Continuity and change in India’s Sri Lanka policy

Hitherto, stability and security of the Lankan government, even if it was unpopular among sections of people, was the main guiding factor. Not anymore.
Photo: Soumyadip Sinha
Photo: Soumyadip Sinha

In an interaction with the media on May 10, the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs explained the basic principles behind India’s Sri Lanka policy. He stated that India would be guided by the “best interests” of the Lankan people. It needs to be highlighted that he did not mention the present Lankan government. This might indeed mark a departure in India’s Lanka policy. Hitherto, stability and security of the government, even if it was unpopular among sections of the people, was the main guiding factor. To illustrate, in April 1971, India rushed its armed forces to Sri Lanka after a desperate appeal made by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Indira Gandhi. India’s timely assistance enabled Sirimavo to remain in power. In the same way, after a request made by President Jayewardene to Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces were inducted into Sri Lanka. The stability of the Jayewardene government was equated with the stability and security of the country.

The spokesman added: “India will always be guided by the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka expressed through democratic processes.” The implication is as follows: India has no special interest in propping up the Rajapaksa family. In other words, the government, though voted to power with overwhelming support of the people, has lost its mandate to rule because of rampant corruption, abuse of power, gross violation of human rights and scant regard for the welfare of the people. Opposition to the government was building over the past few months, but the economic crisis and galloping inflation were the catalysts that compelled the people to come to the streets.

The PM had to bow before the will of the people and has resigned. The President has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP leader, considered to be extremely friendly to India, as PM. Ranil has a Herculean task before him. In the last parliamentary election, the UNP was routed and Ranil came to Parliament only through the national list. Given the present realities, other parties may not oppose him, because there is a consensus that Ranil has the skill to negotiate with the IMF. Some Lankans believe, not without reason, that Ranil and President Gotabaya are good friends and the PM would try his level best to bail his friend out of the difficult situation. … Events are moving so fast that like Alice in Wonderland, it takes all the running you can do to remain in the same place.

Dr S Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs, has done yeoman service by critically analysing India’s foreign policy since Independence. He has pointed out the successes and failures during various phases and the necessity to bring about changes depending on the geopolitical transformation as well as our own growing capabilities and expectations. India needs to change the image of a reluctant power and maximise its options by multi-alignment, by engaging multiple players. New Delhi needs to take greater risks to achieve its goals. In the Fourth Ramnath Goenka Memorial lecture delivered on 14 November 2019, Jaishankar quoted Rabindranath Tagore: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

In a brief reference to India’s Lanka policy, Jaishankar has referred to the IPKF experience as “IPKF misadventure”. I have elsewhere described how the Accord itself became a source of discord, how the Indian Armed Forces, instead of protecting Tamil interests, came into clash with the Tamils, and how the IPKF had to withdraw unwept, unsung and unhonoured. What is more, instead of meeting the returning soldiers, the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi boycotted them and accused them of killing innocent Tamils.

During his stewardship as PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to say: “You can choose your friends but not your neighbours.” Certain realities about the island nation need to be kept in mind if we want to understand India–Sri Lanka relations. For want of a better phrase, I would characterise Lanka’s ties with India as “love-hate relations”. All aspects of Lankan life—population, religion, language, political institutions, food, dress—are influenced by India. About the demographic structure, Lankan Marxist leader Colvin R De Silva once said: “All of us originated from India. The only question is when did we come.” Gandhiji, in the course of his visit to Ceylon in 1927, was impressed by the similarities, and he referred to Ceylon as India’s “daughter state”.

How did Lanka respond to India’s gestures of goodwill? Six months after the JVP was put down in 1971, Lanka provided refuelling facilities to Pakistani aircraft that were proceeding to East Pakistan to put down the Bangladeshi nationalists. The IPKF, at heavy cost of men and materials, was able to bottle up the Tigers in the jungles of Vavuniya. The IPKF presence enabled the Lankan armed forces to put down the JVP revolt in the South. Indian presence should have earned for New Delhi the gratitude of the Sinhalese. On the contrary, it was explained as an illustration of India’s expansionist designs. What is more, in an act of shortsightedness, President Premadasa provided the Tigers life-saving oxygen by giving them much-needed arms and money. Premadasa had to pay the wages of sin. The LTTE gunned him down during the May Day rally in Colombo.

India has responded magnificently to Lanka’s request for assistance to overcome the present crisis, the worst since the dawn of independence. Unlike his father, the present chief minister M K Stalin has set aside his differences with the Central government; in an act of statesmanship, rare in post-Independence history, all assistance to Lanka is being sent in consultation with New Delhi. A ship containing much-needed food items, life-saving medicines, milk powder, etc., will be sent by Tamil Nadu to Lanka. The people of TN hope that the Indian High Commissioner, in consultation with Lanka’s new PM, would ensure that the items reach all affected people, irrespective of ethnic origin. Will our hand of friendship be appreciated by the Sinhalese? Only time can tell.

I have repeatedly stressed that India’s relations with Lanka should be based on asymmetrical reciprocity. A small story comes to my mind. A missionary group opened a school in an Adivasi area. A large number of children joined the school to learn the three Rs. At the end of the year, the school authorities decided to have a sports meet to celebrate the first anniversary. One event was the 100 metres dash. The boys were asked to assemble. “On your mark, get set and go”. There was a strong boy who was running ahead of others. Everybody cheered him. But, mid-way, he stopped; the principal went to him and said: “You were running fast. You could have easily lifted the trophy. Why did you stop midway?” The boy replied: “Madam, in our community that victory is the greatest victory when we all win together.” Win-win situation—that should be the guiding principle in India’s relations with Lanka.

V Suryanarayan

Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras

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