Sri Lanka plugs into BJP line to bridge “trust deficit” with India
Sri Lanka appears to be anxious to plug into Bharatiya Janata Party’s “Hindutva” line to close the “trust deficit” in its relationship with India.
A set of proposals to bridge the trust gap, which was submitted to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the Sri Lankan High Commissioner-designate to India Milinda Moragoda recently, stresses the importance of cultivating Sri Lanka’s Buddhist and Hindu ties with India, while leaving out Islamic ties altogether.
Moragoda’s stress on the efficacy of the religious factor rests on the belief that India-Sri Lanka relations have, for millennia, been based on the shared legacy of Buddhism, “India’s most precious gift to Sri Lanka,” as he puts it. He gives importance to the fact that Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda and Sangamitta, the son and daughter respectively of the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka.
“Against this backdrop, any setbacks to our relationship, however intractable they may appear to be at any given point of time, can only be temporary,” he argues.
Moragoda recommends that Sri Lankan Missions in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata (the last is yet to be established) should help Indian scholars to study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankans Buddhists to study Pali, the Buddha’s language, in India. Sri Lanka should provide Ordination for Indian Buddhist monks and give them admission in Buddhist religious institutions in Sri Lanka.
To strengthen ties with the Hindus of India and Tamil Nadu, Moragoda proposes the “Ramayana Trail, the Murugan Trail and the Siva Sakthi Trail” to promote Sri Lanka as a place of Hindu pilgrimage. It is noteworthy that Sri Lanka has officially sent a sacred stone from the Sita temple in the island to the Rama temple in Ayodhya. The stone will be ceremonially handed over when Moragoda takes over as High Commissioner in New Delhi.
Moragoda urges the Sri Lankan government to promote visits of Indian Hindu religious leaders and scholars to the island. This is followed by the radical and unusual suggestion that Sri Lankan diplomats in India should “actively participate in major Hindu religious ceremonies in India”.
Given the BJP’s bid to make peace with the Christians in India (mainly to cultivate the Christian-dominated North Eastern States of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland) Moragoda recommends facilitation of visits of Catholics to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health (Velankanni shrine) in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.
But there is nary a word about the Muslim shrines in India. The absence of any mention of Indo-Lankan Islamic ties is noticeable given the fact that, like the Sri Lankan Hindus, Sri Lankan Muslims too have ties with India. Both own Tamil as their mother tongue and have close relations with Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, Lankan Muslims have had ties with Islamic institutions in Tamil Nadu, though these have waned with the rise of the Middle East as the center of Islamic education. Clearly, the omission of Indo-Lankan Islamic ties appears to be a deliberate move to pander to the BJP’s policy of keeping the Muslim interest out of political calculations.
And this line comes easily to those associated with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime because the latter shares with the Modi regime in Delhi, a marked aversion to Islam and Muslims.
Structured and Frequent Interaction
Moragoda has called for frequent and multiple, but systematized interactions with India from the top-most level to the grassroots, people-to-people level, if the India-Sri Lanka relationship is to be rid of “distrust”. He bemoans that India-Lanka relation have become “transactional” (a relationship based on bargaining) and are not warm. He attributes the current lack of warmth to a geo-political change but without naming China. He says the India-Lanka relationship should be a “special” one based on “inter-dependence, mutual respect and affection.” This can come about only through interactions from the highest to the people-to-people level, he argues.
Moragoda suggests visits by the Head of State/Head of Government every year. Foreign Ministers should visit each other regularly. Line ministers too should visits, virtually, if not physically. The 1977 India-Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group should be re-activated with mutual visits. Chief Ministers of Indian States should be invited to visit Sri Lanka and strike investment and trade deals. Ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin; Thalaimannar and Rameswaram; and KKS and Karaikal should be launched/re-launched.
To attract big ticket Indian investments to Sri Lanka, Lankan missions in India will be asked to draw up a list of “high net-worth investors”, and facilitate their visit to Sri Lanka. According to the Lankan Board of Investment, Indian investment should be of the order of US$ 300 million in 2021. The Sri Lankan High Commission in India envisages an investment of US$ 256 million. Areas for Indian investments are: auto parts, electric and electronic goods, the hospitality industry, IT services, infrastructure, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, textiles and renewable energy. Sri Lanka could secure Indian assistance in technology innovation, capacity building and product development.
Sri Lanka’s access to Indian markets is hampered by “protectionism” and “challenging and changing regulatory mechanisms.” Sri Lankan Missions should therefore try for easier access to Lankan products. At the same time, Sri Lanka should expand its export basket. The Export Development Board hopes to export US$ 621.9 million worth of goods to India in 2021. The Sri Lankan missions in India fixed a goal of US$ 674.17 million for 2022. The potential export products are: pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg , vegan and vegetarian food, processed meat and fish, confectionary and beverages, paper desiccated coconut and related products, tiles and kitchenware, electrical conductors, switch boards and panels, various kinds of tea, men’s trousers, shirt and skirts. Lankan trade associations and trade associations should participate in Indian trade fairs and invite Indian businessmen to Si Lanka.
Fully vaccinated Indian tourists should be encouraged to visit Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tourism Board has set a target of 63, 733 Indian arrivals in 2021 and 169, 955 in 2022. Sri Lanka should exploit opportunities to use MICE, weddings, and film shooting and participate in tourism fairs in India. Moragoda also propagates the facilitation of grid connectivity so that Sri Lanka can get power from India in times of drought, and for Sri Lanka can sell power to India in case it has a surplus.
The High Commissioner-designate draws attention to the fact that Sri Lanka has not used the Indian Special Line of Credit of US$ 50 million for countering terrorism. Ways of using it should be explored, especially since more Lines of Credit in the defense sector are in the pipeline. It stresses the importance of having “political level strategic cooperation in the field of defense and security.” This could be built on the model of the war-time Indo-Sri Lankan “Troika” of top politico-strategic functionaries, which enable fruitful strategic cooperation against the LTTE.
There should be India-Lanka and multilateral military exercises every year, he suggests. Facilities in Sri Lanka should be created for training Indian military personnel. There should be closer and regular interaction between the police forces of the two countries with places in Indian paramilitary and police institutions for Sri Lankan personnel. The office of the Defense Advisor in the Sri Lanka High Commission ought to be strengthened.
The Sri Lankan government is working out a proposal on the touchy fishing issue in the Palk Strait, according to Moragoda. He advocates a “humane approach” to the “genuine problems faced by fishermen on both sides of the maritime boundary.” He also calls for joint research in fisheries and marine resources and cooperation to set up a mechanism for disaster management. The soft-line on this issue may be attributed to the Indian political sensitivity, given the fact that fishermen are a large vote bank.