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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 25, June 12, 2010

India-Sri Lanka | Changing Political Relationship: Post-1990 Phase

Monday 14 June 2010, by Gurnam Chand


The immediate threat to any country arises in its neighbourhood. That is why the maintenance of peace, stability and friendship with neighbouring states is considered basic to a nation’s foreign policy. India’s relations with its neighbours therefore constitute a critical component of its foreign policy. The specific geo-strategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and ethnic affinity of the Indian Tamils with the Sri Lankan Tamils have been the most important factor in their relationship. India is the closest neighbour of Sri Lanka, separated from it at its narrowest point by 22 miles of sea called the Palk Strait. The implication of such a close proximity is that developments in each country have affected the other. Sri Lanka’s strategic location caused concern to Indian security particularly because of the possibility of the involvement of external powers in the ethnic conflict. The presence of external powers there can possibly pose a serious threat to the security and unity and integrity of India as well as to regional stability.

India-Sri Lanka relations in the post-1990 period have undergone a contextual change together with changes in India’s foreign policy perceptions. After the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, India’s foreign policy perceptions too have changed. In keeping with the changing global economic and trade scenario, India’s strategic priorities in the Indian Ocean region have also undergone a change during the last two decades. India’s national security perceptions have now been enlarged to include economic security, free trade and commerce, energy security, and social security of the population in addition to territorial integrity. The United States’ relations with India have become an important component of New Delhi’s strategic linkages to globally safeguard its interests

India-Sri Lanka relations are now also affected by the regional power dynamics, with external powers seeking to increase their own influence and counter those of others. India is the most important foreign supporter of Sri Lanka, and remains its largest trading partner. China is currently one of Sri Lanka’s major military suppliers, but also has a potential for economic investments and infrastructure projects. The Sri Lanka Government under President Mahinda Rajapakse is exploiting the geo-political struggle unfolding in the Indian Ocean between China and India, with the United States having its own agenda for retaining its influence. While Pakistan is playing for stakes in Sri Lanka with Chinese knowledge to queer the pitch for India, the Russians too are keeping a hawk eye on any activity in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s engagements in Sri Lanka are also strategically sensitive to India. Strategically, it is in India’s interest to keep its rivals out of its sphere of influence. India needs to invest more in Sri Lanka to keep China within its zone of influence. India sought (tried) to eliminate these threats through various bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka.

India-Sri Lanka relations are based on a deep and abiding friendship based on shared historical experience and common civilisation and cultural values sustained by geographical proximity and ethnic affinity. There have been shifts and changes in the pattern of the relationship marked by mutual differences, irritants, cooperation and friendship. But, both the countries have developed adequate strength to withstand the stresses and strains; this is a notable feature of their bilateral relationship. India-Sri Lanka relations are multifaceted and interconnected; invariably, therefore, they have implications for domestic politics and economy in the two countries. Nearly every bilateral issue between them is intertwined with some domestic issues and therefore become a matter of domestic political debate. There is interdependence but, at the same time, the smaller partner also complains of asymmetry in the relationship.

In the post-1990 phase, the sharply improving economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka has its roots in the maturing political relationship. India’s clear, sincere and abiding commitment to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and its support for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict put hatred behind and sowed the seeds for eliminating all irritants in the political relations between the two countries. Keeping in view New Delhi’s changing foreign policy perceptions and India’s earlier experience of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 29, 1987 and subsequent mission of the IPKF from 1987 to 1990, and particularly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, India has resisted the option of mediation or intervention in the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka. The events that unfolded between 1987 and 1990 imparted a new dimension to bilateral ties and these were the most troubled and by and large conflictual years in India-Sri Lanka relationship. India’s intervention in the island state had embittered both the government and people of Sri Lanka.

Realising the constraints and cost of its direct intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, India adopted a new policy of non-intervention with active interest in the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka, the focus being on economic cooperation. India’s new Sri Lanka policy vis-à-vis the ethnic conflict combines its old stand with the new realities. At the core of India’s foreign policy is a reiteration of the Indian Government’s commitment to protect Sri Lanka’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. India’s pragmatic policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s commitment towards India’s security concerns created a credible atmosphere and consequently brought a new era in the relations between the two countries. India’s new policy has contributed to removing the cultivated fear complex of Sri Lanka. The leadership and the people in Sri Lanka have changed their mindset and thinking about India; for the first time, India is considered as an asset rather than a threat to Sri Lanka’s security. In the post-1990 phase, India and Sri Lanka have established a dense bilateral network of institutions and mechanisms so as to ensure sustained cooperation irrespective of domestic politics and changes in the external environment of the two countries.

A significant development in this period was that a large legal framework was provided by the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA), which was signed at the highest political level on December 28, 1998 with the overall objective of enhancing trade and economic relations between the two countries and promoting FDI. It was entered into force from March 1, 2000. Apart from the legal framework, during this period, the institutional framework for the relationship was provided by frequent contacts at the political level, including at the highest levels; the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers of both the countries are engaged in threadbare discussions covering the entire scope of the bilateral relationship. In this new phase, both the nations realise that restrictions on trade between the two nations are detrimental to their economic growth and prosperity. Following the success of FTA, both the governments are ready to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).

In the post-LTTE era, Sri Lanka has become closer to China, Pakistan and Israel because of their political and military support to Colombo during the war. China has partly filled the vacuum created by India’s reluctance to actively participate in Sri Lanka’s war effort. While the Indian Government declined to provide military equipment, citing political compulsions and concern over the use of force against the LTTE, China filled in the gap with liberal supply of a wide variety of armaments. The timely help rendered during the war has enabled China to gain a lot of strategic space and credibility in Sri Lanka. The Chinese are constructing a commercial port in Hambantota in the South and thus their presence in Sri Lanka is likely to be firmed up. In the coming years, the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka can be expected to not only increase but become more assertive.

The USA has also been an active player in Sri Lanka both in promoting the peace process 2002 and later in supporting Sri Lanka’s war effort. However, on issues relating to Sri Lanka, the USA had been maintaining close contact with India. It is evident that the USA values India for its unique geographic and strategic advantage in Sri Lanka; this relationship is likely to be strengthened to balance the growing Chinese profile in the South Asian region.

Hence it is important that India looks at these developments with great caution and ensures a proper foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. India will have to safeguard its interests particularly in the Indian Ocean region. The sea lanes of the Indian Ocean have become vital for India’s expanding global trade. They carry fossil fuels so vital for India’s ever increasing energy needs. India needs to invest more in Sri Lanka to keep China within its zone of influence. India’s timely help during the Tsunami has proved to the world that India is capable of handling challenges facing the region.

India-Sri Lanka relations are now broadbased with the economic agenda being a priority followed by strategic considerations. India’s strategic interest in Sri Lanka has been enlarged to protect and project India’s strategic and economic interests by building strong bonds with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was the first country with which India signed a Free Trade Agreement; the trade between the two countries is expected to grow to $ 4 billion by the end of this year. There is greater appreciation between the two countries of each other’s problems and perceptions.

Inevitably the changes in India’s strategic perception were reflected in its present approach to Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, particularly after the failure of the peace process 2002. Its role had been limited as an advisor and counsellor not only to Sri Lanka but to the four co-chairs—the European Union, Japan, Norway and the USA which promoted the peace process. India scrupulously kept out of Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE despite strong internal political pressures from the ruling Congress’ coalition partners in Tamil Nadu. India’s agenda for Sri Lanka had mainly focused on strategic security cooperation and the building of trade linkages.

Permanent peace in Sri Lanka requires institutional restructuring aimed at creating ethnic equality; a power sharing arrangement to satisfy the ‘aspirations of all the Sri Lankan communities, especially those of Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims’ is considered the most desirable democratic option. This pro-minority position underlines the need for devolution of powers to counter the majority community’s entrenched position on ethnic democratic centralism.

Changing Role of both Governments

A key reason for India-Sri Lanka relations to improve dramatically since the mid-1990s was the change of governments in both the countries As power moved from the hands of the UNP to the SLFP after 17 years in Sri Lanka, following the General Election in India the Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi was replaced in New Delhi by the National Front Government headed by Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

In the General Election of 1991, the Congress party came back to power and P. V. Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister of India. After assuming power Rao declared his Sri Lankan policy. He said that India would not desire to take any active part in resolving the problems of Sri Lanka. These problems would have to be solved by the Sri Lankans themselves, regardless of whether they were Sinhalese or Tamils. At the bilateral level, India showed more interest in developing the framework for a working relationship with Sri Lanka, rather than identifying itself with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.

An Agreement was signed between India and Sri Lanka in July 1991 to establish an Indo-Sri Lanka Joint Commission. Its sub-commissions included those on trade, investment and finance, science and technology. President Premasdasa visited India in October 1992 and discussed the bilateral relations of the two countries.

After being elected, President Chandrika Kumaratunga paid a significant visit to India in March 1995 and laid the basis for close relations with India. Later on I.K. Gujral became the Prime Minister in late 1997. He clearly understood the importance of maintaining friendly relations with the neighbours. He introduced the ‘Gujral Doctrine’.

After the midterm elections in 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party along with its alliance (National Democratic Alliance) came in to power at the Centre. As soon as Atal Behari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister of India, the Sri Lanka representative was among the first to reach India. India reassured Sri Lanka that it respected the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka and it had no intention to intervene in its internal affairs.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Sri Lanka to attend the 10th SAARC Summit. He said that India would be willing to conclude bilateral Free Trade Agreements with the member countries. By the end of December 1998, President Kumaratunga’s visit to India resulted in the conclusion of the historic Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. The warm relations between the two countries continued ever since, and Colombo was determined to forge closer ties with New Delhi. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s concept of ties between the two countries extended to the extent of wanting both countries to partner each other in building a bridge across the Palk Strait. In February 2002, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, signed a Ceasefire Agreement and an MoU to take the peace process forward; India welcomed this Agreement.

In the November 2005 national elections Mahinda Rajapakse, the anti-LTTE hardliner of the SLFP, was elected President with the support of two staunch anti-LTTE political parties, the JVP and JHU, which demanded a military solution to the ethnic conflict. Like previous governments, the administration of President Mahinda Rajapakse devoted the highest priority to India-Sri Lanka relationship and the President visited India on four occasions since assuming the high office in November 2005.

In January 2006, the Sri Lankan Government launched a military campaign to root out the LTTE. When the Sri Lankan armed forces began to resort to savage bombing of the Tamil areas in the northern part of Sri Lanka, the political parties in Tamil Nadu started expressing deep concern. In August 2006 when news about the air attack on Sencholai orphanage and also a school meant for the internally displaced children reached Tamil Nadu there was righteous indignation. Almost all political parties came together and the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed a unanimous resolution. The resolution characterised the air attack as “barbaric, uncivilised and inhuman”. The resolution also requested New Delhi to step up pressure on Colombo for immediate ceasefire and try to arrive at a negotiated settlement.

After a 30-month long military campaign, the Sri Lankan armed forces ultimately militarily defeated the LTTE and freed the nation from the three decades of terror in May 2009. As many as 80,000 people were officially listed as killed during the three decades of ethnic conflict. The end of military conflict with the LTTE brought Sri Lanka to a major turning-point in its history and with the death of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, the militant campaign for an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka seems to have come to an end.

Post-LTTE Era Relationship

In the post-LTTE era, a frictional chapter in India-Sri Lankan history has come to an end. It is time for India and Sri Lanka to start a new chapter with renewed vigour and vitality by rigorous cooperation in various fields. It is likely that this period would not see the policy of intervention but rather of mutual trust and harmony. In this period both countries have agreed that with the end of the military operations in Sri Lanka, the time is opportune to focus attention on issues of relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and reconciliation, as well as a permanent political solution of the ethnic conflict.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted in his reply to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s address to the joint session of Parliament that the Tamils’ problem was much larger than the LTTE and hoped the Sri Lanka Government would show imagination and courage in meeting the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamil people. The Prime Minister told Parliament that India has made it known that it has no intention of instructing Colombo on the political front but is ready to play an active part in the relief and rehabilitation of the IDPs and has earmarked Rs 500 crores for the purpose. The Prime Minister stated in Parliament:

We are willing to do more to restore normality and to help such people return to their rightful home and occupations.

India’s bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka could be strengthened even further with the end to the military conflict.

There is consensus within and outside Sri Lanka that with the LTTE out of the way, a golden opportunity has presented itself before the government to work towards a just, honourable and durable political settlement of the ethnic conflict. In the post-LTTE era without devolution the internal situation in Sri Lanka would continued to be restive. This could have an unforeseen effect on the Tamil Nadu situation. In the post-civil war period if the relationship between the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Tamils of Sri Lanka is turned into a positive and vibrant force, a previously constraining factor in India-Sri Lanka relations could transform into a promising connection drawing India and Sri Lanka closer to each other.

It is imperative that India adopts a pro-active policy towards Sri Lanka in order to not only save the Tamils but also for its own enlarged security reasons. Economic aid could be a big trump card in India’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has congratulated the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, on his re-election as the President on January 26, 2010. The Prime Minister reiterated:

We have time tested ties of friendship and co-operation. I look forward to working closely with you to further strengthen our close and multidimensional bilateral relations in the coming years.

The author is an Associate Professor and the Head, Department of Political Science, M.R. Government College, Fazilka.

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