US Response to the Problem of Ethnicity in India and Sri Lanka

-P.R. Rajeswari, Research Assistant, IDSA


The response of the United States to ethnic conflicts in the sub-continent of India and its neighbour, Sri Lanka, did not articulate itself in concrete terms. Its policy towards India and Sri Lanka had largely been conditioned by its foreign policy approach towards South Asia. Although, significant reports and the media coverage were tangible regarding ethnic disturbances in these two countries, the official statements made by the US government showed restraint as well as an element of ambivalence. While the US government had not been altogether condemnatory, it nevertheless had indicated in its statements that there were violations of human rights as well as certain abberations in the functioning of democracy in India as well as Sri Lanka.

US policy towards India become a part of the Cold War approach since the end of World War II. The policy of non-alignment was not appreciated by the policy planners during the "Dulles era." Jawaharlal Nehru had made it abundantly clear that India would not be a party to any ideological skirmishes as well as groupings. Nehru said as early as September 7, 1946:

"We propose as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to two world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale. We believe that peace and freedom are indivisible and the denial of freedom anywhere must endanger freedom elsewhere and lead to conflict and war. We are particularly interested in emancipation of colonial and dependent countries and peoples, and in the recognition in theory and practice of equal opportunities of all races...We seek no domination over others and we claim no privileged position over other peoples. But we do claim equal and honourable treatment for our people wherever they may go, and we cannot accept any discrimination against them."1

India's enunciation of its non-aligned policy attracted the US attention in a rather dubious way. Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised again and again that India, in its post-independent period, would devote its utmost energies on social, economic, and domestic spheres towards its development. It would desire that peace and stability prevailed in the subcontinent. Nehru also realised that to be left totally unconcerned and unaffected by the bi-polar division of the world was not an easy course to pursue. Science and technology tended to contract the world into a smaller sphere of operation. He believed that if there was outbreak of a world war, it would affect equally any nation, irrespective of the foreign policy it pursued.2 Hence, Nehru attempted to prevent any outbreak of a war in Asia and the world. If India wanted peace for itself, it would need to endeavour that peace prevailed in the whole world.3

Such expressions of India's foreign policy aroused an interest in the political circles of the United States. George E. Jones, correspondent of the New York Times in New Delhi, claimed that "India would not like to entangle herself with other people's feuds and imperialist rivalries."4 However, some other sections of the Press in the US believed that the US faced a tough position in the Oriental world. Joseph Fromm, a correspondent for US News and World Report, gave his estimate of the Orient as a case of increasing influence of the Soviet Communism. He said: "An on-the ground study of the situation in Japan, China, the Philippines, French, Indo-China, Malaya, the East Indies, Burma, and India indicates that the United States and the West are losing the Cold War in Asia by default."5

Sri Lanka did not figure extensively in terms of US coverage in its post-independent period. However, as an erstwhile British colony, US interest was seen in the context of naval strategy. America was also keen to contain Soviet influence in the east. Since Sri Lanka, as an island nation occupied an important harbour, Americans evinced interest in substituting British paramountcy in the area. Sri Lankan governments were provided with the US cultural dialogue. The island nation should preferably be within the ambit of American influence. The liberal education and programmes related to it were among a few significant steps taken to inculcate US influence in the area. However, the contiguity of the island nation to India made the subcontinent a major focus of American ideological stances. It was viewed by the policy planners in Washington that India would play an important role in Asia. Columnist Walter Lippman described Nehru as the "greatest figure in Asia."6 Lippman further said, "We would be well advised to enter into intimate consultations with Pandit Nehru about our whole course of action in China and Indonesia."7 Another important American journalist, Louis Fischer, agreed in the same vein.

The subsequent period throughout the 1950s and thereafter, represented a chequered history of US responses towards India, in particular, and South Asia, in general. India's neutral position in the Korean war, 1950-53, was subjected to stresses and strains in Indo-US relations. Despite the food aid programme and subsequent aid to India, the Administration in Washington was not well-poised towards India.8

India's position was further weakened by subsequent policies that it took on the Indo-China crisis and also the Vietnam war. Relations had, however, improved during the interregnum period of the Kennedy Administration, but did not last long with the heightening of the Vietnam war, and the Nixon-Kissinger period of hostile attitude towards India made relations far worse.

Before one analyses the US responses to ethnic conflicts in South Asia, one cannot but see definite diversions in US policy towards Asia. With the signing of Sino-US detente, 1971, and the thawing of the Cold War with the Soviet Union in 1973, US policy became rather bleak towards India. India became a case of "benign neglect" at the hands of the US policy planners. It was China, Japan, and West Pacific that occupied increasing interest in US foreign policy. The psycho-dynamics of international relations seemed to have changed considerably.9

With the onset of the 1980s, US foreign policy revived the neo-conservative era of John Foster Dulles. The evil empire of the Soviet Union was put on constant pressure and subjected to verbal attack during Reagan's Presidency. The United States perceived a mounting threat from its principal adversary and deployed forces of containment to the maximum. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was strengthened and so were its allies for withstanding any onslaught of the Soviet Union. The "Star Wars" programme under Reagan gained further momentum. The US also had its threat perceptions in regard to other governments. The first two terms of the Reagan Administration were devoted to how best America could prevent the spread or proliferation of nuclear weapons. India was viewed along with some other countries like Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, and North Korea among the threshold states. Among these threshold states, who were adding to their arsenals, Iran and Iraq constituted another mark of danger. West Asia had been a repository of oil, on which depended almost 60-70 per cent of the industrial output of Japan, Western Europe and the United States. With the "rogue states" like Libya, Syria and North Korea coming under the purview of the US foreign policy, the pressure points were getting further articulated in its approach towards West Asia. Hence, the US believed that the heartland of Asia i.e., South Asia (India in particular) became paramount in the US estimate. As a result, a good deal of arm twisting began taking place vis-a-vis India against its developing nuclear warheads. Pakistan, as a constant irritant to Indian diplomacy in the subcontinent, was favoured by the US as a pressure point on India. Another traditional and strong adversary of India i.e., the People's Republic of China, became another pressure point for softening India's position on nuclear weapons.

The US response, thus, towards India was tangible in the area of foreign policy. The US also opposed India's position on economic nationalism. Private sectors which had received no particular interest in India's economic planning were revived. Economic liberalisation, opening up of markets to the US merchandise, traditional corporations, capital investments as well as opening up of key sectors became the mainstay of the US response to the Indian polity.10

Regional hegemonic positions, with India enjoying a supreme position in the region, were also of interest to the US position in South Asia. It is against this background that the US response towards ethnic conflicts taking place in India must be viewed. The US believed that India's Punjab problem, in which a majority of the Sikh population felt aggrieved after the Blue Star operation must be assuaged from a deep hurt psyche. Several clandestine activities of the terrorists in Punjab brought out a case of ethnic conflict in India. Washington felt, during the early part of the 1980s, that it was almost a war of insurgency against the central government of India. Pakistan, which had been serving as a sanctuary for harbouring terrorists with adequate training and arms supplies, became a major point of contention between India and the US.

The United States' favourable approach towards Pakistan in the field of international affairs became another sore point between India and the US. Several terrorist organisations came to exist in the US, Britain and Canada. They became the vocal venues of tremendous propaganda as well as malicious campaigns against India. Many of these organisations had no links with the official position of America, yet they mobilised a good deal of American political opinion about India. As a result, the US was viewed as playing a leading role in this direction.

Hence, America's response to the Punjab problem symbolised a dual approach. One, that it regarded the so-called oppressive activities of the Government of India as a kind of violation against human rights. Asia Watch Society, Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and such other public forums became actively engaged in criticising India. The two Administrations of Ronald Reagan and the initial years of George Bush gave sufficient vent to the US thinking on these matters. The second approach, which found sufficient manifestation in this regard was the problem of Kashmir. Kashmir had been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since their independence. The initial response of the US to the Kashmir problem was well-known. It constantly shifted its position between sympathy and indifference towards India while supporting Pakistan and its demand for plebiscite in Kashmir.11

The ethnic aspect of the Kashmir problem was closely linked to the religious--Islamic—factor in the subcontinent of India. In order to woo the Muslim population in the subcontinent, US policy regarded Kashmir as a live and volatile issue. India's high-handed approach in Kashmir, its military accesses, forceful suppression of minorities and prolonged rule of the central government and through it, the military control of the state were clearly covered in the US media as cases of crimes against humanity. Pakistan drew considerable mileage out of this propaganda. Pakistan's closeness to the Islamic world played a vital role in the US response towards the ethnic problem of Kashmir in India.12

With the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1990 and emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), US policy lent credibility to the rise of sub-nationalism in the world state system. The erstwhile Soviet Union broke up into several states. Each one claimed an identity of its own, sometimes based on vital ethnic background--Armenians, Slavs, White Russians, Euro Asians. Ethnic compositions and various other kinds of religious-sum-cultural backgrounds came into the focus of the US policy planners. The CIS was not alone in their calculation. The world was witnessing fragmentation in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe. Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, the Kurds in Iraq, Cyprus-Greeks-Turks as well as the problem of erstwhile Yugoslavia brought about a sharp focus on the rise of sub-nationalism.13

The US, therefore, viewed that India's ethnic problem of Punjab and Kashmir as well as that of the Bodos and Nagas in the north-east could as well be seen as a part of the sub-national syndrome. America, therefore, expressed no strong resentment, either officially or otherwise, in matters concerning ethnic violent incidents in the subcontinent of India.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka's case of ethnic violence during the two decades of the 1980s and 1990s represents a curious blend of response on the part of the US. First and foremost, traditional geo-strategic interests of the US regarding the island nation must clearly be understood.14 US interest in the Indian Ocean, its naval exercise in the zone as well as its proximity to Diego Garcia, which had been a heavy naval base of the United States should be major factors for the US response towards Sri Lanka's problem. During the period of President Jayewardane and the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as a regional organisation in South Asia, the US believed that intra-regional cooperation might not succeed beyond a certain point. It was also opposed to any economic monolith emerging in this area. Economic nationalism may prevent liberalisation of the economy, thus, not being very conducive to the economic interests of Washington.

Sri Lanka also presented a duality of conflict. First, it was a problem between the Sinhalese and Tamils within Sri Lanka, and second, a problem of the Tamils based in India and having their tacit understanding with the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. Hence, India became suspect in the eyes of Western world, that Sri Lanka's ethnic problems were partly inspired from the mainland of India. Washington further suspected that Rajiv Gandhi's frequent meetings with Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader, were a part of the strategy for Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict resolution at the promptings of India. There had existed earlier incidents when India had provided a training ground for Tamil militants and easy access to its land in case of the Sri Lankan Army chasing the culprits. The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka showed no signs of improvement. The LTTE continued to mount its pressure of guerilla attacks, and ruthless killing of civilians with different racial backgrounds.

India's despatch of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) brought about some comfort in the Western world that India was not playing the role of a villain in the pace process. With the deployment of the IPKF, the Sri Lankan government felt assured of India's cooperation. Washington also viewed India's policy with a sense of appreciation. Official statements of the President and other functionaries in the State Department showed remarkable resilience towards India's position.15

However, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was far from resolution. The acquisition of sophisticated weaponry by the Tamil militants with their intermittent attacks on Colombo and the Jaffna areas revived the international dynamics of the ethnic conflict. The United States had acquired a vast Voice of America (VOA) programme station in Sri Lanka and it felt somewhat threatened by the war-torn nation. There were some signs visible through the American media that the LTTE leadership was not altogether disowned by Washington.16 There existed considerable sympathy for the militants as they were regarded an equally aggrieved party. The Sinhalese majority was guilty of human rights violations in attempting a simultaneous extermination of the Tamil minority there. Political asylum to the Tamil minorities in different parts of the Western countries became another dimension of this ethnic conflict. London, France, Germany and some other isolated pockets of Europe also constituted part of the syndrome. This ethnic spread out of the limited populace both from India and Sri Lanka attracted wide publicly in the US media. The US government had been cautious and watchful on this ethnic spill-over of the two countries.

On the one hand, the US sympathises with the ethnic displacement of Indian Sikhs, Kashmiris, and other north-eastern components and regards them as cases of good political asylum. It also keeps these people as some kind of pressure points on India. The Sri Lankan Tamils and the displaced Sinhalese are a subject of sympathy for the United States, but they also cause a disturbing wave of migration, thus, adding to the problem of unemployment and economic responsibility in the economy of the West. This has also caused hostile reactions in the Western society against illegal immigrants to their respective lands. Domestic compulsions, therefore, do not necessarily synchronise with the internationally proclaimed concern for human rights.

The United States has, however, not equated the problem of ethnic conflicts in India and Sri Lanka at par. India has enjoyed far more varied interest on the part of the United States. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has assumed limited interest in the estimate of Washington. US primary interests during the two Administrations, 1980-96, have largely been based on post-Cold War considerations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the three Presidencies of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton have maintained the primary national interest of the US. During all these years, the US has supported the basic premise that it must preserve its prosperity coupled with its military supremacy all over the globe. It must maintain international markets for its goods and Third World countries must also fall in line with that objective of the American interests. Secondly, the United States also viewed as important the continued access to the Persian Gulf oil and other identical resources. West Asia must maintain its position of status quo. They have also shown significant interest in the rehabilitation of the Russian economy on the lines of the Western society. There should be continued cooperation and cooption with the CIS in one form or the other. The United States, therefore, treats the ethnic problem of India and Sri Lanka as a matter of subsidiary interest as long as it doesn't come in the way of the well-pronounced national interest of the US.

The balance of power approach becomes relevant in the context of ethnic conflicts in India and Sri Lanka. President Bill Clinton has inherited the legacy of two predecessors, President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush in protecting the United States from the forces of destruction. American participation in the Gulf war was a case in mind. The United States sought its paramount interest in preserving the status quo in West Asia. The supra-nationalistic attitude of Iraq had to be destroyed. The rogue states like Libya and North Korea have been kept under constant pressure. Recent US postures in maintaining a high profile in the form of peace-keeping forces in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Angola and its naval blockade earlier of Nicaragua with the economic boycott of Cuba are some illustrations in this direction.

The United States also maintains its national interest of protection of the global environment and has supported the slowing of global warming, stopping the destruction of the ozone layer and has continued to warn the developing nations to shift towards better technology. The US has advised that the 1987 Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer must be fully supported. It also feels that it must increase energy efficiency and make the world safe in the environment field.

The next objective of the US response in regard to India and Sri Lanka has been the issue of human rights. Washington has astutely kept its option to pressurise India and its neighbours that democracy and human rights must remain foremost considerations in any meaningful dialogue between the two countries. The reports that it brings out through voluntary organisations, with a cautious attitude of preserving good relations with India and Sri Lanka are worth noting.

Hence, the issue of ethnic conflicts in India and Sri Lanka are adequately reflected in the US response towards these countries from time to time with a certain amount of consistency and inconsistency. There are no hard and fast rules in their enunciations. Ethnic conflicts assume different names and nomenclatures as and when the objectives of US foreign policy are adequately spelled out in one direction or the other. But this certainly has not constituted an extraordinary viable proposition between 1980 and 1996 in regard to major postulates of US foreign policy.

The United States' concern in South Asia has largely been tangible on problems of India and Pakistan. The US goals for South Asia were spelled out by Robin Raphel, the then Assistant Secretary of State. According to her, the United States has major concerns in South Asia, chief among them being..."the underlying tension between India and Pakistan."17 Raphel has been stressing that the United States would wish

"...that the Kashmir issue must be resolved through negotiations between Pakistan and India taking into account the interest and desires of the people of Kashmir...We continue to believe that the Indian authority should work further to curb human rights abuses, and that the Pakistani authority should stop material support for the Kashmiri insurgency."18

The United States has further acknowledged the changes of political leadership in the Governments of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The State Department acknowledges that the new governments are made up of diverse coalitions of parties from the centre and the left, most with regional power bases. This reflects the new realities of politics in India where of the trend towards more devolution of power from New Delhi to the states has at last begun. "At the same time, the coalition is fragile, held together largely by the desire to stay in power. It is a struggle to agree on any but the lowest common denominator of policy approaches."19

Hence, it would appear that the United States has been watching political developments in India with a view to examine the prospects of its stability. It has, however, given sufficient attention towards its economic interests. It believes that US economic thrust is feasible in the South Asian region--Sri Lanka included. The persistent move of the US towards market-based economy continues. They believe that the "Indian government has approved nearly six million dollars in US direct investment since 1991, although actual US investments during this period have totalled less than a billion dollars."20

This increasing interest in the economic aspect in South Asia minimises its attention on problems of ethnicity. The same thing could also be said of US interests in matters such as communications regarding Sri Lanka. President Clinton said recently that the VOA programme is a "key weapon in the war of ideas, waived and won against Communism."21 He further said that it "beams America's voices to nearly 100 million listeners in every corner of our planet every week."

Therefore, America's VOA programme in Sri Lanka and gaining an access for such facilities make it a viable proposition. These programmes continue to dwarf other programmes including ethnicity as regards India and Sri Lanka. It must, however, be said that problems regarding ethnic conflicts have dominated the scene in some of the "Third World" countries, whether those problems have emanated due to the historical factors of the past colonialism or are the creations of modern times. The Indian and Sri Lankan cases also come into such categories.

A recent line of action by the US in regard to the problem of ethnicity in Sri Lanka has been the listing of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. The announcement was made by President Bill Clinton on October 8, 1997, referring to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The declaration of the LTTE as a terrorist outfit was part of the ongoing fight against those who undermined freedom and prosperity by violent acts. The President said, "Today's action sends a clear message: the path to change is through dialogue and open deliberation, not violence and hatred. The United States is committed to fight against those who speak the language of terror."22

On the same occasion, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the US goal is to make the "United States fully a no-support-for terrorism zone." She further explained that the designations have three main consequences. First, it is a crime to provide funds, weapons or other types of tangible support to any of the designated organisations. Second, members and representatives of these organisations are hereby ineligible for visas to enter the United States, and are subject to exclusion from the United States. Third, any funds that these organisations have in the United States will be blocked.

In examining and analysing the reactions of the LTTE towards the US report on them as a "Terrorist Group," the leadership of the LTTE felt extremely dismayed and disappointed. It would inevitably give a setback to their political legitimacy as an insurgent group.

Political observers in Colombo say it certainly is the biggest blow to the LTTE which has received an international bashing since India's ban on it after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The US pronouncement is likely to hamper the LTTE's political and military activities for several years to come.

However, the LTTE's reading is that the American move would only encourage the racist Sinhala state to pursue its policy of war and military repression against the Tamils and escalate the armed conflict in the region. It further emphasised that "the ban on LTTE would not help the prospects of peace and reconciliation, but would contribute to the genocidal destruction of the Tamil nation."23

Western diplomats are also of the opinion that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dependent on ethnic Tamils in Western countries to finance the Tamils' effort to set up a Tamil state but now the American listing would disturb the fund-raising process overseas.

Shaun Donnelly, the US Ambassador-designate to Sri Lanka, at his confirmation ceremony, noted that the US will take strong action against groups that carry out terrorist acts jeopardising national security. Hence, it would appear that the LTTE has to dig in the ground further.



1. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's Foreign Policy: Selected Speeches, September 1946-April 1961, (New Delhi, 1961), p. 22.

2. Ibid., p. 24.

3. Michael Brecher, India's Foreign Policy: An Interpretation, (New Delhi, 1957), p. 51.

4. George E. Jones, "Nehru Lists Aims in Foreign Policy," New York Times, September 1, 1946.

5. Joseph Fromm, "Soviet Rising Powers in Asia," US News and World Report, vol. 25, October 1, 1948, pp. 15-16.

6. As reported in The Hindu, January 6, 1949.

7. ed., "Indonesia," Ibid., January 13, 1949.

8. See Nehru-Acheson correspondence, New York Times, June 30, 1950; also US Department of State Bulletin, vol. 23, July 31, 1950, p. 170.

9. See, for details, Vamik D. Volkan, et. al., The Psychodynamics of International Relationships, (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1995).

10. See, for example, remarks by US Secretary of Commerce, Ronald H. Brown at Bangalore (United States Information Service, Madras, January 8, 1995), and also Press Release "US Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown Leads Presidential Business Development Mission to India, Janury 14-21," 1995 (United States Information Service, Madras, January 10, 1995.

11. Speech by US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs,. Robin L. Raphel (American Center, New Delhi, March 25, 1994), p. 5.

12. Ibid.

13. See Barry Gills and Shahid Qadir eds., Regimes in Crisis (London, 1995), Ch. 7.

14. Ibid., p. 11.

15. J.N. Dixit, My South Block Years (New Delhi: UBS Publishers, 1996), pp. 95-102.

16. ibid.

17. USIA, Wireless File (American Center, New Delhi, December 12, 1996).

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 20.

21. Ibid., p. 54.

22. USIA, Wireless File (American Center: New Delhi, October 9, 1997).

23. Business and Political Observer, October 10, 1997.