Army chief General Dalbir Singh kicks off on Sunday a five-day visit to Colombo where he could discuss upgrading the island nation’s ageing warplanes, tanks and air defence guns as part of New Delhi’s efforts to curb China’s growing influence over Sri Lanka.
If Colombo’s request to upgrade and overhaul its defence equipment goes through, it would mark a sharp turnaround in India’s policy to not supply lethal military hardware to its southern neighbour because of domestic political compulsions. “Broadening military cooperation is under active consideration,” a defence ministry source said.
India’s traditional reluctance to meet Sri Lanka’s military requirements due to Tamil Nadu politics has forced the neighbour to turn to China and Pakistan, causing a sense of discomfort in New Delhi. That could change as PM Narendra Modi’s party has a majority in the lower House of Parliament. Singh is expected to hold talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, who holds the defence portfolio, and the top military leadership.
The visit will take the army chief back to his first battlefield as the Indian Peace Keeping Force operation was one of the most defining moments of his career. Singh’s unit was one of the first to be inducted in Sri Lanka in 1987 but suffered more than 20 casualties, including the commanding officer and a company commander.
Though posted at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun as an instructor at the time, Singh volunteered to join his unit and was in Jaffna within 24 hours of the tragedy hitting his unit. Over the next two years, he saw action in Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Valvettithurai where LTTE chief V Prabhakaran was born. He is expected to visit the IPKF war memorial at Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte.
Colombo has in the past sought from India unmanned aerial vehicles, deep penetration bombs, rockets, night vision goggles and spares for its fighters. But India did not oblige. India was too slow to even respond to a Sri Lankan request for six horses in 2012, while Pakistan almost immediately dispatched the animals to Colombo.