Prof Ninan Koshy


India has a Sri Lanka problem and it does not know how to resolve it. The question may be raised whether India has a Sri Lanka policy and if so what it is. However it is evident that there are some important factors that decide India’s diplomatic moves from time to time, not necessarily reflecting any consistent policy. The ad hoc nature of these moves creates the problem.

Recent discussions in India on Sri Lanka have centred mainly on the resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) asking for an “impartial and credible enquiry” into the allegations of massive human rights violations during and after the military action against the LTTE in the first six months of 2009. Political parties in Tamil Nadu, especially the UPA’s erstwhile ally D.M.K had pressed for amendment of the UNHRC draft resolution to ask for an “international” enquiry. While the Indian government seemed to give the impression that it would move such an amendment, it did not do so because of political and procedural considerations in the Council.

The three factors that influence India’s policy towards Sri Lanka are geo-strategic, regional politics and the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps in that order. Currently the debate is about the influence of regional politics, i.e. Tamil Nadu politics on policy making on Sri Lanka. The attempt of the government seems to be to respond to the strident demands for stronger action against Sri Lanka from the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu. Question has been raised about the desirability of foreign policy being influenced by regional politics. The question whether the periodic outbursts of protests in Tamil Nadu really help the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka also is also there.

But it is not difficult to establish that the first consideration of the government in formulating policy on Sri Lanka is geo-strategic. The neighbouring island of Sri Lanka is located in a strategically important part of the Indian Ocean. India does not want any outside power to establish influence in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s the involvement of India in Sri Lanka was to counter the influence of the United States of America with various moves including the establishment of a Voice of America station. Today India’s main strategic objective is to counter the growing influence of China in the island. China supplies arms to Sri Lanka, has a lot of investments there including in improvement of port facilities and internationally gives diplomatic support.

This explains to a substantial degree why India supported the Sri Lankan government’s final assault on the LTTE by supplying arms, intelligence and military advisers. In fact it is believed that it was with a green signal from New Delhi that President Rajapakse went ahead with the war against LTTE. If there was one government other than Sri Lanka’s, which knew about the extent of atrocities committed against the Tamil civilians during the war it was India’s. India knew that war crimes were being committed on a large scale. There is no evidence whatsoever that India attempted to advise Sri Lanka against the large scale atrocities. Whether such advice would have yielded any results is a different question. This writer on a visit to Colombo in February 2009 could get information about the killings of innocent persons in the so-called refugee camps and also of those coming to the refugee camps. Sri Lanka has been a major play ground for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India and India knew all what was happening there.

The other reason why India was fully supportive of the military assault against the LTTE is because the official approach of India was to consider the fight against LTTE as part of the War on Terror, an imperialist strategy which had been endorsed by India from the very beginning.

The attempts by the Indian government to persuade the Rajapakse government on implementing his many promises about rehabilitation, autonomy for Tamil provinces etc. have failed. There is a systematic Sinhalisation of Northern Sri Lanka with most of the land and houses belonging to Tamils before the war now being occupied by Sinhalese. In the early days of the post-war period Rajapakse had stated that he would go beyond the 13th amendment on devolution. Recently he ruled out any devolution of power.

Of the three considerations, we mentioned factoring into Sri Lanka policy is the support to the cause of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It will be difficult to prove that India has commitment to this cause after the debacle of the India Peace Keeping Force in the late nineteen eighties. If there was some, that too disappeared after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

India’s Sri Lanka problem is its inability to find a balance among the three factors: geo-strategic, Tamil Nadu politics and Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. And it is not easy to resolve it.