Taking India-Sri Lanka Relations to a Higher Threshold


Both governments of Maithripala Sirisena and Narendra Modi are eager to engage comprehensively, and develop closer bilateral relations over a wide spectrum within a matrix where their strategic interests in matters of security are not undermined, while flexibility is allowed – particularly to the smaller neighbour – to develop tactical ties with other countries such as China and US, both politically and commercially. India will have to work out a policy that does not lead to any compromise of her strategic interests, but also allows Sri Lanka tactical flexibility, supports her economic development through democratic governance and ensures her sovereignty and integrity without repercussions on India’s polity, writes Gautam Sen

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena came calling to India recently, soon after his decisive – but unexpected to many – election victory over Mahinda Rajapakse on January 8, 2015. It was a significant state visit beyond doubt, after not-too-comfortable a trend in India-Sri Lanka relations during the last stages of the previous regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse. A virtual back-to-back state visit has been undertaken by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka this month, when he made a return call on Sri Lankan President Sirisena and his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramesinghe. This incidentally, was the first visit by an Indian premier to the island nation in 28 years, since the last official visit by Premier Rajiv Gandhi leading to the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and a trail of cataclysmic events thereafter, the hangover of which still looms large over the bilateral relationship and the neighbouring nation’s polity.

Chequered History

India has always had a unique status or preponderance in Sri Lanka’s perception, national endeavour and her external relations towards the former. For India, her interest in Sri Lanka has centred basically on ethnic issues of Tamil people who migrated since the 19th century and also those of similar stock, but of much earlier antecedence, strategic disposition of the island nation vis-à-vis the Indian sub-continent and the Indian Ocean littoral, cultural ties based on Buddhism and mutual trade and commerce. India and Sri Lanka found common ground in non-alignment, and personal rapport between the erstwhile ruling Nehru-Gandhi and Bandaranaike families. Relations with India during the Sri Lanka Freedom Party regimes of Solomon and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were warmer, because of their Left-of-Centre and Socialist approach to domestic politics and adherence to non-aligned foreign policy, as compared to the period when the United National Party with a moderate pro-West leaning (though without reneging on non-alignment), ruled Sri Lanka.

However, the relations have had their ups and downs from time to time. A contributing factor for the vicissitudes was the virtually disenfranchised status of Tamils of recent origin (who had migrated from the erstwhile Madras Presidency since the early 19th century and had settled inSri Lanka’s tea, rubber and cinchona plantations in the hill country districts of Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Badulla and Matale), during the 1950s and ‘60s, their stateless position which caused discomfort in India’s Tamil Nadu (former Madras) state. There was also negative fallout of big power politics, particularly because of Western efforts to gain a foothold in Sri Lanka through navigational facilities, and installation of Voice of America (a US asset) transmission system in the island. Stability in bilateral relations was further disturbed when the discrimination was accentuated in the early ‘80s against Tamils of earlier origin, in northern and eastern districts of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known till 1972) and those residing in the Colombo capital region, including the perpetration of racial violence against this community, resulting in migration of the affected people to Tamil Nadu and the consequent humanitarian issues involved.

Even when irritants or problems arose in bilateral relations, resolution of the issues was not elusive and accommodation could be reached. Examples include the Agreement of October 1964 between Indian Premier Lal Bahadur Shastri and his Sri Lankan counterpart, Sirimavo Bandaranaike settling the citizenship status of the Tamils (of recent origin) in the hill districts of the central highlands, and the subsequent Indira-Sirimavo Agreement of 1974. However, there were disappointments also occasionally, like in 1962 after the outbreak of Sino-Indian hostilities when, on the initiative of Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a six-nation mediatory effort between India and China was launched, virtually ignoring India’s claims on the contentious Sino-Indian border issue and equating both the contestants, much to the chagrin of the latter.

The nature of polities in both India and Sri Lanka, and their parliamentary democratic nature, also helped to promote an ethos of mutual support and sustenance. This was evident through the significant and timely military support extended by the Indira Gandhi government to the Sirimavo government in 1971, on request by the latter, to curb the armed uprising by the radical Leftist Sinhala Janatha Vimukti Peramuna against the democratically installed Colombo regime. However, during the Bangladesh crisis and eventual war between India and Pakistan in the latter part of 1971, there was palpable tension between Sri Lanka and India, because of Pakistani military and civilian logistical-cum-re-fuelling over-flights allowed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government between West Pakistan and former East Pakistan. After a strong diplomatic demarche from the Indira Gandhi regime, Sri Lanka terminated such over-flights and did not counter India’s fundamental strategic interests in the sub-continent.

The Eelam Wars resulting from discrimination against the Tamils of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, since the 1980s, opened a new phase in bilateral relations. India gradually became more involved in the affairs of Sri Lanka, not in a purely traditional interventionist sense, but intrinsically for preservation and stabilisation of the latter’s polity and territorial integrity. The outcome was the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord, the institutionalisation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution at India’s behest, and projecting the issue of devolution of administrative and legislative powers, hitherto centralised in the Colombo government, to the provinces, to the forefront, and the subsequent conflict to reign in the LTTE militant secessionist group to preserve Sri Lanka’s integrity. Former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi, who was instrumental in promoting the 13th Amendment and deploying the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987 in concert with the UNP government of President Junius Jayawardene of the island country, as a consequence, lost his life later in 1991, at the hands of an LTTE assassin.

The tragic period of the Eelam War was over in 2009, with the LTTE vanquished by the Sri Lankan armed forces, with significant collateral military support from India. Relations between the two countries have moved on, and attained varied dimensions with multifarious opportunities. At present, there are no doubts about India’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s integrity – not that there were any earlier – but the moot point is how best the two countries can develop complementarity in their primary interests, particularly in the South Asian context and in the Indian Ocean littoral. Both governments of Maithripala Sirisena and Narendra Modi are eager to engage comprehensively, and develop closer bilateral relations over a wide spectrum within a matrix where, their strategic interests in matters of security are not undermined, while flexibility is allowed – particularly to the smaller neighbour, to develop tactical ties with other countries such as China and US, both politically and commercially. It will be interesting to watch how this new scenario develops, starting with the forthcoming visit of the new Sri Lankan president to China.

A Landmark Visit

Premier Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March this year seems to be a break from the past. It has gone off very well, focussed on the positive attributes of the bilateral relations, Buddhism-based cultural links (by his visit to the revered Bodhitree at Anuradhapura), on India’s commitment to the island country’s infrastructural development and integrity. The first-time visit of an Indian premier to the Tamil dominated and war-ravaged northern province and Jaffna region (to hand over India-constructed 27,000 houses in northern province, inaugurate the Talaimannar pier rail station as part of the rail network set up in the province and to assure further aid in reconstruction in the province), was a very symbolic and landmark event. It is of essence to build upon the Modi visit, in a multi-dimensional, step-by-step and non-controversial manner, to obtain mutually beneficial outcomes. It was prudent of Narendra Modi to have met former President Rajapakse, notwithstanding the latter’s public hints of India’s RAW counter-intelligence outfit having facilitated the coalescing of the anti-Rajapakse political forces within Sri Lanka under Maithripala Senanayake, for maintaining India’s political links across-the-board in the neighbouring country.

Resolution of Bread-and-Butter Issues

There are some bread-and-butter issues that need to be resolved soon. First is the tussle between Sri Lankan fishermen (Tamil fishermen of Northern Province) and their counterparts from Tamil Nadu, over fishing in each other’s territorial waters and adversely affecting the milieu for mutually beneficial fishing. Next is the requirement of repatriation of the fishermen of the two countries jailed in the neighbouring country, for intruding and fishing in the territorial waters of the country of which they are not citizens. The third issue concerns enhanced Indian assistance to augment the economic environment, imparting employable skills to local Sri Lankan Tamils for improving the livelihood conditions in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, where a large number of them have been leading a virtually dispossessed and stressful life.

Premier Modi had indicated during his latest Sri Lanka visit that, efforts are on to organise discussions between the fishermen’s bodies of both the countries, at the earliest. A resolution on this issue is of utmost importance to the fishermen of lower coastal areas of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, and more so for the fishermen of Jaffna district of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The entire livelihood of the Jaffna fishermen has been disrupted owing to sea-bed trawling, use of synthetic and gill nets by their Indian counterparts in the Gulf of Mannar and also occasionally in the Sri Lankan territorial zone (consequently taking the major part of available marine output), particularly during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War (2006-09), when the Sri Lankan Navy had tried to keep their territorial waters free from fishing by their own fishermen to prevent clandestine trans-shipment of contraband arms, etc.

For Indian fishermen, the problem is slightly different. Both the Tamil Nadu government as well as Government of India have to ensure alternative means of livelihood for the Indian fishermen, to wean them away from intensive and sometimes predatory fishing, with heavier boats and more advanced and varied equipment, in the common waters and occasionally beyond the median line in Palk Bay. New Delhi’s oversight on the inter-fishermen groups’ negotiation process is essential for a compromise solution. Financial and technical assistance from the Centre to the Tamil Nadu government will be necessary in the process, to act as a facilitator and encourage a more ‘give-away’ approach on the part of the Indian fishermen group, which is necessary from the perspective of India’s national interest.

India cannot afford to forget the original Tamil settlers in the highlands or hill country of Sri Lanka. These settlers have emotionally considered themselves Sri Lankans consistently since the country’s independence in 1948. Those who were repatriated to India under the Shastri-Sirimavo and Indira-Sirimavo Accords, returned to India, most reluctantly. Sri Lankan Minister, D M Swaminathan, during his recent visit to India along with President Sirisena, has requested India to assist in setting up 20,000 houses for plantation workers in the hill country districts. India should respond to this request, and also work out development plans jointly with the present Maithripala government, to empower the plantation people to enable them to move up the country’s human development index, and truly become a part of the Sri Lankan developmental endeavour. This would be justified considering that the hill country plantations contribute significantly to Sri Lanka’s export earnings.

Interaction in Diverse Spheres

However, financial and material aid alone should not be the instrument of India’s foreign policy approach to Sri Lanka. India has to cautiously reckon that, without an active political thrust underpinned by India’s strategic power and tactical skill, there remains the possibility of a sudden negativity in ties and obstruction to her basic interests, as was observed recently in nearby Maldives, with the overthrow of the first democratically elected government of Mohammed Nasheed and the Indian infrastructure entrepreneur, GMR being forced to withdraw from a duly contracted project there. The ferment continues in the Maldives, and India has even been reminded by the incumbent Maldivian government of the ‘Panchsheel Principles’ (the need for India to adhere to its component principle of non-interference) i.e. refrain from interfering there. Though Sri Lanka is no Maldives, considering the former’s geostrategic position vis-à-vis India, the wide array of India-Sri Lankan cultural and religion based links, apart from India’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s integrity and long tradition of democratic polity and governance, India has necessarily to pursue a policy of active engagement with its counterpart in Colombo, which is both firm and does not show the latter in a subservient position. India will have to work out a policy that does not lead to any compromise of her strategic interests, but also allows Sri Lanka tactical flexibility, supports her economic development through democratic governance and ensures her sovereignty and integrity without repercussions on India’s polity.

For the benefit of stable bilateral relations, there is a need for India and Sri Lanka to interact in various spheres. The exchanges should not be restricted to the governmental domain. At the civil society level, among intellectuals and academia, women’s groups, trade bodies, and above all, among major political parties of both countries, interactions need to be encouraged, for realistic appreciation of both countries ethos, national constraints and priorities. The outcome of such efforts can only engender stronger and mutually beneficial India-Sri Lanka relations that do not get distorted by occasional factors or at the behest of some individual political leaders. Democratic governance within Sri Lanka including devolution in subjects which affect the livelihood of the people throughout the country (as should be feasible under the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution to all its provinces including the Northern Province), will only strengthen the country’s polity. The limits of devolution and benefits of democratic governance can then be better appreciated by both Jaffna Provincial Administration and the Colombo government if they can draw upon the Indian constitutional experience. Sri Lankans may be in a position to find a solution to their devolution problems through the Indian experience. A multi-faceted interaction process could facilitate the appreciation-cum-solution, and take the bilateral relations to a higher threshold.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.