Padma Rao Sundarji | Colombo-Delhi card games: On China, Tamils & fishers

Our fishermen face highly restricted access to traditional fishing grounds

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is like a game of cards, played at the same table, several times a year, with both sides especially coveting three particular cards. These are the China Card, the Tamil Card and the Fishermen Card. All three were in evidence during Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first official India trip last week.

The China card: China’s near-acquisition of Sri Lanka began under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He told this writer that China came in with investment only after India (then ruled by a weak, Congress-led coalition) had declined an earlier invitation. Today, Beijing holds, among other assets, a 99-year lease on an eastern Sri Lankan port and controls 43 per cent of reclaimed land adjacent to Colombo Port, which is traversed by 75 per cent of India’s trans-shipments. Sri Lanka is part of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and owes China $7.3 billion, a fifth of its overall external debt.

China feels so “at home” in helpless, debt-trapped Sri Lanka that it has sent naval submarines and a spy ship to “drop in” and intentionally provoke India.

However, there is no denying that China’s overarching presence in Sri Lanka has also provided the latter a handy “card” to play in negotiations.

Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Sri Lankan Tamil politicians when urging India to invest in their provinces, have used the China card subtly and frequently, in bilateral and multilateral negotiations.

Mr Wickremesinghe, whose presidency is supported by Mr Rajapaksa, has frequently laughed off this writer’s apprehensions about Beijing’s stranglehold. “I don’t know why you are so worried about China,” he has said in several interviews.

And yet, Colombo has repeatedly failed to prevent China from threatening India’s security. In August 2022 and just a month after Mr Wickremesinghe took office, Chinese spy vessel Yuan Wang-5 docked in Colombo. Assurances flooded across the Palk Straits to pacify New Delhi at the time, but Colombo’s China policy lacks clarity, to date. When an Indian interviewer asked Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in New Delhi recently what Colombo would do if China sends another spy vessel, he could, at best, mumble “dialogue, dialogue”.

Last week, Mr Wickremesinghe was between a rock and a hard place again. China wants to set up a powerful radar system in Dondra, in southern Sri Lanka, and the subject would have certainly been raised by India. But the visitor must have offered some guarantees, because several significant agreements were signed between the two countries.

The Tamil card: For Tamil Nadu politicians, this card has always been the ominous “joker” that made previous Congress-led coalition PMs quake with fear. The Tamil card ensured that India voted against Colombo in international forums like the UNHRC, over alleged atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils by the Sri Lankan Army, during the 30-year-long civil war against the terrorist Tamil Tigers.

Till 2014, the Tamil card guaranteed that the Congress insisted on the “full implementation” of the now-outdated 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution that promises maximum autonomy to Sri Lankan Tamils and was co-authored in 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi.

From that year on, India-Sri Lanka relations changed dramatically under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s majority government. Pragmatism and realpolitik set in.

*India refrained from voting against Sri Lanka in global referendums.

*Well aware that Sinhala nationalists held the upper hand at least since the end of the civil war, India began to acknowledge the Buddhist majority nature of Sri Lanka.

*India didn’t ignore, but no longer pandered exclusively to northern and eastern (Jaffna/Batticaloa) Tamils. Instead, New Delhi began to focus on the sorry plight of tea plantation workers (also of Indian Tamil origin but unconnected to the separatist war), in central Sri Lanka.

*Till earlier this year, India hardly ever raised the 13th Amendment in its bilateral sessions. There seemed tacit acknowledgement in New Delhi that no sovereign state would hand over police control to provinces where a 30-year-long separatist war had raged. In his speeches during his very first visit to Sri Lanka in 2015 and again on Buddha’s birthday in 2017, Mr Modi made no mention of the 13th Amendment at all.

But China’s brazen excursions to Sri Lanka and Colombo’s inability to stop them, changed all that.

India began to flex muscle.

Just after the spy ship’s arrival last year, New Delhi warned Indian tourists -- the largest group of overseas visitors in the beautiful island-nation -- not to travel there.

In a statement at UNHRC in Geneva last year, India tore into Sri Lanka for not granting autonomy to Sri Lankan Tamils.

And at a public address in New Delhi last week, Mr Modi held up the trump card. “We hope that… Sri Lanka will fulfil its commitment to implement the 13th Amendment and… ensure a life of respect and dignity for the Tamil community of Sri Lanka,” Mr Modi said.

The Fishermen card: Tamil Nadu’s fishermen poaching and being arrested in Sri Lankan waters are in Indian headlines every day. As are the losses incurred by their much poorer counterparts in Jaffna and Mannar, in the Sri Lankan media.

Consequently, the “Fishermen Card” has helped both countries – and regional capitals Jaffna and Chennai -- to cock snooks at each other, both on the domestic, as well as bilateral political front.

Fisheries is a state subject, Tamil Nadu is not governed by Mr Modi’s BJP. And yet, the subject was on the agenda in New Delhi last week.

It was also wielded by Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin as a stroke of domestic one-upmanship against both the PM, and the Tamil Nadu unit of his BJP.

“Our fishermen face highly restricted access to traditional fishing grounds, increased harassment by the Sri Lankan Navy. Make all efforts … and provide permanent relief,” wrote Mr Stalin ahead of Mr Wickremesinghe’s visit.

In the great game being played out in Sri Lanka and at least for the past year, India has maintained a steadfast upper hand.

Mr Wickremesinghe is being praised for controlling last year’s catastrophic shortages. Goodwill for India is currently high in Sri Lanka too, given New Delhi’s immediate tranche of $4 billion and its help with restructuring Colombo’s debt both at the International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club.

Last Friday, Sri Lanka’s President boarded his plane home with several deals and a good hand of cards in his briefcase.

However, his first official visit to the People’s Republic of China is due in October.
Will the cards be reshuffled again?

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