JAFFNA, Sri Lanka - Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the former war zone of northern Sri Lanka on Saturday, in a show of solidarity with ethnic Tamils who suffered in a 26-year-old civil war.
India has had historical ties with Sri Lanka, just off its southern coast, but the relationship is delicate. India's own Tamil population in southern Tamil Nadu state has long demanded greater rights for the Tamils in the island nation.
Modi, the first Indian leader to visit the Tamil heartland in Sri Lanka, hailed resumption of train service in the town of Thalai Mannar after 25 years. India part-financed construction of the railway in the town, which is just 50 km from the Indian town of Rameswaram.
Sri Lanka is the final leg of Modi's three-nation tour of island states in the Indian Ocean, an effort to re-assert Indian influence after years of neglect that saw China making inroads. Beijing has spent millions of dollars building highways and ports in post-war Sri Lanka and its submarines have been docking in the ports, rattling India.
Modi also launched the construction of a $9 million cultural centre in Jaffna, the de facto capital of the northern province, and handed over houses built with Indian aid to war-displaced Tamils.
He said the dreams of the people recovering from a long war must be realised.
"We can build thousands of houses, but it is children who can transform lives and society."
More than 100,000 people, mostly Tamils, died in the war for secession led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka crushed the LTTE in 2009 but faces international calls for an investigation into rights abuses in the final months of the war.
Modi also visited a historic library in Jaffna, which was burnt down in 1981 by a Sinhala mob. That prompted Tamil youth to take up arms demanding a separate Tamil state.
C.V. Vigneswaran, the chief minister of the northern province from Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the former political proxy of LTTE, sought Modi's support for greater autonomy for areas run by Tamils in Sri Lanka.
"We need the services of a guarantor and it is our view that the government of India under your stewardship is best suited for this role," Vigneswaran said in an address at the library.