Historical continuities


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INDO-LANKA relations stretch back over 2500 years. Legend has it that a prince from Bengal came to the island with hundreds of his retinue and settled here after marrying a native queen. That the legend is not fiction is borne out by the fact that there are over 400 words in the Sinhala language which have the identical meaning in Bengali. The next significant event in our common history is the introduction of Buddhism to the country by Mahendra, the son of Emperor Ashok. India, to the Buddhists of Lanka is dharmadveepa or the land of the dharma.

In later centuries migrations continued from different parts of India. While those from the present Tamil Nadu retained their language and cultural identity, earlier migrants appear to have integrated with the Sinhalese. Today the main ethnic groups are as follows. The Sinhalese constitute 73% of the population; Sri Lankan Tamils who numbered around 12.5% are today fewer consequent to the war and migrations. The Muslims, originally from the Middle East but subsequently from India, hover around 10% and Tamils of ‘recent Indian origin’, who were brought in as indentured labour, number around seven per cent.



Whereas the freedom struggle in India was confrontational, Lanka adopted quite a different approach. The Sinhala and Tamil middle classes, having studied in England and some being Anglican Christians, were more than comfortable with the British. They extracted concessions, including the right of ‘home rule’, on an incremental basis from the 19th century onwards till final independence in 1948. The only rebellion against British rule took place in 1818 soon after the Kandyan kingdom was ceded to the British. This rebellion was put down with unparalleled ferocity using mercenaries from Malaya.

In keeping with the old saying ‘we must kiss the hand we cannot cut’, our leaders collaborated with the British. Some even took pride in wearing ‘top hat and tails’ to take the salute of the armed services on independence day. They even held a ‘ball’ with ladies in evening gowns and men in ‘black tie’ on the eve of independence day, far removed, no doubt, from the manner in which nationalistic Indians celebrated their independence from the British.

It came as no surprise then that though we had received our independence from Britain, we became dependant on the former colonial power for our defence. The government of the first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake signed a defence agreement with the United Kingdom permitting Britain to use the Trincomalee harbour and the oil tank facility which the British had constructed during the Second World War. It was, at the time, thought that the defence arrangement with Britain would secure the country from perceived Indian hegemonism.

The Pannikar doctrine (named after K.M. Pannikar) emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean for the defence of India. According to Pannikar, this ‘vulnerability’ made it necessary for Lanka or Ceylon to become an integral part of India’s defence structure. The British had kept out other imperialist powers from the Indian Ocean in order to protect their interests. The perception was that India considered itself the successor to the British Raj and therefore sought to use the same principle to incorporate other states and keep out external forces from the subcontinent. This, at the time, was seen as part of India’s strategy to establish its hegemony and dominance over the region, prompting the leaders of Ceylon seek protection under a defence agreement with Britain.



Despite this defence agreement, the leaders of the two countries enjoyed the most cordial of relations, both personal and official. The only irritant to both countries concerned the status of the indentured labour that had been brought to Ceylon by the British to work on the tea plantations. We shall return to it, but for the present let us record the fact that relations between the two countries were as close as they could have been at the time. Particular mention needs to be made of the close personal relationship that existed between Indian High Commissioner Desai and his Cambridge friend, the Prime Minister of Ceylon, the colourful and irrepressible Sir John Kotelawala.

Ceylon sought to play a role in the politics of the region and also champion the rights of the new world emerging from colonial bondage. Despite the defence agreement with Britain, it was Prime Minister Kotelawala who firmly stated that the country would not align itself to any bloc, nor go with a begging bowl to any country. He stood for Asian solidarity and was responsible for calling the meeting of the ‘Colombo Powers’ – India, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia and Ceylon. This meeting, which eventually led to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, would not have come about had it not been for the joint efforts of Nehru and the anti-communist Sir John Kotelawala. It was their close cooperation despite their political differences that resulted in the Bandung Conference becoming a reality. Theirs was a combined voice for peace and coexistence in the world during the second decade of the Cold War.



During the 1956 elections, Kotelawala was defeated and Solomon Bandaranaike assumed office, forming a coalition with a motley ‘crowd’ of socialists and Sinhala nationalists. The Marxists also supported the coalition. Bandaranaike was a liberal in the mould of Nehru. In the circumstances, 1956 saw the beginning of a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations. The government of Bandaranaike abrogated the defence pact with Britain and sought to cultivate relations with countries of the communist bloc, stating that the country was now ‘non-aligned’ and ‘committed to the hilt’ and not neutral.

Bandaranaike, the ‘wordsmith’, was of the view that non-alignment and the ‘panchasila’ principles would provide the necessary security for the country. Panditji himself lived to see the humiliation of his country by the Chinese who were of a different persuasion and disposition. Herein was a lesson for Lanka, which it never learnt. Sri Lanka continued with its commitment to non-alignment, depending for its security on the goodwill of its neighbour. In the years that immediately followed, the two countries cultivated the closest of relations. This, despite the fact that Sri Lanka maintained a friendship with China, which had gone to war with India in 1962.

The death of Panditji was as great a loss to Lanka as it was to India. He was respected and loved as one of the great leaders produced by the subcontinent. He was certainly not just an Indian statesman; he belonged to the world and Lanka indeed was proud of him. He was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shashtri as prime minister (1964-66), during whose tenure the principal irritant in Indo-Ceylon/Lanka relations – that of Indian immigrants – was resolved.



Indentured labour from South India was brought to work on our tea and rubber plantations. The issue of Indian immigrants became an intractrable problem between the two countries in 1953 when India resiled from its position that these immigrants were Indian nationals. It was only in 1964 that an agreement was reached between prime ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Shastri. This agreement was supplemented by another between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Bandaranaike in 1974 with India agreeing to take back 600,000 and Lanka agreeing to grant citizenship to 373,000. The agreement could not, however, be fully implemented leaving behind a festering problem.

The early ’70s witnessed certain developments which changed the power balance and the structure of the subcontinent following the creation of Bangladesh. India had emerged as the predominant power in the subcontinent after the dismemberment of Pakistan. Small nations such as Lanka found India becoming more assertive. Since India made it obvious to the smaller neighbours that its security took precedence over theirs, the strengthening of its security forces and growing self-confidence began to be perceived as a threat by smaller nations on the subcontinent. The ’70s also witnessed the ‘intrusion’ of superpower rivalry into the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, despite the perceived threat, the governments of Lanka were wholly in step with India. It was Sri Lanka that took the initiative, no doubt inspired by India, to have the Indian Ocean declared a zone of peace.

In 1974, Indira Gandhi visited Lanka. The warm personal ties between Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi was evidence that Indo-Lanka relations could not have been better. This factor solely contributed to the settling of the thorny problem of Kachchativu, a little islet off the Jaffna peninsula which had a Catholic shrine, and was claimed by both countries. India conceded that it was Sri Lankan territory and withdrew her claim.



The year 1977 marked another watershed in relations between our two countries. Mrs. Bandaranaike was defeated at the polls and a new right wing government was elected to office. At the time the 70 year old Jayewardene came into office as prime minister, the Indian prime minister was the 80 year old Morarji Desai. They soon became firm friends. Their respective political opponents were Mrs. Bandaranaike and Mrs. Gandhi. Whether it was this factor alone that contributed to the special relationship one does not know, but the two leaders had as warm a friendship as that between the two women prime ministers.

The new government of J.R. Jayewardene broke with the past and embarked on a domestic and foreign policy that was about ten years ahead of its time and gave India cause for concern. The Indian establishment, which was obsessively security conscious during this period, considered the pro-West policies of the J.R. government, such as opening up the economy to the west, granting a long lease to the U.S. to establish a Voice of America relay station, offering the 100 oil tanks in Trincomalee to a U.S. based company, among others, as serious threats to its security.



In 1980 the Desai government was defeated and Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister. We now saw yet another chapter being opened in our relations. The close and warm relationship that had existed between our two countries and their leaders turned hostile. Indira Gandhi had an intense dislike for President Jayewardene. The latter had spurned her plea that he not remove Bandaranaike’s civic rights. Jayewardene was also reported to have made some derogatory remarks about Indira Gandhi during his election campaign.

Differences in foreign and domestic policy served to exacerbate the problem. Jayewardene was cynical of non-alignment. Even while Sri Lanka held the chairmanship of the movement, we stated that there were only two ‘non-aligned’ states in the world – the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Jayewardene’s priority was not foreign but domestic affairs. He sought to have a close relationship with the West to attract investment and trade. India viewed this tilt with utmost suspicion. The situation could not have been worse.

Indian military strategists at the time, led by a strident Indira Gandhi, seem to have decided that Lanka was drifting away from India’s sphere of influence and should be brought within the defence perimeter of India. The ethnic conflict in Lanka afforded India the opportunity to intervene. Till the advent of the right wing government in Colombo, the Indian government in Delhi had treated the conflict as a domestic problem of Lanka. The rise of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu through the 1960s and ’70s and the emergence of the DMK, which became a coalition partner in the 1980 government of Indira Gandhi, were also factors that resulted in a change in India’s attitude to Lanka’s ethnic problem.



Another factor that must be placed on record was the Soviet Union’s perception that President Jayewardene was cosying up to the U.S. He had, as mentioned earlier, permitted the U.S. to establish a VOA relay facility in Lanka that would broadcast to all corners of the Soviet Union. The Colombo government had also entered into an agreement with a U.S. company (suspected to have been a dummy company formed by the CIA) to develop oil tanks in Trincomalee. The Indo-Soviet entente cordial which helped dismember Pakistan was again in operation to destabilize this island country.

The destabilization of Sri Lanka was made easier by the attitude of the government and the Sinhala people who were not inclined to concede to the Tamil minority rights which they claimed for themselves. As the level of the insurgency intensified, India not only gave refuge to Tamil militants but helped them with arms, training and money. The magazine India Today in an article titled ‘Ominous Presence’ filed by correspondent Shekhar Gupta identified the training camps and gave a detailed account of what the Indian authorities were doing to destabilize Lanka. This destabilization took the form of terrorism, which the LTTE and other Tamil groups thrust on the country. It was not a guerrilla war in which the militants took on the armed forces, but innocent civilians who were the prime targets of the militants. There are many in this country who believe that India is today receiving a taste of its own medicine in Kashmir.

Indian intervention was by no means subtle. No attempt was made to hide India’s support to the militants. It was a two-pronged approach, with the militants wreaking havoc on the country and attempting to beat it into submission and the Indian government negotiating on behalf of the militants. Matters came to a head in March 1987 when India, fearing that the insurgency would be put down by the Sri Lanka Army (the ‘Vadamarachchi operation’), indulged in a crude act of intimidation of its small neighbour.

India violated the country’s air space and dropped some food to the population whom they claimed was starving and demanded that the military operation against the insurgents be called off. Lanka had no option but to do so. If the insurgency was put down it would also have ended India’s hegemonic hopes of ‘Bhutanizing’ Lanka. Sankaran Krishnan of the East West University, Hawaii, stated that ‘Mrs.Gandhi was not in the business of fighting other peoples struggles for them. India’s interest in Sri Lanka was not bringing justice to the Tamil people but "Finlandizing" the country.’



Relations with India during the period of Indira Gandhi, to say the least, were bad. They improved only after Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister. The change of guard at the Ministry of External Affairs (Romesh Bhandari as Foreign Secretary) also helped. Jayewardene found in the younger Rajiv a person whom he could relate to and work with. There came about a significant improvement in Indo-Lanka relations at the level of heads of government but it appeared that despite the presence of Bhandari in South Block, the hawks were still deciding on the agenda towards realizing their objective, which was the ‘Bhutanisation’ of Lanka.

The Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi continued to support the militants. It sought to impose its own solution and in the process exposed its own agenda. A tired and old Jayewardene was pliable, particularly at the hands of the much disliked Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, the astute and able J.N. Dixit, who was considered diabolical. His detractors did not understand that at all times he was quite rightly safeguarding India’s interest, which was his given assignment. As he himself once said, there is no morality in international relations.



After the airdrop referred to earlier, which humiliated Lanka and its people, matters moved fast and ended with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 1987. The Indian government appeared to achieve its objective for it not only dictated the basis of the settlement but more importantly, the ‘letters’ exchanged between the Indian PM and the Sri Lankan president incorporated the so-called ‘Indira Doctrine’ and circumscribed the country’s sovereignty. Sri Lanka was precluded from obtaining the services of foreign military and intelligence personnel, the port of Trincomalee was to be made unavailable for military use by any other country, the oil tanks in Trincomalee had to be restored only through a joint venture with Indian Oil Corporation and last but not the least, Lanka was required to review its agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations.

This however, was not the lowest point in Sri Lanka’s relations with India. It was reached during the Premadasa presidency (1990-1991) when the president virtually expelled the Indian Peace Keeping Force from the island.

Fifteen years after the Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed, the ethnic problem remains unresolved and the agreement is now passe. The Indian side has not performed under the agreement since they were not able to disarm the LTTE as was required of them. Neither have they been able to interdict the shipment of arms to the LTTE. The Indian side did not develop the oil tanks and it is only now, almost 15 years after the agreement was signed, that Indian Oil has, under a new arrangement, agreed to restore and use some of the tanks.



In recent years relations between the two countries significantly improved after Chandrika Kumaratunge assumed office as president. In her own words, ‘India is our immediate neighbour with whom we have been inextricably (linked) by ties the origins of which have long been lost in the mist of time. We have with India the broadest and deepest interaction that we as a nation could have with another state. India therefore possesses the capacity, given her vastly disparate strength and influence, to help or hinder to a great extent. In a word, the India factor is crucial to the existence of our nation. Forging and sustaining a mutually trusting and supportive friendship with India must therefore be for us, not just a conscious and soundly judged policy, it is a natural and vital ingredient for our national well-being.’

Unfortunately, many factors have inhibited India from playing a more positive proactive role in her relationship with Lanka. Among these factors are her past experience in Lanka and coalition politics in India. The invariable dependence on Tamil Nadu parties for the forming of governments at the centre has in particular affected the political will so necessary for India to play a more positive role which her position as the regional power demands.

As for Lanka, with the threat of ‘Bhutanization’ having receded (and ended perhaps forever), the expectations of the relationship are now immense. Herein lies the danger, for India may not be able to live up to expectations, though it is in her interest to develop the closest of relations with Lanka.



The BJP leadership and the current Lankan leadership have forged close personal relations. But the BJP government has only served up words of support. Its involvement has been minimal. It has agreed to some police and military training, and placed on record its commitment to apprehend Prabhakaran for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, perhaps with a view to putting pressure on the LTTE. Neither on the political and military nor on the economic side has there been any tangible benefit to Lanka. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha’s recent visit to Lanka was at best a goodwill exercise, wholly sterile and without any tangible purpose. India can longer remain neutral with regard to her relations with this country; she must be totally committed particularly to the security of Sri Lanka,

The relationship between our two countries today is as close as it was during the times of Mrs. Bandaranaike and Mrs. Gandhi. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is making a valiant effort to settle the ethnic issue and expects tangible support from India, not mere words. The prime minister is also determined to root the relationship in deep economic cooperation and integration. To this end, he has already taken many bold initiatives and it is now left to be seen as to whether India will accept the challenge to carve out a new and dynamic relationship in our mutual interest.