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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2427

India - Sri Lanka Relations At Cross-Roads

By Ram Singh Kalchuri - Syndicate Features

Just when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going great guns with his neighbourhood diplomacy- the latest manifestation of the policy being a visit to Kathmandu, relations with Sri Lanka appear to be nose-diving for reasons which are entirely not in control of Delhi.

Historically speaking there has been an undercurrent of uneasiness in the relations between India and Sri Lanka, and it keeps popping up at regular interval with the fishermen issue occupying the centre stage. But it has not prepared us for the uproar created by an article on the website of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence in early August.

The issue has seen a polarisation on the Tamil political spectrum with even Muthavel Karunanidhi, the DMK patriarch coming to the defence of his betenoire Jayalalithaa. It also rocked Parliament with the AIADMK members demanding that the House adopt a "strong and unanimous resolution condemning Sri Lanka" so that such incident do not recur.

There are issues of concern to Tamilnadu vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. This is undeniable. These concerns have been aggravated by the unchecked arrest of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy.

Since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India towards May-end, the President Rajapaksa has been ordering the release fishermen soon after their arrest. While this goodwill gesture is appreciated in Chennai and Delhi, what rankles most the Tamilnadu politicians is the fact that the harassment of Indian fishermen has not stopped. In fact, it continues unabated at increased frequency.

While both sides agree that the fishermen issue is as much economic as humanitarian at the core, no sustained effort has yet been launched to find a solution that would not make fishing a nightmare. The initiative for the exercise must come from Sri Lanka since it projects itself as the aggrieved party.

Now let us cut to the furor in Parliament on August 4.

The AIADMK members were aggrieved that the article on the Sri Lanka defence ministry’s web site was derogatory. The author of the post titled "How meaningful are Jayalalithaa’s love letters to Narendra Modi" is said to be a Sri Lankan freelance journalist, Shenali. D. Waduge, who is known for her advocacy of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism and pungent writings against Muslim and Tamil “separatism”.

While there can be no quarrel with her right to express her views freely, fearlessly and frankly, the fact that she had penned an outpouring of venom against Jayalalithaa, and that it found a place on the website of a ministry under the care of the brother of the President of the Island nation has incensed passions in Tamilnadu.

It must, however, be said to the credit of the Sri Lanka government that it had shown quick reflexes once Chennai woke upto the post on Aug 1; it had put in the correctives - namely rolled back the post and an tendered "unqualified" apology.

The apology read: "An article titled 'How meaningful are Jayalalithaa’s love letters to Narendra Modi?' had appeared on our website along with a graphical portrayal of Hon. Prime Minister of India and Hon Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

"The article which had been published without appropriate authorization and not reflecting any official position of the Government of Sri Lanka or Ministry of Defence and Urban Development has since been removed.

"We extend an unqualified apology to the Hon Prime Minister of India and Hon Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu".

In the normal course, the issue should have gone to the backburner once the Sri Lankan government had withdrawn the post, and expressed regrets. It did not because there are few takers at least in the Tamilnadu political scene to the contention that the post (article) was an innocuous piece.

Any web site, the defence ministry web site including, need not necessarily agree with the views of articles posted. A general disclaimer goes with opinion pieces sourced from non-staffers. But with no exception, no government site much less a defence ministry site, will stoop to the level of poking fun at the Centre-State relations of a friendly country.

In her article with a provocative heading, Shenali D. Waduge just did this. And the impression it created was that Colombo is unhappy with letters Tamilnadu Chief Minister has been writing to Prime Minister Modi on issues like fishermen arrest that have a bearing on India- Sri Lanka ties. It may have reasons to believe that Chennai is once again able to influence Delhi on Lanka matters.

So, when AIADMK leader V Maitreyan raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha, the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj responded saying the issue raised by the member was "indeed very serious". In the Lower House, parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu said, "While matters concerning diplomatic relations are dealt with delicately, this is totally unacceptable and condemnable. There is no hesitation in condemning it."

Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha witnessed two adjournments each as AIADMK members stormed the well raising slogans denouncing the Sri Lankan president. They also made out a case for the House to adopt a "strong and unanimous resolution condemning Sri Lanka" so that such incident do not recur.

Maitreyan's point was simple and straight. “The headline to the article was objectionable”, he said and maintained that the illustration that went along with the headline was "derogatory" to Jayalalithaa.

“Amma” Jayalalithaa also made the same point when she said the visual rendering on the homepage of the official website just above the link is highly objectionable as it depicted both the Prime Minister of India and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in a very trivialized, derogatory and disrespectful manner.

Maitreyan asked the External Affairs Minister whether the government would summon the Sri Lankan High Commissioner saying, “This was an insult of not only the Tamil Nadu government but also the Union government.

"We will definitely summon the high commissioner and tell him about it", Sushma Swaraj told the member signalling that the issue has literally pushed the India-Sri Lanka relations to the cross-roads of history. And she was true to her word.

Conventional wisdom tells that the issue would rock the Tamil Nadu Assembly but no such thing happened. When the opposition tried to raise the issue, Speaker P Dhanapal cited the apology tendered by Sri Lanka and ruled a discussion was not necessary. Well, this shows the maturity of Indian democracy in action.

(An abridged version of this commentary first appeared on

• The author is Delhi based SA analyst

- Asian Tribune -

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