Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signaled a less confrontational turn in India's often prickly relations with its smaller and weaker neighbors today as he and Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene flew together to Bangladesh to express sympathy to cyclone victims there.
In an area where form is often considered as important as substance, the idea of two national leaders flying off to express solidarity with the head of a neighboring country was described as "an unprecedented diplomatic event" by the Times of India.
Indian officials and diplomats from South Asian nations agreed that Gandhi's act set a new tone for relations with neighboring nations, who often see New Delhi as the bully on the block.
Relations with neighboring countries, Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari acknowledged in a speech here Friday, are not as good as India wants.
Gandhi and Jayewardene interrupted talks here on a search for ways to settle the insurgency in Sri Lanka by Tamil extremists. In Dhaka, they met Bangladesh President Hussein Mohammed Ershad and toured devastated lowlands of that country, where as many as 6,000 persons died in a cyclone eight days ago.
Jayewardene has accused India of supporting the Sri Lankan insurgency by allowing Tamil separatists to run training camps on Indian territory. India denies that charge and insists that Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority has to give more local autonomy to minority Tamils, who have settled largely in northern and eastern provinces just across the narrow Palk Strait from India's Tamil Nadu State.
The issue is a ticklish one for Gandhi's government, because the Sri Lankan Tamils -- predominantly Hindu, as are most Indians -- have drawn great sympathy from Indian Tamils in Tamil Nadu. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist.
Violence in Sri Lanka during the past two years, moreover, has forced about 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils to seek refuge in India.
The influx of refugees raised concern that India might give military aid to the Tamil separatists in much the same way it helped Bengali Moslems split off East Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971.
But these concerns have been eased as India appears to be trying to fashion a solution that will end the insurgency and allow the refugees to return to their homes in Sri Lanka.
Leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front have met with Indian officials to press the point that they and the Tamil militants should be included in talks with the Jayewardene government.
According to United News of India, the Tamil front's demands include withdrawal of Sri Lanka's Army and commando forces from Tamil areas, lifting of restrictions on movements in the largely Tamil areas of the country and the restoration of civil administration there.
The seriousness of the problem was underscored by reports in today's papers that Tamil separatists had killed at least 50 persons Friday in raids on Sinhalese villages in Sri Lanka.
In many ways, however, the symbolism of Gandhi taking Jayewardene with him to Dhaka overshadowed their talks on Sri Lanka's Tamil problem.
The joint trip provided the first clear sign that Gandhi was going to take a less confrontational attitude toward India's neighbors than did his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated last October.