23 February, 2024


India In Sri Lanka: Price Of Misperceptions & Misreads 

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

“Whatever policy you may lay down, the art of conducting the foreign affairs of a country lies in finding out what is most advantageous to the country. We may talk about international goodwill and mean what we say. But in the ultimate analysis, a government functions for the good of the country it governs and no government dare do anything which in the short or long run is manifestly to the disadvantage of that country.” Jawaharlal Nehru in a speech in 1947, as quoted in Henry Kissinger, World Order, Penguin Books, 2014, p. 201.

One of the notable features of the current dynamics of Sri Lankan politics is the growing recognition by all parties in the country of India’s growing sensitivity to Sri Lanka’s major domestic political issues and changes. Historically viewed, this is a post-civil war phenomenon, which arose out of local misperceptions and misreads of India’s position and intensions regarding the unresolved Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic issue. Even though the country is so close to India geographically, “so as to lose its insular character”, as K. M. Panikkar rightly assessed in his India and the Indian Ocean (1945: p.20), and is culturally entwined, it never became India’s satellite state, in spite of being drawn into the wars of the south Indian kingdoms either in self-defence, or in alliance with one or other of the warring princes. Although the Kandyan kingdom was ruled by the Nayakkar dynasty from South India for three quarters of a century between 1739 and 1815 that kingdom remained independent and never fell under the tutelage of Dravidian India.   

Even colonial Britain ruled Ceylon as a separate crown colony and not as part of India. After independence in 1948 and until the rise of LTTE, India rarely intervened in Sri Lankan domestic political affairs except when called for military assistance Sri Lankan governments, as was the case in the abortive coup d’etat of 1962 and JVP led youth insurrection of 1971. True, the strategic location of Trincomalee harbour and events surrounding its ownership and control has always been a concern in India’s naval strategy, because India, as stressed by Panikkar, is determined to keep “The Indian Ocean … remain fully Indian” (op.cit., p. 84). However, Trincomalee was never an issue between India and Sri Lanka until China entered Sri Lankan waters after the civil war by gaining a 99-year leasehold over Hambantota harbour. Likewise, even the issue of status of Indian immigrants in the island, a legacy of British colonialism, was settled amicably and with great statesmanship by the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 and Sirimavo-Indira Pact of 1974. This mutual recognition of and non-interference in each other’s domestic politics has changed dramatically since the end of the civil war. The ubiquity of India’s intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the regularity of visits by Sri Lankan leaders to Delhi and vice versa for advice and consultation eloquently announces the permanency of Indian interest in Sri Lankan politics.  How did this happen? To answer this question one has to understand the contradictory perceptions or rather misperceptions that the Sinhalese and Tamil leadership carried about India’s position and intentions regarding the ethnic issue.     

Leaders of both communities grossly misread India’s positon and motives in the ethnic crisis, which eventually brought the civil war with disastrous economic and strategic consequences. The Sinhalese intelligentsia, the Buddhist prelates and political leaders had a mortal fear in their mindset fed by partisan historians, archaeologists, political thinkers, novelists and dramatists that India would one day invade Sri Lanka in support of the Tamils. This fear was ingrained in their psyche through distorted pictures about Tamil invasions from South India during the medieval era. That fear understandably became intense when Tamil leaders and especially their LTTE subset, over confidently and overwhelmingly, fulminated about Indian Tamil brethren’s readiness to assist in case of war breaking out between the two communities. The willingness of Tamil Nadu rulers, in concert with Delhi leadership, to supply weapons and train Eelam warriors on Indian soil added further to Sinhalese fear and built Tamil hopes. Ultimately, when the Indian air force provocatively intruded Sri Lanka’s air-space and dropped relief supplies on the Jaffna Peninsula on 4 June 1987 following the failure to send a day before a flotilla of ships loaded with similar cargo the contradictory feelings of both communities reached their respective zenith. Yet, when the war actually broke out and moved towards its tragic crescendo the fear of the Sinhalese and hopes of the Tamils evaporated simultaneously, one with jubilation and the other with disappointment and agony. Both groups misperceived and misread India’s position and intentions.

From the point of view of India’s national security Sri Lankan ethnic issue was a non-issue to receive serious attention. Historically, the threat to India’s security always came from the north and not from the south. This was why Indira Gandhi showed keen interest in the then growing separatist troubles between East and West Pakistan, sent Indian forces to assist Mujibur Rahman’s Mukti Bahini and actualized the cause of an independent Bangladesh. India had to do it for strategic reasons to weaken its arch rival Pakistan against whom she fought three wars. India’s role and interference in this episode raised false hopes among the Tamils that it will do the same in their struggle for an independent Eelam.  This was the first misread of India’s tactical and discriminatory interference in the politics of neighbouring countries. 

The fact that Delhi tolerated Tamil Nadu’s red carpet reception to Sri Lankan separatist factions and even Delhi’s preparedness to provide limited supply of arms and training to Tamil fighters was not because of Delhi’s support to the Tamil struggle for a separate state but because to keep the Tamil Nadu state government on the side of the Central government in Delhi. The need for a central government’s stability and continuity in a federal democracy often produces situations that make compromises on unpalatable demands from state governments unavoidable. Such internal diplomatic manoeuvres between Delhi and Chennai were also misperceived by Sri Lankan Tamil leaders as Tamil Nadu’s overriding influence over the central government. Also, little did those leaders ponder whether the Tamil Nadu politicians themselves supported the emergence of an independent Tamil Eelam. The late Cho Ramaswamy, a Tamil Brahmin journalist, lawyer and comedian, was quite critical of the hypocrisy of Tamil Nadu politicians such as Karunanidhi, Ramachandran and Jeyalalithaa (all of them are dead) for manipulating the Sri Lankan Tamil issue simply to win their own political contests and no more.   

Objectively speaking, an independent Tamil Eelam will be detrimental to the international status and reputation of Tamil Nadu. In a short note that I published in the London Tamil Times in 1986 I analysed this point which obviously disturbed a number of Eelamists and their fellow travellers. Let me summarise my argument. Even though Tamil Nadu is only a state government and not an independent country, it is, for all intents and purposes, the sole spokesperson in the global arena regarding Tamil language, Tamil culture and Tamil civilization. This is a prestigious situation. However, that position is bound to be jeopardised once an independent Tamil Eelam is created and recognised internationally. That tiny country with a flag of its own would then have a representative in the UN and that representative would automatically become the sole voice of any Tamil issue raised at world stage. Will Tamil Nadu be prepared to surrender its hegemony to a Tamil Eelam, ruled by leaders, who, in the caste ladder of Indian Brahmanism are not equal even to its lowest rung? Also, from the point of view of Delhi, the tiny Tamil country may even re-energize separatist Dravidian ethnic feelings in Tamil Nadu, which was successfully controlled and subsumed in 1950s under territorial federalism. Finally, instead of one, two independent countries in one small island, but both sharing the same land borders along the Indian Ocean would complicate India’s any future negotiations for maritime security. Thus, neither Delhi nor Chennai was really committed to support Tamil Eelam struggle. The thirty minutes token hunger strike, in sympathy with Sri Lankan Tamils, by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Karunanidhi, at a time when tens of thousands of Tamils were trapped in a redoubt and facing slaughter at the hands of Sri Lankan soldiers exposed Tamil Nadu’s hypocrisy beyond any doubt.

Had these facts been understood by the leaders of the two communities a civil war would have been averted. While ungrounded fears of India drove Sinhalese politicians to solve militarily what really was a domestic constitutional issue, an overconfident Tamil leadership relying on Tamil Nadu’s false postures equally resorted to a military solution expecting the India would come to their assistance. In the end, both Delhi and Chennai betrayed the Tamils.  Even with all the advantage of superior weapons and larger soldiery it was the crucial neutrality of Delhi that actually won the war for Sri Lankan government. To that, Sri Lankan governments irrespective of their hues are heavily in debt. It was one of India’s master strokes. India is well and truly in Sri Lanka without firing a shot. The island nation has paid a very heavy price for its misperceptions and misreads.                       

However, the sacking of Prime Minister RW by President MS on Friday 26th, after the PM’s recent visit to India, was a political coup, and according to at least one observer, an attempt by MS to keep India at bay. The one sworn in as RW’s replacement, MR, is yet to prove his majority support in the parliament when it reconvenes on 16 November. In the meantime, MR is known for his close alignment with Beijing in preference to Delhi. Not surprisingly, it was China’s ambassador who was the first to call on MR to congratulate him. At the moment there are two PMs with one headman. India’s RAW will be closely watching these developments, and looking from a distance, they do not auger well for Sri Lanka’s political stability and economic future. India has a number of trumps to outplay Sri Lanka if situation demands. This is testing time for the island’s balancing act between the two regional powers.                                         

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  • 5

    Dr.Ameer Ali,
    “The Sinhalese intelligentsia, the Buddhist prelates and political leaders had a mortal fear in their mindset fed by partisan historians, archaeologists, political thinkers, novelists and dramatists that India would one day invade Sri Lanka in support of the Tamils. “
    An excellent analysis of the Sinhala mindset. It is very strange that in a country with 99% literacy, the majority think that Idia is 50% Tamil. The sad thing is that that these very same “Sinhalese” might themselves be of South Indian origin.

    • 1

      Imagined history apart, Indian meddling and invasion in the 1980s only affirms the fears of the Sinhalese middle class. The FTA with India made by CBK was not to Sri Lanka’s benefit, and people are conscious of it.
      The kind of pressure exerted by India on its neighbours does not evoke confidence in any.
      Indian foreign policy in its making and delivery needs serious review.

      • 1

        India should ignore Sri Lanka and get about strengthening their position in the region. First of all they must deepen the palk strait to allow big ships to pass. At present Sri Lanka has been lobbying not to go ahead as Colombo harbour will collapse without Indian transhipment cargo. I do not understand the logic in Indian foreign policy when they could legitimately bring Sri Lanka to its knees, without doing it come begging Sri Lanka to allow them to develop Colombo port. Next is to implement Indo-Lanka accord fully with autonomy to Tamil areas where there is provision for external trade and access to external funds. With this power that can build the bridge or tunnel to link India and Sri Lanka, and any attempt by Sri Lanka to thwart it to be met militarily. When USA and USSR are asserting their power in the region, it is a shame that India is unable to do so.

    • 0

      “The sad thing is that these very same “Sinhalese” might themselves be of South Indian origin”. It is not might but definitely proved that they are of South Indian origin by two genetic studies undertaken, where in all the Sinhalese examined, the core genetic material was South Indian (75%) with only 26% Bengali and 9% Veddha genes and no Aryan gene marker at all. Even those brought by Portuguese 500 years ago to work in cinnamon plantations, now claim to be pure bred Sinhalese.

  • 1

    This Article’s Intention may be Clear to Reader but Bottom Line of South Asia’s Most if not Each-Every Accounted Regional Chaos are Engineered by India (Indian Military)

    India is not seen as a raw model by No One (they like to think they are)
    Yet Majority Indian scum Population Liked BRAG about as they are being Dubbed”Biggest SHE@T@T@I@S@T Freaking Democracy on this Planet” thanks to BBC……

    Most Sri Lankans are no Different from Average Indians “Winning about BUDDHISM & of course Gamarala’s Virtues of Glorious Past…. Land of the King of Freaking Kings… Day Dreaming Ideas Becoming DEVELOP-P A D E COUNTRY BY 2025 (no SH@TT) and Crappy Outdated (1960) Regulations still Operates the Miserable Government Sector…
    All most forgot India going be a Developed by 2025. So Two Blood bothers are no different from each Other.

    US-EU-UK-AU-Singapore-Malaysia-South Korea…Believe it when I post this “They HATES INDIANS SKILLED WORKERS…THEY HATES THEM MORE THAN MUSLIMS….Yep They are Sick of these Global Cancer Indian migrant workers who are willing to sell there Skill as Medical Doctor -Engineering -Administrative – Managemental…To She@@@@I@S@T Price as long as they can get Out of there Over-Populated RAT-HOLE They are stuck in.

    Fact is there is no Jobs to be given for Indian Graduates with in India…India’s is the Ultimate Culprit….Mass-Murderous Mastermind even Behind September 11 Attacks.
    Sri Lanka -Pakistan-Bhutan-Nepal-Afghanistan all Regional Problems Are Engineered by this Over-Populated Human Garbage India…

    One more Crucial Point very Important regarding Sri Lanka’s Current Ambulance Service Provided by India is There as a Intelligence & DATA Gathering Purposes Primarily. There is Nothing Humanitarian about it….Harsha DeSilva is Dumb-Fool to Allow and to Authorize it…
    (US special arms Committee is aware of this …Even the Chinese were baffled How a Such National Security Breech was allowed,,,)

    • 5


      While you spend your time theorising about conspiracy theories about india’s motives towards insignificant Sri Lanka, India is making giant strides towards betterment. Their middle class is multiplying exponentially. Their economy is growing by multifolds. The western nations voluntarily want make deals with her.

      Here you are stuck in muddy fields with bitter and twisted mindset; I feel very sorry for you!

  • 3

    The comment on pre-colonial Indian involvement, imagines the existence of an Indian state, something that was a product of colonial conquest.
    India did not push matters too far even about the Citizenship Act of 1948, although Nehru himself showed interest in the plantation Tamil population from earlier decades.
    India showed no interest in the Sri Lankan National question in 1956 (Sinhala Only bill), 1958 (riots) 1972 (the Republican Constitution) and even 1977 (riots).
    India resented Sri Lanka’s neutrality during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1972. Indian meddling was slow to emerge under Indira G., who was provoked by JRJ at a personal and foreign policy level.
    Unlike what the writer suggests, Indira G. war more cynical than Tamilnadu politicians in arming and training militants since her return to power, and especially after 1983.
    China was not an issue until much after China’s emergence as a global capitalist power.
    Sorry to say that much of the comment is superficial.

  • 0

    Dear Mr Ali Thank you for kindly sharing the summary as is so vital we will keep the facts out for our children to learn and evaluate matters accordingly for their future. As they say truth is the victim in all of this indeed. Thank you SJ for for the very focused objective comments too as we need to teach our children to learn what democracy is all about is to have a respectful exchange of thoughts where we learn from each other.

    I am concerned we are allowing comments without real names/verifications as some of the comments are set out to silence/ridicule the other and further muddying the facts/truth at this critical juncture. I am trying to see if this is true in all the social media then what are our chances of Nation Building? Is there a risk/benefit analysis on this subject at the National Security level??

    • 0

      I share your concerns about the abuse of pseudonyms.
      I use mine to avoid responses that are too personal, but that is no guarantee.

      • 0

        I note serious violations in comments sections in the CT where the article writers and other commenters are all mocked/terrorised/intimidated/bullied/verbally assault too and in the process we all loose the focus/objectivity too …….this is a very incorrect way to learn from each other too. Please take note this is how politics started up North (I can not speak for down south) and then the next level was physical violence and the next stage was killing (we certainly did normalise the unthinkable)…..fear politics we do not approve? In real life we yet to bring such criminals to the books too? Nothing was done by the law enforcement too then as the society/some media outfits just accepted such adventures out of fear too. We call this democratic rights/mandate and whatever……the consequences are we lost our children and the country………..so stopping a war does not solve any problems until we educate people more fundamental law of cohabitation. Respect for others thought and constructively make an argumet for the sole purpose of helping all others…not for point scoring purposes . The fact of the matter is the people who do this may not even live in SL furthermore have an incorrect understanding of the law in the respective countries they live too……..This is only possible because we do not have to appear under the real names and identity verified…a technology opportunity missed to exchange thoughts and learn from each other…… however as you have kindly explained and respect your position. thank you.

  • 0

    Most readable Dr.Ameer Ali.
    a] By the way you look so different in this photo compared to your days at Peradeniya and for that matter even Armens corner!
    b] Your line……
    Even with all the advantage of superior weapons and larger soldiery it was the CRUCIAL NEUTRALITY of Delhi that won the war for Srilankan Govt………
    CRUCIAL NEUTRALITY? yes on paper! The Indians were by no means neutral! They were very much involved by remote control!
    After all Sonia Ghandhi lost her husband and India lost a Ghandhi. Could we expect India to look the other way when the war was in progress?
    c] …..At the moment there are two PMs with one Headman……
    If the present favourite of the Headman establishes himself , hook or by crook the Headman may have to look forward to losing his head,in the foreseeable future,as a return for the Hoppers!

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