Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Keeping the southern neighbour engaged


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- India-Sri Lanka relations, issues involved-Tamil minority, Chinese growing influence etc.


During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s India visit, New Delhi is likely to talk to Colombo on the Tamil issue and counterbalance Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean.

Background of the current politics in Sri Lanka

  • Sri Lankan Prime Minister official visit to India is taking place a few months after he assumed office and his brother was sworn in as president
  • Nationalist wave after attacks: The brothers were voted to the office on a Sinhala nationalist wave, a sentiment that is a fallout of the Easter attacks on Christian shrines, including the Saint Anthony’s shrine, in April last year.
    • The attacks had killed more than 250 people, six months before the elections.
    • The polarisation worked in favour of the Rajapaksas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s 10 per cent Muslim population, mostly Tamils, who are especially numerous on the country’s east coast.

Tamil issue in Sri Lanka

  • No engagement with Hindu Tamil: While Muslims have become the number one scapegoat for the Easter tragedy, the Rajapaksas have not tried to engage the Hindu Tamils
  • LTTE background: Hindu Tamils, who make about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, have had an acrimonious relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa ever since he wiped out the LTTE in 2009.
    • Many members of the community became collateral victims in the process.
  • Implications for India-Sri Lanka relations: Gotabaya was the defence secretary at that time. The Hindu Tamil factor may complicate India-Sri Lanka relations.
  • No inclusion minorities from Sri Lanka in CAA: In the Citizenship Amendment Act the Indian Parliament passed in 2019, the persecuted minorities of Sri Lanka are not taken into account.
    • However, the Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka are feeling insecure again.

China-Sri Lanka axis

  • The China factor is likely to aggravate the complication: The Rajapaksas are known to be pro-Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa was largely responsible for opening Sri Lanka to massive — and strategic -Chinese investments.
  • The Hambantota port issue: The Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres have been conceded to China on a 99-year lease, causing considerable consternation in New Delhi, which apprehends that this deep seaport could be used for military purposes, and not just trade.
    • The deal was put on a hold by former PM but the present dispensation wants it to be restored.
  • China’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean: India’s efforts were also designed to thwart China extending its influence in Sri Lanka at a time when the Narendra Modi administration is trying to counter Beijing’s clout in the Indian Ocean.
  • Modi’s visited on May 30, 2019, just after beginning his second tenure as PM.

Past engagement events

  • New Delhi has tried to engage the new Sri Lankan government after the Rajapaksas assumed office.
    • India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar, landed in Sri Lanka on November 20, 2019, to invite Gotabaya for his first visit to India — rather than to China.
  • Gotabaya visited New Delhi for three days in late November last year.
  • Tamil issue discussed: Jaishankar is said to have told Gotabaya that India expects his government to treat Tamils with dignity in the process of reconciliation.
    • There is speculation that India might appoint an ambassador of Tamil origin to Colombo.
  • Cooperation against terrorism: The Indian PM went further when Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi: He announced a $50 million line of credit for security and counter-terrorism
  • Line of credit for Infra: India also announced another $400 million for development and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
    • That the counter-terror fund would further strengthen cooperation against terrorism.
  • Allaying the fears over China: Gotabaya allayed India’s fears on China by saying that Sri Lanka would not allow a third country to affect Sri Lanka-India ties.


While addressing the issue of minority and growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka both countries need to focus on the other areas of cooperation like counter-terrorism, trade, security, development, technology etc.

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