- Anbarsan Itrajan
- BBC News – Colombo
During the ongoing protests against the government in Sri Lanka, protesters sang slogans against former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family. But they also raised slogans against India.
Slogans such as – “Do not sell the land to India and the United States”; “India: Sri Lanka is not another Indian state”; And “India: Do not take advantage of Sri Lanka’s situation” – was widely circulated during the protests.
But while such anti-India sentiment persists, the way Sri Lankans view India may change as the country grapples with a crippling crisis of political and economic chaos.
Sri Lanka is going through an unprecedented and stifling economic crisis that sparked mass protests and forced its president to resign after fleeing the country.
Over the years, Sri Lanka has accumulated a huge amount of debt – to the point where it is now struggling to buy necessities such as food, fuel and medicine.
Protesters blame Rajapaksa and his family, who fled to Singapore last week, for trapping the country in these difficult circumstances. Parliament has elected a new president.
Some parts of Sri Lanka’s political system have long viewed with suspicion the presence of its largest and most powerful neighbor, India. Many anti-Indian protests have been held in Sri Lanka over the years, by majority Sinhalese nationalists and left-wing parties.
But when Sri Lanka suddenly found itself in economic chaos a few months ago, it fled to India and the BJP government in Delhi responded with financial aid.
This was not the first time – in fact, no other country or institution has helped Sri Lanka as much as India last year.
Experts say Sri Lanka’s great financial need has somehow helped Delhi regain influence in the country of 22 million people, after China has made progress by providing loans and other forms of financial assistance for infrastructure projects over the past 15 years. supply.
Sri Lanka’s main opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, told the BBC: “India has played a very crucial role, especially during this critical time in the country. We are going through a major crisis as a country, and India has the take the initiative and support us. “
India and Sri Lanka have close cultural, religious and economic ties in a centuries-old relationship.
Delhi was a major trading partner for Colombo, which imports many products, especially food, from India. The minority Tamils living on the island also share close cultural and ethnic ties with the people of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
But Colombo has moved away from the Indian sphere of influence since 2005, after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president. The gradual transformation was promoted during its second term, which had several agreements with China on infrastructure projects, such as a port in the southern town of Hambantota.
Figures show that China has so far lent more than $ 5 billion to Sri Lanka, which is about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt.
But while Sri Lanka has sought additional loans to address its current problems – severe fuel shortages and rising food prices – Beijing has not yet committed itself to any new loans.
India, on the other hand, provided about $ 3.5 billion in credit and currency swaps. As part of the credit line, it has sent several consignments of much-needed fuel, food and fertilizer to Sri Lanka in recent months.
In addition to the loans provided by Delhi, the government of Tamil Nadu, led by State Prime Minister MK Stalin, also sent consignments of food and medicine to Sri Lanka. The political parties in Tamil Nadu recently asked Delhi to hold a meeting to discuss the development of the situation in the neighboring country.
Experts attribute the shift in Sri Lankans’ perception to the Indian financial aid provided to their country, which is estimated at billions of dollars.
“India helped on time by sending us fuel and food,” said Tyrone Sebastian, a Sri Lankan private sector employee. “Without Indian aid, it would have been difficult for Sri Lanka.”
Melanie Gunatilaki, a social activist, says she is grateful to the people of India for “showing incredible solidarity and support”.
But experts say India’s decision to aid Sri Lanka is also of strategic importance – a decision that gives Delhi leverage over its neighbor.
After India’s initial line of credit was announced in January, the two countries agreed to jointly operate 61 giant oil tanks built in Trincomalee’s north – east harbor during World War II. India has been trying for more than 30 years to gain access to the British era facility that will enable it to store strategic oil reserves.
In September, India’s Adani group acquired a majority stake in a contract to build and operate the Western Container Terminal in the strategic port of Colombo.
“I do not think any country will help us without wanting something back. Of course India will look after its interests,” Harini Amarasuriya, a Member of Parliament for the left-wing National People’s Forces Alliance, told the BBC.
Like India, says Amarasuriya, Sri Lanka must also make decisions that serve its core interests, and it remains to be seen whether the country will have to relinquish control of its economic and strategic positions.
Experts say the issue of Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and their claim to their rights will also continue to affect diplomatic negotiations with India.
Bilateral relations were strained after several Sri Lankan Tamil rebel groups sought refuge in India in the 1980s. Colombo accused Delhi of providing weapons and training to militants fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
The civil war ended with the defeat of the rebels in May 2009, and India sided with the Sri Lankan government during the war.
However, Sri Lanka did not fully implement the 1987 India-Sri Lanka peace agreement, which promised new laws to transfer powers to all provinces, including the area where Tamils were a majority.
“In the past, there has always been concern about any direct intervention by India from a political point of view,” says Amarasuriya.
But now the current economic crisis is expected to overshadow the political concerns between the two countries.
Indeed, many Sri Lankans, especially from the Tamil-dominated north, have taken refuge in Tamil Nadu due to the economic crisis, and their numbers could increase as the economic situation in the country worsens further.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities have always looked to India when they encountered problems and wanted equal rights.
But it is noteworthy that many members of the Sinhalese community, despite their old sensitivity, have also begun to appreciate India’s help in recent months.
“The IOC is still providing some supplies to keep us going,” said Mohamed Sofyan, an IT specialist.
“If it were not for India, filling stations across the country would have closed completely.”