Round table on India-Sri Lanka Relations
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Experts and scholars from Pathfinder Foundation, Sri Lanka and members of VIF Faculty discussed a broad range of bilateral issues between India and Sri Lanka on 09 December 2014. The Sri Lankan team was led by Amb. Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman, and consisted of two other scholars, Dr. VK Valsan and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy. General NC Vij, Director, VIF, led the VIF’s battery of experts, including, among others, Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney, Amb RS Kalha, Amb TCA Rangachari, Mr CD Sahay, and Lt Gen Ata Hasnain. Held over five grueling sessions, the interaction ranged across a complex web of intricate issues confronting the bilateral relationship, inter alia, Tamil ethnicity, fisheries issue, and China’s growing footprints in the Indian Ocean.

In his opening remarks, General Vij highlighted India’s close proximity to Sri Lanka, both in terms of geography and cultural and civilisational linkages dating back 5,000 years. While India’s relationship with Sri Lanka has been traditionally warm and friendly, in recent years, especially since the beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War in the 1980s, new dimensions have been added to the relationship, posing tough diplomatic challenges, especially to India. He, however, said the upcoming celebrations marking 2000 years of Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment would provide an opportunity to both countries to get closer to each other.

Strategic and security issues, including extra-regional influence, were discussed in the first session. With Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney in the Chair, two presentations were made, one each by Amb. Bernard Goonetilleke and Amb RS Kalha. The issue of maritime security in the Indian Ocean, especially the recent docking of a Chinese submarine off the Sri Lankan coast largely dominated the proceedings in this session. It emerged from the discussions that while sea-piracy remains a genuine concern for all, it is being used as a pretext by some extra-regional powers to amass disproportionate naval strength in the Indian Ocean, posing serious threats to security and safety of strategic sea lanes of communication. The visiting side, however, said ports built with Chinese assistance in Sri Lanka would be used for commercial purposes only, while no anti-India activities would be allowed to be carried out from within Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. They also added Sri Lanka has the political maturity not to allow activities which may affect India’s security.

With Amb TCA Rangachari chairing the second session, Lt Gen Ata Hasnain and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy shared their perspectives on the extremist threats to South Asia. Various manifestations and trends of terrorism in the region were also discussed by them. While General Hasnain dwelt on the religious dimension of terrorism, Dr. Coomaraswami touched upon the identity politics in Sri Lanka. The latter shed light on the various facets of extremist threats to Sri Lanka, including Tamil nationalist extremism and Buddhist Sinhala extremism. He said while there are no global templates available on how best to tackle terrorism, strengthening democratic institutions and balancing interests of all sections of the society are among measures required to be taken to prevent the rise of radicalisation. In the context of Sri Lanka, it was highlighted that magnanimity and toughness should go hand in hand in dealing with violent extremism / nationalism.

The agenda for discussion in the third session was bilateral economic cooperation, with a special focus on infrastructure development. The session was chaired by Amb Bernard Goonetilleke with Vice Admiral Anup Singh and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy on the panel. The discussion brought home the point that while there is close geographical proximity between India and Sri Lanka, its advantages have been lost due to lack of infrastructure development. The Admiral said while the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) signed between the two countries in 1998 serves as a model for other countries, especially for differently-sized countries, the need however is to move from FTA to CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) regime, a win-win situation for both. Besides laying emphasis on infrastructure development, other potential areas for economic cooperation identified by him included tourism expansion, maritime economy, and services – health, education and training etc. Dr. Coomaraswamy, on his part, said Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to SAARC leaders for his swearing in and his subsequent visits to neighbouring countries have set off positive trends for resetting the economic bilateral cooperation. While the speaker hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign will have positive spin offs for Sri Lanka, he also stressed on the need for reducing the level of trust deficit between the two neighbours.

With Amb Rajagopalan in the Chair, the Fourth Session extensively dealt with bilateral political aspects, including Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment, India’s political compulsions vis-à-vis Tamil issue, anti-India forums in Sri Lanka, and non-compliance of bilateral agreements, among others. While Dr. Valsan said ‘our sovereignty and your security’ remains the concomitant theme of Indo-Sri Lankan relations, Amb Goonetilleke analysed the anatomy of contentious fisheries issue between the two countries. Since the fisheries issue is also a livelihood issue, it needs to be approached from a humane angle, the latter said. His prognosis for resolving this contentious issue lay in regulating ‘illegal’ fishing activities under a licensing regime. Amb Goonetilleke, however, flagged Sri Lanka’s security concerns as regards illegal shipment of drugs and weapons by the fishing communities. Amb Rajagopalan urged the need for quite diplomacy between India and Sri Lanka in so far as repatriation of over 100,000 ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans from India and rehabilitation and resettlement of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka are concerned.

The final session was devoted to cultural and religious issue, with a focus on dialogue between Buddhism and Hinduism. There were two speakers in this session – Dr. Valsan and Prof. Makkhan Lal. While Dr. Valsan gave a fascinating account of different facets of Buddhism, dwelling especially on how Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka are different from Buddhists elsewhere, Prof. Makkhan Lal, quoting profusely from Vedas and Upanishads, argued that Hinduism and Buddhism are essentially one and the same.

The interaction concluded with an understanding reached between the heads of the two participating institutions to carry forward the dialogue process through periodic exchanges.

Event Date 
December 9, 2014
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