Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched for greater economic and security cooperation with Sri Lanka on Friday and sought to scotch deep-rooted suspicions about a so-called hidden Tamil agenda in New Delhi’s Colombo policy.
The first Indian Prime Minister to make a bilateral visit to the nation in 28 years offered Colombo “first claim” to India’s growing economic muscle, signing off on a slew of business pacts aimed at undercutting rival China’s considerable influence over the strategically-positioned island.
“The Indian Ocean is critical to the security and prosperity of our two countries. And, we can be more successful in achieving these goals if we work together; build a climate of trust and confidence … We are two countries at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean.”
“I will be happy if India serves as a catalyst in the progress of our neighbours,” he said during his address to lawmakers in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. “First claim (among) neighbours will be Sri Lanka,” he quickly added, attracting loud thumping of desks by MPs.
To reinvigorate a bilateral relationship that has faced several upheavals since former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1987, the agreements included pacts on easing visa regulations, simplifying trade and non-tariff barriers.
India extended a credit line of $318 million, signed a currency swap pact of $1.5 billion and decided to jointly develop an oil hub in the former LTTE hub of Trincomalee — a long-pending proposal that found little favour when pro-China former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power.
He praised new president Maithripala Sirisena for his efforts to integrate all sections of society, especially ethnic Tamils after they voted overwhelmingly for him to remove Rajapaksa, the strongman-politician who crushed a three-decade civil war waged by the LTTE. But Modi also nudged Colombo to give greater autonomy to the community.
“We believe that early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it would contribute to this process," he said, referring to the legislation on the devolution of power to Tamils.
He projected India as a neighbour that would look at the Sinhalese majority as well as the Tamils through the same eye.
The signals were clear as he announced at the Buddhist heritage town of Anuradhapura that India would build an auditorium named after Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the Sinhala-majority Matara.
As for the Tamil-dominated northern parts, India has already undertaken reconstruction of 50,000 houses for the war-ravaged people. Modi will visit Jaffna on Saturday and hand over these homes.
(With inputs from agencies)