In a step that can irk its Tamil Nadu partners, the UPA government is moving towards balancing its approach between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, aimed at addressing the view that New Delhi’s interests in the island nation are Tamil-centric. The China factor, too, has triggered this change in mindset.
New Delhi wants to delay the opening of its consulate in the Tamil-dominate Jaffna to coincide it with the inauguration of the consulate in the Sinhalese-majority Hambantota, 240 km south of capital Colombo.
While there is an Indian High Commission in Colombo, the only Indian consulate in Lanka is at Kandy — another Tamil-dominated area of plantations.
Jaffna consulate was expected to be opened soon, and the external affairs ministry had tipped V. Mahalingam, the Regional Passport Officer, Delhi, as consul general.
“The Hambantota consulate will be ready for opening soon, so the inauguration of the two consulates can take place at the same time”, said a senior government official, adding that “regional and other factors” have been taken into account in taking such a decision.
Hambantota — like Galle, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Moneragala and Polonnaruwa — have 90 per cent Sinhalese population.
There has, of late, been a lot of criticisms about India “conceding” ground to China in the island nation. These criticisms, sources say, have played in the minds of the external affairs ministry while choosing Hambantota for opening a consulate.
Hambantota is a major centre of Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. The Hambantota District Development Zone, which includes the development of a deep water harbour by the Chinese, is expected to be completed by 2020.
This zone in Hambantota is said to be on the lines of the China’s Gwadar project in Pakistan — a harbour for Chinese flagged merchant vessels, container carriers, oil and gas tankers, military vessels, etc.
Strategically, with Hambantota, Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has been further consolidated, and this port project is the latest in a series of steps that China has taken in recent years to consolidate its access to the Indian Ocean and to secure sea-lanes.
Hambantota is also the home district of President Mahinda Rajapakse.
Sources also said the rehabilitation of Tamil and the devolution of power to them will top the agenda when Rajapakse arrives India on June 8. “We are also moving further in helping the rehabilitation projects, including providing housing for the displaced,” said an external affairs ministry official.