In his media statement after talks with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa here on Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he is “confident that the Sri Lankan government will realize the expectations of equality, justice, peace and respect of the Tamil people within a united Sri Lanka.”
But the Lankan Prime Minister did not mention the Tamil question in his media statement. Instead, he spoke of bilateral cooperation in economic, educational and skills development, and defense and intelligence gathering.
The two Prime Ministers deliberated on the entire range of bilateral ties and resolved to further deepen anti-terror cooperation and boost trade and investment.
“Stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest, but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean Region,” Modi said. India has been a “trusted partner” in Sri Lanka’s development and will continue to assist the country in its journey towards peace and development, he added.
Referring to the fishermen issue, Modi said both sides have decided to adopt a “humanitarian approach” in dealing with it.
“We have decided to deepen cooperation to combat terrorism,” Modi stressed.
In his statement, Mahinda Rajapaksa said: “Prime Minister Modi and I discussed several important issues this morning. Our discussions were premised on the outcome of the discussions that Prime Minister Modi held with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his very successful State visit to India in November of last year.”
“I want to thank Prime Minister Modi for his government’s Neighborhood First policy and the priority that he attaches to relations with Sri Lanka. We agreed that our cooperation is multi-faceted, with priority given to a number of areas, including security, economic, cultural and social sectors.”
“A part of our discussions centred on co-operation in regard to the security of our two countries. India has always assisted Sri Lanka to enhance its capabilities in intelligence and counter-terrorism, and we look forward to continued support in this regard,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said.
“I would like to reiterate what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said during his State visit that since our recent experience in April last year, we have had to re-think our national security strategies and assistance from India in this regard would be much appreciated. I thanked Prime Minister Modi for visiting Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. That visit provided us with immense strength to come to terms with the tragedy.”
“I also appreciate Prime Minister Modi’s offer of 400 million dollars as a credit line to enhance the economy of Sri Lanka and another 50 million dollar credit line for our efforts in combating terrorism. We discussed how to follow-up on these offers that were made during President Rajapaksa’s visit in November.”
“Another topic of our discussion was the progress of ongoing projects that are being implemented in Sri Lanka with Indian assistance, including housing and community-related projects. I requested Prime Minister Modi to consider further assistance to expand the housing project to all parts of the island. Doing so will provide significant benefits to many Sri Lankans living in rural parts of the country.”
“Prime Minister Modi and I also discussed how Sri Lanka and India could work together in economically important matters. As India emerges to be among the world’s growing economies, I discussed with the Prime Minister how Sri Lanka could benefit out of certain economic sectors where India is strongly positioned. I requested for India’s assistance in skills development and capacity building of the civil services.”
“Before I conclude, I would like to reiterated our invitation to Prime Minister Modi to visit Sri Lanka in the near future. We in Sri Lanka are looking forward to that visit.”
“I am indeed happy to be here because India is our closest neighbor as well as our long-standing friend. The links of history, religion and culture between Sri Lanka and India, which date back more than two millennia, provide a solid foundation for our partnership.”
“Finally, I want to express my deepest appreciation to Prime Minister Modi and the Government of India for the outstanding arrangements and gracious hospitality accorded to me and my delegation during this State Visit.”
India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called on the Lankan Prime Minister on Saturday morning. At the meeting Jaishankar said: “Your visit is a very important opportunity for us to set the course for the next five years.”
The Indian and Sri Lankan delegations discussed the status of ongoing projects in Sri Lanka that are being implemented with Indian assistance. The two sides agreed to expedite a number of projects that have not seen much progress in the past few years.
There is a lot of interest in Sri Lanka in areas like tourism, Minister Jaishankar pointed out and suggested that Sri Lanka should soon send to India a team to “market Sri Lanka” as a tourist destination.
Sri Lanka receives the largest number of tourists from India. In 2018, tourist arrivals from India amounted to 424,887. This reduced in 2019 as a result of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.
Minister Jaishankar further said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka shortly after the Easter attacks in 2019 was “very intentional”. It was meant to send a message to India and the world that Sri Lanka is safe. Prime Minister Modi was the first world leader to visit Sri Lanka after the Easter attacks.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa briefed the Indian Foreign Minister on the new island-wide housing project that was initiated recently and invited India to consider providing assistance similar to the previous housing projects they have helped fund.
The two delegations also discussed the long-standing concerns of the fishing communities of both countries. Agreeing that this is a problem that benefits neither side, both countries agreed to work more closely together to find a practical solution in a way that benefits all affected fishing communities.
Later in the evening the Lankan Prime Minister called on the Indian President Ramnath Kovind.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa arrived in New Delhi on Friday on a five-day visit, his first overseas tour after being appointed Prime Minister in November last year. He was given an exceptionally warm welcome in New Delhi with gigantic hoardings with his picture and welcome messages in English and Sinhala dotting the road to the city. A troupe of dancers performed for the Prime Minister on his arrival at the airport.
Since Hinduism and Buddhism are both a binding force between India and Sri Lanka, the Lankan Prime Minister will be visiting the Vishwanath temple and the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon, in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. He will also visit Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment; and the shrine for Lord Venkateswara in Tirupathi, in Andhra Pradesh.
Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi assumes significance as his second tenure as Lankan President from 2010 to 2014 saw an expansion of China’s footprint in Sri Lanka, raising hackles in India. Following his defeat in the January 2015 Presidential election, Rajapaksa became cold towards India, until Prime Minister Modi visited Sri Lanka. During that visit, a line of communication between India and Rajapaksa was re-established.
However, India did not back Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the latter stood for the office of Lankan President in November 2019. New Delhi backed the United National Front (UNF) candidate Sajith Premadasa as the latter was thought to be pro-India and Gotabaya to be pro-China.
However, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election convincingly, India swiftly moved to own him. Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar flew to Colombo and met Gotabaya Rajapaksa and invited him to New Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Modi and got him to agree to a specific date for the visit.
The meeting was a resounding success as the two leaders struck rapport. The only issue that divided them was the Lankan Tamil question. Like his elder brother and Prime Minister Mahinda, Gotabaya did not mention “reconciliation” with the Tamils in his media statement, while Modi did.
However, it is likely that neither party will let the Tamil issue affect cooperation in other areas such as economic development, and defense and security issues which are of greater importance to India. These are also issues on which Sri Lanka is willing to cooperate with India.
India followed up Gotabaya’s visit with a visit of the Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who discussed Indian aid for skills and entrepreneurial development as he is Sri Lanka’s Skills and Entrepreneurial Development Minister also.
Ties between the two countries strengthened by the Lankan leaders’visits to Delhi will be further cemented by Modi’ visit to Sri Lanka which is bound to take place given the Indian Prime Minister’s fondness for travelling to reach out to world leaders.