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India eyes up closer links to Eelam as finance minister visits island

India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman concluded a visit to Sri Lanka last week, where she travelled to both Jaffna and Trincomalee before addressing a business summit on “Enhancing Connectivity”, as New Delhi aims to grow closer ties to the Tamil homeland.

Sitharaman arrived in Colombo, before travelling to the Eastern Province where she opened a branch of the State Bank of India. India’s finance ministry tweeted that the SBI “is the oldest bank in Sri Lanka and continues to grow its business at home and abroad”. She went on to open another branch of the bank in Jaffna – the second in the city so far.

The two new branches in the North-East, come in addition to a branch in Kandy, and others in Colombo. Almost all the branches are now in Tamil-dominated areas.

Whilst in Trincomalee, Sitharaman also visited the Lanka Indian Oil Company complex in the port city. In 2022, the Sri Lankan government signed a long-awaited agreement with India that would allow New Delhi to restore at least 75 oil tanks in the eastern city – one of several projects in the Tamil homeland that had Indian involvement.

During the visit, the finance minister commissioned two tanks, each with 10,000 MT capacity, that were recently renovated and upgraded by the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC).

Read more on the deal: Sri Lanka’s Indo-phobia and Gammanpila’s U-turn - A closer look at the Trinco oil deal

Sitharaman also paid a trip to the Thirukoneswaram Temple, an ancient Saivite temple in the city.

In Jaffna, the minister visited both the historic Nallur Kanadaswamy Temple, as well as the Jaffna Public Library – a treasured institution that was burnt down by Sri Lankan mobs in 1981 and the Jaffna Cultural Centre.

The Jaffna Cultural Centre was built with Indian grant assistance of $11 million, with the foundation stone of the building laid by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.

Sitharaman also travelled to Kandy, where she was the keynote speaker for ‘NAAM 200’, an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of arrival of India-origin Tamils to Sri Lanka.

A Tamil herself, she started her keynote address by clasping her hands and saying “vanakkam” to rapturous applause from the crowd. In the audience sat Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe, foreign minister Ali Sabry and accused war criminal Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“As we enhance connectivity between the two countries, we build enduring bridges of experience and opportunities for our people,” said Sitharaman, as she pledged the construction of houses and for India to send teachers to assist the historically discriminated Malayagha Tamil community. “The Indian origin Tamils will continue to play an important role in shaping a shared future for our two countries,” she added.

She concluded her keynote address by stating that she wished to speak in Tamil and praised the Tamil community in the region.

Listen to her full speech, in English and Tamil, below.

Also present at the event was the Tamil Nadu head of the BJP, K Annamalai, who also delivered an address to the crowd. Speaking to the British Tamil diaspora in London earlier this year, Annamalai maintained that he would never forget the atrocities committed against Tamils in 2009 and pledged that India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would deliver a political solution for Tamils.

Back in Colombo, Sitharaman signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on solar electrification of religious places in Sri Lanka, for which India will allocate INR 82.40 crore out of the GOI grant assistance of INR 107.47 crore, which was previously earmarked for the promotion of Buddhist ties.

Earlier this year, India and Sri Lanka agreed to jointly construct a 135-MW solar power plant in Trincomalee, whilst Sri Lanka’s board of investment approved the construction of two wind power plants by India's Adani Green Energy to be developed in the Mannar and Ponneryn area of the North. The announcement of the investment follows from both countries' intention to link their power grids.

Both ferry and air connectivity to the North-East, known as Tamil Eelam, to India have also been restored recently.

Read more: Tamil Eelam – Tamil Nadu links draw closer as flight and ferries set to resume

Also in Colombo, the Indian finance minister gave the Keynote Address on the theme of ‘Enhancing Connectivity: Partnering for Prosperity’ at the India Sri Lanka Business Summit, where she called for closer ties to New Delhi in a variety of fields.

See her full address below.

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