By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Dear Mr Prime Minister,
I join my compatriots in extending a warm welcome to you to Sri Lanka. Almost 28 years have passed since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (RG) visited this island. As you are well aware, his visit was shrouded with some extremely complex and unpleasant issues during the periods immediately prior to, during and after his visit. It is hoped your visit will be a prelude to a new relationship based on friendship amongst equals and mutual respect.
The deterioration of relations between India and Sri Lanka commenced around 1980 when Indira Gandhi (IG) was elected Prime Minister for the second time. Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene’s (JRJ) pro-western foreign policy antagonized India immensely, prompting IG to adopt a hostile attitude and embark on a mission to punish JRJ. A virtually purpose created issue was at hand in the separatist movement by some young men in Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. Relations deteriorated from 1980 when India under the direction of IG and assisted by its intelligence arm RAW and Tamil Nadu state government started destabilizing Sri Lanka by way of providing a safe haven for separatist groups, training facilities, weapons training and funding for their activities and culminating with India repeatedly voting against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva from 2010 departing from its previous policy of not voting on country specific issues. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) ‘Look East’ policy by forging closer economic and military ties with China who have extended unconditional support to Sri Lanka over the years and the willingness by China and Pakistan to sell arms to GoSL when India was reluctant to provide weapons need to be mentioned in this context.
To reset relations, it is necessary for both countries to create an atmosphere of mutual trust. Notwithstanding the initiatives by the Sirisena government, there exists a massive trust deficit in our relations. The perception of double standards on India’s part prevails even in today. Your meeting with a TNA delegation in Delhi and National Security Advisor Ajith Doval meeting with Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka does not go down well in the light of cancellation of talks with Pakistan at Foreign Secretary Level on the grounds of Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi having discussions with Hurriyat leaders stating “talk to them or talk to us”. Being involved in the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka and at the same time insisting on the exclusion of Pakistan in the Kashmir issue is a case in point. In response to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s (RW) comment during an interview last week that India should show the same magnanimity to Italian sailors currently held in India that they request for South Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters, Indian Foreign Minister Ms Swaraj had supposedly informed RW that “these are two different issues. Issues of fishermen are a humanitarian issue. It is an issue of livelihood”. What Ms Swaraj and India need to understand is that it is a livelihood issue for our Northern fishermen as well. Further, India’s ‘humanitarian’ issue is for Sri Lanka a ‘humiliating’ issue. In a manner of speaking, it is a repetition of the 1987 episode – only this time not our airspace by IAF transporters and fighter jets but our maritime boundaries by South Indian fishermen.
It is in the interest of both Sri Lanka and India to reset our relations to a pre-1977 level when issues between the two countries were settled amicably with mutual respect. The Sirisena government has taken some initiatives to address one of India’s main concerns i.e. the Colombo Port City Project which has been temporarily suspended. Even if the suspension is lifted, re-negotiation of the clause giving part ownership to the Chinese to a 99 year lease is in the cards. On the other hand, India is yet to demonstrate with any tangible efforts, its desire to reset relations except by graciously receiving Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera initially and then President Maithripala Sirisena in Delhi. The issue of South Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters has received virtually no attention from India.
Leaving politicians and the bureaucrats aside, it is relevant to take into account the emotions, sentiments, dignity and self-respect of the majority of the citizens in this country. While not condoning the act, one of Sri Lanka’s sons displayed his emotions with the butt end of his rifle in 1987 during the guard of honour accorded to RG when he visited Colombo to sign the Indo – Sri Lanka accord. That accord to us Sri Lankans was a modern day surrender of our independence. Building houses, rail roads etc. contribute towards improving relations only marginally. Such action is akin to giving a pain killer for a body pain. It does not contribute towards treating the root cause. The fact is that the majority in this country still feel strongly of the manner in which India violated this country with impunity. At least some feel India continue to do so covertly.
The Sirisena government has decided to accord you the honour of addressing our Parliament, an honour India did not see fit to accord to President Sirisena during his recent visit to India. You will be the fourth Indian Prime Minister to do so after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962, Indira Gandhi in 1973 and Moraji Desai in 1979. The Indian historian and author AG Noorani in a recent essay in India’s Frontline magazine wrote “India’s relations with Sri Lanka will heal only if there is a sincere realisation of past mistakes and of the grave damage that India inflicted on a hapless neighbour too small to retaliate”. This would be an ideal opportunity for you to set the record right. It would require but three sentences of admission of mistakes of the past, regret over them and an assurance of non-repetition. It can be appropriately worded maintaining India’s dignity. Such an act would help millions in this country to finally bury the ugly past and move on and also a good beginning for India to genuinely and constructively engage in resetting its relations with Sri Lanka and its people.