India has always accorded priority to Sri Lanka in its foreign policy discourse owing to a combination of geo-strategic, political and socio-cultural factors.
However, relations have often been determined by factors internal to these countries; India has been compelled to scale down its ‘active involvement’ in Lankan affairs, tempered by the political developments within Sri Lanka.
This has happened particularly during two phases in the past. The first culminated in India intervening (diplomatically and militarily) in the Sinhala versus Tamil ethnic conflict from 1983 to 1989; the second when India shied away from engaging Sri Lanka in any substantial capacity throughout the 1990s till 2009 because of the failure of diplomatic and military interventions.
Stepping out of the shadows of such polarized engagements of the past, India and Sri Lanka’s relations have gathered momentum since 2015 owing to the active diplomatic moves initiated by the political leadership of both countries.
But for the keenly observant, another dilemma seems to be in the making and this could potentially turn back the pages of history and challenge the dynamics of their present engagement. When ethnic riots broke out in Sri Lanka between Sinhala and Tamil communities in July 1983, India promptly posited itself as a mediator.
Delhi’s quest for regional pre-eminence, a sizeable Tamil population in the South, memories of the Tamil community demanding secession in 1950s, and the massive influx of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees across the Palk Strait into India in 1983 alone, were the prime catalysts.
Moreover, India’s experience with the ongoing insurgencies in Punjab and the North-east also stirred the political leadership into action. Successive Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi initiated visits and round-table negotiations with stakeholders, and several agreements were documented, such as Thimpu Principles (1985), Delhi Accord (1985), December 19 Principles (1986) to name a few.
But the radical LTTE forces remained uncompromising in its demands. The failure of mediation triggered the deployment of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. It was the overwhelming failure and the death of almost 1,100 Indians, which turned the tide in India-Sri Lanka relations.
With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the hands of LTTE, India plunged itself in an approach of non-interference, excessive caution and ‘policy of pronouncements’. Limited defence relations were maintained and restricted to training officers, intelligence sharing on the LTTE’s maritime movements, supply of defensive and non-lethal weapons. Security as an element in foreign relations was largely ignored.
The ending of the war did not signify any immediate change in foreign relations for India, as Mahinda Rajapakse’s unilateral political rule had multiple implications. It was only in 2015 that the election of Maithripala Sirisena brought about a new phase in relations for the two countries.
Through “Synergy and Understanding”, Prime Minister Modi and President Sirisena made concerted efforts for a buoyant relationship. Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ (continuation of the Gujaral Doctrine in essence) has accorded top priority to Sri Lanka. President Sirisena in term has repeatedly referred to India as our ‘ally’.
Between March 2015 and June 2017, there were two high-profile visits by Modi, three visits by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and two by President Sirisena himself. The outcome has been encouraging for bilateral ties; they have signed four bilateral pacts: agreement on visa, customs, youth development and building the Rabindranath Tagore memorial.
Modi was the chief guest at the event marking the United Nations Vesak Day in 2017, which commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
Economically, India is now Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. It has provided development assistance worth over $ 2.5 billion. Sri Lanka is keen on the new trade pact, the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), which would enhance commercial ties with India’s fast-growing southern states.
Modi even visited war-ravaged Jaffna and reaffirmed India’s commitment to the 13th Amendment for devolution of powers. In 2016, Sri Lanka pulled out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan in November after India boycotted the meeting over an attack on an Indian army base in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists.
On the maritime front, a hotline has been installed between the Coast Guards for better coordination among the maritime security forces. There is growing cooperation between the navies; there are hydrographic surveys of Sri Lanka’s Weligama Bay by the Indian Navy.
Joint Working Groups have been developed to discuss the development of port, petroleum and other industries in Trincomalee. In 2017, 51 Indian fishermen were released by Sri Lanka. The countries even agreed on Standard Operating Procedures to expedite the release and handing over of fishermen.
The Indian government was quick to assist Sri Lanka when floods hit the country, killing more than 200 people in May 2017.
But since early 2018, Sri Lanka finds itself embroiled in political and ethnic turmoil. After incidents of violence and incitement between Buddhists and Muslims in Kandy, a state of emergency was declared in March.
The active voices of the civil society have been hinting at the latent tension for a while now. Mr. Javed Yusuf (Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former Secretary, Muslim Peace Secretariat) had observed in 2012 (in course of a personal meeting with the writer) that within Sri Lanka, the strength and weakness of the Muslims is their geographical dispersion.
Professional and business sections in a small percentage have been articulating the insecurities of the Muslims. They demand distinct cultural identity, separate political units for Muslims in the north and east, and a “Pondicherry kind of model where non-contiguous areas are bound together through common administration.”
Mr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director, National Peace Council, Colombo has significantly observed that, “The protracted anti-Muslim violence is a wake-up call about the tensions that lie beneath the surface of society reminiscent of the prelude of the war against theTamil rebel movement.
The sentiment is being promoted that Muslim minority is a source of threat to the security of Sinhalese ethnic majority.” (NPC Statement, 2018) For India, these developments indicate an ethnic-political dilemma in the making.
Much like the Tamil community, India has a sizeable Muslim population. The narrative that justified India’s intervention in the 1980s could be reconstructed because ethnic overlaps, geo-strategic importance, regional pre-eminence and demonstration of ethnic insecurity remain just as relevant.
Politically, in February 2018, in a surprise result of the mid-term polls, Mahinda Rajapakse’s Podujana Peramuna (People’s Front) party pulled off a landslide victory, winning control over 231 local councils, out of 340. Rajapakse has already demanded snap elections and challenged Sirisena’s government for faltering in its promises.
This implies the return of political unilateralism in Sri Lanka in which India never found much favour. From 2009-2014, Mahinda Rajapakse clearly favoured Beijing as a regional, global partner over Delhi, which constructed a ‘China phobia” for India. Cash-rich China invested millions of dollars in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure since the end of a brutal civil war in 2009.
Rajapakse welcomed Chinese investments in critical civilian infrastructure projects. In late 2014, Chinese naval assets, including a warship and a submarine, were spotted at a Sri Lankan civilian port, lending credence to Indian fears of China incorporating Sri Lanka into its network of Indian Ocean civilian port facilities.
Since Rajapakse’s party will now have control over finances in 231 councils, there is credible apprehension that he might beckon China to kick-start the development of infrastructure, waste facilities and housing in these villages.
Moreover, in May 2017, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attended the inauguration of China’s ambitious One Belt and One Road Initiative that India skipped. India believes this project threatens its geo-strategic importance, as it incorporates the seas of the Indian Ocean to the south and east, and the lands of South and Central Asia to the north and west, to expand China’s sphere of influence.
Sri Lanka can be a major facilitator for India’s increased role in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific; its veering away to China will be an inhibitor to the same.
While Sri Lanka’s domestic dynamics have dictated the scales of India’s involvement in the past, the abeyance in relations till 2009 was inimical to both their interests. On the one hand, the logic of geo-strategy suggests that to distance Sri Lanka politically is not desirable for India at the moment.
But on the other hand, the resurgence of ethnic insecurity, China’s stakes in the country and the possible return of Rajapakse’s style of political rule demand that India acts with caution and walks a diplomatic tightrope.
It has to skillfully approach the problems to enhance the prospects of partnership and mutual preferences. It is time for India to seriously understand the ‘problems versus potential dynamics’ of the Sri Lankan dilemma. It must weigh the past lessons and present challenges together to steer relations forward.
The writer belongs to the West Bengal Education Service, and is currently Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad College, Kolkata