ICWA National Seminar
India-Sri Lanka Relations in Present Context: Is it the Time for Reorientation of Policy?
Sapru House; 29-30 August 2019
Opening Remarks by Ambassador Nirupama Rao
Former Foreign Secretary of India and Former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka
With Sri Lanka, for which India is the only neighbour in the physical, geographical sense, our relationship has had a construct defined both by cultural, ethnic and religious factors as also the island nation’s crucial nearness as seen through the dynamics of the domestic politics of India and also by Sri Lanka’s significant role in the emerging contours of the Indo-Pacific.
2. July 1983 was a watershed moment, when I was witness to the horrendous wave upon wave of rioting, looting and burning that gripped Colombo, Kandy and other towns in the central and southern part of the country by mobs from the majority community of Sinhalese Buddhists, seeking to avenge the death of thirteen army men in the Northern Province by the LTTE. It had the effect of transforming India’s approach to the ‘minority question’ in Sri Lanka. While prior to the ethnic riots, India had concentrated its attention on the “Indian Tamil” issue - the tea-estate or plantation sector and the people of Indian Origin, the question of statelessness and humanitarian issues, post-riots the attention was now focused on ”the Tamil question” - on the composite issue of minorities in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Tamil demands for separation.
3. India sent various missions to deal with constitutional issues that could deliver more justice to the minorities, provide for more devolution, an issue which remains live even today. The ill fated India-Sri Lanka agreement saw the arrival of the star-crossed Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). There is today an IPKF memorial near the Parliament in Colombo. We remember the lives of the many Indian army men and officers that were lost there. We have not paid sufficient attention, as a country, to the sacrifices those men-in-uniform made for the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.
4. From an inchoate toleration for the Tamil fight for rights but without ever supporting the vivisection of Sri Lanka, India went on to become the opponent of LTTE and Tamil militancy, especially after the murder of Rajiv Gandhi. The withdrawal of the IPKF because of domestic political pressures in Tamil Nadu spelt a mission unaccomplished, because the war continued and our role receded from the fore-front to some sort of strategic shadowy ‘trishanku’ world where neither side in the civil war had much trust in our capacity to deliver the outcomes that they desired.
5. The visible presence of Indian defence personnel on a Mission of Mercy in the aftermath of the Tsunami of December, 2004, more than a decade after the IPKF withdrawal, redeemed us by allowing us to perform the role of ‘first responders’ in what was India’s largest relief operation outside its shores.
6. The first signs of emergence of a ‘China factor,’ in terms of an actual physical presence, emerged in 2005 when the government of President Chandrika Kumartunga decided to award the construction of a coal-powered power plant in Norocholai, in the Negombo area north of Colombo, to the Chinese.
7. The dramatic victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa against Ranil Wickremsinghe in the Presidential elections of November, 2005 was also determined by the wholesale boycott of the election in the north and the east by Tamil-speaking population on the orders of the LTTE. Rajapaksa, a talented people’s politician, who speaks the tongue of the people, represents the rural masses, especially from the ‘heartland’ of the South, in his presidency became a towering, dominating, outmanoeuvring figure, while his family fortune also rose formidably. The Indian leadership which had no previous dealings with the Rajapaksa family and Mr. Rajpaksa himself, had to adjust to the new reality. Mr. Rajapaksa typically ran his own policy on the neighbourhood front. He enjoyed playing the Pakistan and China cards, testing Indian mettle constantly. The development of the Hambantota port was offered to India first, but India looked at it only from an economic vantage point of view and not the strategic angle. We did not make calculations about the Chinese giant beginning to stir in the region.
8. Before 2006, when the ceasefire between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE collapsed into open conflict, the Sri Lankans were very keen on a defence agreement with India, which would guarantee India as the ‘first security partner.’ But India did not want to be drawn into such an arrangement, given the sensitivities associated with the Tamil Nadu factor, the civil war and our own domestic, political constraints.
9. There is more than an element of exaggeration in the assumption that India’s ‘help’ was critical to the Sri Lankans in winning the war against LTTE. We steered cleared of any active help, no offensive military assistance was ever provided, but it can be said that we were not on the side of the LTTE. India did not want separatism or secession in Sri Lanka.
10. We were firmly against terrorism, but we were also sensitive to the welfare of the minority and affording them some relief with small project assistance, especially post-Tsunami and maintaining communications with Tamil civil society, particularly in health, housing and education.
11. When the war ended in May 2009, the north and the east of the country was a ravaged area. India’s emphasis was on relief, rehabilitation and as far as India could push it, on reconciliation. On reconciliation, the progress was questionable, to say the very least. Though the war was won, the battle for Tamil hearts and minds, if there ever was one, had been lost.
12. In an example of swift and dexterous diplomacy, after the war had ended, India established consulates in Jaffna and Hambantota, important for addressing local alienation vis-a-vis India especially in Jaffna, whose people believed that India had betrayed the Tamil cause and abandoned the people of the north and the east in the long years of conflict.
13. The electoral ouster of Mahindra Rajpaksa in 2015 seemed to signal a new chapter in Sri Lankan politics, but the political infighting between the Sirisena and Wickremsinghe factions has been deleterious for Sri Lanka. The Chinese factor has also not receded with the coming of the new government. The 99-year lease on Hambantota for China is replete with all kinds of possibilities involving much more than a mere business and economic Chinese presence in the years to come.
14. Our concerns and interests in Sri Lanka are completely legitimate because developments there affect our well being and security. India and Sri Lanka deserve a much closer, well-integrated relationship in all spheres ranging from security and defence, political, developmental and people to people. The trust quotient, which is at a low level equilibrium has to be enhanced. We have to convey that we are not competing with China for Sri Lanka, but we have a solid, sustainable rationale to have excellent relations with each other for our mutual well being as two sister democracies with similar systems of functioning.
15. The concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific is mentioned frequently by the Sri Lankans and that tallies well with our own vision. Codes of conduct, freedom of navigation and building a security architecture for our maritime environment, should involve the Sri Lankans as much as our South East Asian partners.Sri Lanka is our close partner in BIMSTEC, even as SAARC as a project of regional cooperation has run aground. Economic diplomacy has to be infused with much more strategic reassurance provided to the Sri Lankans that they are not going to be put at any disadvantage by India, since often Sri Lankan reservations have proved to be an obstacle in taking forward our bilateral trade and technical cooperation.
16. Sri Lanka is our close partner in BIMSTEC, even as SAARC as a project of regional cooperation has run aground. Economic diplomacy has to be infused with much more strategic reassurance provided to the Sri Lankans that they are not going to be put at any disadvantage by India, since often Sri Lankan reservations have proved to be an obstacle in taking forward our bilateral trade and technical cooperation.
17. The Easter Sunday bombings of April this year and the devastation they brought to the country which assumed that it had overcome terrorism once for all, have completely shaken Sri Lanka and the aftershocks have not receded completely. The economy, particularly tourism, has greatly suffered. One lesson of the tragedy is that there is scope for far greater cooperation between India and Sri Lanka to prevent the reoccurrence of such attacks through better security and intelligence coordination and alignment against such destructive forces.