A Sri Lankan Tamil protesting in front of the Presidential Palace in Colombo

After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, incidents of atrocities on the Tamils in a Sinhala majority country came to light

Sri Lanka is an island nation with immense strategic significance for India and South Asia. India and Sri Lanka have shared an extremely complex bilateral relationship ever since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, a year after India. A sizeable Tamil population in Sri Lanka’s Northeast, in an otherwise Sinhala majority country, made matters complex because of close cultural and ethnic bonds between the Tamils of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

As matters escalated over the years, in the 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led by V Prabhakaran, started an insurgent movement demanding a separate state (Eelam) for Tamil population of Northeast Sri Lanka. While India would not have liked to intervene in a neighbouring country’s internal affairs, ethnic ties between the Tamils of both the countries and likely adverse political and administrative fallout in the state of Tamil Nadu necessitated the Indian governments of that time to step in.

Indian agencies are known to have helped the LTTE by providing training and logistical support. In 1987, India tried to send humanitarian aid to the town of Jaffna, which was under siege by the Sri Lankan security forces. The ship carrying this aid was turned back by Lanka, which was followed an air drop of humanitarian aid by the Indian Airforce aircraft over Jaffna.

At this stage, India offered to broker peace between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE under the umbrella of ‘Indo-Sri Lanka Accord’, which was signed between then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene on July 29, 1987.

As an outcome of this accord, an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), comprising a sizeable number of Indian military formations, was deployed in Sri Lanka to oversee surrender by the LTTE.

It is learnt that during the initial period, the top leadership of the LTTE was freely interacting with the Indian Army to work out the details of surrender and settlement. Unfortunately, after a very short period, some things went horribly wrong due to which the LTTE pulled out of the ceasefire and aimed their arms against the Indian Army.

Deployment of the IPKF in Sri Lanka lasted 32 months, sacrificing 1,100 Indian soldiers who laid down their lives, besides many more who were seriously injured, fighting for a foreign cause on a foreign land. The IPKF assignment in Sri Lanka cost the Indian Government Rs 10.3 billion, with no major benefits to Indo-Sri Lanka relations, in fact it acted more as an irritant in the bilateral relations.

From a strategic perspective, it would not be out of place to state that the IPKF deployment was a blunder, resulting in loss of precious lives and resources with no great achievement on even the diplomatic front.

The aim of stating the background is to highlight the sensitive nature of the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship. Besides, India also suffers due to a misplaced perception of some smaller neighbours, who accuse her of exhibiting big brother attitude, hence the need to be extra careful while dealing with such sensitive relationships with countries of the region, including Sri Lanka.

Unlike China, India does not have an economy big enough to win over other strategically important countries through massive investments, loans and financial aid. This aspect once again highlights the need for a country to have a vibrant economy to support an ambitious strategic vision.

In the recent times, much to the discomfort of India, China has made large-scale investments in Sri Lanka aimed primarily at gaining strategic leverage in the region than pure economics. Besides loans on varying terms to bail out Sri Lankan economy during the past few years, the Chinese have taken the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease, besides 85% stake in the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, which have been a cause for concern for India. Most Chinese investments in Sri Lanka have been made by the Chinese state-led enterprises, thereby confirming the strategic intent.

Internal turmoil in Sri Lanka also has the potential of refugees coming into Tamil Nadu because of the ethnic ties with the people of this Indian state. Therefore, a stable, progressive and peaceful Sri Lanka is in the best interests of India and the region. India also has a free trade agreement, whose potential has never been fully exploited. An economically weak Sri Lanka would adversely affect the economy of both the countries. The Sri Lankan economy depends primarily on tourism, which is worst-hit due to the prevailing turmoil and poor law and order situation. There are several complementarities in the two economies which must be fully exploited. Indian tourists can contribute substantially to the Sri Lankan economy in case people-to-people contact is encouraged.

In the long-term interest of Sri Lanka, India and the region, it is imperative to firstly end the current crisis. Sri Lankan leaders with credibility must convince and motivate the citizens to restore ‘law and order’ and end the cycle of destruction so that the economy, especially tourism, can resume, thereby generating revenue and jobs.

Secondly, India must continue to tread carefully, exhibiting sensitivity to the aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka, as is being currently followed by the Government of India. Under this policy, maximum humanitarian assistance is being extended by India to mitigate the sufferings of the people of Sri Lanka.

Thirdly, India needs to build strong strategic ties with Sri Lanka based on mutually beneficial economic relationship and people-to-people contact, so the relationship is stable and long-lasting. India has a major advantage of common historical and cultural heritage over China or any other country trying a foothold in Sri Lanka.

India must continue to lead the human aspect of assistance to the people of Sri Lanka, as a crisis often presents an opportunity to win long-term strategic friendship between the two countries.

This Sri Lanka crisis is no exception.

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