New Delhi, Sept. 24: Foreign minister Salman Khurshid will travel to Colombo on October 7 offering the hope of a thaw in relations with Sri Lanka after sustained tension while holding out the veiled threat of a diplomatic snub if the island nation refuses to accept India’s requests.
Khurshid’s journey across the Palk Straits is aimed at signaling quiet approval for the first ever provincial elections conducted by Sri Lanka in its Tamil-dominated north, swept by the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of Tamil parties critical of Colombo, top government officials here told The Telegraph.
But Khurshid will also “unambiguously” list out a set of assurances India will need before committing to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s participation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that Colombo is hosting in November, the officials said.
“This visit is aimed at testing the waters around Sri Lanka,” a diplomat said. “If the waters appear warm, the Prime Minister will visit Colombo, but if they’re cold, we’re willing to send a cold message to our neighbours.”
The external affairs minister will meet his counterpart G.L. Peiris, and is also expected to meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse to articulate India’s concerns.
Sri Lanka’s decision earlier this year to push for changes to the 13th amendment to its Constitution, which guarantees autonomy to regional councils like the one recently elected in the island’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province, triggered heated exchanges between Colombo and New Delhi.
The constitutional amendment was the direct outcome of a treaty signed by India and Sri Lanka in 1987 under which Colombo promised greater civil rights to its Tamil population that has historic roots in Tamil Nadu. India argued that any change in the amendment would represent the violation of an international pact.
Domestically, the Manmohan Singh government came under attack from both the major parties in Tamil Nadu — the DMK and the AIADMK — that accused it of not responding stridently enough to Colombo’s plan. The southern Indian state offers 39 seats in the national elections to the Lok Sabha expected by May next year.
A series of arrests of Indian Tamil fishermen by Sri Lankan forces on charges of straying into the island’s territorial waters added to tensions between the neighbours. India has summoned the Sri Lankan high commissioner in New Delhi on multiple occasions over the past three months to register its protest against the arrests, and to emphasise its concerns over the proposed changes to the 13th Amendment.
Although Sri Lanka has sent the proposal to tweak or scrap the 13th amendment to a parliamentary consultative panel, effectively placing it in cold storage for the time being, India wants a firmer assurance that Tamils on the island will not be hurt. “The Government of Sri Lanka has honoured its commitment to the international community to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council,” the ministry of external affairs said in a statement on Tuesday. “We look forward to the implementation of other important commitments made to the international community, including the full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond it.”
Khurshid will also ask Sri Lanka to steer clear of any legal action against Indian fishermen.
For Sri Lanka, battered by two decades of a bloody civil war between its military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the CHOGM meet represents a coming-out party. Participation by some of the world’s top leaders – from India, Britain, Australia, Canada and other major Commonwealth nations – would help Sri Lanka counter charges it frequently faces of human rights violations both in the war against Tamil rebels and in subsequent rehabilitation efforts.
But both the DMK and the AIADMK have demanded that Prime Minister Singh boycott the meet. India will participate – but is still to decide whether Singh should attend. Canada is also contemplating whether its Prime Minister should attend the meet.