A friend of India

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST


THE death of Lakshman Kadirgamar came as a shock to the Indian government and his innumerable friends and admirers in the country. The government was quick to express its "deep shock and profound grief" on receipt of the news. The External Affairs Ministry described the assassination as a "heinous" act. External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee represented India at the funeral.

Governments from across the world were quick to condemn the killing. In their letters of condolence, many governments noted Kadirgamar's positive role in multilateral fora, especially his invaluable contributions to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). India and the international community expressed the hope that the ongoing peace process would not be disrupted because of the assassination.

Mangala Moonesinghe, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, told Frontline that among Kadirgamar's sterling contributions to the country, his key role in restructuring the country's foreign service stood out. Kadirgamar, during his three stints as Foreign Minister, "professionalised" the functioning of the island-nation's Foreign Office, Moonesinghe said.

Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Sri Lankan leader of the Opposition, who was in New Delhi in the third week of August, said that Kadirgamar's assassination was a result of the "tragic and senseless conflict" that has been plaguing the island-nation. Wikremesinghe, who delivered the eighth Dinesh Singh Memorial Lecture, reminded the audience that the repercussions of the conflict had spread to India with tragic consequences. According to him, the evolution of events in the past 15 years has intertwined the destinies of Sri Lanka and India.

It was no secret that Kadirgamar was deeply sceptical of the LTTE's bona fides. New Delhi too has not been fully convinced about the LTTE's commitment to the ongoing peace process. Moreover, Kadirgamar was critical of Norway's role in the peace process and often called for a re-calibration of the facilitator's involvement. India shares the same perceptions, though of late the Norwegians and other countries such as Japan and the United States, which are actively involved in the peace process, have kept the Indian government in the loop.

Many Sri Lankans, belonging to both the ruling coalition and the Opposition, want India to give up its hands-off policy and play a more proactive role in the Sri Lankan peace process in order to ensure that the island-nation's territorial integrity is maintained. While in New Delhi, Wikremesinghe said that most Sri Lankans, cutting across party lines, considered India to be an "integral part" of the ongoing peace process. The Indian government, he said, continued to be fully informed of the progress being made. "Our position, considering the sensitivities encountered in the past, is to provide India with the opportunity to assist us in the peace process in ways that are mutually useful and sustainable," said Wikremesinghe. He called for "out of the box thinking" to end the ethnic conflict and asked for India's involvement.

Officially, the Indian government supports all actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to resolve the ethnic conflict peacefully within the territorial unity and integrity of the country through a negotiated settlement consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is committed to the peace process. The Common Minimum Programme of the UPA reiterates support for the peace talks "that fulfil the legitimate aspirations of Tamils and religious minorities within the territorial integrity and solidarity of Sri Lanka".

In the last couple of years, the two countries have established strong defence links. India, along with other countries, has an active bilateral defence cooperation with Sri Lanka, including arms supplies, training and intelligence sharing. Speaking in Parliament in the last week of July, Pranab Mukherjee, said that a defence cooperation agreement between the two countries, proposed by Sri Lanka, was under the consideration of the government. At the same time, he clarified that no institutionalised dialogue was on between India and Sri Lanka in the matter. The LTTE has on many occasions conveyed its "serious concerns" over the growing defence links between India and Sri Lanka.

Kadirgamar played an important role in strengthening India-Sri Lanka relations - the bilateral engagement continued upon during the subsequent United National Party (UNP) administration. Kadirgamar understood New Delhi's compulsions on emotive issues such as the Sethusamudaram canal project. The project is controversial in Sri Lanka too. Kadirgamar invariably opted for a "cooperative and consultative" approach when thorny issues cropped up between the two countries.

In recent years there were frequent bilateral political exchanges between the two sides. Economic cooperation was intensified in the trade, civil aviation and shipping sectors. India's assistance in relief operations following the devastating tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in December 2004 came in for praise. Indians constituted the largest component of tourists to the island in the first six months of 2005. Kadirgamar himself was a frequent visitor to New Delhi; he had undergone a life-saving operation in the Indian capital.

The Indian government, like the rest of the international community, suspects the LTTE's hand in the assassination. A former Indian intelligence official, who has first-hand knowledge of the activities of the Tigers, said that Kadirgamar was a "marked man" since the 1990s.

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