Dialogue  July-September  2009, Volume 11 No.1


Revisiting India’s Sri Lanka Policy Options


Col R Hariharan




The Sri Lanka’s security forces’ remarkable success in inflicting a crushing defeat on the Tamil separatist insurgents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Eelam War IV in May 2009 has wide implications not only for the struggle of minority Tamil population for autonomy but also in the context of India – Sri Lanka relations.

    In the course of their three years of war, the security forces have regained control of nearly 16,000 square km of territory which was dominated by the LTTE. They have also eliminated at least 15,000 LTTE cadres and captured or destroyed millions of rupees worth of LTTE’s arms and military equipment. Another 9000 cadres have been captured or surrendered. With the elimination of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the heart and soul of the LTTE, along with most of the key leaders in the last few days of war, the security forces have minimised the chances of a military revival of the Tamil insurgent group making a comeback. And the security forces plan to be present in the Tamil areas for an indefinite period to carry out operations to prevent resurgence of the LTTE.

     India and Sri Lanka, though unequal in size, population, economic strength and international clout, have generally had healthy and cordial relations. The strong ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious links between the two countries have resulted in the development of close – almost umbilical – relationship at the people to people level. One reason for this that is the people of Sri Lanka – including Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims – consider India as the ‘Mother Country.’

       However, there had been ups and downs in the relationship between the two nations mainly due to the ebb tides of their differing perceptions on local, national and international priorities. Issues relating to geo-strategic security, and status of people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka were the two main issues that had dominated the relationship between the two countries till the ‘Black July progrom’ of July 1983 and the developments in its aftermath started occupying prominent space in India’s relations with Sri Lanka.

    Sri Lanka’s problem with Tamil minority population is over half a century old.  The Tamils clamouring for equal rights from 1956 onwards when Sinhala nationalism emerged a major factor in politics, with increased dominance of Sinhala language and culture, leading to progressive alienation of Tamils from the national mainstream. The Tamil political confrontation progressively degenerated with the state’s increasing use of force to handle the Tamil agitators.

     As Tamil politicians lost their credibility to remedy the situation popular support for a new breed of militants increased. Prabhakaran and the LTTE came into limelight in July 1983 when he led an ambush of Sri Lankan army convoy in which 13 soldiers were killed. In retribution violent mobs instigated by the state and Sinhala leaders carried out a pogrom against Tamils. In the unprecedented violence hundreds of Tamils were killed and thousands fled the country.

     When thousands of Tamil refugees, including militants, poured into Tamil Nadu in the wake of the riots, there was a huge wave of public sympathy. Mrs Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, had a sympathetic understanding of the plight of Sri Lanka Tamils and it suited her geo-political strategy to take active interest in Sri Lankan affairs from 1983 onwards. It also offered a political opportunity for her party – the Congress party – to strengthen itself in Tamil Nadu.

     As a result New Delhi helped the Tamil militant groups with arms and military training. A large number of LTTE cadres were also among the Tamil militants of various groups trained in India. Sri Lanka security forces launched a major offensive against the militants in 1983.

     From 1983 to 87 the objective of India’s active engagement with Sri Lanka was two fold. India wanted to help Sri Lanka government and the Tamils to evolve a workable solution to the Tamil problem as it was wary of the emergence of an independent Tamil Eelam nation out of Sri Lanka. At the same time, India also wanted to prevent Sri Lanka turning into cockpit of American domination intruding in India’s sphere of influence.

     India’s Sri Lanka policy has always had strategic considerations as lynchpin as Sri Lanka is the vanguard of India’s peninsular and Indian Ocean security. As a corollary any external influence in the island nation is of security concern to India. It was this strategic concern that guided India’s policy of active intervention in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. Sri Lanka also recognised India’s concerns when it signed the India-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987.1 

   The agreement had two major goals. The first, the strategic consideration of preventing entry of external powers gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka, was also one of the reasons for India’s steadfast support for a united Sri Lanka, within India’s area of influence. Strategic consideration had also dictated India’s consistent opposition to the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam as demanded by sections of Tamil minority.

     The second major aim which had both strategic and political elements was to ensure the Sri Lankan Tamil quest for equity and autonomy was resolved amicably within a united Sri Lanka. It was in India’s strategic interest to ensure that there was no internal turbulence within its close neighbour. The large Tamil speaking population segment within India also wanted India to help their brethren across the Palk Strait to get their just rights. India’s political efforts earlier at Thimphu talks to bring the two sides to work out a solution had failed; however, it was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s relentless pursuit to find a solution that saw the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987.

     The agreement paved the way for grant of limited autonomy for Tamils and the creation of a united northeast province for Tamils. As a part of the deal, all Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, had initially agreed to conform to the agreement. However, the LTTE refused to give up its arms because it doubted the sincerity of India as well as Sri Lanka’s intentions to adhere to the agreement. Moreover, the agreement fell short of the LTTE’s goal of creating an independent state of Tamil Eelam.

      As a consequence, the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent to Sri Lanka to assist the implementation of the 1987 agreement made a bid to disarm the LTTE resulting in a prolonged war. India pulled out the troops in 1990 after the Sri Lanka President Premadasa and the LTTE leader Prabhakaran colluded to show India out of the country. The LTTE’s assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan Tamil leaders taking refuge in India resulted in the banning of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in India in 1992. The public sympathy for Tamil militants in Tamil Nadu, particularly for the LTTE, took a nosedive thereafter. After these acts of double jeopardy, India had scrupulously avoided active or direct involvement in Sri Lanka.


India-Sri Lanka Relations After 1992

      Development of India-Sri Lanka relations after 1992 has undergone a contextual change in tandem with changes in India’s foreign policy perceptions.                                                                                       After the end of the cold war and the emergence of the U.S. as the sole super power, India’s foreign policy perceptions have also changed. In keeping with the changing global economic and trade scenario, India’s strategic priorities in 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.

    Building better India-U.S relations has become an important component of India’s strategic linkages to safeguard its interests globally. The Indo-US civil nuclear agreement and the growing strategic convergence between the two countries are part of the changes taking place that would have a direct consequence in the region. The U.S. engaged in the global war on terror sees India as an important ally because India bridges the Islamic world and the rest of Asia.

      In a bid to expand its commercial reach in East Asia India is trying to build close relations with ASEAN countries. It has signed a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand as a part of this policy. India is also trying to improve its relations with Myanmar. India is developing infrastructure through Myanmar to develop physical links with the ASEAN region. India hopes to use it as a gateway for trade with ASEAN for troubled its northeast. There is increasing Chinese presence in South Asia among India’s neighbouring countries as a part of China’s desire to contain India in South Asia.

      In view of this India will have to safeguard its interests particularly in the Indian Ocean region. The sea-lanes of Indian Ocean have become vital for India’s expanding global trade. They carry fossil fuels so vital for India’s ever increasing energy needs. Indian navy’s development as a blue water navy is underway to protect its maritime and economic interests.

     The changes in global fiscal, economic and trading relationships and the emergence of Islamist terrorism as a major international threat have also brought about a number of changes in international relationships. India-Sri Lanka relations have also to factor in these changes.

     India’s shift in relationship with Sri Lanka has to be understood in this broad strategic context, than in the background of its historical baggage. India’s Sri Lanka relations are now broad–based with economic agenda as a priority followed by strategic considerations. India’s  interest in Sri Lanka has been enlarged to protect and project 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 year 2010. There is greater appreciation between the two countries of the other’s problems and perceptions.

      Inevitably the changes in India’s strategic perception were reflected in its present approach to Sri Lanka’s wars 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 U.S - who promoted the peace process. The experience of India’s active intervention between the years 1983-91 appears to have brought about two realisations in India’s Sri Lanka policy making: 

      ·   India’s strategic involvement in Sri Lanka should be broad– based. It should have a firm foundation based upon long-term engagement avoiding reactive intervention.  

       ·   As far as the vexing issue of Tamil rights, India should facilitate rather than force the Sri Lanka government and the Tamils to achieve a durable solution.

    India had scrupulously kept out of Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE despite strong internal political pressure from coalition partners in Tamil Nadu. India’s agenda for Sri Lanka had mainly focused on strategic security cooperation and building of trade linkages. In fact, India declined to accept President Rajapaksa’s invitation to join the peace process extended soon after he took over as President in 2006.

    Perhaps an un-stated reason for India’s laid back profile in Sri Lanka affairs was emergence of the LTTE as the sole arbiter of Tamil struggle after 1992. After Indian troops left Sri Lanka in shores in 1990, LTTE cleverly used the anti-Indian sentiments created due to the IPKF war, to strengthen its power base among sections of Tamil Diaspora. This enabled the LTTE to build its fire power, financial and logistic resources network with the help of the Diaspora to fight its wars from 1992 to the very end in 2009.

     The LTTE’s self assumed role as the sole spokesman of Sri Lanka Tamils got a tacit international recognition when it signed the Oslo Accord with Sri Lanka in 2002. As per the Accord the two sides agreed to enter a peace process to find a federal solution to meet the Tamil aspirations. In the Norwegian mediated peace process it was the LTTE that represented Tamil interests in the talks with Sri Lanka. This perhaps precluded India’s direct participation in the peace process under the leadership of the four co-chairs.


Impact of Eelam War in Sri Lanka 

     The Eelam War IV and its aftermath have wrought quite a few changes in Sri Lanka which will have to be taken into India’s foreign policy prescriptions of the future. Some of them are strategic issues while others are political.

    Perhaps for the first time there was minimal Indian influence in Sri Lanka’s military success. This would indicate India consciously refraining from using the ethnic conflict to its strategic advantage in sharp contrast to India’s high profile involvement in Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Tamil confrontation since Mrs Indira Gandhi’s times. In its new equation with Sri Lanka, India did not substantially contribute either to the peace process 2002 or to the war that followed its collapse. This ‘hands off’ attitude is likely to be a precedence and condition for the India-Sri Lanka relationship in the future.


Emergence of a Strong Sri Lanka

     The resounding success of Sri Lanka against the LTTE was mainly due to the strong leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He had provided the impetus to focus the whole national effort on the sole objective of eliminating the LTTE as a power centre confronting the state. He has considered achieving military success as the only national priority disregarding international allegations of human rights violations, curtailment of freedom of expression, and absence of rule of law. In order to build his political power base to carry on his mission he has not hesitated to split almost all the political parties. His two brothers – Basil and Gotabaya Rajapakse had been the architects of translating his goal into achievement. Along with the Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, this triumvirate probably exercise strong influence on the President’s policy making.

     Thus President Rajapaksa is emerging as an unchallenged leader with enormous powers conferred by the executive presidency. In all likelihood, President Rajapaksa will be re-elected for a second six-year presidential term ending only in 2018.

    The Sri Lanka security armed forces including the police force are now 340,000 strong. The armed forces strength has grown to 200,000. Despite some limitations they have emerged after the war as a well knit professionally competent, battle tested fighting force. According to the Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, the army is to be expanded into a force of 300,000. In actual terms it would be bigger than some of the armies of Europe – Britain, Germany, Italy or France. Thanks to their  military success, the security forces, riding the crest of popularity, are likely to emerge as another power centre in Sri Lanka in the coming years. Oversized armed forces in a small country like Sri Lanka could wield influence in policy making at national level. They could also put political leadership under pressure. 


Devolution of Powers to Tamils

     The India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987 has been tardily implemented. In fact, the partial powers of autonomy promised through the 13th amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, that came in the wake of the Agreement, it has not been implemented. The 14th amendment, which recognised Tamil as a national language, is far from in its rightful place. India continued to adopt low profile and used diplomatic channels to take up the case of implementation of the 13th amendment without significant results.

    This issue assumes significance as Tamil aspirations for autonomy remain unfulfilled despite the promise of the President. Even the small beginning made with the 13th amendment and the creation of the provincial councils have not been taken to its logical conclusion to devolve powers to Tamil speaking minority. This has been demonstrated in the case of eastern province where the elections were held last year with a lot of fanfare and rhetoric on empowering the first-ever Tamil chief minister of eastern province. 

    The absence of Prabhakaran and the exit of the LTTE as a power centre from the scene have created a vacuum in Sri Lanka Tamil political leadership. Marginalisation of Tamil politicians during the active years of LTTE dominance from 1991 onwards have left them without organisational reach at the grass root level in the north and east. In their scramble for power, they are neither united nor clearly goal oriented. With the overwhelming presence of President Rajapaksa at the helm, distinct identity of Tamil politicians are likely to be limited to the traditional Tamil “vote banks” only. Thus President Rajapaksa is in a position to decide what is good for Tamils, rather than what Tamils demand or desire. 

      The war has left nearly 300,000 Tamils as internally displaced persons living in camps under the control of the army. They have minimal facilities and are not allowed to move freely. They are being screened to weed out the LTTE elements among them. It is unlikely they would be allowed to return to their homes within next six months, though Sri Lanka has promised the international community to do so. The army also proposes to pursue its operations against the LTTE and for this purpose nearly four divisions of troops are proposed to be stationed in permanent garrisons in the north. This is likely to increase the uneasiness among the population as the troops are predominantly Sinhala.

      In any case villages are mostly ravaged by war and their livelihoods non–existent. The first priority of Tamil politicians should be to get them back to their villages so that they start their normal avocations. As Tamil polity has little leverage, Sri Lanka is likely to act only under international pressure, particularly from India.

     In the President’s sweeping style of governance there has been a lot of disconnect between promises and actions, not only relating to the Tamil issue but other issues as well. In view of this, unless there is an external pressure the President is likely to take up the implementation of 13th amendment at his own pace. Tamil aspirations are unlikely to be satisfied with the political dispensation offered to them. Thus the potential of Tamil discontent turning into militancy in the distant future is very much there.


Changes in Strategic Presence

      China has become a valuable partner of Sri Lanka in the pursuit of its military option. Thus China has partly filled the vacuum created by India’s reluctance to actively participate in Sri Lanka’s war effort. While India had been constrained due to political compulsions from supplying the weapons Sri Lanka needed, China filled in the gap with liberal supply of a wide variety of armaments. Timely help rendered during the war has enabled China to gain a lot of strategic space and credibility in Sri Lanka.

    Coupled with economic assistance and aid extended to Sri Lanka, China has become a critical partner in Sri Lanka’s economic survival particularly in the face of strong Western threat to curtail economic aid in retaliation for Sri Lanka’s failure in the human rights front. The Chinese are constructing a commercial port complex in Hambantota in the south and thus their presence in Sri Lanka is likely to be firmed in. In the coming years, Chinese influence in Sri Lanka can be expected not only to increase but become more assertive.    

     The U.S. 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 U.S. had been maintaining close contact with India, its ‘strategic ally’ in the region. This was also maintained during the war despite differences on some key issues between the two countries. It is evident that as the U.S. values India’s unique geographic and strategic advantage in Sri Lanka and this relationship is likely to be strengthened to balance the increasing Chinese profile in the region. The U.S. is also probably wary of Iran’s moves in Sri Lanka after it has extended a billion-dollar aid.

    Pakistan also emerged as a significant arms supplier to Sri Lanka during the war. However, despite this Pakistan’s activity is likely to be circumscribed for the time being due to its internal political preoccupations as well as its actions to come to terms with the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism politically as well as militarily. However, Sri Lanka is likely to emerge as an alternate hub for Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on India and carry out its intelligence operations. 


India’s Policy Prescription
 Sri Lanka has emerged as a strong and more powerful nation after the success in the Eelam war. Of course, it has to sustain it with appropriate political dispensation to prevent the resurgence of Tamil militancy once again. However, during the course of the war, it had also become a scene of global power play as part of Indian Ocean security. In the coming years we can expect this to continue with the increasing presence and influence of both China and the U.S. 

      India has to evolve a new paradigm to handle the emerging strategic setting in Sri Lanka with its impact on Indian Ocean security. India will have to work out an integrated strategy to make itself more relevant to Sri Lanka than other powers. There is a need to take measures to remove Sri Lanka’s latent fear of India’s overwhelming influence subsuming its national interests. This can be achieved only by building mutual confidence in the long term.

    Greater cooperation and coordination in political, military and diplomatic fields can lead to better strategic understanding. This would involve integrating its political, economic and military strategies with adequate sensitivity to Sri Lanka’s new found pride. India has to be persuasive but persistent in following up the Tamil issue to take it to its logical end of meeting their just demands for equity. India needs to display more involvement to actively participate in matters relating to relief and rehabilitation in the war torn area. 

      India and Sri Lanka have a long history of military cooperation. The existing asset of goodwill on this count should be built upon for evolving greater strategic convergence. One option could be to formalise the India-Sri Lanka defence treaty now held in suspended animation.

      Sri Lanka can be a strategic asset for India only if there is peace and stability in the country. However, to achieve this India will have to play a more prominent role on two fronts: help to get out of the ravages of war, and to politically resolve the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic divide.

     Sri Lanka needs massive reconstruction and rehabilitation effort to quickly produce results. India has already allocated Rs 500 crores for Sri Lanka’s reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. This might not prove adequate. India with its huge pool of skilled workforce can take up this challenge, jointly with private-public sector participation from both countries. The local people in north and east face a number of problems in housing, health and sanitation facilities and educational institutions to get out of the trauma of war. The region also requires a lot of de-mining effort. India has the expertise and ability to assist in all these fields. The first priority would be to make the infrastructure functional as early as possible to enable the displaced people resume their normal lives. Indian investment can create job opportunities in the troubled north and wean away youth from recourse to militancy.

      As regards the Tamil-Sinhala divide, the healing process is likely to take a long time. Tamil population feel a lack of security and trust in the Sri Lanka government to meet their just demands. The government’s lack of urgency in implementing 13th amendment despite promises to do so has not increased its credibility. Tamils feel that India had not done enough to ensure its speedy implementation. They also feel that India is not pressurising the Sri Lanka government to improve the handling of 300,000 displaced Tamils held in camps and speedily complete their screening process. India needs to forcefully take up both the issues with Colombo.

     India will have to take steps to increase people to people contact with Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans should be enabled to freely travel in India to broaden their vistas and see how ethnic amity works.  Indian technical education institutions should be thrown open to Sri Lanka students.

    There are a few other contentious issues dogging the relations between the two countries like the traditional fishing rights of fisherman in each others waters. Joint mechanisms have to be evolved to handle such issues on a regular basis.     

      As coalition politics has come to stay in New Delhi, the reaction of Tamil Nadu will always be an important factor influencing India’s Sri Lanka policy. The Sri Lanka Tamil issue was never the main piece of Tamil Nadu public or political agenda. But it has remained a key issue. This was amply demonstrated in the recent parliamentary poll, when the pro-LTTE political entities in Tamil Nadu did not succeed despite flogging the issue of war in Sri Lanka. The issue stands downgraded in Tamil Nadu at present. Greater transparency and taking the people into confidence in evolving the policy can help New Delhi increase its credibility among the people of Tamil Nadu. They will be the first to appreciate India’s efforts to help the Sri Lanka Tamils to gain their just demands. 


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati