Neighbour test for Delhi

Killings fuel tension with Lanka and Nepal

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 8.03.17
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Vice-President Hamid Ansari (left) with Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday. (PTI)

New Delhi, March 7: India was today fire-fighting both to its north in Nepal and its south in Sri Lanka after killings that threatened to push New Delhi towards fresh tensions with important neighbours that China too is wooing.

The Indian high commissioner in Colombo, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, spoke to Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to articulate India's concerns following reports that the island nation's navy had shot dead an Indian fisherman. Another Indian fisherman was wounded.

The Sri Lankan navy has denied the claim while promising a probe, but New Delhi's promptness points to the Narendra Modi government's hopes for legislative support from Tamil Nadu's principal parties.

In Kathmandu, the Indian ambassador Ranjit Rae spoke to officials in Nepal's foreign ministry to convey New Delhi's worries after police shot dead three Madhesi protesters yesterday, senior officials said. Many in the Madhesi community have family ties with people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which is in the middle of Assembly polls.

"The Government of India is deeply concerned over the killing of an Indian fisherman," foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay said. "Our high commissioner has taken up the matter with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan navy has promised a full and thorough investigation."

The killings come at a time the Modi government is trying to reassert India's role as the pre-eminent power in the region, with a flurry of visits to neighbouring countries by top diplomats.

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka and then Bangladesh last month, the trips sandwiching a two-day halt in China, which has over the past few years used its financial clout to wean South Asian nations away from India's orbit. Last month also saw junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar flying to the Maldives, the only neighbour Modi has not visited.

With Nepal, China recently held rare military exercises. Last year, Beijing and Kathmandu inked a pact to build a rail link between the landlocked Himalayan nation and the Indian Ocean through China. At present, Nepal has similar transit rights only with India.

But ties between New Delhi and Kathmandu are calmer today than they were a year ago, when a blockade along the India-Nepal land border by Madhesi groups sparked daily charges and counter-charges. Nepal accused India of sponsoring the blockade as a tit-for-tat move after Kathmandu chose not to heed New Delhi's suggestion to postpone the promulgation of a new Constitution that Madhesi groups have called unfair.

With Sri Lanka, India is celebrating a period of stability in ties while protesters are campaigning against a Chinese-sponsored strategic port project at Hambantota in the island nation.

New Delhi views the current governments in both countries as more India-friendly than their predecessors. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe replaced the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose leadership the country swung towards China.

Nepal's Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda" replaced the United Marxist Leninist party's K.P. Oli, who signed the transit pacts with Beijing and accused India of interfering in Nepal's internal matters.

But that proximity can turn into a domestic liability at times of unexpected crises, officials conceded, because the government needs to juggle the sensitivity of a key strategic partnership with political pressures to appear tough.

Today, high commissioner Sandhu leaned on Wickremesinghe to get the Sri Lankan government to respond swiftly to the shooting. "The government of Sri Lanka is deeply concerned about the alleged shooting on Indian fishermen and the connected loss of life of one fishermen and injury caused to another," the Sri Lankan foreign ministry said in a statement. "Sri Lanka is firm in its commitment to ensuring that all government agencies treat all Indian fishermen in a humane manner at all times."

Initial investigations indicate that the Sri Lankan navy was not involved in the incident, the country's foreign ministry said. "Irrespective of the parties involved, if in fact a shooting has taken place, it is a matter of grave concern, and all possible action will be taken in co-operation with relevant Indian authorities to investigate this incident," the ministry added.