India and Sri Lanka since new government at the centre

Invitation to all SAARC nations in the swearing in ceremony of the prime minister was a strategic and symbolic step by the government. This step signaled the government’s intention to regain India’s leadership position in South Asia, much battered during the previous government of UPA alliance mainly because of domestic political compulsion. India shares a very complicated relationship with its island neighbour country Sri Lanka.

India’s Sri Lanka policy was tottered by political pressure from its allies in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.However; India enjoys close economic, historical and cultural ties with the island neighbor.

Sisisena visited India as his first destination. Despite visit of Sirisena to India, India should identify the core factors—some are self made mistakes while others are independent that have played the role to the insight that India’s  relationship with Sri Lanka lags  behind  China-Sri Lanka’s relationship. Relationship between the two nations depends on many factors. Having a look beyond India’s strong point of geography and political-military standing, we can identify two primary aspects that have complicated India’s ties with Sri Lanka.

  • China surpasses its investment in Lanka as compared to India. And this is out of India’s control. Between 2005 and 2012, china has provided Sri Lanka an assistance of $4.5 billion. In past two years China has contributed an excess of 2.18 billion dollars, most of them in the form of long term loans, these funds have been used by Sri Lanka in sectors such as ports, power, airports, irrigation, roads, water supply and railways.
  • The second factor involved is internal Indian politics and center-state relations. India’s policy towards its neighbor is pragmatically determined by the interplay between Tamil Nadu politics and Delhi’s security and foreign establishment. South block leaders favor a more practical and cooperative approach towards Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu puts forth the pressure to address Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority’s concerns. Before the Modi’s government, Delhi principally prioritized the internal interests of the people of Tamil Nadu over national interests in Lanka. The (UPA)  government needed to weigh the demands of Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for its electoral reasons. The politics still play an important role.

1) Rajya Sabha Issue

Tamil Nadu AIADMK’s support in Rajya sabha can play an important role in passing of many vital economic reforms. The UPA has 79 seats while NDA has to compromise with only 57 seats in Indian parliament’s upper chamber As a result, to congregate a majority, the center government will need to keep up another 66 Rajya Sabha members in its favor. While Trinamool Congress will not be in favor of economic liberalization, AIADMK plays an important role in center politics. This problem can be sorted out by having joint house meeting that rarely happens.

2) Tamil Nadu elections.

The BJP will have a desire to win a few seats in Tamil Nadu to reduce the burden in the coming elections and to maintain its majority in the Lok Sabha.

But in spite of these three factors, large majority in Lok Sabha reduces Modi’s dependence on Tamil Nadu as compared to the previous government of UPA. Therefore, the Center will not be as helpless as it was in the past, allowing a greater flexibility to extend a more logical and consistent strategy and approach towards Lanka.

India and Sri Lanka faces differences on other sensitive issues as well

  • Rajapaksha allowing Chinese submarines in Lankan ports was clearly a disregard of sensitivities of India which led to a dip in mutual relationship.

Arrest of fishermen

  • Fishing by Indian fishermen (most of them comprise of ethnic Tamils) in Indian Ocean has been an important factor in relations between the two nations. There is a very thin line over the demarcation of International Maritime Boundary Line and it is not very clear as to where Indian fishers should fish. Many fishermen got arrested by Sri Lankan government over the years with the reason that they were caught fishing crossing IMBL. There has been occasional firing on them too which has bittered the approach of Tamil state towards the island nation.
  • There is one more factor in this story. The issue is complex and intricate because of Katchatheevu Island. It is an inhabited island that India has relinquished to Sri Lanka in 1974 because of some conditional agreement. The island was declared sacred by Sri Lanka in 2009 because of the presence of catholic shrine. This move was widely condemned by Jayalalitha. However the central government recognizes that Sri Lanka has sovereignty over the island by the 1974 record. But the Tamil fishermen regard this as their traditional belonging and want to continue fishing there as they claim their rights over it.

Modi raised this issue on his visit to Lanka.

  • India’s 2013 UNHRC vote was the high point of its multilateral engagement with the Sri Lanka. Both Sibal and Buch were exceedingly against of Delhi being bending towards Tamil Nadu’s build up pressure by sustaining the U.S. resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council.
  • The relationship also depends on Beijing’s relationships with India and interests in security in the ocean region.

Sri Lanka election an important expedient

Why is it important for both nations?

The election was keenly watched by two nation’s capitals-Delhi and Beijing because both of them have large stakes in the island neighbour.

India’s strategic interest is vital and lies in religious and cultural ties with the island’s society since ages.

On the other hand, China has made large commercial and strategic investments over the last decade. This has been possible because of the pro China policy followed by Rajapaksha. Chinese presence in Sri Lanka’s vital sectors are huge and Sirisena is not well disposed off to Beijing.

India has a ray of hope in the form of Sirisena. He is seen as a harbinger of positive ties between the nations as he has made himself clear during the elections as well that he is going to have a balanced and stable relation with India.

One of the points in Sirisena’s election campaign was to balance relations between India and China. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ramil Wickramasinghe in an interview said that “Rajapaksa played China and India against each other in Sri Lanka” and the government under Sirisena will mend it in its own ways. The government played its first move by making India its first foreign visit.

He released fishermen as a sign of positive gesture.

However, there has not been a remarkable change in Sri Lanka’s policy towards China. The Colombo port city deal has not been cancelled but Sirisena didn’t approve 25 year tax holiday that the previous government had proposed for the project.

Sri Lankan president had a four day visit to India after winning the elections. There were discussions on trade, investment and strategic bilateral ties. This can be seen as new beginning of bilateral ties. India and Sri Lanka signed MoUs (memorandums of understanding) and agreements on

1) Nuclear energy- it is seen as sign of trust and includes

Exchange of knowledge and expertise

Capacity building

Sharing of resources

Training of personnel

2) Education -an agreement signed on participation in Nalanda University which will allow Sri Lanka to participate in various  projects organised  at the University

3) Agriculture – cooperation, which will make possible cooperation in farm training, agricultural processing and machinery.

4) Cultural issues – memorandum was signed with Sri Lanka to open a cultural center in Jaffna. An agreement was signed on cultural cooperation. This agreement has been planned for 2015–18 and visualise expanding cooperation in a variety of fields that include performing arts, archives and documentation, libraries, publications and professional exchange. ).

Cultural linkages have continued in both the nations in spite of diplomatic and political reverses over time. India remains a prime place for pilgrimage for Sri Lankans. India spread Buddhism to Lanka and now it is the main source of culture and religion for most of its people

Defense deals

India is heading towards defense cooperation with Maldives and Sri Lanka, the two islands in Indian Ocean. The cooperation will focus predominantly on capacity building of the armed forces of both countries. We will provide them with equipment and help in training. China has already shown its interest to spur up its ties with both the nations.


Indian prime minister  has announced  support for the petroleum hub project Trincomalee of Sri Lanka Amongst bilateral agreements signed are a customs pact, a credit line for $300 million, visa-on-arrival for Sri Lankan passport holders, and a $1.5 billion currency swap agreement to assist the island nation in  keeping its currency stable.

India is now the fourth largest investor in Sri Lanka with an investment of about US$160 million.

India security provider

On the security façade, most of India’s neighbour have benefitted from India’s position as the leading net security provider in the region. India provided support to Maldives and Lanka in 2004 Indian ocean tsunami

China can’t be ignored.

Critics of the previous government fear that the government will not be able to repay its large loans in time and that gives China an option to turn part of the loan granted into equity which will make them part owners of major projects. One of them is Hambantota port. However the Indian establishment regrets to not taking part in this project as it is comes on one of the busiest sea route.

India is worried about increasing Chinese presence in Colombo port because 70% of the transshipment business at Colombo port is India related. The greatest worry for India is Colombo’s approval of Maritime Silk route. The route has its origination in Quanzhou in Fujian province and passes through the Malacca Straits to obtain anchorage at Kolkata, India. After Kolkata, the route noticeably skirts Hambantota, Sri Lanka which is a port facility that the previous president provided to china

Sri Lanka’s growing relation to China will pose problems for India. It is not going to be an easy task for India to convince Sri Lanka to minimize its projects with China. It is next to impossible for Lanka to ignore China. Sri Lanka owes billions to the dragon. Also these loans came with some guarantee which the new government can’t ignore itself

Around 800 officers of Lanka get their training in Indian military establishments but the thing that worries India most is Sri Lankan dependency on Chinese equipment.

The government is trying to regain the strategic space and trust that India has lost in the last decade.

Wang in a conversation said that China ‘holds an open attitude to have trilateral cooperation between India, China and Sri Lanka. He also added that China is prepared to’ actively discuss such initiatives and proposals which include development of tourist routes that leads to Buddhism and India and china can work together to lift “Sri Lanka’s social and economic development”

SD Muni and C Rajamohan have stated that India’s ambition of “achieving the objective of becoming one of the principal powers of Asia will depend entirely on India’s ability to manage its own immediate neighborhood. India ignored its neighbors for years. Modi has focused on neighborhood first policy and this was in 28 years that Indian prime minister visited Sri Lanka. Also this is so late that China presence has grown at accelerating rate in Lanka. India’s imperative need is to recuperate the lost leadership, credibility and influence in its immediate neighborhood.

Modi showed a gesture in favour of Tamils in two ways

  • He persuaded Lanka for 13th amendment of Sri Lankan constitution amendment. which assures a greater delegation of powers to Tamils, and insisted new President Maithripala Sirisena to go beyond it Modi put emphasis on the matter of accommodating “the aspirations of all sections of society, including the Sri Lankan Tamil community.”
  • He visited Jaffna. During his visit, Modi addressed the Sri Lankan parliament and visited many Sri Lankan cities including Jaffna which had been capital of LTTE till 2009 when they were defeated. Modi had meeting with the Northern Province chief minister and Tamil leader C V Wigneswaran at Jaffna. Modi promised to make another 2000 houses which has already been committed from India’s side to Sri Lankans Tamils at a ceremony to mark those 27000 houses already constructed by India,  However, while at Jaffna, he also visited the memorial for Indian soldiers, an act unlikely to be viewed too kindly by Sri Lankan Tamils.

India assisted Colombo during the war against the LTTE with facilitating radars and intelligence sharing, but then US came into picture with ban and that void was filled by China The last time an Indian prime minister visited Sri Lanka was in 1987. India needs to pursue proactive and dynamic and proactive diplomacy to surpass China’s effect in Lanka.

Modi administration as well as with the previous UPA government, India has made great advances in previous years to inflate its military and political dominance over the Indian Ocean. It now requires working on building the economic element/factor of maritime power. All Indian Ocean countries—including Sri Lanka and India—want to enhance their infrastructure. But India will always face competition from China in these dimensions.


Sri Lanka’s new government is going to play an important role in its relationship with India as well as in Indian Ocean region. For progress and peace in the region it is crucial that the Indian Ocean remain a zone of peace. Moreover, the objectives of all stakeholders are fulfilled by its waters remaining open for passage to global shipping. If the peace and tranquility of this ocean region is disturbed, the repercussions of this will be borne by not only the neighboring nations but also further in the west (Pacific region).

India’s engagement with Sri Lanka under the new government is set to become both fair- haired and coarse. Practically improving economic and connectivity links along with a possible play down of engaging through the UN Human Rights Council process, could make our ties stronger. On the other side of the coin, holding Colombo to previous bilateral commitments, such as implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, could add a spicier note to the relationship. The issues that will usually remain dominantly at the center of bilateral relations are in specific the Thirteenth Amendment, fishing and economic relations.

Post-elections, Tamil Nadu’s influence in Delhi is dwindling/abating and Modi’s policy is inclined to those in South Block approving a more nationalist and strategic approach. These advisors want government to promote higher regional cooperation, integration and connectivity links – primarily on the economic front – while coextensively declaring its interests and national pride.

One more important aspect that we can expect is that Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China “will be more balanced under Sirisena, newly elected president of Sri Lanka” Keethaponcalan said.      The nation is likely to accomplish this by adopting a selective policy with regard to the support this country takes from China. It could mitigate its security and defense related deals with China and can be anticipated to restrict China largely to economic sector. On the other hand, affairs with India will be more multi dimensional like political, security, economic and cultural engagement.

More generally, Modi’s government should promote government-to-government and public-private partnerships investments in India’s neighborhood, beyond apprehension about China. According to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and World Bank, South Asia is among the least integrated areas of the world.  The sensitive and insightful issues involved in India-Sri Lanka relations have made it one of the most complex and tricky bilateral relations for both the countries. However, if constant engagement and talks at the highest level continues, it can become beneficial for both nations to build trust which will facilitate in sorting of issues.

Tamanna Sheorah


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