Recently Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as new President of Sri Lanka. This election was based on security issues that emerged after a suicide bombing attack claimed by Islamic State on Easter Sunday this year.
As Gotabaya settles into office and visits India end of this week, on the 29th, the Indian government would hope that its hands-off approach in the 2019 Sri Lankan elections pays off.
Brief background of India-SL relations:
- India is the only neighbour of Sri Lanka, separated by the Palk Strait; both nations occupy a strategic position in South Asia and have sought to build a common security umbrella in the Indian Ocean.
- There are deep racial and cultural links between the two countries. Both share a maritime border.
- The India- SL relations have been however tested by the Sri Lankan Civil War and by the controversy of Indian intervention during the war.
- In recent years Sri Lanka has moved closer to China, especially in terms of naval agreements.
- India has signed a nuclear energy deal to improve relations and made a nuclear energy pact with Sri Lanka in 2015.
India’s role in the Lankan Civil War
- In the 1970s–1980s, the RAW and the state government of Tamil Nadu were believed to be encouraging the funding and training for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist insurgent force.
- In 1987, faced with growing anger amongst its own Tamils, and a flood of refugees India intervened directly in the conflict for the first time.
- This was after the Sri Lankan government attempted to regain control of the northern Jaffna region by means of an economic blockade and military assaults; India supplied food and medicine by air and sea.
Why did India intervene?
- Indian intervention in Sri Lankan civil war became inevitable as that civil war threatened India’s unity, national interest and territorial integrity.
- This threat came in three ways:
- On the one hand, external powers could take advantage of the situation to establish their base in Sri Lanka thus posing a threat to India;
- On the other, the LTTE’s dream of a sovereign Tamil Eelam comprising all the Tamil inhibited areas (of Sri Lanka and India) posed a threat to India’s territorial integrity.
- There was extensive military involvement of Pakistan in the conflict by supplying lethal weaponry and encouraging Sri Lanka to pursue military action rather than peaceful negotiations to end the civil war.
- After subsequent negotiations, India and Sri Lanka entered into an agreement.
- The peace accord assigned a certain degree of regional autonomy in the Tamil areas with a body controlling the regional council and called for the Tamil militant groups to lay down their arms.
- Further India was to send a peacekeeping force, named the IPKF to Sri Lanka to enforce the disarmament and to watch over the regional council.
- The accord failed over the issue of representations. The result was that the LTTE now found itself engaged in military conflict with the Indian Army.
- The ruthlessness of this campaign and the Indian army’s subsequent anti-LTTE operations made it extremely unpopular amongst many Tamils in Sri Lanka.
- The conflict between the LTTE and the Indian Army left over 1,000 Indian soldiers dead.
Areas of cooperation
- India and Sri Lanka are member nations of several regional and multilateral organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme, South Asian Economic Union and BIMSTEC.
- Since a bilateral free trade agreement was signed and came into effect in 2000, Indo-Sri Lankan trade rose 128% by 2004 and quadrupled by 2006, reaching US$2.6 billion.
- Indian exports account for 14% of Sri Lanka’s global imports. India is also the fifth largest export destination for Sri Lankan goods, accounting for 3.6% of its exports.
- Both nations are also signatories of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).
- India’s National Thermal Power Corp (NTPC) is also scheduled to build a 500 MW thermal power plant in Sampoor (Sampur). The NTPC claims that this plan will take the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship to a new level.
- Line of Credit: India is active in a number of areas of development activity in Sri Lanka. About one-sixth of the total development credit granted by India is made available to Sri Lanka.
- In the recent past, three lines of credit were extended to Sri Lanka: US$100 million for capital goods, consumer durables, consultancy services, and food items, US$31 million for the supply of 300,000 MT of wheat and US$150 million for purchase of petroleum products.
- Fishing Sector: Projects for providing fishing equipment to the fishermen in the East of Sri Lanka and solar energy aided computer education in 25 rural schools in Eastern Sri Lanka are under consideration.
- Healthcare: India has supplied medical equipment to hospitals at Hambantota and Point Pedro, supplied 4 state-of-the-art ambulances to the Central Province etc.
- Tourism: Indian governments have also showed interest in collaborating with their Sri Lankan counterparts on building tourism between the two countries based on shared religious heritage.
Defense and strategic cooperation
- India and Sri Lanka conducts one of the largest joint Military exercises called ‘Mitra Shakti’. Both conducts joint Naval exercise called ‘SLINEX’
- India is the largest provider of defense training program to Sri Lankan soldiers and Defence officials
- India, Sri Lanka, and Maldives has signed trilateral maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. The cooperation aims at improving surveillance, anti-piracy operations and reducing maritime pollution
Major outstanding issues
- There have been several alleged incidents of Sri Lankan Navy personnel firing on Indian fishermen fishing in the Palk Strait, where India and Sri Lanka are only separated by 12 nautical miles.
- The issue started because of Indian fishermen having used mechanized trawlers, which deprived the Sri Lankan fishermen (including Tamils) of their catch and damaged their fishing boats.
- The Sri Lankan government wants India to ban use of mechanized trawlers in the Palk Strait region, and negotiations on this subject are undergoing.
- So far, no concrete agreement has been reached since India favors regulating these trawlers instead of banning them altogether.
- Another cause of anger amongst the Sri Lankan side is the use of mechanized trawlers, which they view as ecologically damaging.
Alleged political interference
- A media report from Colombo soon after Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January 8 elections of 2015 had said that an Indian Intelligence official was instrumental in uniting rival political parties — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) — against him during the polls.
- In October 2018, President Sirisena alleged that Indian intelligence agencies were plotting his assassination.
- He made this comment in the cabinet meeting, after CID of Sri Lanka Police arrested an Indian national in September for the alleged assassination of Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
- SL has a history of taking independent decisions even if they cause misgivings in India.
- In the period of low profile relationship between the two nations, SL apparently started favoring China over India.
- India and Sri Lanka in February 2015 signed a nuclear energy deal to improve relationships.
- China has taken for lease the Hambantota deep sea port and Mattala international airport in Sri Lanka.
- The earlier government treated our concerns about China’s increasing presence on the island with “strategic autonomy”, pursuing, as usual, a balancing approach.
- It is an uninhabited island that India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 based on a conditional agreement called “Kachchativu island pact”.
- Later on, Sri Lanka declared Katchatheevu, a sacred land given the presence of a Catholic shrine
- The central government recognizes Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island as per the 1974 accord. But Tamil Nadu claimed that Katchatheevu falls under the Indian territory and Tamil fishermen have traditionally believed that it belongs to them and therefore want to preserve the right to fish there.
Why is Sri Lanka important to India?
- India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor. Both sides have built upon a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction.
- Sri Lanka has always been politically and economically important to India given its strategic geographical position in the Indian Ocean. The relationship has been marked by close contacts at all levels.
- Sri Lanka sits at the epicenter of the arc connecting the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca. An island nation with an economy that’s mainly reliant on tourism and tea exports, Sri Lanka’s blessed geography puts it at a crucial juncture of the busy shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean.
- India also has a vital strategic stake in Sri Lanka for its own security interests. An unfriendly Sri Lanka or a Sri Lanka under influence of a power unfriendly to India would strategically discomfit India.
- For the Indian Navy, Sri Lanka is important as the switching of naval fleets from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and vice versa requires the fleets to go around the island nation.
- Both countries share a common broad understanding on major issues of international interest and experience common social-political problems relating to community divides.
SL needs India too
- The humanitarian work by Indian agencies like supplies of medicines, doctors and providing refuge to more than 3 lakhs IDP’s during the decade-old civil war has created a sense of mutual cooperation among the countries natives.
- SL is one of the leading recipients of India’s Line of Credits.
- India has always rushed for the relief at the first signs of the rains and floods in SL recently. SL still commends the post-tsunami HADR relief operations carried out by India in the end-2004.
- India’s military, intelligence and security establishment has maintained its relations with its Sri Lankan counterpart, and both sides have been on the same page at all times.
- The security environment in the neighborhood will be discussed in light of the 21 April Easter Church bombings, and lessons learned from it.
- India is also the largest provider of defense training programs for Sri Lankan soldiers and Defence officials.
The Rajapaksa Factor
- Rajapaksa is a controversial family that is known for its pro-China tilt and also infamously remembered for its brutal acts against Tamil minorities in pursuit of ending the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
- Sri Lanka witnessed an authoritarian family rule under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015.
- Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa), a former defence secretary and intelligence officer, accused of committing human rights violations, hailed by many for ending the civil war.
- Also, India’s relations with Sri Lanka went through a troubled patch during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency due to his proximity with China.
Unresolved legacy issues
- Given Gotabaya’s role as defense minister in Mahinda’s government in the LTTE’s elimination and charges of war crimes and human rights violations, this polarization raises questions about the course of domestic politics ahead.
- The EAM has, during his recent visit, conveyed to President Gotabaya India’s expectation that his government will proceed with national reconciliation, with a solution that meets Tamil aspirations.
- These are, of course, the right words for the occasion and do not necessarily guarantee what happens next.
- The Tamils would be concerned at the choice of Anuradhapura as the venue for the President’s inauguration and General Gunaratne, reputedly the scourge of Tamils in the war, as defense minister.
Greater role for India
Gathering convergence towards SL
- Delhi needs to invest some political capital in resolving problems such as the long-standing dispute over fisheries.
- Beyond its objection to China’s BRI projects, Delhi, either alone or in partnership with like-minded countries like Japan, should offer sustainable terms for infrastructure development.
- Delhi also needs to contribute more to the development of Colombo’s defence and counter-terror capabilities.
Answering the Tamil Question
- The second structural factor shaping India’s relations with Sri Lanka is the Tamil question.
- Delhi has certainly learned the dangers of being drawn too deep into the domestic conflicts of neighboring countries.
- If the new government in Colombo can advance reconciliation with the Tamil minority, it will be easier for India to strengthen ties with the Gotabaya government.
No china factor indeed
- Labeling governments in Sri Lanka as “pro-China” or “pro-India” is irrelevant. It is evident that China’s economic and strategic salience in the subcontinent is not tied to the regime leadership.
- Previous Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena who considered as pro-India came to power criticizing the Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, but within two years into power, it extended full backing to the Chinese projects.
Harnessing the ray of hope
- Our challenges in Sri Lanka will continue, but we are off to a good start with the new government.
- The new president has made repeated statements that his government would like Sri Lanka to be a “neutral country” and that “Sri Lanka won’t do anything that will harm India’s interests.”
- Gotabaya was also critical of the previous government giving Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to China.
- He went on to add that giving land as investment for developing a hotel or a commercial property was not a problem but the strategically important, economically important harbor, giving that is not acceptable.
- The Rajapaksas have acknowledged that India has not interfered in the recent elections.
- The first visit abroad by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India has its own symbolic significance, translating into a diplomatic gesture his statement to the EAM that while China is a trade partner, India is a relative.
- During the last few years, various constitutional amendments have weakened the Sri Lankan president’s powers considerably and it would be interesting to watch the relationship between the president and the parliament, which cannot be dissolved before February 2020 — unless it votes itself to do so.
- This stability in the Indian government should find synergy with the new Sri Lankan president policy which includes “neutrality” and “non-alignment” between major powers.
- Rather than focusing on building the case against China, New Delhi must step up its efforts to show what it is for.
- India can never match Beijing’s economic wherewithal to make a difference to Colombo’s developmental requirements.
- But it can carve out a niche role in some areas and also partner smartly with likeminded strategic partners like Japan to make an economic and strategic difference in Sri Lanka.
- The challenges for India to protect its interests remained even with the friendly Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in power in Sri Lanka.
- One of the biggest challenges for Indian diplomacy in the subcontinent is to persuade its neighbor that India is an opportunity and not a threat.
- Progressive trade and economic ties are key to prosperity in India Sri Lanka relations and the free trade agreement acts as a catalyst to address this solution.
- Sri Lanka should be allowed for recovering stable polity and growing economic ties with India through various channels.
- The China question is only part of the recalibration that will be needed to get India-Sri Lanka relations on the right track.