Apart from this being his first official visit abroad since election as President on January 8, there was other symbolism too of the opportunity and purpose of President Maithripala Sirisena's visit to India. The most striking of this was the release of 87 Indian trawlers held in custody by Sri Lanka and India freeing 22 Sri Lankan fishing boats in its custody. This was a prelude to what has clearly become the most significant and impact full visit by a Sri Lankan leader to India in several decades.
The reception accorded to President Sirisena reached a height of warmth and grandeur, with the necessary reflection of interest in new ties between the two countries. It took one's mind back to relationships that existed between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders from the beginning of Non-alignment in international affairs, which saw the understanding between Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Prime Minister of Ceylon, SWRD Bandaranaike. The relationship became richer with the reception accorded to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike during the time of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and seen in practical terms with agreement reached on the resolution of the issue of "stateless" persons of Indian origin who were mainly in the plantation sector, and the recognition of Sri Lanka's rights over Kachchativu.
Very significantly, this visit saw a new commitment to Non-alignment that was a key factor in the good relations between India and Sri Lanka, during the time of the Cold War and the division of the world into two rival blocks. There are indications that the Sirisena administration in Sri Lanka is paying more attention to following a genuine policy of Non-alignment, unlike the purely verbal declarations about it in the recent past.
Observers of relations between India and Sri Lanka in both countries, and those with memories of the past, are largely agreed that the reception accorded to President Maithripala Sirisena exceeded both in colour, grandeur, and substance the Indira Gandhi-Sirimavo Bandaranaike days, and clearly indicated the beginning of a new trend in Indo-Lanka relations, that has particular significance in the South Asian region; with all signs of the beginning of a deeper understanding between the two countries. This is well in keeping with the historical and cultural ties that bind the two countries and their people, as well as mutual commitment to the democratic process and good neighbourliness, both of which were under considerable threat in the recent years, through developments in Sri Lanka.
Support against LTTE
One must recall here the strong support that India extended to Sri Lanka in the final stages of the fight against the separatist terrorism of the LTTE when, despite a general election campaign being underway in India, the then Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee (now President of India) and National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon gave a clear green light to the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to go ahead with its military operations to defeat the forces of terror. The subsequent decline in the good relations, largely due to the failure of the previous government to go ahead with a genuine process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka; the failure to build a peace that touched the hearts and minds of all people, but was confined to geographical unity caused largely by its commitment to the politics of ethnic superiority in numbers, was a considerable problem for Sri Lanka's ties not only with India, but with other countries and regions of the world, too. This does not wholly preclude the pressures that the Indian Government was getting, from the pro-Tamil separatist political groups of South India, particularly Tamil Nadu.
The visit to India by President Maithripala Sirisena at the very beginning of his new and clearly decisive term as President of Sri Lanka, has seen a most welcome move away from the policies of the past that saw the hollow utterances about India being not only our neighbour but our closest kinsman too, while stronger bonds were being built with others that clearly led to concerns within India.
The grandeur of the initial reception accorded to President Sirisena and Mrs. Jayanthi Sirisena at Rashtrapathi Bhavan by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee; the bi-lateral talks that took place between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the instruments of understanding and progress in action signed between the two countries; and, the final State Banquet at Rashtrapathi Bhavan, all contributed to the reaching of new heights in the Indo-Lanka relationship, with much promise for further expansion and strengthening in the future. Such expansion is indicated by the expected visit here next month by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leading to a new dynamic in Indo-Lanka relations.
Nuclear energy and agriculture
Of the instruments signed between Sri Lanka and India in New Delhi this week, the most important is that on Cooperation in the Peaceful use of Nuclear Energy. This covers a very wide range of activity of special importance to Sri Lanka in the search for new technology and the use of nuclear energy, with ground breaking action to facilitate the development and strengthening of scientific, economic, and technical cooperation in a highly specialized field. It looks forward to specific projects in relation to transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources and experience, and capacity building. There will be focus, among other matters, on applied research in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology; production and utilization of radioactive isotopes in industry, agriculture, water management; health care including nuclear medicine. This comprises a very wide area of activity, between two neighbour, in the context of the rapid globalization of economies, and the search for sources of energy that are less harmful to the environment, with the possibility of easing our dependence of imported fossil fuels. This also has considerable importance in expanding the opportunities for development of knowledge and skills among the youth who are eagerly seeking such progress.
Another important instrument signed is The Work-Plan for 2014-2015 under the existing MoU on Cooperation in the field of Agriculture. This provides for collaborative programmes in agriculture, including post-harvest technology, agricultural science and technology, agricultural extension and farmer linkages, horticulture exchange, training in the field of farm mechanization; knowledge on livestock disease, and plant quarantine. In a country where the vast majority of the population is engaged in agriculture, and where the development of the rural sector is of increasing importance, this will offer many new opportunities for progress through the availability of new agro-technology, as well as providing new areas of training for the youth, especially in the rural sector.
There was also a MoU on the Establishment of Nalanda University, which encourages networking and collaboration with Nalanda University, the great historical centre of learning which is being re-established in India. This will give opportunities for existing Centres of Excellence in Sri Lanka to interact with Nalanda, enabling to build an Asian community of learning with regional awareness. A related understanding was in widening the scope of the Cultural Cooperation Agreement of 1977, to encourage exchanges of professionals / artistes between India and Sri Lanka, the conduct of cultural, educational programs in the areas of Performing Arts, Visual Art, Exhibitions, Museums, Libraries, Archives and Cultural Documentation, and Archaeology.
A new path
The wide scope of the instruments signed, and the overall quality of the reception accorded to the Sri Lankan President, which is also in keeping with Prime Minister Modi's own demonstrated interest in stronger bonds within South Asia, gives good cause to recognize that with this visit by President Sirisena the relations between India and Sri Lanka have been reinforced. It shows a clear move towards a new direction and dynamic in neighbourly relations, as neighbours with a commitment to democracy, and Sri Lanka's new vision in international relations, taking cognizance of new trends in the rising Asia, and the related positions of the major economic and political powers of the world.
President Sirisena was clearly cutting a new path in the development of relations between the country's closest neighbour; the land that made the greatest contribution in culture and tradition, to the past and present progress of Sri Lanka; with continued interest and ability to contribute towards such progress and understanding in the future.