SL-India relations on sound footing

Thursday, 1 February 2024 00:00 –      – 10

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Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar urging Indians to choose Sri Lanka as their next vacation destination will without doubt boost the Lankan tourist industry. Indians already make up the largest group of foreign tourists visiting the Island and an increase in the current numbers will be welcomed by the tourism sector in particular.

Dr. Jaishankar’s comments made at an event in Mumbai this week were not intended to boost Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, but to underscore the important role that India played in bailing out its southern neighbour when the country was in the throes of its worst economic crisis.

He recalled the scenes he witnessed when he visited Sri Lanka in the middle of the crisis when long fuel queues were an everyday sight, and the country was facing shortages in food and essential goods.

“My first advice to you,” he told a young man who raised a question on India’s response to China’s strategic expansion in the Indian Ocean region, “the next time you want to take a holiday, go to Sri Lanka. I am serious. Talk to the average person there and ask them what they think about India. You will feel yourself grow with that answer.”

Sri Lanka’s relations with India have had its ups and downs. Diplomatic relations went through the worst phase under President J.R. Jayewardene’s government from 1977 onward, worsened under President Ranasinghe Premadasa and were resurrected under President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration’s decision to cosy up to China dampened relations but with India’s ”neighbourhood first” policy in operation, it seized the moment when its southern neighbour faced an unprecedented economic crisis and Sri Lanka learnt quickly how important it is to have good relations with her closest and economically strong neighbour.

When Dr. Jaishankar suggested that Indians visiting Sri Lanka talk to the average Lankan person and ask them what they think about India, he implied that most of what they get in response would be positive. But the answer is not so easy. Sri Lankans generally have a love-hate attitude toward India. Yes, they love Indian food and movies, like almost everyone else in the world, but they are also suspicious of Indians. It’s a David and Goliath equation on all levels, but many Sri Lankans are keen to jealously guard their identity as separate from India/Indians.

It’s paradoxical given that Sri Lankans, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims trace their origins to India, and the two main communities are connected through religious and cultural links going back centuries. But in spite of these deep links, Sri Lankans harbour fears of being swallowed up by India. It’s unlikely such fears will be laid to rest easily how much ever India comes to Sri Lanka’s assistance economically, but the past year and half has certainly made the average Sri Lankan’s perception of India more positive.

The JVP which has historically taken an anti-India stance and has for decades warned of the dangers of Indian expansionism, is making strong overtures to India as it gains popularity among voters. The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) too has emphasised the need for strong relations with India while the Government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe has ensured that the relations between the two countries remain solid.

Emotions aside, the hard reality is that Sri Lanka stands to gain by strong relations with India. History has shown us that any attempt to alienate India has been to the peril of our island nation. Like all relations, it is not an easy one but despite some misgivings, Sri Lanka could become India’s closest ally in the region given the former’s increasing tensions with the Maldives and hostile relations with Pakistan and China and China’s growing influence with Bangladesh and Nepal.

Sri Lanka-India relations are on a better footing today and ironically it took a crisis to put relations back on track. It’s certain that a future Sri Lanka Government too will ensure that relations with India are given priority over others.

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