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Indian engagement in Lanka

Unlike the West, the Lankan media appears more optimistic as regards India's role in peace bid, writes Meenakshi Iyer.

india Updated: May 15, 2006 11:23 IST

When Mahatma Gandhi visited Sri Lanka in 1927, he referred to the then Ceylon as India's "daughter state".

Even the Father of nation was amazed to see the cultural, spiritual and religious affinities that the two nations shared.

Over the years, bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have seen many ups and downs. There were instances that had the potential to transform the neighbours into bete-noires.But fortunately that didn't happen.

As the Father of India himself said in 1939, "it is, at least it should be, impossible for India and Ceylon to quarrel".

Despite the sour experience of the 1980s, bilateral relations have been on a continuous upswing.

Beginning with a Free Trade Agreement, which the two sides signed in December 1998, India and Sri Lanka are now thinking of an Open Skies Agreement as well as a Defence Cooperation Agreement.

It may be recalled that India had offered Sri Lanka, a creditline of $100 million to Sri Lanka in June 2002. Recently, Colombo agreed to offer an oil and gas exploration block to India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) on a preferential basis.

The visits by Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera this year have further cemented ties.

Also, India's policy of non-intervention in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has immensely brought down the fear factor in the island.

"It is vital that Sri Lanka sustains close rapport with India on questions of a crucial nature. The norms of good neighbourliness obliges us to keep India informed of developments which are likely to affect her national interests and vice versa," Sri Lanka's leading paper Daily News says.

Conflict resolution

As its closest neighbour, India is keenly watching developments in Sri Lanka, which includes a sudden flare up in violence. And there are chances of a slide back to war.

Sri Lankans are living on the edge, and Indians know it. New Delhi has called for an early resumption of talks between the government and the Tigers in Geneva.

But Western diplomats feel that India should play a more active role in ensuring stability in Sri Lanka rather than just condemn the everyday attacks in the Serendip.

Perhaps India is buying time.

As MR Narayan Swamy, an expert on Sri Lankan affairs puts it: "For now, India will watch and see if the co-chairs can persuade the LTTE to return to the Geneva peace talks. If that happens, New Delhi will see how it can contribute more actively to the peace process.

While the West remains cynical about India's role, the Sri Lankan media appears more optimistic.

"…It need hardly be said that India has right along followed a consistent policy in regard to our conflict. She has…supported an equitable, peaceful solution to this conflict, which addressed the legitimate aspirations of all our communities…says the Daily News.

Further, the paper says, "…India's help would always be available to us in the task of ending our conflict by peaceful means."

The Sri Lankan Tamils would, however, like India to support the Tamil cause for federalism and autonomy, if not outright secession.

But as the Tamil daily Sudar Oli put it, neutrality itself would be of help. It is enough if the Indians remained neutral and do not arm the Sri Lankan state to crush the Tamils militarily, the Tamil media says.

While the Sinhala majority is angry at New Delhi for not signing the Defence Cooperation Agreement and not selling lethal weapons to Sri Lanka, the Tamil minority is happy that New Delhi has refrained from doing so.   

While India cannot support terrorism and separatism, it is all for regional autonomy and federalism.

New Delhi has been pressing, albeit gently, the Rajapaksa government to bring about a Sinhala consensus on a political solution, ideally, a federal solution.

The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera have not rejected this suggestion. They have said that they are trying to find a consensus through all party meetings.

India, which has big plans for investments in Sri Lanka, is pressing for a peaceful resolution of the ethnic problem, for its own sake, as well as the sake of Sri Lanka.