Indian Policy And Sri Lanka Civil War: A Time For Re-Evaluation – Analysis


By Sivanendran.

The familiar cartoon of a man perched in a tree, busily cutting off the branch on which he is sitting, provokes varied reactions. Some find it highly amusing; others, recognising perhaps a predicament in which they have occasionally found themselves, can manage only a wry smile. Indian foreign policy mandarins, who must be questioning their own competence in managing the Sri Lankan relationship, must be included in the latter category. The UN expert panel’s report on Sri Lanka’s war crimes hits many buttons at the core of these issues and it has serious implications for the many visits made across the Palk Straits by the Indian foreign policy establishment during this war.

The conflict in Sri Lanka is a sensitive foreign policy issue for any Indian Administration. Since 1983, different Indian administrations have given different degrees of priority to the continuing civil war in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was concerned about the condition of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the consequent flow of Tamil refugees into India driven by the repeated pogroms in the island. She strengthened the Tamils and enabled them to resist their oppression. In this, she was ably supported by Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi continued with her policies and promoted an interim solution commonly referred to as the Indo Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.

Indo Lanka Accord

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

This was the first international effort to bring peace to Sri Lanka. India virtually imposed this solution on the recalcitrant warring parties. The Accord, brokered primarily by India, sought to end the conflict in Sri Lanka, which had cost thousands of lives and created several thousands of refugees and displaced persons. It set up Sri Lanka’s current political structure of provincial councils with an ethnically-based Northeast “entity” and a weak power sharing arrangement. It resulted in the deployment of Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was charged with providing a secure environment for the implementation of the peace agreement.

But, both the LTTE and the Jayawardene regime were not in sympathy with the objectives of the Accord and in practise they honoured it, in its breach. Although neither India nor Sri Lanka had renounced the Accord, the bloody and complex events that followed the Accord have deposited it at the edge of oblivion. There are many reasons for the failure of the accord and it has to be addressed elsewhere. But suffice to state that, President Premadasa’s agreement with the LTTE to order the Indian troops to be withdrawn from Sri Lanka by the end of December 1989 sealed the fate of that peace process.

Far more important than any resolution to the Sri Lankan conflict, however, remains the strategic relationship between the India and Sri Lanka. Differences in approaches to solving the ethnic problem have opened political fissures in their relationship with both the Tamils and the Sinhala political leaders.

The upshot of all this was, from an Indian perspective, is that India has had enough. Without no political consensus in India or in Sri Lanka for any Indian involvement, which was made worse by the death of Indian soldiers on foreign soil, the whole Sri Lanka policy was in tatters. This was compounded by the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. After this, India and Indians lost sympathy for the Ealam Tamil cause and had no interest to be engaged again in the National Question threatening Sri Lanka. The killing of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is stamped on the psyche of the people of India, causing them to maintain a “hands off” approach to the conflict.

The Aftermath

Since Sri Lanka attained independence in 1948, the Tamils have been struggling for over 50 years to gain their fundamental democratic rights. The agitations of the Tamils have sometimes resulted in agreements of some sort described as Banda – Chelva Pact of 1957 and the |Dudley Chelva Pact of 1966. All these pacts were unilaterally abrogated by the Sinhala government. So it was no surprise that GOSL conspired to undermine and destroy the Accord which for the first time reached the Statute book and gave a measure of self governance for the Tamil people.

In more than twenty years since the Accord, the Tamil people have been subjected to sharply increased violence and significantly increased deprivation in Sri Lanka, including restricted freedom of movement, resulting in the dramatic increase in the number of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees abroad, and the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons within Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government had made no attempt to promote greater unity in the country since then and there is no progress on reforms of government. All the institutions of a modern democratic state have been corrupted in Sri Lanka and overall there is no effort to create an integrated and stable united Sri Lanka. The reform efforts under the Accord continued to be met by obstructionism or passivity by the Sinhala nationalist parties that control the government at all levels. Some observers assert that the cumbersome governing institutions set up under the Accord are unworkable. But was any attempt made to sincerely implement the accord?

The period between July 1987 and December 1989 is one of the darkest chapters of Sri Lankan Tamils. In 1983 the Tamils of Sri Lanka needed Indian support in order to regain their democratic rights. Although all the militant groups identified the creation of a separate state of Ealam as the most favoured solution, LTTE was stubborn in refusing to accept anything else, even as an interim solution. On the other hand the Government of Sri Lanka did not wish to concede any devolutionary powers for the self governance of the Tamils. The Tamil representatives declared that the basis for any settlement should be based on the four principles they declared at Thimpu in July 1985. Henceforth, Indian government was occupied for more than a year with the task of translating Thimpu principles into concrete results. Their efforts – that is from Thimpu through the Bhandari round of talks to operation Poomalai – resulted in the Indo Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. These changes were extracted by a hard negotiation struggle between the Indian and the Sri Lankan governments.

Unfortunately, neither the LTTE nor the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) gave it a chance to work. This peace process was killed in its gestation. Retrospectively, I am sure that the Tamils of the Northeast Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese from South Sri Lanka must be regretting that they did not even give the process of the Accord a chance. This process might have brought peace in 1987 and spared the death and destruction in both the communities. This was the best possible deal for a beleaguered Tamil population at that time, and could have provided some foundation for their self governance, provided all parties implemented the accord in accordance with its spirit. Alas, that was not to be. Neither the LTTE nor the Premadasa government wanted the Northeast Provincial government to succeed. The narrow ambitions of the LTTE and the short-sightedness of a chauvinistic Sinhala leadership sought to subvert the spirit of the Accord until it was truly buried without trace.

Finally, all Sri Lankan leaders both Sinhala and Tamil seem bereft of vision — vision inspired by our most basic principles. Sinhala leaders, and their political class, seem unable to look beyond tactical considerations and short-term needs. They have little tolerance for others in their society and, at the end of the day, little confidence in themselves.

Indo Sri Lankan relationship since Accord

With the withdrawal of the IPKF mission, India’s leverage to influence Sri Lankan affairs declined. With its negative experience of the peace process India also became a passive onlooker of the affairs in the island. As the island began to get bogged down in a protracted civil war successive Indian administrations began to move away from their active involvement with the National Question in Sri Lanka and prioritised other parallel objectives such as the development of closer ties with Sri Lanka on economic, commercial, trade and military matters.

The battered Indo-Sri Lanka relationship was repaired during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s administration. But the civil war continued in Sri Lanka requiring additional economic, military and diplomatic inputs. As India kept aloof from the evolving situation in the island other countries such as China, Pakistan, and Iran filled the void. These countries financed and supplied the necessary military hardware to prosecute the war. None of these countries were interested in helping to solve the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. But they provided the means to end the war. During this period, the divergence of the strategic aims between Delhi and LTTE opened up a wide chasm between India and the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Another important issue is whether Sri Lanka is still important to Indian interests. Some say that pressing Indian commitments in other countries and regions argue for transferring their attention away from Sri Lanka where progress is painstakingly slow. Others believe that India still has a stake in Sri Lanka’s stability, as part of building an Asia “whole, prosperous and free,” the overarching Indian objective in the region. They say continued Indian involvement in Sri Lanka may be needed to arrest its decline, as well as to make sure that it is not used as a haven for organized crime or by adventurists.

India and the War

During the last stages of the war, the rest of the world stood by idly while the Tamils of Sri Lanka were murdered, thrown into concentration camps and ethnically cleansed in thousands. This disgraceful passivity in the face of atrocities of WW II imagery occurred in the immediate aftermath Rwanda and Bosnia. History now is repeating itself. Innocent Tamil civilians were subjected to death by a thousand cuts similar to what was the fate of Sarajevo’s citizens by the state forces and the paramilitaries. The Tamil areas are now being cleansed. Opponents of the regime in Sri Lanka are suffering systematic abuse across the country. Mullivaikal seems destined to be cast as Srebrenica in this recasting of the Bosnian tragic drama.

Some things are different. For one thing, the cluttered diplomatic field in Sri Lanka included the United Nations, the European Union in cameo roles. The Indian foreign policy establishment consisting of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Foreign Secretary Shiva Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor Mr Narayanan were constant visitors to Sri Lanka during this phase. There is no game of organizational pass the hot potato to excuse negligent behaviour. The UN, West’s and India’s high blown rhetoric (“terrorism must be wiped out” – George Bush) was out of sync with a pusillanimous policy of restricted assistance to those very victims who have been explicitly identified as justifying and requiring immediate assistance. Many excuses are offered, but they all supported the Sri Lankan state’s violence against the Tamils, but taken together they cannot explain the Alliance’s failure to do what it is committed to do, that is to protect humanity, and which it is obviously capable of doing. Therein lays the problem.

What was India’s foreign policy objective?

In retrospect the evidence that is available after the war and the UN Expert panel report raises many questions about the dynamics of some of the players in the war. India being the neighbouring regional power has a measure of responsibility to bring order into region in chaos. In this respect it is legitimate in asking what the role of India in this war was. There were a large number of meetings between India and the Sri Lankans directly involved in prosecuting the war. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse acknowledged repeatedly, that the Indian contribution for the war was significant, Further, a week after the defeat of the LTTE, India helped to marshal the members of the UN Human Rights council in May 2009 to pass a deeply flawed resolution ignoring calls for an international investigation into the alleged abuses during the fighting and other pressing human rights concerns. “The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The council ignored urgent needs and wasted an important chance to promote human rights.”

In the circumstances a lot of questions spring to my mind. Was protecting Sri Lankan Tamils a policy objective of India consistent with the policies under the regimes of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi? The report of the Secretary General’s expert panel on Sri Lanka, discloses a shocking state of affairs in Sri Lanka during this period. Was India aware of these horrors? If not, why not? Whilst the Sri Lankan forces marched on to Mullivaikal unimpeded the military vowed to rout them out like rats. Were any concerns expressed to the Sri Lankans about the innocent victims and assurances obtained? Were the Indians deceived by the Rajapakse’s? Did they make any desperate appeals to the Sri Lankans to stop the slaughter of the innocents? Did the Indians just believe all the assurances given by Rajapakse or did they subsequently monitor the regimes behaviour. Or do the Indians plead an inability to halt the assaults on the besieged people shielded by a sovereign state? Did they issue any warnings to the Sri Lankans of inappropriate behaviour by a member belonging to the comity of nations?

Policy Re-evaluation

This feckless performance is all the more unacceptable given the context of the history of involvement in this ethnic dispute. The outcome of this international concern is unclear. All that can be said is that Indian policy during this period will be scrupulously scrutinised. India will have to live with its effects for some years to come. Sri Lankans are themselves uneasy about what the future holds. The equivocation that has marked their response to the unforeseen upheaval is not contained. It can be said for sure that Indian policy on Sri Lanka also cannot return to the status quo ante. It needs re-evaluation.

The author can be reached at [email protected]


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “Indian Policy And Sri Lanka Civil War: A Time For Re-Evaluation – Analysis

  • May 8, 2011 at 6:51 am

    This article is either very biased or else written without much research. the information given contrast heavily with the ground reality in Sri Lanka.

  • May 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

    India under Sonia Gandhi and puppet Manomohan Singh is responsible for the carnage against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

    The International Community must investigate the alleged collaboration and roles of Vijay Nambiar, Satish Nambiar, MK Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon in the massacre of Tamils, disappearences of surrendered people and rape, torture and killing of Tamils from the detention camps.

    India is nation created by the British and not the this corrupt, mockery and barbaric North Indians. Only Indra Gandhi and MGR were progressive leaders of India and as they clearly understood the ethnic crisis, they supported the Tamils demand for equality, justice, rule of law, freedom and human rights.

    May 13 election results must bring change in Indian politics and India under Italian Sonia os full of corruption and barbarianism.


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