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.
Significance of the relations:
- India shares a common cultural and security space with the countries in the South Asian region especially Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean region as an island State has been of strategic geopolitical relevance to several major powers.
- As a prominent Asian nation with critical national interests in South Asia, India has a special responsibility to ensure peace and stability in its closest neighbourhood.
- India should shed its big brother image and actively take part to rebuild the war-torn country.
- India needs the support of Sri Lanka to emerge as a Bluewater navy in the Indian Ocean and also in pursuing the permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
- China’s string of pearl’s strategy is aimed at encircling India to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean.
- Post-2015, Sri Lanka still relies heavily on China for Port city project and for continuation of Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka’s location can thus serve both commercial and industrial purposes and be used as a military base.
Current Issues That Can Impact India-Sri Lanka Relations:
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 defence 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 defence minister.
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 neighbouring 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
- Labelling 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 harbour, 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.
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 neighbour 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.