Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at dinner with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on May 11, 2017.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has discussed with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cooperation in development activities including improving “connectivity” between the two countries.
But connectivity with India, especially by road, is a controversial issue in Sri Lanka as the islanders fear that it might facilitate Indian intrusion.
There was a howl of protest in Sri Lanka when it was known that during Wickremesinghe’s discussions with the Indian Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari in New Delhi in April, the latter mentioned an ADB-funded project to build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka as part of the larger Asian Road Connectivity Plan.
Officials who briefed newspersons on Thursday’s talks said connectivity in terms of establishing a Buddhist Pilgrimage Circuit was also discussed.
This of course is a non-controversial subject as more than 200,000 Sri Lankan Buddhists go to India on pilgrimage to shrines every year.
The Indian prime minister told the Sri Lankan president that the projects that India intends to execute here would be for Sri Lanka’s benefit as per his motto: “Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikas” (cooperation with all for the progress of all).
These assurances had become necessary because of the general suspicion in Sri Lanka that the Indian-aided projects and pacts with India have been of benefit to India rather than Sri Lanka, right from the time the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement was signed in the late 1990s.
Given the opposition to the signing of agreements during Modi’s visit, the spokesperson for the prime minister made it clear at the very outset that there is no plan to sign any MoU or agreement during the two-day visit. However, he added that economic projects were discussed.
Rajapaksa meets Modi
Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu said former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, at his request, met the Indian prime minister. Details of the discussion were not known.
However, earlier, Rajapaksa told the media that the visit of the Indian prime minister would not have any “negative impact” on Sri Lanka. There would be a problem only if he signed any agreement during this visit, he said.
However, he had heard that an agreement had already been signed on economic projects, Rajapaksa added.
Though the Indian prime minister is in Sri Lanka officially only to be the Chief Guest at the International Vesak Celebrations on Friday, he had come with key policymaking officials including the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar.
At the dinner hosted by President Sirisena, the guests included the Northern Province Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran and the Leader of the Opposition R Sampanthan.
The Indian prime minister was received at the airport by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, among other Cabinet ministers.
Permission for visit of Chinese submarine denied
Significantly, China had asked Sri Lanka for permission to dock a submarine at Colombo port “around” May 16, but Sri Lanka had declined to give it, Reuters quoted an unnamed official as saying.
But another official said that permission for docking at a later date could be given.
Obviously, the Sri Lankans did not want a Chinese submarine lurking in Colombo around the time of Modi's visit. In 2014, the docking of a Chinese “nuclear” submarine had raised hackles in New Delhi.
Clearly, China had made this request knowing full well that the Indian prime minister would be in Sri Lanka around the time the submarine would be in Colombo.
Sri Lanka had clearly told China that it alone has the right to determine what kind of vessels can enter its harbours, including the terminals built with Chinese funds at Colombo and Hambantota.