Indian perspective on post-conflict Sri Lanka

(Synopsis of the speech by the writer, Senior Fellow for South Asia, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) London at a Meeting of Alliance for Peace & Reconciliation in Sri Lanka (APRSL) in Committee Room 2 of House of Lords on 19 October 2009)

By Rahul Roy-Chaudhury

I. Strategic Importance of Sri Lanka for India

a) Relations with the Tamil Community in Sri Lanka:

(October 27, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Tamils of the southern Indian province of Tamilnadu – with a population of 60 million – have deep cultural, linguistic, religious and emotional ties with the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka (3.5 million of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people). Tamilnadu sends 39 MPs to Delhi, accounting for the 6th largest number of parliamentary seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament (Lok Sabha).

b) Prospects for insecurity within India:

Sri Lanka is the principal southern neighbour for India – separated by the Palk Straits - which is some 65 kms at its nearest and 130 kms at its widest. In view of its proximity and ethnic linkages, insecurity in Sri Lanka impacts upon Indian domestic security. This was most vividly seen in India by the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 by the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE).

c) Concern over growing influence of China and Pakistan:

In view of India’s antagonistic relations with Pakistan, and concern over China, China and Pakistan’s growing relationship with Sri Lanka is seen with concern in New Delhi. This not only relates to the supply of lethal arms to the Sri Lankan military during the recent military offensive against the Tamil Tigers (which India was not prepared to provide), but key port development and economic infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

II. India’s Policy Towards Sri Lanka – for domestic political stability & security and economic prosperity within a united Sri Lanka – ranging from intervention & mediation to facilitation, but never isolation or neglect.

a) Past – Intervention & Mediation

Intervention: India supported Sri Lanka’s operations against the right-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection in 1971; India sent troops (Indian Peace Keeping Force, IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987-1990 to fight the Tamil Tigers – with some 1,250 Indian military personnel killed and several thousand wounded, India withdrew under humiliating circumstances. Key lesson – failure of this military intervention makes another military intervention in Sri Lanka highly unlikely.

Mediation: Thimpu talks (July & August 1985), SAARC Summit in Bangalore (November 1986), India-Sri Lanka Accord (1987) and 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution in relation to IPKF operations

b) Recent Military Operations against Tamil Tigers - Facilitation:

The Tamil Tigers are banned in India; its late chief Prabhakaran was a ‘wanted’ man in India for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi; Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia Gandhi has been Chairperson of the governing UPA coalition in India for the past five plus years.

To counter the Tamil Tigers, India provided non-lethal equipment to the Sri Lankan military, carried out coordinated naval exercises with the Sri Lankan navy to stem supply of arms by sea to LTTE, and ensured no LTTE base was set up in Tamilnadu. India was relieved when LTTE chief Prabhakaran was killed and the LTTE defeated militarily by the Sri Lankan armed forces. But, India remains concerned over LTTE offshoot linkages to the Naxalites (Maoists) and north-eastern insurgents in India.

But, as the final Sri Lankan military offensive against the Tamil Tigers coincided with the general elections in Tamilnadu, these military operations became the most important foreign policy issue from an electoral perspective for both Tamilnadu, and arguably, the country as a whole. Leaders of both major Tamil parties, Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (the sitting chief minister of the Tamilnadu) and Jayalalitha of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) espoused rhetoric on behalf of the Tamils and Tamil ‘Eelam’ (homeland) in Sri Lanka to garner votes. As a result, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh twice sent his National Security Advisor (NSA) and Foreign Secretary to Sri Lanka to try to arrange a ceasefire, but with little result. While the Sri Lankan government refused to accept a ceasefire, these visits may have slowed its military offensive.

In a surprise electoral win, the DMK won 18 of the 39 seats in the 2009 general elections in Tamilnadu – with its Congress and VCK allies winning an additional 9 seats - but largely for reasons not related to its rhetoric on Sri Lanka. The most ardent political supporter of the LTTE in India, Vaiko of the MDMK lost his seat.

This has been the result of a shift in Indian Tamil perceptions of the Tamil Tigers – while there was considerable sympathy and anguish at the plight of the Tamils at the mercy of the Sri Lankan military offensive, there was, at the same time, anger that the Tamil Tigers’ and Prabhakaran’s intransigence in the past few months had led to this situation. The Tamil Tigers were not seen as representing the Tamil cause but as terrorists, accentuated by stories of Tamil Tigers cadres holding innocent Tamils as civilian hostages against the military offensive.

c) India’s Current Policy: Facilitation

Immediate: Relief & Rehabilitation

Relief, rehabilitation & resettlement of 250,000 internally displaced Tamils living in ‘holding camps’ in poor living conditions – five months after the end of military operations.

Short-term: Reconciliation & Political Settlement

The Indian government is clear that there can be no military solution to the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. This has to be resolved through a negotiated, permanent political settlement based on credible devolution of powers within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. This has to be acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, including the Tamils.

This requires the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, which was introduced to give effect to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. This requires the Sri Lankan government to expedite a ‘credible’ devolution package at the earliest to form the basis for a lasting political settlement. This should include greater and credible devolution of powers to the recently elected Eastern Provincial Council. This includes devolution of powers to a Tamil-majority province in relation to sensitive subjects such as land and the police, even though the centre will continue to have over-riding powers on both these issues.


a) Shifting Perceptions: Perceptions of Indian Tamils are shifting. Deep sympathy and anguish over plight of Sri Lankan Tamils but anger against Tamil Tigers. Appears to be forming a consensus on ensuring political rights for Sri Lankan Tamils in a federal structure.

b) Influence of DMK on the Indian government: The DMK is a key coalition partner for Congress-led UPA government (with 18 seats comprising the third largest party in the UPA governing coalition after the Congress and the Trinamool Congress; although the Congress Party has 206 seats). DMK can be an influential voice on India’s prospective Sri Lankan policy. Recently, a 10-member delegation of Tamilnadu MPs, including DMK chief’s daughter Ms. Kanimozhi, visited Sri Lanka.

c) Continuing pressure from Indian government: The Indian government continues to pressurise Sri Lanka to act on immediate (relief & rehabilitation) and short-term (reconciliation) goals, but this is increasingly seen as having a a limited impact.

Notwithstanding limitations in India’s current political leverages vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, this could well change in view of the following – a) if the Sri Lankan political landscape provides prospects for insecurity within India, b) the public mood in Tamilnadu shifts back to an assertive stance if there is no visible progress in political terms for the Sri Lankan Tamils, and c) Chinese and Pakistani influence over Sri Lanka grows at India’s expense.
-Sri Lanka Guardian