India-Sri Lanka 70 Years: Long Haul From Turbulence to Sobriety
Subtle diplomacy has replaced aggressive diplomacy
COLOMBO: Indo-Sri Lankan relations have come a long way since the two countries became independent in the late 1940s. Sobriety has replaced turbulence, which marked the relationship from 1948-49 to January 2015.
With changing conditions in the two countries and in geo-politics, it is likely that bilateral relations will continue to be somber, with both sides showing eagerness to avoid ruffling each other’s feathers. The Big Brother who had been breathing down little Lanka’s neck menacingly is now wanting to be a Benign Elder Brother, and the message is slowly sinking in, though suspicions remain.
The engagement between newly independent India and Sri Lanka got off on the wrong foot. In 1948 and 1949, immediately after getting independence, Sri Lanka passed laws denying citizenship to all persons of Indian origin, except 100,000. Nearly a million persons, mostly Tamil workers in the tea and rubber plantations, were rendered stateless overnight by a stroke of the pen.
And India watched it helplessly, as it was itself in unprecedented turmoil. British India had been partitioned amidst much bloodshed, there was a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and hundreds of “Princely states” had to be integrated into a new India.
However, in 1954, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took up the issue of “statelessness” with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Sir John Kotelawala. Nehru was prepared to give Indian citizenship to those who wanted it, but he flatly refused to take back all those rendered stateless by Sri Lanka’s Citizenship Acts of 1948 and 1949.
However, Sri Lanka took the realistic decision to allow the stateless Indians to remain and work in the island till the matter was resolved.
The issue came up again ten years later. By the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964, India agreed to take back 525,000 and Sri Lanka to absorb 300,000 with the fate of 150,000 left to be decided later.
But the pact worked only partially, as most Indian Origin Tamils, long settled in the island, were reluctant to go back. These even included people who had “opted” for Indian citizenship.
In 1988, thanks to the efforts of Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader S.Thondaman, all those who had not applied for Indian citizenship were given Sri Lankan citizenship. In 2003, another law gave citizenship to all Indian Tamils who had been residing in Sri Lanka since 1964, including those granted Indian citizenship.
Thondaman was able to swing this because he delinked himself both from India and the Tamil separatist movement led by the indigenous “Sri Lankan Tamils” living in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
He became part of the Sri Lankan national mainstream. Thondaman believed that being tied to India’s apron strings would not take the Indian origin Tamils anywhere, and that they should negotiate with the powers-that-be in Colombo as “Sri Lankans”.
Thus, by 2003, India had been relieved of the problem of Indian Origin Tamils.
The ownership of the island of Kachchativu, lying half way between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, had been an issue since British times. But it surfaced as a major issue when the maritime boundary had to be drawn in 1974.
Indian officials fought hard to get the island for India, based on documents which said that it was part of the private estate of the Raja of Ramnad in Tamil Nadu. But eventually, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi granted the island to Sri Lanka.
However, the 1974 and the 1976 agreements left a residue which bedeviled relations between the two countries for decades. This was the Indians’ “right” to fish in Sri Lankan territorial waters. Tamil Nadu fishermen argued that the clause referring to the continuation of the “traditional rights” of fishermen meant the right to fish around Kachchativu and beyond in Sri Lankan waters. But Sri Lanka argued that the “traditional right” referred only to attending St.Anthony’s Feast in Kachchativu once a year and to drying nets and resting on the island without a visa. It did not cover the right to fish or enter Sri Lankan waters in violation of international law.
But Tamil Nadu fishermen refused to keep away from Sri Lankan waters as they had over exploited the Indian side of the sea. The intruding fishermen used to be fired upon by the Sri Lankan navy or arrested and jailed. The fishermen in Tamil Nadu would then agitate, the Tamil Nadu government would put pressure on the Indian government, and the latter would negotiate the release of the arrested. This process went on until recently when Sri Lanka started impounding the boats. This led to a fall in intrusions from Tamil Nadu and restored cordiality between India and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka had been grappling with the issue of the minority indigenous Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since 1948. The Sri Lankan Tamils, as distinct from Tamils of Indian Origin, were demanding territorial autonomy. And in the mid-1970s, their demand escalated to an independent “Tamil Eelam” and an armed struggle was launched, which, in 1983, led to massive anti-Tamil riots in Colombo.
The resultant exodus to India of over 100,000 Tamils drew New Delhi into the conflict. Under pressure from Tamil Nadu to “do a Bangladesh” in Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi harbored and trained Tamil militant groups. But her plan was to secure autonomy for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka and not to get independence for them.
With the escalation of violence between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil militants, Indira Gandhi sent the veteran diplomat, G.Parthasarathy, to Colombo to mediate. Parthasarathy suggested that Sri Lanka be a “Union of Regions” and not a “Union of States” modifying the demand of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). But the Sri Lankan government said that the Unit of Devolution should not be the “province” but the smaller “district”. Making the “province” the unit of devolution would divide the country on an ethno-linguistic basis government felt.
However, the then Sri Lankan President, J.R.Jayewardene, put Parthasarathy’s proposal known as “Annexure C” to the All Parties Conference. As expected ,the APC rejected it.
In 1985, India arranged a meeting of the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government at Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. But there was no meeting ground. The Tamils’ demand for recognition of their right to a “Homeland” and to “Self-Determination”, including the right to secede, was unacceptable to Colombo.
However, India did not give up. In December 1986, it sent P.Chidambaram and Natwar Singh to thrash out new proposals. Called the “December 19 proposals” these envisaged the creation of two Tamil-speaking provinces, one in the North and the other in the East minus the Sinhalese speaking areas. These provinces would have an over-arching linkage until they decided to unite.
But the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had become the strongest militant group by then, rejected the proposals.
In early 1987, fighting and terrorist attacks resumed. Colombo imposed an economic embargo on Jaffna and launched “Operation Liberation” to eliminate the LTTE. But as the operation was about to succeed, India intervened, and compelled the Sri Lanka government to accept the India-Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987.
The India-Sri Lanka Accord envisaged the setting up elected Provincial Councils with a modicum of devolved power and an ad hoc unification of the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces. The 13th.Amendment, which was enacted to give effect to the Accord, envisaged the devolution of power over land and police also. An Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent to help implement the Accord.
However, the LTTE rejected the Accord and attacked the IPKF in October 1987 to start a war which ended only in March 1990 with the withdrawal of the IPKF after losing 1500 personnel.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government dragged its feet over the implementation of the Accord. Till date, land and police powers have not been devolved to the provinces. In 2006, the Supreme Court annulled the unification of the North and East. The only existing manifestation of the Accord are the elected Provincial Councils.
In 1989, Sri Lankan President R.Premadasa entered into talks with the LTTE, gave it arms to fight the IPKF, and also issued an ultimatum to the IPKF to quit Sri Lanka. With Colombo asking it to go, the IPKF was withdrawn in March 1990.
The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in May 1991, alienated India from the Tamil question. But interest was revived when the India-friendly Chandrika Kumaratunga became Sri Lankan President in 1995 with a mission to provide devolution through a new constitution in line with India’s vision.
But Kumaratunga failed due to the hostility of the opposition United National Party (UNP), the LTTE and the Tamil parties. War was resumed in 1997 and did not end till May 2009. India helped Sri Lanka‘s war effort, not overtly but covertly, especially during Eelam War IV (2006-2009) as opinion in Tamil Nadu was still in favor of the LTTE.
But India’s help had been crucial. The then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said after the victory in May 2009: “Sri Lanka could not have won the war without India’s support. If any country could have stopped the war, it was India.”
However, India’s support for the war effort was conditional. It wanted the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to implement the 13th.Amendment and even go beyond it, as devolution of power would be the best guarantor of Sri Lanka’s unity. But Rajapaksa refused to oblige and tilted towards China which had by then become a bee in India’s bonnet.
However, Rajapaksa allowed India to help rehabilitate the war devastated North by building 50,000 houses for displaced Tamil families, 4,000 houses for the Indian Origin Tamils and rebuild the railway network. India spent US$ 270 million on the housing project and had pledged US$ 1.2 billion for rebuilding the railway network.
But Rajapaksa’s failure to implement the agreed devolution proposals and the building of the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota harbor with Chinese help, led to a souring of India-Sri Lanka relations. India viewed with concern China’s strategic moves in Sri Lanka.
The successor government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promised to be friendly to India and keep China at bay. But its credibility is wearing thin as the many development projects suggested by India are in the doldrums while China is being encouraged to invest more and more.
However, India is no longer eager to push Sri Lanka to accept its suggestions in contrast to its earlier approach. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dictum is: “India will be there to assist Sri Lanka and will help execute projects of Sri Lanka’s choice and at Sri Lanka’s pace.”
India has promised that it will not press for the acceptance of the controversial Economic Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). It is taking in its stride, unfounded criticisms of the Free Trade Agreement which has been in operation since 2000. It has let the Sri Lankan government’s own statistics to speak for the FTA’s usefulness to Sri Lanka.
Statistics show that it is Sri Lanka which has gained more from the FTA than India. While most of the Indian exports to Sri Lanka are outside the FTA (with its duty concessions), most of Sri Lanka’s exports to India are under the FTA, and these exports have increased exponentially since 2000.
India is now into socially useful, grassroots level projects like the multi-million dollar all-island Emergency Ambulance Service and more houses for the Indian plantation labor. It is fostering computer literacy and Information Technology. India had also been in the forefront in helping Sri Lanka when it was hit by disasters like the tsunami in 2004 and floods recently.
Subtle diplomacy has replaced aggressive diplomacy, and that will help India enhance its influence in the island nation in a lasting way.