With a new Sri Lankan president in office, will relations between the island nation and its closest neighbour India improve, ask Anjani Devi (Central University of Gujara, India) and Rohit Kumar (Central University of Gujarat, India).
On 16 November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka. When Mahinda Rajapaksa (Gotabaya’s brother) previously held the highest office in Sri Lanka, relations between India and Sri Lanka suffered a major setback. After the conclusion of the Civil War in 2009, domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu forced the Indian government to join the international appeal for an investigation against human rights violations and war crimes. Sri Lanka however did not view India’s alignment with this international appeal in a positive light. With Mahinda Rajapaksa tilting towards China while in office, political and security concerns were quickly raised by India. Now a different brother is in office, are the relations between the two countries reparable?
India-Sri Lanka relations
Should India be focused on regaining a foothold and influence within the island nation, it is clear that they will be following a more pragmatic policy to do so. In fact, it’s already clear that India has been enacting such a policy since November’s election. Not long after the results were declared, Subrahmanyam Jayshankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, was sent to Sri Lanka to greet the newly elected president. This trip was then followed by Sri Lanka’s newly elected president visiting India on his first official overseas trip. During his time in India, Narendra Modi announced $400 million of credit for infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and promised $50 million to address security-related issues, particularly in the fight to combat terrorism.
These large amounts of money are designed to assist with the recovery of Sri Lanka’s economy via mutually beneficial projects that ensure Indian-led projects are continued under the current Sri Lankan government, such as housing projects, work on oil tankers and a railway line etc. The leaders from both countries have also decided to use $100 million lines of credit to set up solar projects across Sri Lanka.
The fact that Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India as his first official visit is deeply significant. During this trip the Sri Lankan President declared that he intends to develop closer ties between India and Sri Lanka and engage the two countries at a very high level of government. While Narendra Modi has not yet visited Sri Lanka under its new leadership, but he has emphasised the Neighbourhood First Policy and proclaimed that the relationship with Sri Lanka is one of importance for India, as far as developing its foreign policy or any strategy towards other countries in South Asia is concerned.
The geopolitical setting of India and Sri Lanka compels the two countries to respect each other’s security concerns. A stable Sri Lanka has always been a major interest of India, as well as the security of the whole Indian Ocean region. According to Prime Minister Modi: “the security and development of two countries are inseparable therefore it is natural that we should be aware of each other’s safety and sensibilities”. In addition, India’s primary interest remains in a peaceful and stable Indian Oceanthat has a huge role in achieving its primary goal of the economic transformation.
The geostrategic position of Sri Lanka at the forefront of India’s peninsular south means that the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes remain central to the strategic thinking of India’s foreign policy. Of late, China’s widening interest in Sri Lanka helped the latter to increase the importance of such thoughts due to India’s consideration of the region as its backyard. For this reason, the geopolitical concern and security need has occupied a predominant are of interest of India in Sri Lanka. But, the lack of common security concerns, strategic interests and threat perceptions among South Asian countries prevent them coming together into the same platform.
China’s presence in the region can be taken as a great example in which Pakistan supports its strategic presence whereas it is opposed by India. Similarly, smaller countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal also perceive India’s role as hegemonic rather than a peace facilitator and security provider in the region. India’s smaller neighbour looks towards India with great suspicion due to its domination in the region with a larger population, economy, territory and military expenditure and finally, of course, possessing a nuclear weapon.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority
The issue of Tamil minorities, however, remains a significant and focal point in India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. Therefore, the most sensitive issue for India to deal with President Rajapaksa lies with dealing with the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern parts, which has closer links with the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Modi has expressed that the new government would fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. He has said: “I am confident that the government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th Amendment”.
Since the political crisis in Sri Lanka, like other countries of the international community, India has been closely observing a list of activities of Sri Lanka, and monitoring its electoral process has been high on that list. India has also shown its interest to work with the new government, anticipating that the long-awaited aspirations of the Tamil minorities would be resolved under the new government. Under the current government in India, the national interest has become its principle concern rather than domestic considerations from Tamil Nadu politics, which has played a critical role and remained a major domestic factor in India’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. In this context, it is crucial for India to adopt a pro-active policy towards Sri Lanka to address the issue of Tamil minorities and leverage its interests. Although India tried to pressure Sri Lanka to implement the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolutions demanding an international investigation against alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, such attempts were weakened by the support shown to Sri Lanka from Russia, China, Pakistan and many African countries.
Putting the ‘Tamil question’ on hold
However, due to India’s anxiety towards China gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka, the ‘Tamil question’ has been put on hold. In 2015, Modi visited Sri Lanka and became the first Indian prime minister to visit Jaffna where he had suggested minority Tamils be tolerant with the then new government of Maithiripala Sirisena. Therefore, ever since the visit from the Indian External Affairs Minister took place on 29 November 2019, the Tamil leaders, as well as minority Tamils, have been closely observing the situation. Soon after the visit, the Ministry of External Affairs stated that India expects Sri Lanka to take forward its post-war reconciliation process and ensure equality, justice, peace and dignity of the Tamil people.
In this context, the recent visit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India soon after assuming the office in November 2019 is seen as a significant moment in the bilateral relations of two countries. The Tamil leader, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan has viewed such a move as a way of bettering relations between the two countries. He expressed that it will fulfil India’s interests and concerns of the reconciliation process, and that the Tamil ethnic question in Sri Lanka could be resolved. Furthermore, he anticipated that the leaders of the two countries would ensure the promises regarding Tamil ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. Apart from expressing a desire to work together in various developmental projects, the issue of terrorism has been recognised as the need of the hour. The Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, made the two countries jointly anxious towards their national security as the incident signalled the influence of ISIS and religious extremism in South Asia.
Sri Lanka has and will come under pressure from the United States and Europe to tackle the issue of transitional justice, reconciliation and human rights. Such pressure will again bolster China’s relationship with Sri Lanka. A division in the international community will prevent India from deepening economic linkage and broaden its connectivity initiatives with Sri Lanka.
Should India want to regain its moral as well as strategic ground in Sri Lanka, it must wait and watch Sri Lanka’s policy approach. Particularly, when the issue of the international community comes up in the context of post-war development and full implementation of the UN resolution over the concern of human rights violations.
Undoubtedly, the gestures of the current Sri Lankan President signal a positive development for the relations between the two countries. Yet it remains uncertain that the new Sri Lankan government is Indian-centric or just Indian friendly, as far as Sri Lanka’s past relationship with China is concerned. It will also be important to observe how India will put forward its interests while pressurising Sri Lanka to address Tamil minority issues.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Image: Lightbulb; Credit: Qimono, Pixabay.