India: Federal Units And The Making Of India’s Neighborhood Policy – Analysis


By Prof. V. Suryanarayan*

Speaking in Chennai on Sunday, November 3, 2019, Honourable Minister V. Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs, stated that the Central Government proposes to hold state level parleys to understand the interests and concerns of the States on issues of crucial importance to them. Referring specifically to the State of Tamil Nadu the Minister pointed out that Tamil Nadu has concerns about the living conditions and problems of identity of Tamil Diaspora scattered across the world; it has genuine apprehensions about the safety and security of Tamil fishermen fishing in the Palk Bay and how the political developments in Sri Lanka, after the Presidential elections, could affect bilateral relations, with its fallout in Tamil Nadu. The Minister’s statement is extremely significant because for the first time the Government of India has openly declared that the federal units can and should make constructive inputs into India’s foreign policy.

The Problem:

India borders on Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. India’s relations with each neighbouring country will have its immediate fallout on contiguous Indian states. The vagaries of India-Pakistan relations will have its fallout on Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Twists and turns in India- China relations will affect Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. India-Nepal relations will spill over to Bihar Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and West Bengal; India-Bhutan relations will impinge upon West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam; developments in Bangladesh, both internal and external, has influenced and will continue to influence Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram; India-Myanmar relations will have its fallout on Arunachal Pradesh , Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram; India-Sri Lanka relations are closely intertwined with the politics of Tamil Nadu  and India-Maldives relations will have an impact on Minicoy islands. I have not mentioned Thailand and Indonesia because relations with these two maritime neighbours have yet to take off in a big way.

Era of One-Party Dominance

During the era of one-party dominance, New Delhi pursued a neighborhood policy which it considered to be in India’s national interest. On several occasions, the views, interests and sensitivities of the concerned Indian States were not taken into consideration. Two illustrations are given below, from Tamil Nadu perspective, to substantiate the point.

Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, 1964 and Sirimavo-Indira Gandhi Pact, 1974

In the years immediately before and after independence a point of discord between India and Ceylon was the legal status of the people of Indian origin in the island. During the stewardship of Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister, New Delhi emphatically maintained that all, except those who voluntarily opted for Indian citizenship, were the responsibility of Ceylon. Taking into consideration their long period of residence and contribution to the economic development Nehru advised the Ceylonese Government to confer Citizenship on them. In the 1960’s this time-tested policy was derailed. With Lal Bahadur Shastri as the Prime Minister and C S Jha as the Commonwealth Secretary New Delhi reversed its earlier principled stance and began to adopt a new approach to the problem of stateless people in Sri Lanka. New Delhi was eager to come out of the diplomatic isolation in South Asia, following the defeat in the Sino-Indian war of October –November 1962.

The astute politician that Sirimavo – Bandaranaike was, she made the best use of the situation and clinched a deal. According to the India-Sri Lanka Agreements of 1964 and 1974, India decided to confer Indian citizenship on 6, 00,000 persons plus their natural increase and Colombo agreed to confer Sri Lankan citizenship on 3,75,000 persons plus their natural increase.

In his book, From Bandung to Tashkent, C S Jha has given a detailed background to the finalization of the Pact. He does not mention whether the views of the affected people were ascertained. In his speech in the Lok Sabha Swaran Singh, the Minister for Foreign Affairs stated that he held consultations with the leaders of the Indian community but did not mention a single word about what their views were. As a result the two Pacts converted the people of Indian origin into“merchandise” to be divided between the two countries in the name of good neighbourly relations. It was not only a betrayal of Gandhi-Nehru legacy; it also constituted a bad precedent for the India’s policy towards Overseas Indians. All trade unions in the plantation areas, irrespective of political affiliations, opposed the Pacts. Of equal importance, all political leaders in Tamil Nadu – C Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj Nadar, C N Annadurai, P Ramamurthy and V K Krishna Menon opposed the inhuman agreement.

Ceding of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka

The ceding of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974, like the earlier Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, is another illustration of New Delhi bending backwards to placate its southern neighbour. Kachchatheevu was a part of the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad, and after independence, when Zamindari was abolished it became a part of Madras Presidency. Nehru maintained that Zamindari did not mean sovereignty. Nehru was right. Zamindar was not sovereign; the sovereign leases the territory to the Zamindar for the collection of revenue and when the Zamindari was abolished it became a part of India.  If Nehru’s argument was accepted the very unity of India would have been at stake, for, at the time of independence, more than 75 per cent of the Indian territory was under Zamindari, Mahalwari or Ryotwari sytems of land tenure.

More relevant, the principle of median line was accepted as the basis for the delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay, but when it came to Kachchatheevu a deviation was made so that the Island could fall into Sri Lankan waters. However, articles 4 and 5 of the agreement provided for the continuance of traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, but these rights were bartered away in the 1976 agreement which delimited the maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

M.  Karunnanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1974.  He should have resorted to judicial remedy by filing a case in the Supreme Court and prove that Kachchatheevu was Indian territory, not a disputed territory and if Indian territory was to be given to Sri Lanka a constitutional amendment was necessary. Or he should have requested the President of India to refer the issue to the Supreme Court for its opinion. It is necessary to mention that legal luminaries like M C Setalvad maintained that the Island was a part of India.  For reasons best known to himself, Karunanidhi did not resort to legal remedy.  He took the issue to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Assembly passed a unanimous resolution condemning the Pact. The resolution was completely ignored by the Central Government.

It will not be out of place to mention the fact that that the veteran Congress leader, Dr. B. C. Roy, the West Bengal Chief Minister, approached the Supreme Court when the Central Government wanted to give Berubari to East Pakistan and got it stalled.  B C Roy was able to prove that Beru Bari was not a disputed territory, but Indian territory and if Indian territory was to be transferred to East Pakistan a constitutional amendment was essential.

Years later when Jayalalitha was the Chief Minister the Tamil Nadu Government filed a case in the Supreme Court. When Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister again he did not lag behind. He also filed a case challenging the validity of the Agreement. The Supreme Court has yet to give a pronouncement on the two cases.

Annadurai’s Constructive Suggestion Ignored

May I give an illustration of how a positive suggestion made by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was ignored by the Mandarins of the South Block. Annadurai, who became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1967, was deeply concerned about the developments in Burma, especially the forcible repatriation of the Tamils in 1964 and the related issue of compensation to them. In a conversation with the author, Thomas Abraham, then Minister Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Rangoon, recalled his meeting with Annadurai in the Chief Minister’s residence in Mambalam. The meeting was arranged through the good offices of common friends. After discussing the pros and cons of the matter, Annadurai wrote a letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suggesting that India enter into a long term agreement with Burma for the import of rice and the compensation due to the Burmese repatriates could be adjusted in the proposed deal. It may be recalled that in 1967 India was facing an acute shortage of food grains. On his return to Rangoon, Thomas Abraham also made a similar proposal to the Ministry of External Affairs. It is unfortunate, but true, that this concrete proposal did not elicit any favourable response from New Delhi

I K Gujral’s Shining Example

If one compares the record of the Ministers of External Affairs, since the dawn of independence, I K Gujral comes out as a solitary exception to the general rule.  He was very keen to associate the concerned State Governments with the formulation and implementation of neighbourhood policy. Rahman Sobhan, the Bangladeshi economist turned diplomat, has provided glimpses into Gujral’s eagerness to take along the West Bengal Government on the question of sharing of the Ganges waters with Bangladesh. Rahman Shoban has written that at the end of a dialogue in New Delhi, Gujral asked him to stay back for a private conversation.  He said that since West Bengal has vital stakes on the sharing of the Ganges waters, it is essential to take the West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu on board. Gujral made the “quite extra-ordinary suggestion” to Rahman Shoban that the Awami League Government should open its own channel of communication with the West Bengal Government “drawing on our shared geography and cultural heritage”. Instead of proceeding to Dhaka , Rahman Shoban went to Kolkata, met his old friend and class mate Asim Das Gupta, the Finance Minister. To quote Rahman Shoban, “Asim responded very positively to my suggestion and indicated that his leader was not unaware of the mutually beneficial opportunities on offer”. Jyoti Basu and Sheikh Hasina displayed exceptional statesmanship. “The rest, as they say, is part of history”. The Government of West Bengal was formally invited to be a party in the negotiations with Bangladesh. In fact, Asim Das Gupta led the Indian delegation. The statesmanship of Gujral and Jyoti Basu is in sharp contrast with several Chief Ministers including Mamata Bannerjee, Karunanidhi and Palaniswamy

Working of Coalition Governments

With the formation of coalition governments in the Centre and regional parties becoming alliance partners a qualitative change has taken place in the Centre- State equation with particular reference to India’s neighbourhood policy. The regional parties began to make their inputs into foreign policy. For example, the inclusion of the Sethusamudram Project in the policies and programmes of the Man Mohan Singh Government was due to the tireless efforts of the DMK. Of equal importance the Central Government exerted its benign influence and softened the hard-line stance of its regional partners. Thus, during the Fourth Eelam War, when the Tigers were decimated at heavy cost of men and materials, Karunanidhi was a “faithful ally” of the Man Mohan Singh Government. For tactical reasons, New Delhi permitted Karunanidhi to indulge in theatrics so that he could continue to pose himself as the champion of the Overseas Tamils. His famous fast in the Marina which started after breakfast and ended before lunch is a good example. The fact remains that Karunanidhi did not rock the Central Government when according to UN estimates 40,000 innocent Tamils perished. They were caught between inhuman Tigers and trigger-happy Sri Lankan army. 


The Two Dravidian Parties – the AIADMK and the DMK – still continue to function in a world of make believe as far as developments in Sri Lanka are concerned.  The Chief Minister and his colleagues still parrot like repeat the statements made by Late Jayalalitha that Mahinda Rajapakse, Gotabaya Rajapakse and their colleagues should be hauled up before the International Court of Justice for war crimes. The DMK wants to forget its own acts of grave omission and commission and is trying to compete with AIADMK in acts of one-up-man-ship.  The fact should be highlighted that Karunanidhi, till the end of his life, did not even write an obituary note on Prabhakaran.  If this policy continues, New Delhi’s efforts to work with the Government of Tamil Nadu are unlikely to make much headway.

The silver lining in Tamil Nadu is the active functioning of well- known think tanks who can make their constructive inputs into the making of India’s neighbourhood policy. In this connection mention should be made of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai Centre for Global Studies, Center for Asia Studies and National Maritime Foundation. The office bearers of these think tanks include distinguished former Indian diplomats, retired civil servants, former service officers, leading academicians and senior journalists. These think tanks can prepare policy briefs on introduction of devolution and participatory democracy in Sri Lanka, punishment to be meted out to those guilty of war crimes, conferment of Indian citizenship to Hill Country Tamil refugees of Indian origin, opening of shipping service between Rameshwaram and Talaimannar, encourage Tamil students to come for higher studies in Tamil Nadu Universities, how to beef up the security machinery (Tamil Nadu has the largest group of ISIS followers and is also a conduit for drug traffic)  and bring about social, economic, educational and cultural advancement of the Tamils living in Sri Lanka.  Our objective should be to create a political system in Sri Lanka, where multiple identities can co-exist harmoniously – a Tamil can be a proud Tamil while, at the same time, he is also a loyal Sri Lankan citizen.

  • Dr. V. Suryanarayan is one India’s leading Sri Lanka specialists. He was the founding Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is very active in leading think tanks functioning in Chennai. His e mail id:[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.

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