During a one-hour virtual meeting between Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, both leaders expressed consensus that the ancient cultural links between India and Sri Lanka should be nurtured and enhanced.
“Testifying to the long-standing civilizational links and cultural heritage, Prime Minister Modi announced grant assistance of US$15 million for the promotion of Buddhist ties between the two countries,” said joint secretary Amit Narang of the Indian Ocean Region Division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. “The grant will assist in deepening people-to-people linkages between the two countries in the sphere of Buddhism.” (WION)
According to the ministry, the initiative will focus on the construction and renovation of Buddhist monasteries, capacity development, cultural exchange, archaeological cooperation, reciprocal exhibition of relics of Shakyamuni Buddha, and strengthening engagement and exchanges between scholars and clergy members.
The discussions were held in a friendly, frank and cordial manner, Narang said, adding that the success of the first-ever virtual bilateral summit between the New Delhi and Colombo amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions reflected the commitment of the two leaders to advancing relations.
Observers noted that the summit was also aimed at building on cooperation over common concerns, such as tourism, economic growth, and national security, while acknowledging that China would seek to continue to play an economic and diplomatic role in Sri Lanka’s development.
During the summit, the two leaders reviewed a range of bilateral matters, exchanging views on regional and international issues, the economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and defense partnerships to stabilize the southern Indian Ocean.
In his address, Modi observed that India’s “neighborhood first” policy meant prioritizing its relationship with Sri Lanka: “The relations between India and Sri Lanka are thousands of years old. According to my government’s neighborhood-first policy and SAGAR doctrine, we give special priority to relations between the two countries.” (Hindustan Times)
Modi also urged the Sri Lankan side to work toward ensuring equality, justice, peace, and dignity for the country’s mainly Hindu Tamil community within a united Sri Lanka through constitutionally bound reconciliation.
In a bid to promote Buddhist tourism and pilgrimage, India recently upgraded its airport in Kushinagar, the site of the parinirvana of the historical Buddha, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. India plans to receive a delegation of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka on the inaugural flight to the new international airport.
India has already undertaken a number of cultural projects in Sri Lanka, among them constructing the 12-floor Jaffna Cultural Centre—comprising a 600-seat auditorium, a multimedia library with research facilities, exhibition and gallery space, a conference hall, a museum, and an education wing for vocal and instrumental music, dance and language classes. During their meeting on Saturday, Rajapaksa invited Modi to Sri Lanka to inaugurate the project.
“Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa made special mention of the Jaffna Cultural Centre, an iconic project built with Indian assistance” said joint secretary Narang. “The Centre is almost ready and PM Rajapaksa extended an invitation to PM Modi to inaugurate the project.” (BusinessWorld)
Buddhism is the state religion of Sri Lanka, with 70.2 per cent of the population of some 20 million people identifying as Theravada Buddhists, according to census data for 2012. Hindus made up 12.6 per cent of Sri Lankans, while Muslims accounted for 9.7 per cent, Christians 7.4 per cent, and others 0.05 per cent. As the state religion, Buddhism receives special privileges under the constitution, although the constitution also stipulates freedom of religion and right to equality for all citizens.
In India, a constitutionally secular state, just 0.7 per cent of the population of some 1.3 billion identify as Buddhists, according to census data for 2011. Hindus accounted for 79.8 per cent, Muslims 14.2 per cent, Christians 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.7 per cent, Jains 0.4 per cent, others 0.7 per cent, and unaffiliated 0.2 per cent.