Will The Current Bonhomie In India-Sri Lanka Relations Last? – Analysis


India-Sri Lanka relations are at their best now, thanks to India’s timely and generous assistance to the financially-beleaguered neighbor. Both New Delhi and Colombo are using the ongoing financial crisis in Sri Lanka to put the relationship on a meaningful and secure footing. But given the troubled 75-year past and the looming challenges of the present and future, it is difficult to be sanguine about the future.

Atavistic fears about Indian hegemony that exist in the Sri Lankan ruling class, the trust deficit that exists in the minds of policy-makers in New Delhi, and the place attained by China in the calculations of the Sri Lankan rulers remain key determinants, although not publicly displayed.   

Bilateral relations have generally not been smooth over the past 75 years or even more. There has always been an underlying fear in Sri Lanka about “Indian hegemony” because of India’s humongous size, its geopolitical ambitions, and its involvement in the internal issues of Sri Lanka. A critical factor has been the existence of two communities in Sri Lanka related to India – the Indian-origin Tamils and the Sri Lankan Tamils. The fear of Indian hegemony flowing from India’s stake in these two communities has created distrust, which in turn, has made Sri Lanka cultivate India’s adversaries, Pakistan and China, causing deep anxieties in New Delhi. The widening footprint of China in Sri Lanka since 2010 has emerged as the major bugbear for India.   

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crisis thereafter, India shored up its position by stepping in with aid with alacrity and generously clothed in Modi’s “Neighborhood First” and “First Responder” policies. India was the first to provide assistance to the tune of US$ 4.5 billion and tell the IMF that it will give the necessary financial assurances that Sri Lanka needs to get the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of US$ 2.9 billion. By doing so, India stole a march over China which only said that it would give a two-year moratorium on repayments due to its EXIM Bank in 2022 and 2023. 

Even as India and Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known before 1972) were under British rule, the two were locked in conflict over the overwhelming presence of Indian workers in the tea and rubber plantations, the mainstay of the island’s economy. Ceylonese nationalists feared the political and economic consequences of the presence of 900,000 to 1 million people of Indian origin. They kept demanding that the workers’ stay in the island be restricted by the British-owned plantations and the Colonial government. But this was opposed by the planters as well as Indian nationalists. Ceylonese nationalism was thus in conflict with Indian nationalism in the pre-independence era.    

As India and Ceylon approached independence, Ceylonese leaders like D.S.Senanayake feared an Indian “invasion” as part of India’s bid for Asia’s leadership. They sought and obtained a Defense Agreement with the UK in 1947 ahead of independence in 1948. The post-independence Ceylon government also disenfranchised nearly one million Indians and made them Stateless. The issue bedeviled India-Ceylon relations till 1964, when the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact resolved that 525,000 Indian Origin workers would be repatriated to India and 300,000 absorbed by Ceylon. However, it wasn’t until 2003 that all Indian origin Tamils, including those who did not go India, got Sri Lankan citizenship.    

1971 was also a testing time for bilateral ties. India had helped the Sirima Bandaranaike government to crush the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection by sending helicopters. But when India wanted Sirima not to give refueling facilities to Pakistani military aircraft during the Bangladesh war, Sirima did not oblige. India was very  disappointed. In the mid-1970s, a dispute arose over the Kachchativu island midway between the two countries in the Palk Strait. Both fought hard but finally in 1976, India gave in to Sri Lanka in the interest of good  relations.  

In the 1980s, India-Lanka relations again came under strain due to the Tamil question in the island nation. The North-Eastern Tamils’ struggle for regional autonomy and later complete independence resulted in the growth of Tamil militancy and anti-Tamil riots in 1983. The influx of Tamil refugees into Tamil Nadu forced India to support the political and militant struggle to put pressure on Colombo to negotiate with the Tamils. But the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the enactment of 13 th. Amendment (13A) of the Sri Lankan constitution to devolve some power to the Tamil province proved to be highly controversial in Sri Lanka. Till date, the 13A is inadequately implemented and remains an irritant in India-Lanka relations.

With President R. Premadasa giving marching orders to the IPKF, India-Sri Lanka relations froze. But the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1991, resulted in an New Delhi-Colombo rapprochement. When Sri Lanka decided to go all out to finish the LTTE in 2005-2006, India helped. But it did so on the condition that President Mahinda Rajapaksa implements the 13 th.Amendment in full, after the war. But Rajapaksa reneged. India began to take an unhelpful stand at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which has been accusing Sri Lanka of “war crimes.” Whereupon, opinion in Sri Lanka swung against India and in favor of Pakistan and China which unreservedly backed Colombo in this matter. 

When Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power for the second time in 2010, he invited China to help Sri Lanka build badly needed infrastructure. China responded with alacrity. India became anxious about the increasing Chinese footprint. But when the financial crunch came in 2020-2022 and Sri Lanka defaulted, China was a mute spectator offering little of significance. India’s stock went up in Sri Lanka as a result.

External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar offered Sri Lanka an economic partnership taking care that it will not land Sri Lanka in a debt trap.  Jaishankar and President Ranil Wickremesinghe have agreed to implement a number of projects especially in the energy sector. Offering investment rather than burdensome loans, Jaishankar urged Sri Lanka to ensure a “business-friendly environment”, the lack of which has been a sore point for foreigner investors.   

But the Sri Lankans also have grievances against India. They complain that Indians are slow executors of projects as compared to the Chinese. Sri Lankans also resents India’s condition that Chinese investments be kept out of the Northern Province which is close to India. While India is wanting trade and investment agreements, Sri Lankans are wary about these fearing flooding by low-priced Indian goods and also an influx of Indian personnel. This is the reason why India’s efforts to sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) were stalled. 

However, due to the on-going economic crisis, the Wickremesinghe government is now talking to India on ETCA. But given past experience, Indian investments are likely to run up against opposition from Sri Lankan entrepreneurs and trade unions on nationalistic grounds. The backing out of the deal with India and Japan to build the Eastern Container Terminal at Colombo port is an example. Recently, the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, threw the spanner in the works by warning that his government will not abide by the deals signed by the Wickremesinghe government because it has “no legitimacy”. And in the political arena, Buddhist high priests, called Mahanayakas, have asked the government not to devolve power to the Tamils by implementing the 13th.amendment of the constitutional.   

As regards security, India has been very sensitive about visits by Chinese “spy” vessels to Lankan ports. Assurances to the contrary from the Lankan government have not helped. Fearing encirclement by China, India insists that Sri Lanka become part of its defense perimeter in the Indian Ocean. But Sri Lanka is wary about this because it feels the need to use China to counterbalance India.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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