Sri Lanka: ‘Transactional approach’ to India relations persists, still

N Sathiya Moorthy  8 August 2018


The off-again-on-again buoyancy in the bilateral relations with the Indian neighbour notwithstanding, Sri Lanka’s approach in this regard has ab initio been stymied by successive governments’  ‘transactional attitude’, which makes for mistrust rather than and confidence-building. While Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can go back in contemporary history to argue how India had ‘interfered’ in the nation’s internal affairs by promoting ‘Tamil militancy at every turn until it became a ‘security baggage’ for Indians too, they are unwilling to consider similar instances of ‘Indian complaints of the kind.


India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale was in Colombo recently on his maiden visit after taking charge only months earlier. According to media reports, the two sides discussed all pending bilateral issues and concerns, and reiterated their commitment to take the agreed commitments forward. Alongside, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched a nation-wide emergency ambulance service for Sri Lanka, through video-conferencing from New Delhi, taking forward New Delhi’s pilot initiative of the kind from recent years.

Though well-intentioned and all, there has always been problems of slow decision-making, for which India often gets blame. Sri Lanka too cannot escape the blame of the kind but would not admit it. For instance, the ‘free ambulance scheme’ was up on the anvil from around the concluding months of ‘Eelam War IV’ alongside such other civilian rehabilitation measures like free tractors and other farming implements, ‘Jaipur foot’ centres and the like, all in the war-ravaged areas, to begin with.

Mainly targeting the Tamil civilian victims of war, the scheme did not possibly exclude Sri Lankan soldiers who too required ‘Jaipur foot’. While this scheme may have run successfully at least for a time, complaints that the host-Government was diverting most tractors to the ‘Sinhala South’ for distributing among their constituents meant that New Delhi needed going slow on the scheme, as also on the prospective ‘free ambulance scheme’ than originally thought of.

Microcosm of the nation

Less said about the war-time Indian proposal for setting up a coal-fired power-plant in multi-ethnic Eastern Province, the better it is. The Province has had an equal population of Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims with a share of Upcountry Tamils of recent Indian origin, thus making it a microcosm of the nation as a whole. However, the then Rajapaksa regime would play hide-and-seek on the Sampur power project, citing legal and other impediments.

Sri Lanka ended up scuttling the project by choosing a ‘population centre’ for the site, requiring further displacement of the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) than what the war already entailed.  For the record, the Government of the day kept coming up with one legal issue after another, one advice from the Attorney-General’s office after another.

It is another matter that the Sri Lankan Tamil community was unfriendly, too. Their purported grievance flowed from the Rajapaksa regime’s choice of the project-site. However, it was not unknown their opposition flowed even more from the Tamil Diaspora perception that India was helping the Sri Lankan Government in ‘defeating’ the LTTE, which the latter ultimately achieved.

The moderate Tamil polity of the time was as captive in the hands of the LTTE and its Diaspora backers. Worse still, the war-victorious Rajapaksa regime, too, felt captive still in the hands of self-styled ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituencies, from the political left, right and centre.

In between, India has also expanded the emergency relief of post-war temporary housing measures for Sri Lanka’s decades-long war-weary IDPs, beginning with those in the Eastern Province in 2007, through the construction of permanent structures. The scheme originally meant for the war victims, has since been expanded to cover Upcountry Tamils or recent Indian origin, or Indian-origin Tamils (IOTs) first and the Sinhala villages, too, in stages.

Here again, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have come up with one reservation after the other, both under the old regime and the present one. At the commencement of the temporary housing scheme itself, there arose instant criticism from the Tamil civilian victims of the war, that the easily transportable temporary housing material comprising zinc sheets and iron support-pillars and the like made for a furnace, and they needed only locally available palm-thatch. The fact was the famous northern palms in Sri Lanka had been long since cut down by the LTTE and the armed forces for tactical and logistic reasons in the first decade of the war.

‘Signing on dotted line’?

Nothing explains Sri Lanka’s ‘transactional approach’ to India relations better than the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government seeking out and obtaining non-transactional Indian military help to neutralise the ‘JVP first insurgency’ of 1971, then going on to provide  refuelling facilities for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the height of the ‘Bangladesh War’ only months later. In a way, successor J R Jayewardene leadership too ended up talking India into taking on the ‘security responsibility’ of the LTTE-controlled North and the East for the Sri Lankan armed forces to ‘neutralise’ the ‘JVP second insurgency (1987-89).

Sri Lankans, especially ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ and sections of the country’s strategic community, have not ‘forgiven’ India and the Rajiv Gandhi leadership for allegedly ‘forcing’ JRJ into ‘signing on the dotted line’ of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. Tthe fact remained that Sri Lanka got more out of the deal in real terms than they are willing to acknowledge to this late day.

It is also inconceivable to argue that the ‘JVP second insurgency’ owed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.  Instead, anyone with an iota of understanding of ‘left militant movements’ the world over at the time, including the one in Sri Lanka, would readily concede that the Accord might have provided an ‘immediate excuse’ to the JVP to revive the ‘militant adversity with the Sri Lankan State’ that they had lost way back in 1971.

If it was not the Accord, the JVP would have discovered another reason and justification to revive the ‘Second Insurgency’ (1987-89). As subsequent events proved, they were ‘militarily’ preparing themselves for such an assault on the Sri Lankan State for long, almost since the neutralisation of the failed attempt of 1971. Against this, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was tied up within a short period though preceded by unending negotiations for months.

Having given up militancy as a tool to achieve social justice et al, the modern-day JVP still continues with founder Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘Five Classes’, which includes ‘Indian hegemony’ as one. Though the LTTE is down and out, their Diasproa supporters hate India as much as they hate the Sri Lankan State. Interestingly, throughout their contemporary career in militancy and terrorism, the JVP and the LTTE never ever trained their guns at each other, but only against the Sri Lankan State  and its backers, both from within the country and outside – apart from  ‘enemies of the faith’ from within the respective outfit.

The real Sri Lankan intentions in the ‘use-and-throw’ of critical Indian assistance became clear under President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who succeeded JRJ. Having neutralised the JVP through a ‘bloody massacre’ that claimed the lives of up to 100,000 rural/semi-urban Sinhala youth of both genders in the reproductive age-group, the Premadasa leadership conspired with the LTTE, to ask the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to pack up and go.

With victory for the Government in the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, would swear that ‘India’s help alone made it possible’, but the administration would do everything to make India uncomfortable first, suspicious later on. The reference is to Sri Lanka’s China relations, fostered by the Rajapaksa regime and promoted as much and even more by the present-regime, which claims to be India-friendly.

A closer look at the Sri Lankan approaches of the ‘transactional’ nature would show that even as the leadership of the time would project ‘national interests’ as a genuine concern, it owed mainly at personality-projection within the country and/or outside than may have been the case from the Indian side, if at all. Thus, JRJ’s perceived openness to irritate and hurt India by identifying with the US during the ‘Cold War’ era owed more to his own perceptions about the prevailing Indira Gandhi leadership in India than anything else.

Time, energy and inclination

Through all this and more, India had shown its genuineness in strengthening bilateral relations even after the Sri Lankan ‘betrayal’ over ‘Bangladesh War’ by handing out a near one-sided solution on the issue of ‘International Maritime Boundary Line’ (IMBL) only three years later, in 1974. India agreed to the crooked drawing of the IMBL to ensure that Katchateevu islet, geographically closer to the Indian shores and with legitimate Indian claims even otherwise, fell on the Sri Lankan side of the 1964 agreement.

This again owed exclusively to the genuineness of the Indian approach to bilateral relations, after dismissing the ‘PAF issue’ as a stand-alone, one-time affair. It is interesting to note that India, under Indira Gandhi, was dealing with the very same Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, on both occasions. Possibly, it was also not as if India was not aware of the inevitable ‘fishers’ dispute’ that followed and has continued to date, but it was ready to do as much and also take the attendant risk, in the name of ‘genuine good-neighbourliness’.

‘Black July’ pogrom

If in between, the Indian training and arming of the Tamil militant groups occurred, it owed to the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom, encouraged by the JRJ regime, which led to the forced migration of Tamil refugees to India, risking their lives in mid-seas and leaky boats. At the height of the crisis, their numbers stood at 250,000. Today, full 35 years after it all began and a decade after the conclusion of the war in Sri Lanka, India, especially southern Tamil Nadu, is home to over 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees, who have made India their home, with children and grandchildren born and brought up in the country.

India’s experience from the past had made the Government wary of admitting Sri Lankan refugees but instead help them to stay back their battles in their own lands. The immediate lesson came from the ‘Bangladesh refugee crisis’, when 10 million civilian war-victims crossed over, creating a demographic and socio-political unease that the host-nation could ill-afford then and later. India has had similar experiences already with the ‘Burma refugees’ and even ‘Tibetan refugees’ who had accompanied the Dalai Lama when he sought and obtained asylum from India.

India’s Sri Lankan experience was none better – or, even worse, so to say. Sri Lanka obtained Independence from the common British coloniser on 4 February 1948 only months India itself had obtained its freedom on 15 August 1947, but accompanied by violent Partition and forced migration of millions. At the time, New Delhi did not have the time, energy and inclination to take a closer look when Colombo made disenfranchising of ‘Indian Origin Tamils’ (IOT) and rendering them ‘State-less’ the first and fast-tracked major plank on the national agenda, where there seemed to be a ‘national consensus’, unprecedented, then and since.

Through all these three-plus decades, India has never ever talked about sending them back home, despite specific suggestions to the effect from some among the refugees. Instead, India has been steadfast in maintaining that it would send them back at its own expense, if and only if the Sri Lankan Government could guarantee their safety and security, including livelihood security.

 China factor

Nothing explains the transactional nature of the Sri Lankan approach to India relations than the post-war Rajapaksa regime fast-tracking China-funded projects in the country at the expense of India relations, which his Government knew would suffer. It is not only about the Rajapaksa Government clearing the Hambantota Port development project, the Colombo Port extension, and the Colombo Port City, apart from a series of highway projects — all of which bore the ‘China emblem’, on the ground, and literally so.

Worse is the case of the present-day Sri Lankan rulers, namely President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Having given the impression that they had had Indian blessings while electorally challenging and consolidating themselves against the outgoing Rajapaksa regime, they have only helped India’s Chinese adversary to consolidate its hold over and presence in Sri Lanka.

Thus, citing an impending debt-trap on the Hambantota front, which they refused to discuss in public or even in Parliament, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government has since promptly converted Chinese investments/loans for the project into ‘equity’, thus handing over strategic Sri Lankan real-estate facing the Indian Ocean, too, to the post-Cold War Chinese ‘occupiers’ of the East India Company kind.  If ahead of Elections-2015, they volunteered to cancel the Colombo Port City project, citing their own perceptions of security threat to the ‘friendly Indian neighbour’, after coming to power, they claimed to have modified the Rajapaksa deal, but without much change.

It now looks as if the present-day rulers used the Indian name only to strike a ‘better deal’ (but for who?) on these suspect projects, just as Rajapaksa had cancelled the Hambantota MoU with China, if only to re-enthuse India, before going back to Beijing and for good. It is another matter that criticism for the incumbent Government’s more-than-friendly gestures to China came from former President Mahinda Rajpaaksa. He even challenged the present-day rulers that he had declined a deal for ‘equity-transfer’ in China’s favour, but once again the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership(s) has/have refused to discuss or debate the issue in public.

Willingness to wait…

This apart, when the push came to shove, Sri Lanka plain and simple tired out India on the construction of Sampur power-plant, with the result the latter wound up the offer and initiative. This was so notwithstanding the precedent of the Chinese-funded Norchcholai coal-fired power project, whose teething-troubles have continued into years, to the present-day. Similar has also been the fate of the upgrading of India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) into CEPA under the Rajapaksa regime and remodelled as ETCA under the present government.

The Indian genuineness and ‘willingness-to-wait’ from the Rajapaksa days on, successive Sri Lankan Governments seem hoping to talk out and tire out India out of it all, as they have mastered the art over the decades, on this and other issues. Today, with Sri Lanka on election-mode, way ahead of the presidential polls that are not due before end-2019 but for which the polity has been getting ready from earlier this year, there is no hope or scope for ECTA to move forward, any time soon. This, even as the present-day rulers swear by the pact and its usefulness to Sri Lanka.

It is this well-articulated approach followed/accompanied by well-tried-out tactics that is at the centre of finding a political solution to the ethnic issue, where the Tamil-centric TNA too seems to enjoy the status quo as much as their Sinhala counterparts, friends and political adversaries. The TNA would not accept a fresh look and a national discourse on the subject when the post-war Rajapaksa regime offered it, but readily conceded a new-look Constitution, proposed by the present-day rulers, pre-poll.

As was only to be anticipated, the new Constitution has not made substantive progress, and no one would have any serious complaint, now that the ‘elections are round the corner, and the inherent Sinhala political compulsions’ cannot be wished away. Better or worse still, the same argument will now extended to cover the Indian offer, or the offer for India to take over the management of the Rajapaksa regime’s wasted Mattala Airport, the only one of its size in the world where no commercial aircraft lands, and the development and growth of eastern Trincomallee port and town, and also the reconstruction of the northern Kankesanthurai port, a proposal that has been pending since before the conclusion of the war, close to a decade back.

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