Minnesota International Relations Colloquium (MIRC)
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN October 8, 2012
South Asia in transition: India-Sri Lanka relations in the twenty-first century Abstract: Although India’s relations with the other countries of the South Asian region have been the subject of study for decades most of these studies have been limited to exploring single-issue areas. In addition, they do not address recent developments like the impact of India’s economic rise, developments such as 9/11 and the democratic transitions in several countries in the region. As a result, they present an incomplete picture of India’s relations with these countries. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a comprehensive overview of India’s relations with its South Asian neighbor Sri Lanka in light of these recent developments.
South Asia is assuming increasing importance in world politics in the post-Cold War era. Its significance has grown considerably since 9/11. It is host to one of the world’s most intractable bilateral disputes, the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. It has a substantial Muslim population residing in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. It has embraced economic liberalization programs leading to stronger links with the rest of the world. Finally, its biggest country India is the world’s largest democracy, the second-most populous country in the world, a nuclear weapons state with one of the world’s largest military force and the third largest economy in the world after the US and China in terms of GDP (PPP). By virtue of its size and population, India enjoys a position of regional dominance. Since its independence, India’s goals vis-à-vis South Asia have included: (1) maintenance of regional supremacy & stability, (2) denying extra-regional actors a military foothold in South Asia, and (3) peaceful settlement of conflicts within the region through talks between the domestic actors involved (Sen Gupta 1983: 20). India has displayed a willingness to undertake coercive action whenever it felt that outside actors threatened its influence or regional stability was threatened. Examples include: military intervention in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971, annexation of Sikkim in 1975, embargo on Nepal during 1989-90 and peace-keeping operations in Sri Lanka during 1987-90.
Given India’s size, power and actions its smaller neighbors are understandably apprehensive and suspicious of India’s intentions. As a result of these two factors, India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors (i.e., Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal) have been affected by several disputes and problems. India’s relations with Pakistan have been marked by conflict and mistrust since the two countries became independent in 1947. The dispute over the status of Kashmir is the major sticking point in relations between the two countries. In recent times, there have been renewed efforts to arrive at a settlement on the most important disputes between the two sides, including Kashmir. The transition from military to civilian rule in Pakistan in 2008 represent a new chapter in India’s relations with Pakistan. However, impediments to peace continue to exist.
Afghanistan has long been treated as a country that is not part of South Asia. However, it is impossible to understand India’s relations with South Asia, especially Pakistan, without reference to Afghanistan. Over the past few decades, India had only limited influence in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, India has tried to raise its profile in the country by increasing contacts at both the official and civilian levels in order to promote its interests there. Its primary goal in Afghanistan is to undercut Pakistan’s influence over the nascent regime, which has contributed to increasing tensions between the two rivals.
The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 was hailed in India as the birth of a secular, friendly ally on its eastern border. However, celebrations soon became muted as India’s relations with the country rapidly deteriorated in the background of disputes involving water sharing, illegal influx of Bangladeshis into India and Bangladesh’s alleged support to insurgents groups active in north-eastern India. Today, these issues continue to affect relations between India and Bangladesh as the latter attempts to consolidate representative democracy based on multi-party elections. Recent political changes in Bangladesh and developments in the region provide an opportunity for the two countries to address bilateral issues bedeviling relations.
Nepal has been witness to dramatic developments during the past decade including a civil war, usurpation of political authority by the monarchy, abolishment of monarchy and restoration of democratic rule and subsequent political impasse associated with the process of writing a new constitution. These developments have been anxiously watched by India. Although a friendship treaty between India and Nepal sets the basis for a unique political and economic relationship, Nepal’s attempts to pursue an independent and neutral foreign policy has created tensions with its larger southern neighbor (Garver, 1991). India’s overt and covert attempts to influence the political developments in Nepal have frequently drawn the ire of Nepalese nationalists. India faces many challenges in attempting to build a new relationship with Nepal as the latter attempts to create a stable democracy.
Finally, India’s relations with its southern neighbor Sri Lanka have been primarily conducted under the shadow of the two-decade long civil war in that country (Bose 1994). The conflict has strained relations between the majority Sinhalese community and the minority Tamil community of Sri Lanka. The main parties to the conflict included the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for self-determination for the Tamil community. After its failure to enforce a peace agreement between the two sides during the late-1980s, India has consistently rejected calls for intervention and mediation. The ethnic strife in Sri Lanka has harmed regional peace and stability. The end of the civil war provides an opportunity for India and Sri Lanka to take their relationship to a new level.
Although India’s relations with the other countries of the South Asian region have been the subject of study for decades, most of these studies have been limited to exploring single-issue areas and do not discuss the impact of recent developments on India’s relations with other South Asian countries (Chiriyankandath 2004; Grover 2001; Hilali 2001; Mehta 2009; Mohan 2004; Pant 2008; Tanham 1992; Thornton 1992). These developments include India’s economic rise, developments like 9/11 and the recent democratic transitions in several countries across the region. This chapter focuses on Sri Lanka. The goal of this chapter is to answer the three-fold research question: What is the nature of the relationship between India and Sri Lanka? What patterns are observed in the historical interactions between India and Sri Lanka? Has India’s economic rise and developments such as 9/11 and the recent political transition in Sri Lanka affected the nature of the relationship and altered the historical patterns of interactions?
Sri Lanka: A Brief History
Britain granted Ceylon (Sri Lanka) independence in 1948, a year after India and Pakistan gained their independence. The transfer of power was relatively peaceful compared to the violent events surrounding the Partition of British India. During the first two decades after independence, Sri Lanka maintained its erstwhile links with Britain, inheriting the British Westminster model of government, adopting English as the official language, maintaining dominion status and signing a bilateral defense agreement. Apart from India, Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia that has a long tradition of civilian governments directly elected by the people.
However, the poor treatment of the island’s minority Tamil community at the hands of the majority Sinhalese community has tarnished Sri Lanka’s claims of being a representative democracy (Embree 1997). It has strained relations between the Sinhalese, who are primarily Theravada Buddhists and the Tamils, who are primarily Hindus. The Tamils residing in the island’s north and central provinces, have long complained of being treated as ‘second-class’ citizens. Using their numerical majority, the Sinhalese created a unitary state that was pro-Sinhalese and pro-Buddhist, while systematically ignoring the legitimate political, social and economic grievances of the Tamils (Bose 1994). Political exclusion and a deepening sense of alienation felt by the Tamils within the country ultimately led to a brutal and destructive civil war beginning in 1983 and lasting until 2009. The civil war ended in the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers who were fighting for an independent state for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
As fighting intensified, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor India intervened in the conflict in 1987. Home to more than 50 million Tamils at the time, India had an important stake in the ongoing conflict on the island. India was also unhappy about Sri Lanka seeking military assistance and training from extra-regional actors, like the US, China and Israel during the civil war (Kodikara 1995). Ultimately, it was able to pressure Sri Lanka to call off its military offensive against the Tamil Tigers and offer a political package, which included the devolution of power to the Tamils in the northeast. In order to facilitate the peace process it offered to send an Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) to the island. However, the IPKF soon became engaged in a firefight with the Tamil Tigers, who refused to disarm. India’s actions against the Tamil Tigers upset the Tamils in both India and Sri Lanka. Sinhalese nationalists were also unhappy with India’s unwelcome intervention in what they regarded was Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Taking advantage of this nationalist sentiment, the Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) launched an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state, plunging the country into further instability. Previously, the JVP had launched a failed insurrection in 1971. This time too, the government was able to subdue the JVP. Today, the JVP is a legitimate political party, which has participated in democratic elections.
In March 1990, the deeply unpopular IPKF was withdrawn having failed to enforce the peace. Following this debacle, India consistently rejected calls emanating from the island for intervention and mediation to bring the conflict to an end. Bilateral relations were strained during much of the 1990s. Tamil Nadu-based political parties also pressured successive central governments in India to limit ties with Sri Lanka. However, relations have improved substantially over the past decade due to the burgeoning economic relations between the two countries. The end of the civil war is an opportunity for India to deepen its engagement with Sri Lanka and push for national reconciliation. New economic linkages, political transition in Sri Lanka and greater US interest in the South Asian region, including Sri Lanka, provide India with the opportunity to further consolidate its relationship with Sri Lanka. Following a background section highlighting political developments in Sri Lanka, this paper attempts to examine these three new developments that have the potential to reshape ties between the two countries.
India-Sri Lanka Relations: Background
The Sinhalese, who constitute 74% of the total population, and Tamils, who constitute 18% of the total population, are the two major ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.1 The other prominent community, the Moors (7%), trace their lineage to the early Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka prior to the sixteenth century. They are Muslims, who primarily speak Tamil even though they are not ethnically Tamils. Sinhala (official and national language) is spoken by 74% of the population, while Tamil (official and national language) is spoken by 18% of the population. Buddhism (65%) and Hinduism (15%) are the major religions. There are also a sizeable number of Muslims living on the island. Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils are indigenous to Sri Lanka. The ancient Buddhist chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, claim that the Sinhalese are descendants of Prince Vijaya and his followers who arrived on the island during the 5th century BCE from West Bengal, India (DeSilva 1981). The first Tamil speakers are also believed to have arrived in Sri Lanka around the same time. The indigenous people of the island, the Veddas, have largely been assimilated over time.
Sri Lanka saw a succession of Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century CE. The Portuguese established their control in the coastal areas and aggressively proselytized the locals (Little 1994: 11-12). They were replaced by the Dutch during the seventeenth century CE, who controlled the coastal areas and some interior regions. The Dutch were in turn replaced by the British during the end of the eighteenth century CE. Sri Lanka was then known as Ceylon. The Crown assumed direct control of the island in 1802. The British extended their rule throughout the island finally defeating the Kingdom of Kandy, which was the last Sinhalese stronghold, in 1815. They ruled the island until its independence in 1948.
The roots of the ethnic conflict in modern Sri Lanka may be traced back to the colonial period. The British colonial administration did not hide its belief in the superiority of Western culture and tradition. English replaced Sinhala as the language of government and commerce. The island’s Buddhist Sangha (community) believed that British colonial rule had broken the traditional links between Buddhism and the State (Little 1994). Ancient myths and colonial-era resentment contributed to a Buddhist revival movement in Ceylon. Beginning in the 1860s, anxiety about the future of Buddhism on the island led some Buddhist leaders, like Anagarika Dharmapala, to respond aggressively to the spread of Western ideas and religion. The movement fostered an ethnic consciousness among the island’s majority community. The leaders argued that Sri Lanka was the last bastion of Buddhism in South Asia and it was up to Sinhalese to don the mantle of ‘defenders of the faith’. Buddhism soon became an integral part of modern Sinhalese nationalism. Even today, Buddhist monks are actively involved in politics through parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) (Deegalle 2004).
The revival movement also portrayed Sinhalese and Tamils as adversaries locked in power struggle throughout their history. The expansion of South Indian Tamil kingdoms into Sri Lanka and ancient tales of heroic battles fought by the Sinhalese against Tamil rule were used to justify the argument that Sinhalese culture had always been under threat. Many Buddhist leaders alleged that Tamils were receiving preferential treatment from the British government. They were over-represented within the lower rungs of the colonial administration, despite their minority status. This was because the Tamils were more receptive to Western education and their knowledge of English (as a result of attending missionary schools) helped them secure positions in the colonial administration. Cultural insecurity, loss of privileges and Tamil success angered many Sinhalese (Kaplan 2010; Sabhlok 2002). The import of Indian Tamils by the British government during the nineteenth and twentieth century, to work as indentured laborers on the tea and rubber plantations of central Sri Lanka, made Sinhala nationalists and Buddhists even more anxious that they would one day become a minority on the island.
Despite these developments, educated middle-class Sinhalese and Tamils united under the banner of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) to seek constitutional reforms from the British. The CNC was established in 1919 under the leadership of Tamil leader Ponnambalam Arunachalam. However, as time progressed, differences between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities complicated matters. The Tamils favored communal representation, while the Sinhalese favored territorial representation. In 1931, the Donoughmore Commission set up by the British ushered in constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka. The Commission created a new constitution that remained in force from 1931-1947. The constitutional reforms repudiated the demands of communal representation, established universal franchise on the island and created a new State Council to replace the existing legislative council.
Following these reforms, it was inevitable that the Sinhalese community had the largest number of representatives in the State Council. The insecurity regarding their status led some Tamils to establish the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) in 1944, under the leadership of G.G. Ponnambalam. The ACTC demand equal representation in the State Council, which was rejected by the British. During the same year, the Soulbury Commission was established to carry out a second set of constitutional reforms. Britain accepted a draft constitution submitted by the D.S. Senanayake-led Board of Ministers (who were members of the State Council) (Wilson 1999). This later became the constitution of the independent country of Ceylon in 1948. Ceylon inherited a set of majoritarian institutions from the British: a Parliament with a bicameral legislature and single-member district plurality electoral system. It lacked substantive minority guarantees. The issue of minority rights was to be settled through talks between the leaders of the two communities once the British left.
The first government of Sri Lanka was headed by D.S. Senanayake, the leader of the center-right United National Party (UNP), which had a majority in Parliament. It did not take long for Sinhalese nationalists to assert their dominant status. In 1948, the new Parliament passed the controversial Ceylon Citizenship Act, which denied citizenship rights to over 700,000 Indian Tamils making them stateless. These Tamils had been brought to work on tea and rubber plantations. The Sinhalese believed that this action would correct the ethnic imbalance on the island. However, it caused much anguish among the Sri Lankan Tamils. Later, the government reached an agreement with India to repatriate a limited number of Tamils to India. The failure of the ACTC to prevent this action led to a section of its members breaking away to form the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) or the Federal Party. The Federal Party, under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, demanded a federal system in the country with constitutional protection for Tamil language. However, Sinhalese nationalists were in no mood to concede to the demands of the Tamils.
In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike’s center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the elections. The SLFP had never been happy with the 1948 Soulbury Constitution, claiming that it was imposed by the British on Ceylon. Fulfilling its election pledge, it passed the Sinhala Only Act in 1948, which declared Sinhala as the sole official language of Ceylon. English would no longer be the official language of the country as it was deemed to be a remnant of Ceylon’s colonial past (DeVotta 2005). The declaration of Sinhala as the official language was welcomed by the Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist leaders. However, this action further alienated the Tamils. Their language had yet to receive official status and English was no longer the ‘bridge’ language.
In 1972, a new constitution was adopted, which changed the name of the island to Sri Lanka and declared it a republic with a unicameral legislature. At the same time, Buddhism was accorded a special status in Sri Lanka. Although freedom of religion was recognized, the State was supposed to take an active interest in supporting Buddhism and Buddhist institutions. During the 1970s, affirmative action policies favoring the entry of Sinhalese in colleges and universities across the country further served to anger the Tamils. The lack of concern on the part of the government for their plight increased ethnic tensions within Sri Lanka.
Frustrated by Sinhalese obduracy, a group of Tamil parties (including the ACTC and the Federal Party) established the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. During the same year, a separatist, militant organization known as the LTTE was established, under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Both organizations, representing moderate and extremist elements, demanded an independent state for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. However, while the TULF favored negotiations with the Sinhalese leadership, the LTTE believed that only by resorting to violence could the dream of an independent state be achieved. The Tamil Tigers began attacking not only attacking government forces and Sinhalese citizens, but also Tamil civilians who disagreed with their policies and tactics. Members of the moderate Tamil political parties, including TULF, were also attacked by the Tamil Tigers.
It was not long before the Tamil Tigers were able to suppress opposition within the Tamil community and claim that they were the sole representatives of the Tamil people. After 1977, India-Sri Lanka relations worsened as Sri Lanka, under President Jayewardene, began to actively engage with the West. This represented a threat to India’s regional hegemony. In order to put pressure on Sri Lanka, India allowed the LTTE to set up training camps in Tamil Nadu. Indian intelligence agencies provided training and logistical support to the LTTE. Pressure exerted by its own domestic Tamil constituency was also responsible for India’s support to the LTTE.
In 1978, Sri Lanka transitioned from a Parliamentary system to a Semi-Presidential system.2 The UNP, under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene, used its two-third electoral majority in Parliament to make this change possible. Arguing that the previous system was flawed, a new constitution was drafted for the country by the government. The new political system was characterized by a strong executive, having the power to appoint a Prime Minister and his cabinet from the majority party in Parliament. A proportional representation electoral system replaced the single-member district plurality electoral system. The new constitution created an even more centralized system. In the event that the President came from the same party that had a majority in Parliament, he/she could easily control Parliament. The President could control members of his/her party, through powers to nominate and remove members from Parliament. He/she could also dissolve Parliament and call for fresh elections. This intense concentration of power at the Center was completely at odds with Tamil demand for the decentralization of power (Wilson 1999).
In July 1983, following a Tamil Tiger ambush in which thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers died, Sinhalese mobs went on a four-day rampage against Tamil civilians across the country. Hundreds of Tamils died in countrywide rioting between 23-26 July, while thousands fled the country. The riots came to be described as ‘Black July’. The authorities were slow to respond to the riots, which led many Tamils to allege that there was some degree of collusion between the government and the rioters (Kumaratanga 1996). Black July was the immediate trigger for the civil war that was to engulf the country for the next 26 years. The LTTE was able to wage its armed struggle through the financial support of the Tamil diaspora settled in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Scandinavian countries (La 2004; Fair 2005). The Tigers also indulged in weapons smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and provided assistance to other insurgent groups around the world.
The primary reason for the descent into civil war was the intense ethnic polarization within the country due to the treatment of Tamils (Adeney and Wyatt 2004; Bose 2004; DeVotta 2005; Embree 1997; Kumaratunga 1996). Sinhalese politicians often competed with each other in projecting a hawkish position towards the Tamil issue. Aggressive and uncompromising stands during campaigning were rewarded by votes from the electorate. The majority community had used its dominant position to marginalize the minority community. Political institutions within the country favored the Sinhalese, disregarding minority interests. This undermined minority confidence in the institutions and eroded their faith in democracy. No unifying idea of Sri Lankan nationhood emerged. In such an environment, mobilization along ethnic lines was natural. In South Asia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka face similar problems with majoritarian institutions, but ethnic polarization in the latter has complicated the problem and led to violent conflict.3 The Sinhalese believe that despite their majority status on the island, they are in fact a minority when compared to the Tamils. This is because of the presence of more than seventy million Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A complex mix of history, religion and ethnicity pushed the country towards civil war. The LTTE was the result of the frustration felt by the younger generation of Tamils, who had suffered socio-economic discrimination and political exclusion at the hands of the Sinhalese-dominated polity (Embree 1997). Black July demonstrated that Tamils could never expect to be treated fairly by the Sinhala-dominated government. Only an independent state of their own could protect their nation. Violence appeared to be the only means to achieve this objective.
The first phase of the Sri Lankan civil war began in 1983. Many Tamils fled to India where they were housed in government-run camps. By June 1987, Sri Lankan government forces had closed in on the main Tamil Tiger stronghold in Jaffna peninsula in the north. Many Tamil civilians were in danger of being caught in the crossfire between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. Faced with the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, the Indian government requested the Sri Lankan government to halt military operations. India was already concerned about the fact that Sri Lanka had drawn progressively closer to the West during the 1980s and even invited military and intelligence personnel from other countries to advise its security forces during the civil war. However, bolstered by domestic support for the successful offensive, Jayewardene refused to order a ceasefire. When India sent relief supplies through transport ships, they were blocked by the Sri Lankan navy. Exasperated, Rajiv Gandhi’s government authorized the Indian Air Force (IAF) to air drop supplies into the besieged town of Jaffna. This blatant violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty forced Jayewardene to halt military operations and request talks with the Indian government.
The two countries signed the Indo-Sri Lankan accord in July 1987 (See Appendix A). Under the terms of the agreement, the Sri Lankan government would enter into talks with the Tamil Tigers aimed at establishing a permanent ceasefire, devolve powers to provincial councils, merge the northern and eastern provinces (subject to a national referendum) and grant official status to the Tamil language. These measures would be incorporated into the thirteenth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution (Bajoria 2009). In an exchange of letters, the Sri Lankan government also agreed to consult India prior to inviting foreign military personnel to advise/train its security forces and assured it that extra-regional actors would not be allowed to establish a military foothold in Sri Lanka (See Appendix B). In return, India would end its support to the Tamil Tigers and send the IPKF to help disarm the Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE.
However, the IPKF failed in its mission to enforce the peace. Both the Sinhalese and Tamil community were unhappy about India’s growing involvement in Sri Lanka. Ultimately the troops were withdrawn in March 1990 by the new government that came to power in India. In May 1991, a female Tamil suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, India during election campaigning. India listed the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 1992. Others, including the US (1997), UK (2000) and Canada and the EU (2006) have done the same. India’s declaration meant that it could not serve as a neutral third party to facilitate talks between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE in later years. Hence, it was not in favor of becoming directly involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka during 2002-06.
The thirteenth amendment to the constitution was meant to be a blueprint of a political settlement in Sri Lanka. Although it was passed by the Sri Lankan parliament in November 1987, the amendment was not fully implemented and Sinhalese nationalists have long called for its repeal. Although completed, there was no nationwide referendum to approve the merger of the northern and eastern provinces. In 1990, following a motion in the council calling for an independent Tamil state (Eelam), President Ranasinghe Premadasa dissolved the northeastern provincial council and imposed central rule on the province. In October 2006, the country’s Supreme Court ruled Jayewardene’s proclamations enabling the ‘temporary’ merger of the northern and eastern provinces null and void. In January 2007, the government de-merged the North and East.
Over the years, talks between successive Sri Lankan government and LTTE failed to bring an end to the violence. Each side blamed the other for refusing to compromise. During her second term, President Chandrika Kumaratunga invited the Norwegian government to facilitate talks between the two warring sides. The process began in 2002 but lack of progress forced the Norwegians to withdraw in 2006. President Mahinda Rajapakse, who came to power in 2005, led Sri Lanka during the last phase of the conflict. The civil war finally came to an end in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE and the death of Prabhakaran, but not before several thousand Tamil civilians died in the final days of fighting.