Colombo Telegraph

Required: A Sri Lanka Policy

By Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham

In December 2004, I wrote a paper titled “India’s Sri Lanka Policy: Need for A Review”   (first published in the website of the South Asian Analysis Group)   arguing that that there was a need for New Delhi to review its Sri Lanka Policy. My argument was based on the premise that a country’s national interests are served only when policies are based on ground realities. I pointed out that India’s Sri Lanka policy did not reflect ground realities, which, at that time meant    acknowledging the existence of two distinct power centres in Sri Lanka-Colombo in the South and Killinocchchi in the North.  The implication was clear-New Delhi should seek to improve its leverage by adopting a more nuanced approach to ensure that its own interests were not compromised.

Instead, New Delhi, dictated by the belief  that by helping Colombo reassert its dominance over the entire island it could keep Sri Lanka within its orbit, provided Colombo with logistical support to cut off Tigers’ weapons supply.   It did not foresee Colombo counterbalancing Indian influence by bringing in China. Even after China’s direct involvement, New Delhi continued to extend its support to Colombo driven by the logic that it could not sit back and surrenders Sri Lanka into China’s embrace.[1]   In the meantime, by making New Delhi complicit in the brutal manner in which it brought the war to an end, Colombo has more than counterbalanced Indian influence. New Delhi’s apparent complicity in the horrendous war crimes committed during the final stages of the war has compromised New Delhi’s capacity to influence Colombo.  New Delhi’s impotence is not only due to its suspected complicity but also because of the demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As the International Crisis Group  pointed out With the LTTE gone, the Indian government may have lost its best opportunity to influence Sri Lankan policy… That powerful leverage has now been lost”.[2]

What New Delhi had not quite thought through in implementing its policy which was primarily focused on getting rid of the LTTE[3] can be broadly summarised as follows:

(a) A complete failure to grasp the agenda of the Sri Lankan State in respect of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan State given its unitary constitution is a state where all political power resides with the majority Sinhala nation. This is because within the confines of unitary state the Sinhalese who make up well over seventy-five per cent of the population are a permanent majority. Since its independence in 1948, this Sinhala dominated state has relentlessly pursued an agenda of completely Sinhalising the state. This agenda is informed by the ideology that the entire island belongs only to the Sinhalese and the Tamils are interlopers. This is a well understood ideology explored in depth by several academics, Sinhalese, Tamils and those from the international community. It is this notion which has driven   successive Sri Lankan governments to pursue Sinhalisation through various means and thereby deny the Tamils a distinct identity as a people occupying a contiguous well defined area-the Tamil Homeland. Consequently any arrangement that provides autonomy to the Tamils is anathema to the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan state.   Hence, Mohan Ram’s conclusion in “Sri Lanka Fractured Island” that the “ Sinhala majority  has all along thought that any Tamil demand can only be met  the cost of its own interest, a zero sum game… and is not reconciled to even providing  limited concessions  the Tamils were given under the Indo Sri Lanka Agreement”[4]

New Delhi appears to have not grasped this basic tenet underpinning the actions of the Sri Lankan state. Its hope that with the demise of the LTTE, Sri Lanka could be persuaded to at least ‘devolve’ some political power to the Tamils was entirely misplaced. New Delhi’s role in cooperating with Colombo appears to have been predicated by the flawed perception that once the LTTE is liquidated the Sinhalese could be persuaded to provide concessions to the Tamils.

Instead, the Sri Lankan state has taken advantage of the military solution which it had imposed with New Delhi’s help to further its own agenda of Sinhalising the state through changing the demography of the Tamil Homeland. This is being pursued through a strategy of ‘Ethnic flooding’[5] whereby the Tamil Homeland is flooded with Sinhalese population, initially, with families of the armed forces and thereafter with civilian settlers. New Delhi has been completely outsmarted by this strategy which has the potential to render any ‘devolution’ meaningless.

(b) A failure to evaluate the impact of China’s direct involvement in Sri Lanka

It has been argued that India’s involvement in Sri Lanka has been underpinned by the doctrine that Colombo should remain exclusively within New Delhi’s sphere of influence. This is based on the premise of India being the regional power and Sri Lanka a state within this region.[6] By permitting China’s entry, New Delhi has in effect not only abandoned this policy but appears to have endangered its own geopolitical interests.

(c) A failure to realise the impact  in Tamil Nadu

New Delhi has failed to factor into its strategy of assisting Sri Lanka, the fall out in Tamil Nadu. The manner in which the victory was achieved through the deployment of genocidal   violence and the role played by New Delhi in extending its support to the Sri Lankan regime has alienated Tamil Nadu. Sam Rajappa, writing for the New Statesman noted that Tamil Nadu is on the boil due to India’s contribution to the genocide (of Tamils) in Sri Lanka and should Rajapaksa and company are hauled up before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for this horrendous brutality.[7]  In 2011, Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution seeking the imposition of economic sanctions against Sri Lanka by India. The resolution moved by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa also wanted India to press the United Nations to declare as “war criminals” those who committed crimes during the conflict in Sri Lanka. [8] New Delhi’s  impotence or unwillingness to press for a strongly wondered resolution at the March 2013 UNHCR sessions has made it untenable for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) the ruling party’s ally in the Central government to continue its support for a government that is widely viewed by Tamil Nadu as having betrayed the  Tamil  people. In March 2013 the DMK withdrew its support greatly undermining the Congress led UPA’s capacity to stay in power.

It is imperative on the part of New Delhi’s policy makers to review the failed Sri Lanka policy and forge a bold approach to regain some influence in the region.

This bold approach must primarily address the ongoing plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka taking into account the agenda of the Sri Lankan state and its inclination to continue with the zero sum game. As part of its Sri Lanka policy New Delhi can and indeed should seek to protect the Tamil people by transforming the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka into a protectorate. There is precedence for such an act in the protection that the US was able to provide for Iraq’s Kurdish population   in northern Iraq.

If New Delhi is able to successfully implement such a policy it can serve its interest in many ways. Apart from addressing the Tamil Nadu factor, it can also provide New Delhi the strategic space to counter the increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. Such a policy will also be in keeping with the advice proffered by Professor Sumantra  Bose[9] in 2007 in  the course  of his key note address at a  seminar[10] exploring the international dimensions of the conflict in Sri Lanka. According to Bose, despite the unhappy history of the last twenty years, it is with the Tamil people of Sri Lanka that India needs to build its alliance. New Delhi ought to build on the natural affinity between India and the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. There is no other community that has such powerful affinity of a historical and cultural nature with India. He made this point in the context of the perception by the Indian establishment “with good cause” that it is surrounded by hostility in the region[11].

*Ana Pararajasingham was Director- Programmes with the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) between 2008 and 2009.    He is the author of “Sri Lanka’s Endangered Peace Process and the Way Forward” (2007) and the editor of “The Conflict in Sri Lanka::Ground Realities (2005) and “Sri Lanka:60 Years of Independence and Beyond” (2009).

[1] A Pratap in  “Lessons to be learnt from the rout of the LTTE” –The Week 31 May 2009

[2]   The International Crisis Group “India and Sri Lanka after the LTTE”, June 2011, p6

[3] Ibid p4-5

[4] Mohan Ram, Sri Lanka: The Fractured Island, New Delhi: Penguin Books (India), 1989,p138

[5] Ethnic flooding – the continuing and deliberate settling of Sinhalese populations on land in the Tamil homeland – to alter the demographic balance and thereby systemically erase the Tamil nation’s territorial identity- S Sathanathan in “After Pirapakaran: Deepening Internal Colonialism”,, viewed on 19th March 2013.

[6] D T Hagerty,”India’s Regional Security Doctrine”, Asian Survey, Vol: XXXXI, No 4, April 1991

[7]“ S Rajappa,  “India and ‘the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka”, The Statesman, 12 July 2011, viewed on 18th July 2011

[8] : viewed on 17th July 2011

[9] Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include “Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka” (Harvard University Press, 2007), “Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace” (Harvard University Press, 2003), “Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention” (Oxford University Press, 2002) and  “Nations, Sovereignty: Sri Lanka, India and the Tamil Eelam Movement” (Sage Publications, 1994). He graduated from Amherst College, Massachusetts and received a doctorate in political science from Columbia University in 1998.

[10] Jointly hosted by TRANCEND International and the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) in Switzerland in June 2007.

[11] S Bose, “India”  in “ International Dimensions of the Conflict in Sri Lanka” Centre  for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) , Emmenbrucke, Switzerland, 2008.

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