changing priorities in New Delhi towards its immediate neighbourhood. A series of issues between Sri Lanka and India since the close of the Eelam war IV in May 2009, which saw the demise of the Tamil Tigers, has seen New Delhi cold-shoulder Colombo for over two years.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has held bilateral meetings with his south Asian counterparts, either in New Delhi or in the capitals of these countries in the past year. While there was no official bilateral meet with Pakistan, its President Asif Ali Zardari met Dr. Singh in New Delhi in April this year — that was the first time in seven years that a Pakistan President was meeting the Indian Prime Minister.
Before his visit to Myanmar, Dr. Singh was in the Maldives (November 9-12, 2011), and became the first head of a foreign State to address the People’s Majlis; toured Bangladesh in September 2011; met Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, Bhutan King Jigme Wangchuck, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi, in October 2011.
That leaves out Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the only leader in the region whom Dr. Singh hasn’t consciously met in a formal bilateral forum — the two leaders have met on the sidelines of the 2011 SAARC summit in Addu City in the Maldives, and the last session of the United Nations General Assembly. These meetings are necessarily hurried and short, and nothing of substance can be discussed at any length.
The last time an Indian Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka was in 2008 — that too wasn’t for a bilateral meeting; it was for the SAARC summit.
The last bilateral summit between the two countries was when Mr. Rajapaksa visited New Delhi in June 2010. In his meetings with the Prime Minister, Mr. Rajapaksa made a series of promises, on devolution and related issues. None of these promises was kept, Indian officials said.
These assurances were repeated when Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna visited Sri Lanka and met the President in January 2012 and, yet again, in April this year, to Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. The promises have remained on paper.
After the end of the war, India has pressed for a political solution to accommodate the legitimate hopes and aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. New Delhi was repeatedly assured by Colombo that a solution would be found, even going beyond the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. The Amendment, which many Sri Lankans say was thrust on it by India in 1987 as part of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord, granted certain powers to the Sri Lankan provinces. Though this provision exists in the Constitution, it has never been implemented.
Dr. Singh had, in fact, accepted an invitation to visit Sri Lanka in June 2010. Asked why a visit couldn’t be worked out, a senior Sri Lankan official said the Foreign Ministries of both countries had to work out details of the visit. “You should ask your Ministry of External Affairs. We are ready to welcome your Prime Minister anytime,” the official told The Hindu, when asked what outstanding issues stood in the way of a visit.
It isn’t merely Dr. Singh who seems to be staying away from Sri Lanka. His Cabinet, too, is. After the visit of Mr. Krishna in January 2012, there hasn’t been a senior Cabinet visit to date. The earliest slated visit is that of senior Congress leader and Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, in July. He has been invited by the Kadirgamar Institute, and will arrive here on a short visit on July 11.
Mr. Rajapaksa is in Thailand on a bilateral visit. He has recently been to Qatar, South Korea, Singapore and Pakistan.
R. K. Radhakrishnan
Photo – The Hindu