Our relations with India
What is the present status?


I have been provoked into writing this by an inquiry made of me by an Indian journalist of repute who inquired as to what the status of our relations was. I quite frankly told him that I did not know but that we had no known problems other than the Fisheries issue unless of course Jayalalitha creates problems for us and our relations with Delhi.

Indo Lanka relations stretch back over 2500 years. We have a blood relationship with India; Legend has it that a prince from Bengal came to the Island with hundreds of his retinue and settled here marrying a native queen Kuvani. That the legend is not fiction is borne out by the fact that there are over 100 words in the Sinhala language which have the similar meaning in Bengali. This cannot be a coincidence. The next significant event in our common history is the bringing of Buddhism to the country by Mahendra the son of Emperor Ashok. India, to the Buddhists of Lanka is –‘Dharmadveepa’ or the land of the Dharma. So our relationship is indeed a very special one, like no other.

Since Independence we had no serious problems other than the problem of the plantation workers or the Stateless persons of Indian origin. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike it was who was able to sort that out. The period when Mrs. Bandaranaike was PM was without any doubt the best period in the history of our relations; It was in 1964 that an Agreement was reached between Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Shastri. This Agreement was supplemented by an Agreement between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1974 with India agreeing to take back 600 000 natives of Indian origin and Lanka agreeing to grant citizenship to 373,000. The Agreement could not however be fully implemented and India accepted 506,000 and Lanka gave citizenship to 496,000. This period was followed by the worst period in our relations, after President JR assumed office; we were forced to enter into the Indo-Lanka Agreement and also adopt the 13th Amendment to our Constitution. President Chandrika Kumaratunge was able to restore the relationship to a great extent but much more remains to be done. The problems created during that period after 1978 still continue. Unfortunately Economic Cooperation, perhaps THE most important area for our development, appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Relations between our two countries significantly improved after Mrs. Kumaratunge assumed office as President. Unfortunately many factors inhibited India from playing a more positive proactive role in her relationship with Lanka. Among these factors was her past experience in Lanka, coalition politics in India, (the invariable dependence on Tamil Nadu parties for the forming of governments at the center has affected the political will for India to play this more positive role which her position as the regional power demands).The expectations in Sri Lanka were immense but nothing changed though the relationship was restored to an acceptable level. Today India is emerging as a Super Power and will in a a few decades be on par with the US and China and we are fortunate that only a few miles of sea that separates us.

In the recent past it was the late Lakshman Kadirgamar who sponsored a project to have an India Studies Center established and had Prof. SD Muni of Jawaharlal Nehru University prepare a concept paper, but sadly we have not been able to see the realization of it though I have myself tried quite hard to have such a Center established to support the work of the Foreign Ministry. We need to establish a special ‘Think Tank’ to assist the work of the Ministry. The Ministry MUST have a separate India Desk considering the importance of the relationship. Yes we need to strengthen the ‘Desk’ at the Ministry and ‘build’ India experts, we need to take account of the fact that almost ninety percent of the States of India are larger and more populous than most countries of the world including ours of course and that India’s security and ours are like two peas in a pod.

The only serious issue we have today is the Fisheries issue, it is indeed a most sensitive issue because it affects the livelihoods of hundreds of poor fishermen in Sri Lanka, whereas the Trawler owning businessmen hire people to work for them who are also fishermen. We need to set up a special Sub Committee comprising of members of the Ministries of Fisheries, Foreign Affairs, Defence, representatives of the Northern Province PC and any other experts to advise the government on this issue. Incidentally what role has our Missions in Chenai and Delhi played in this affair.

*The only silver lining now is the fact that the UNP and the SLFP have agreed to cooperate on reaching a consensus position with regard to the ethnic issue. This has been advocated for years by India and her officials have worked tirelessly to bring the two political parties together, so there is yet hope if only the government can get its act together after the forthcoming elections then our problems with India could be put on the back burner* *We are indeed fortunate that we have at this point of time in Delhi a High Commissioner who has strong Indian connections at the highest possible level, connections, no other head of Mission would have access to, as he has done his higher studies entirely in India, speaks Hindi and his former colleagues are holding very high positions in the present administration. From my own experience in Delhi I would say that the administration is extremely hard to penetrate, the main ‘Players’ in my time were the PM’s Office (a very powerful institution), the South Block (the Ministry of External Affairs), the North Block (the Ministry of Defence), the Lok Sabha and its Committees, the Rajya Sabha the influential Think Tanks and NGOO. Then there is the India International Center and groups who meet there regularly who are very influential and then there is the very powerful Media with whom we need to have the closest of relations. I do know the tremendous work that needs to be done to protect our interests and my congratulations go out to our present High Commissioner who in the classical style of the Public Service appears to have safeguarded our national interests without publicity, but we have a right to know what our representatives are doing to safeguard our national interest and this right has been conceded to us at long last by 19A; I hope the Ministry will issue a Release and inform us of what this Mission and other Missions are doing to safeguard our national interest.

K Godage

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