India's balancing act in Colombo

Salman KhurshidSalman Khurshid at the foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of CHOGM in Colombo Thursday. (AP)

India was in damage-control mode on the eve of the Commonwealth summit on Thursday, stressing that its commitment to the relationship with Sri Lanka was strong as ever, and at the same time reassuring its ethnic Tamil population that New Delhi would do its best to ensure for them a life of dignity and respect.

The manoeuvres were necessitated by the decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to not attend the 23rd Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) — the first being hosted by an Asian member in 24 years — following pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians.

India could take some consolation from public comments made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that, despite Singh's absence, he was "satisfied" with India's participation.

Rajapaksa said it was not unusual for prime ministers to not attend the summit, and stressed that India had not boycotted the event. However, he also said that Singh's letter to him on Sunday informing him about his inability to attend, had not touched upon the Tamil issue. "The foreign minister of India is here and I am satisfied," Rajapaksa said.

Sources said the Indian delegation also lost no time in reaching out to leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which won power in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province in September, with Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh meeting its top leaders.

Sujatha Singh heard out TNA leader R Sambanthan and two TNA MPs as they described the condition of Sri Lankan Tamils since the end of the civil war in 2009, and the role India could play to improve it.

"In the past few years, India has been very active with regard to ensuring that the Tamil people in the country live with dignity and in fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of the people of the north and eastern provinces where the Tamil people are in a majority," Sambanthan said.

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