Indo-Sri Lankan Security Perceptions: Divergences and Convergences

Padmaja Murthy, Associate Fellow, IDSA


For a student of South Asia, any mention of Indo-Sri Lanka security perceptions or for that matter a reference to the wider Indo-Sri Lanka relations, immediately brings to mind the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 and the events preceding it and following it. One of the most difficult periods in the bilateral relations of the two countries, it was characterised by mistrust and suspicion. Only after the withdrawal of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in March 1990 can it be said that relations have moved towards stabilisation. Can it then be said that presently the misgivings and divergent security perceptions no longer exist?

To enable an understanding in the right perspective it is important to raise the question as to why exactly, following independence, both the countries had started perceiving a threat from each other. Further how much of it was based on valid perceptions and how much on imagined conjectures. Both India and Sri Lanka even prior to independence had political differences on some critical issues affecting them. But having bilateral political differences are one thing and having divergent threat perceptions towards each other another issue altogether.

The aim of this article is to examine the threat perceptions of the two countries towards each other, as it was perceived firstly at the time of independence; secondly during the 1980s; and lastly as it exists presently. It attempts to examine, in retrospective, whether these perceptions of threat were justified. In doing so, the changing nature of threat perceptions and the possibility of moving towards convergence on certain critical issues is looked into. This article does not look into the causes of the ethnic conflict but limits itself to understanding the threat perceptions which have arisen following the ethnic crises.

Nature of Threat Perceptions

Upon analysing the nature of relations between the two countries, the basis of threat perceptions and suspicions that Sri Lanka and India have towards each other can be classified into four broad types. First, regards the ethnic composition of Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lankan people whether they be Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim belong to the same ethnic stock as India's population and cultural affinities extend not only to religion (Budhism, Hinduism, Islam) but also to language. The Tamil language is common to Tamil Nadu as well as north Sri Lanka and Sinhala is related to the north Indian vernaculars such as Hindustani, Marathi, Gujrathi and Bengali. Though the Sinhalese are the majority community in Sri Lanka in comparison to the Tamils of Sri Lanka; but taken together with the Tamils of Tamil Nadu from India, they suffer from a minority complex. These two factors have played a major role in Sri Lanka's views and determined the course of events in the two countries. On the other hand, India too is not able to remain completely insensitive to the concerns expressed by its own Tamil population regarding the attitude of the Sri Lankan government towards its Tamil population. Secondly, divergences also arise due to the differences in the process of nation building of the two countries and the manner in which they have tried to accommodate the interests of the minorities. Thirdly, regarding direct threat to territorial integrity, it is clear that given the size of the two countries, direct threat is perceived from India to Sri Lanka. The two countries are separated at the closest point by 22 miles. As far as direct threat to India's territorial integrity is concerned, it does not perceive a threat from Sri Lanka per se but has the apprehension that any power upon gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka, might be in a position to carry out activities detrimental to the security of India. Further, Sri Lanka being an island nation, dealing with security perceptions inevitably brings in the important issue of the place of the island country in India's naval defence perceptions, which interestingly is not an important aspect while dealing with the security perceptions of India's other immediate neighbours. Fourthly, another important dimension to the threat perceptions is that arising from non state actors in both the countries and most important the linkages between these non state actors. Such threats will necessarily result in a similarity of approaches between the two countries and in that sense a convergence of security perceptions.

Thus the threats the two countries perceive are at four levels. The divergences as seen above will necessarily result in a permanency of certain elements of suspicion towards each other. Therefore, completely overcoming suspicions towards each other will not be taking a realistic attitude. However as regards India and Sri Lanka, recent experiences have shown that threat perceptions are primarily not arising out of fear of territorial conquest, but the manner in which events in one country influence and affect the capacity of the other country to cope with its internal challenges.

Threat Perceptions at the Dawn of Independence

There are different views in the two countries regarding threat perceptions towards each other as they existed at the dawn of independence. Within Sri Lanka, while some considered India a threat, there were also those who did not. Those opinions in Sri Lanka which perceived India as a threat felt that it nurtured the same ambitions as those of British India. It is important to mention that while independent India shared the threat perceptions of British India, it did not intend to project the same power and ambitions as those of the British. However, since there was a continuity in threats visualised and security interests articulated, some mechanisms to ensure the same had to be adopted by India. This desire of India however was looked upon with suspicion and something to be apprehensive about, against which measures had to be adopted. A series of opinions thus arose in Sri Lanka based on this, whereby defences had to be built against India. On the other hand it was naïve on the part of India to have overlooked the fact that its neighbour might not share its security perceptions with the same eagerness and may in fact look upon it with suspicion.

Sri Lanka as Part of India's Oceanic Defence

Sri Lanka's geo-strategic location is highlighted by the fact that it is virtually in the centre of Asia and the sea lanes between the Far East and the African and Arab worlds. This location gives the island a central position midway on the ancient maritime trade route between West and East Asia.1 Ships passing from Yangon and Calcutta going west to the Suez or the Cape or those sailing from Bombay or the Gulf and eastward to Singapore still use Sri Lanka's excellent harbours in Colombo and Trincomalee.

The island nation thus occupies an important place in the critical sea lines of communication. Much of the trade and naval activity in the Indian Ocean can be monitored from here. Trincomalee has the capacity to serve as a major naval base, and an extra regional naval force could well dominate the sea routes in the area (including those of India) and disrupt Indian shipping.2 Geography therefore has played a primary role in its security, as it occupies one of the most exposed and central positions of any country in the world.

In fact the British realised the strategic importance of the island nation and thus the concept of strategic unity of India and Sri Lanka emerged, whereby the possession of Sri Lanka came to be regarded as a prerequisite to the defence and security of India. Britain, the major sea power of this period considered the Trincomalee harbour facing the Bay of Bengal in the island's east coast to be of strategic importance. It thus became an important bastion in the British defence network.3 Sri Lanka and India were both part of the British Empire. However, Sri Lanka was not part of British India and was a separate crown colony. In this sense the two countries were both separate in terms of the British policy enunciation and implementation. This geo-strategic significance of Sri Lanka was again highlighted during the last phase of the second world war when Japanese bombs hit Colombo, Trincomalee and Madras.4 All this brought out clearly the vulnerabilities of the Indian coasts and thus Indian planners subsequently responded to these threats by giving out various proposals. They spelt out how since the sixteenth century, the future of India had been determined primarily by the oceans. As part of mechanisms to meet the threats arising from the ocean, proposals pleading for common defence links between Burma, Sri Lanka and India came up.5 Fears were not about a threat from Sri Lanka, but that if anybody with inimical interests towards India gained a foothold in the island nation, India's security interests could be adversely affected.

However in Sri Lanka these views aired by the Indians were looked upon as an expression of expansionism.6 So much so that it was looked upon as a threat against which necessary measures had to be taken. Thus it is observed that a Defence Pact with United Kingdom was signed on November 11, 1947.

By the dawn of independence two aspects came out clearly for India. The realisation that Indian coasts are vulnerable and secondly the close proximity of India and Sri Lanka being what it is, the island nation was bound to be part of India's coastal and naval defence. The events of the second world war showed the manner in which a vulnerable Sri Lanka would easily affect the security of India.

Sri Lanka's Defence Pact with the United Kingdom

As part of the defence agreement concluded on November 11, 1947, the obligations accepted by the UK included provision for the security of Sri Lankan territory for defence against aggression and for provision of essential communications; military assistance for the training and development of the Sri Lankan armed forces, Sri Lanka was required to provide facilities such as naval and air bases, ports and military establishments and the use of telecommunications facilities. The agreements offered Sri Lanka a cost-free defence and external security in the crucially important years of its independence.7

There are different viewpoints as to why Sri Lanka concluded the defence pact with the United Kingdom. One viewpoint holds that it was in response to the threat perceived by the expansionist policy of India and thus the defence pact was primarily to guard against threats from India to Sri Lanka's independence. As the first post independent Prime Minister of Sri Lanka saw it, the choice was between survival as a small but independent partner of the Commonwealth or an absorption by India. Sri Lanka was of the view that India's sole interest in the island nation was on account of its strategic importance, which included the naval base in Trincomalee and air bases in other parts of the island.8 In fact one of the Sri Lankan leaders said, "…the day Ceylon dispensed with Englishmen completely, the island would go under India."9

Another viewpoint is that there was hardly any threat to the military security of Sri Lanka, and the agreement was used as an inducement to the British to hasten Sri Lanka's independence.10 The defence pact suited the British because it needed an ally in the region and the strategic location of Sri Lanka made it ideal for the purpose.11 The island was a vital link in a chain of defence arrangements which included the Indian Ocean and the Southern dominions of the British Commonwealth. A leading authority on the Commonwealth of this period has remarked that, "A basic requirement of the Commonwealth strategy was the maintenance of communications in the Indian Ocean by sea and air. Ceylon occupied a commanding position as a base for defence communication, without which control over the Indian Ocean would be seriously weakened. It provided the only existing fleet base from Malta and Singapore."12

Another viewpoint is that Sri Lanka needed it against the perceived threat from the communists. The Defence Pact was regarded as strengthening Sri Lanka's role as a bastion of anti communism in Asia and providing the necessary military security in case of an overt communist threat. The UNP had won elections defeating the communists. Thus an internal threat if it arose would also be difficult to combat.

It also needs to be remembered that Sri Lanka did not have a tradition of police or armed forces like India had. The army in Sri Lanka consisted entirely of volunteers. Although they had been mobilised in wartime, they were generally reserves. Those Sri Lankans who fought with the allies in the First World War did so as individuals serving in the British units. Thus, they had the civilian spirit and not any martial tradition.13 When the Sri Lankan army was formed in 1949, the emphasis was on continuity and the Sri Lankan politicians who negotiated the transfer of power placed as much reliance on this continuity as the British themselves did. The arrangement with the British offered the country a free ride in defence and external security in the crucially important early years of independence. Therefore, Sri Lanka had no credible defence capacity at the time of independence—no army, no navy, no airforce. All these were built from scratch and under British supervision in the initial years.14 The first commanders of the Sri Lankan army, navy and airforce were seconded British officers.15 Within Sri Lanka there were certain critics of the UNP, who felt that due to the defence agreement, the island nation was not really independent.

If one were to assume that the defence pact was primarily against perceived threats from India to Sri Lanka, then logically India should have at least some objection to the move. But it is seen that while India was against the cold war alignments, the Defence Pact was not considered as one.16 Also, after independence India itself had close links with the British regarding the development of the Indian Navy. Thus, the assertion that Sri Lanka signed the Defence Pact with India as the major adversary does not appear entirely satisfactory. As seen above there were other compulsions and factors influencing both Sri Lanka and the British to conclude the agreement.

Indian Navy and the British Factor

At the dawn of independence, the Indian navy was limited in its capabilities. In fact for most part of Britain's control of the Indian Ocean, Indians were discouraged from obtaining any maritime influence. One of the factors was that the colonisation of India rested essentially on the maintenance of sea communications with Britain. The British government could not afford to risk this link through the expansion of the Indian navy.17 After independence the Indian government retained a number of British personnel of the Royal Navy. To a number of Indian naval officers, it was strange that foreign (British) nationals not only had total access to operational and planning secrets, but regularly sent reports of sensitive nature of their superiors in London.18 It is interesting to note that it was only in April 1958 that Rear Admiral R.D. Kataria became the first Indian to assume the position of Chief of Naval Staff in the rank of Vice Admiral. The influence of British naval officers on Indian naval policy, meanwhile continued till mid 60s.19

In fact Panniker himself had spoken of the importance of Indo-British naval cooperation for Indian security, keeping in view the inability of the Indian navy, in terms of its strength to assume supremacy of even its own territorial waters. This was in contrast to the capabilities of the British navy which had continental reach and responsibility and in that sense successfully guarded the interests of British India. He strongly believed that the threat to India since the sixteenth century was primarily from the sea and that it would be so in the future also. He thus brought out the vulnerability of India's maritime assets. It was in this background that he suggested for common defence plans including Britain, Mauritius, Scotia, Ceylon, Siam, Indo-China. Such views of common defence policies were expressed by other Indian leaders and thinkers also.20 For India, enunciation of such policies were part of the mechanisms to face an impending potential threat. However, it is seen that many in Sri Lanka viewed such policies as part of an expansionist agenda on the part of India, against which effective measures had to be taken.

An Assessment of the Defence Treaty

Seen in the above background, following independence, both India and Sri Lanka had close linkages with the British. While the Indian interests were specifically limited to the navy, the Sri Lankan side had a much wider ranging agenda and interests to be looked after. However, Sri Lanka being an island nation, the spotlight while dealing with the external threat was to be on the naval aspects and the threats from the sea.

Examined in the background of the close cooperation both the countries proposed to have with the British, there actually seemed to be no real threat, though such a threat was perceived. If Indian thinkers had been slightly more refined in articulating their concerns, may be much of the ill will could have been avoided. Immediately after independence, even if the Defence Pact was to be invoked by Sri Lanka with reference to perceived threats from India, problems would surely have arisen regarding implementation.

Other Issues…No Major Security Divergences Till the 1980s

Handover of the Bases by Britain to Sri Lanka, 1956-57

With the coming of the SLFP (Sri Lankan Freedom Party) to power in 1956, there was a change in emphasis in the Sri Lankan foreign policy with the island nation moving out of the British Defence umbrella. It also developed relations with the Communist Soviet Union and China, unlike that of the pro West anti-communism leaning of the UNP government. In December 1956 it was agreed in principle that the bases would be handed over to Sri Lanka. The process began with the transfer of the Royal Navl base at Trincomalee to Sri Lanka on October 15 1957 and the Royal Air Force Station at Katunayaka on November 1, 1957.21

It is held that the Sri Lankan government under SLFP did not treat India as a threat. This school of thought holds that the SLFP led administration followed the 'pilot fish' policy vis a vis India. According to this the essence of the UNP policy was not to be accommodative to the wishes and concerns of India but pursue a divergent and not confrontationist or deliberately troublesome policy. On the other hand, the 'pilot fish' policy essentially means keeping close to the shark to avoid being eaten, aimed at redressing the imbalance of power without provoking India. The policy contained elements of accommodation without being conformist.22

Role of Sri Lanka in 1971 Indo-Pak War

Sri Lanka under SLFP had allowed refuelling of Pakistani planes carrying military personnel to suppress the struggle for liberation. Indian support as is well known, lay with the Bangladesh liberation forces. Sri Lanka justified its action by stating that the Pakistani flights in question were civilian as they were PIA flights carrying people in civilian dress. Sri Lanka maintained a neutral position during this war and also did not accord recognition to Bangladesh immediately.

Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962

Some opinions in Sri Lanka hold the view that India's main interest in the island nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s was regarding the increasing Chinese influence in the island.23 In the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, Sri Lanka had maintained its neutrality and had played an important mediatory role by holding a conference of Colombo powers and evolving proposals for the resolution of territorial disputes between the two Asian giants. Sri Lanka had entered into a maritime agreement with China in 1963 and 1971. India expressed serious concern on the Sino-Sri Lanka maritime agreement as it suspected strategic underpinnings, at least from the Chinese side.24 Sri Lanka however denied that there was any security dimension to it.

Tamils of Indian Origin

At the dawn of independence differing perceptions were there regarding not only security but also other important aspects. One of these was the question of the political status of persons of Indian origin in Ceylon called the Indian Tamils—as distinct from the Sri Lankan Tamils. The colonial powers had since the 1820s brought labour from mainland India to work in the island's plantations.

The leaders of India and Sri Lanka since 1920 had been discussing the issue of citizenship of these Indian Tamils. Strong differences arose from both the sides and a solution seemed to evade them. It was only in 1964 following the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact that a mutually acceptable solution was sighted. According to this, a formula was devised spelling out the number of people who would be given Indian citizenship and repatriated to India and those who would be given Sri Lankan citizenship. Later another agreement was concluded in 1974. In 1988 the Sri Lankan government addressed the question by enacting the Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons (Special Provisions) Act which sought to settle the residual issues arising from the earlier agreements. All these discussions had however led to a lot of bitterness.25

Maritime Agreement

Another important issue was the dispute of the possession of an uninhabited island 'Kachchathivu' located almost midway between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait. The controversy was resolved in 1974 when the two countries concluded an agreement demarcating the maritime boundary. As per the agreement the disputed island fell within the Sri Lankan side of the boundary. A further maritime boundary agreement was concluded in 1976.

1971 JVP Uprising

In April 1971, Sri Lanka faced an internal crisis following the attempt by an extremist Sinhala radical group called Jatiya Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to capture power through armed revolt. The SLFP government of Mrs. Bandaranaike was in power in Colombo and as soon as the revolt erupted, India along with the other countries, including UK, USA, Yugoslavia, the USSR and Pakistan was approached for help. India promptly responded by sending five frigates to seal off approaches to Colombo. In addition, India's military assistance also included military equipment, six helicopters with pilots for non combat duties and about 150 Indian troops to guard the Bandaranaike airport. India's action was prompted by the desire to protect the democratic system and domestic stability of Sri Lanka. Other countries also assisted with arms, ammunition, spare parts, etc. Also JVP had denounced India in various ways and it was suspected that the group had the backing of Communist countries like China and North Korea.26 Some in Sri Lanka opine that the speed with which Indian assistance had arrived to support the Bandaranaike's left of centre government in 1971 was as significant as the eagerness with which it was done.27 Such a view surely looks upon India's actions with suspicion and as holding some ulterior motive.

Security Concerns in the 80s

India was initially only concerned with the issue of the Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka as mentioned above. The issue of the Sri Lankan Tamils did not concern it initially for they had acquired through the years an independent historical identity different from Indian Tamils (the indigenous Tamils, constitute nearly 12 per cent of the islands population). It was since the late 1970s that the growing differences between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese had its repercussionss on the Indian people and polity, especially of Tamil Nadu. The ethnic riots of July 24, 1983, which led to the exodus of refugees into Tamil Nadu and other security concerns, changed the course of the Indian attitude and resulted in Indian involvement through mediation.28 The various efforts by India led to a lot of resentment in Sri Lanka.29 It needs to be noted that the ethnic crisis is primarily an internal problem of Sri Lanka and became a bilateral problem only when it tended to spill over and to affect India in terms of both internal and external security.

Sri Lanka Takes External Help

To meet the difficult situation following the riots, Sri Lanka proposed to adopt a military solution to the problem. Thus a series of steps were taken whereby Sri Lanka approached other countries for political and military help. These included USA, United Kingdom, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia. India was not asked for similar help as its sympathies lay with the Sri Lankan Tamils. These moves of Sri Lanka resulted in isolating India in the region and facilitating the strategic presence of the forces inimical to India's perceived security interests. As stated at the outset, Sri Lanka in itself was not a threat to India but the latter feared that by these measures the island nation would not only become a seat for outside influences but also be pulled into the cold war politics. However a Sri Lankan point of view is that President Jayawardene was not playing superpower politics but was merely transforming Sri Lanka's hitherto largely ceremonial security forces into a real fighting force.30

In its interactions with the rest of the world, Sri Lanka brought out that there existed a threat to its unity and integrity posed by Tamil terrorism working with the support and encouragement of the government and people in India and that there would be a direct military invasion by India for the creation of an independent sovereign Tamil state.31 Such an assumption clearly showed that India's concerns were not understood for it had categorically stated that it stands for the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.

The external help to Sri Lanka took the following form:

l By November 1983, the Keeny Meeny Services (KMS), a specialised outfit for fighting terrorism headquartered in UK was contracted to train Sri Lankan commandos. Colonel Jim Johnson, KMS partner and ex SAS officer, Colonel David Walker, the team commander visited Colombo and finalised plans for training.32

l After July 1983, the government of Sri Lanka sought military training assistance from Pakistan as it felt that in India, they were not getting the best of training.33 Pakistan contributed Rs.10 million, and with these came military equipment, in Pakistani civil planes to avoid any Indian suspicion and protest. A Pakistan navy ship made a goodwill visit to Sri Lanka in the first week of August 1984.34

l Sri Lanka government secured the assistance of the world famous Israeli intelligence agencies, Mossad and Shin Bet to strengthen its own intelligence set-up and military training facilities.35 According to a Sri Lankan view, the Prime Minister of Israel Yitzak Shamir is reported to have said that Sri Lanka could count on the "resources of Israel to fight the common enemy—terrorism". The Israelis also informed Colombo that the former had captured Sri Lankan Tamil militants in Lebanon. This view thus holds that, such events made Israeli assistance vital and amenable for Sri Lanka. Subsequently Israeli agents operated under the cover of agricultural instructors. Israel sold Uzis, mini Uzis (both sophisticated firearms) ad Dvora Fast Attack Aircraft for the Navy.36

l Sri Lanka also received sizeable and cheap military supplies from China.37 They are supposed to have provided military assistance from naval vessels to weapons. The National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali conferred with the senior intelligence community of the PRC.38

It was not just the military assistance which Sri Lanka was seeking from the international community which aroused Indian anxieties. Sri Lanka accommodated certain strategic interests of the other countries, which India felt would pull Sri Lanka into the cold war calculations. These strategic interests included,

l The visit of US naval ships for refuelling and crew rest and the statement by Special Envoy of the US President, General Vernon Walters that US would be satisfied if Sri Lanka permits sailors some short leave (crew rest) and that the ships could remain in high seas for long periods.39

l The contract for the renovation and expansion of refuelling facilities at the strategic harbour of Trincomalee, the World War II vintage oil-storage tank farm, was awarded to a Singapore-based private consortium with suspected US links, after the bids by India which were supposed to be the lowest were rejected. Following India's protest, Sri Lanka had to finally cancel the contract and reopen for tenders.40

l The Indian concerns were the maximum, regarding the establishment of a powerful Voice of America transmission facility, expected to be the largest of its kind outside USA. Indian fears arose from the possibility that the facility could serve as a high-tech outfit to monitor naval and land communications and movements in the region including India. This facility could also beam high frequency messages to US submarines deployed in the Indian ocean region.41

l It was during this time that the President of Sri Lanka made the assertion that the defence pact with Britain entered in 1947 still remained intact, which was technically correct because in 1956, only the bases were closed and the pact itself was not abrogated. The emphasis of the pact at a time when India was concerned about its security concerns only raised suspicions.

India had to take definitive action in response to these developments. It had to create circumstances whereby the external influence had to be reduced. Thus it started with mediation efforts, but it did not make much definitive progress. The Sri Lankan government continued with the military option.

Security Provisions and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987

On July 29, 1987 the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was concluded. It had three aspects to it. The first deals with the mechanisms to address the Tamils issue; the second goes into certain details of the main agreement; the third, which is crucial to the topic under discussion refers to the security concerns of India and Sri Lanka and their understanding to respect each other's concerns. This is in the form of letters exchanged between the Prime Minister of India and the President of Sri Lanka. These are not in any way related to the Tamil issue and have given rise to the criticism that the aim of India was primarily to address its security concerns and not the Tamil issue. However, it is the vulnerability of Sri Lanka pending a solution to the issue which is a cause of concern for India.

According to the letter the Indian concerns which Sri Lanka has agreed to meet are:42

l The relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presences will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations.

l Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests.

l Through a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka the work of restoration of Trincomalee oil tank will be undertaken.

l Sri Lanka will ensure that facilities set up by foreign broadcasting organisations will not be used for any military or intelligence purposes.

In the same spirit it further states that India:

l will deport all Sri Lankan citizens who are found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism.

l provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces.

The cooperation which the Indian government expected from the LTTE in complying with the provisions of the accord was not forthcoming. Events following the signing of the accord took a turn whereby the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had to be despatched to Sri Lanka on the invitation of the latter. The period till March 1990, when the IPKF was withdrawn has been a difficult period for both countries. It is essential to appreciate that the IPKF had a difficult task to fulfil, since it was not fighting an enemy which it had orders to annihilate. The LTTE during that period was still having its support base in Tamil Nadu. In fact prior to the withdrawal of the IPKF, it is reported that the situation had taken a strange twist whereby the LTTE was getting military supplies and support from the Sri Lankan government. Both were united temporarily, with the aim of seeking the withdrawal of IPKF from Sri Lanka.

1990s: Assessment of India's Security Concerns

It was only after the withdrawal of the IPKF, that bilateral relations began to move towards normalisation. India has since then adopted a non intrusive approach towards the ethnic problem in the island country. It favours a negotiated political solution to the problem. Since then the focus has shifted to cooperation in the economic areas. This has intensified following the coming to power of Chandrika Kumaratunga.43 The positive atmosphere which began resulted in the conclusion of the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in December 1998.

India itself has been a victim of the violent acts of the LTTE, the most gruesome being the assassination of India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In this context it is essential to note that the LTTE has since been banned in India. The links which the LTTE has with the non state actors in India is an issue of great concern to the latter. LTTE in its present form has developed a global reach in terms of funds and technology having linkages with non state actors at an international scale.

An important question which arises is whether the situation presently existing in the island nation does not constitute a threat to India. What is the relevance of India's security concern as they existed in the mid 80s which prompted India to involve itself in the Sri Lankan crises first in the capacity as a mediator and later through IPKF? The question can be answered by examining the reasons generally given in the 80s to justify India's action and its significance presently.

One of the reasons was that India's actions were motivated by its desire to preserve its own unity. The Sri Lankan Tamils attempt at secessionism if proved successful could influence the Indian state of Tamil Nadu which in the past had been one of the first to demand secession from India. It is in this respect that the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka was of utmost importance to India. Accompanied with this was the need to respect the sentiments of the 50 million Tamil citizens of India who were sympathetic to the plight of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. However, events since then have shown that the LTTE itself has been intransigent in its approach. The brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE has influenced the views not only of the fifty million Tamil citizens of the state of Tamil Nadu but the nine hundred million population of the entire country in India. What was since then something remote happening down south not relevant to the vast majority of the people, soon became an issue of great concern whereby it was clear that the support did not lie with the activities of LTTE. It is in deference to these sentiments that India can be said to have adopted a non intrusive approach.

Further the confidence with which India went ahead in the mediatory efforts in 1983 and later in 1987 by being a party to the Accord was because of its influence on and in some sense the control that it had over the various Tamil groups to take the negotiations in a particular direction. LTTE at that time needed India and specifically Tamil Nadu and the support and sympathy of its people. But the LTTE of the nineties is qualitatively different, being much more powerful in terms of its access to funds and technology and arms and ammunitions which at times are far superior to those held by the Sri Lankan security forces. LTTE has developed extensive contacts with terrorist groups all over the world and in this manner has an extensive network.44 It has moved away from the need for Indian support. A realistic approach clearly shows that, given the past experience, India involving itself in the island nation in such circumstances could be a long drawn out affair without any tangible benefits. In fact, a convergence of approach from both the countries is required to tackle this challenge of linkages of non state actors.

Following the riots of 1983, the external help which Sri Lanka sought and received has already been discussed above. These events took place in the background of the cold war and India feared that Sri Lanka was being drawn into it. Seen from this prism, the actions of the island nation had grave consequences for India's security. The international environment since then has changed drastically. Sri Lanka's present military build up to meet the internal threat is thus being seen in a different context. There is growing international concern to the ethnic crisis, and as a reflection of this Norway may soon act as a facilitator between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.45 That India has not raised any objection to this move may have a lot to do also with the positive image that Norway has. Most important, any settlement to the crisis will bring in stability to the island nation.

The crisis had also shown to Sri Lanka, especially after the Indian action in June 1987 whereby relief supplies were dropped on Jaffna by air under the cover of Indian air force planes, that the international support it was depending upon especially from the USA did not come forth. Responses from other major Western powers were also moderate. The Chinese reaction was positive but not adequate or effective in countering the immediate challenge posed by India.46 Thus, the Sri Lankan government is aware that beyond a point, it cannot overlook India's concerns. The compulsions of geography necessitate that the neighbours respect each other concerns.

One of the major points of difference between the Indian and the Sri Lankan governments has been that regarding the mechanisms adopted to resolve the ethnic conflict. India was of the opinion that a negotiated political settlement would resolve the issue whereas the Sri Lankan government was pursuing a military solution and it was as a part of this approach that it was seeking external help. Since coming to power, Chandrika Kumaratunga has come out with a devolution package to resolve the ethnic crisis, realising that a military solution is not feasible in the long run. India has welcomed this move and is of the opinion that it is a good basis on which to have negotiations.

The above analysis clearly shows that there has been a change in attitude of both India and Sri Lanka and the latter has welcomed the non intrusive approach of India. This stand of India is all the more evident following the enunciation of the Gujral Doctrine, whereby one of the principles calls for non intervention in each others affairs.


India's security concerns linked to the island nation can be said to have been met if there is internal stability in that country, for a natural consequence of this would be that it is less vulnerable to external influence and pressures. Since Sri Lanka is an island nation, the adverse consequences would have implications for Indian coastal and oceanic defence too. This stability would have a positive impact on India internally too for it would not challenge its nation building experiment.

The manifestation of various security concerns as seen at the dawn of independence and during the 80s have been built on this sub structure. It is this which will define India's policies in the future too.

For Sri Lanka, the concern arises from the existence of a minority complex of the majority Sinhalese community when seen in comparison with the Tamils of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu separated hardly by 22 miles in the Palk Strait. The permanency in this reality will always give rise to doubts and suspicions about its only neighbour, India.

It is in-between these parameters that the two countries divergences and convergences will have to be expressed and managed.



1. Ajay Behera, in P.R. Chari ed., Perspectives on National Security in South Asia: In Search of a New Paradigm (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1999) p. 342.

2. Rahul Roy-Choudhury, Sea Power and Indian Security (London: Brassey's, 1995), pp. 135.

3. Shelton U. Kodikar, Foreign Policy of Sri Lanka (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1982), pp. 21.

4. Roy-Choudhury, refer n. 2, p. 17, where the author says, "...the entry of the Japanese navy into the Indian Ocean in December 1941 effectively brought British supremacy in the area to an end. The fall of Singapore in Feb 1942, the occupation of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in March, and the destruction of British warships in April increased the military threat to India."

5. Panniker is considered to be the major proponent of such views. For details refer K.M. Panikkar, "The Strategic Problems of the Indian Ocean," Indian Institute of International Affairs pamphlet, September 1994, pp. 10, as quoted by Roy-Choudhury, n. 2, pp. 32-33.

6. Kodikar, n. 3, pp. 21-22.

7. Behera, n. 1, pp. 359.

8. K.M. de Silva, Regional Powers and Small State Security (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1996), pp. 16-17.

9. Humayun Kabir, "Sri Lanka's India's Policy", Lanka Guardian, vol. 18, no. 1, May 1995, 99, 14-16.

10. Jennings as quoted by Shelton U. Kodikara, n. 3, pp. 102-103.

11. Behera, n. 1, pp. 359.

12. For details refer, K.M. de Silva, ed., Problems of Governance (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1993), pp. 374-75.

13. Ibid., As observed by Donald Horowitz, and quoted by de Silva, "At independence the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) lacked the rich tradition of the Indian army. It had fought no great battles. It had accumulated few regiments honours. Its units had not been able to build pride based on long service or difficult campaign…"

14. Ibid., pp. 375.

15. Ibid.

16. S.D. Muni, Pangs of Proximity—India and Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis (New Delhi: Sage, 1993), pp. 33.

17. For details on other factors refer, Roy Choudhury n. 2, pp. 17-18.

18. Ibid., pp. 26.

19. Ibid., pp. 48. For more details on the nature of interaction that has taken place and the close association of the British and Indian Navy, refer to the chapter, "A Troubled Period 1954-1966."

20. Muni, n. 16. The author refers to the views of Nehru, where he talks of cooperation among various countries in India's neighbourhood to meet India's security interests.

21. Kodikar, n. 3, pp. 116.

22. Kabir, n. 9, pp. 14.

23. de Silva, n. 8, pp. 25.

24. Muni, n. 16. Also refer V. Suryanarayan, "Sri Lanka's Policy Towards China: Legacy of the Past and Prospects for the Future," China Report, vol. 30, no. 2, 1994, pp. 203-214.

25. Urmila Phadnis, "The 1994 Indo Ceylonese Pact and the 'Stateless' Persons in Ceylon", in Verinder Grover ed., Encyclopedia of SAARC Nations, Sri Lanka, vol. 3, pp. 501-549.

26. Muni, n. 16, pp. 38. For detials on the assistance provided by the other countries, refer, Asian Recorder, vol. XVII, no. 29, July 16-22, 1971, pp. 10257. Britain ferried light arms and ammunition to the island from bases in Singapore. An American Air Force Plane arrived on April 13, with a load of spare parts for the American-built helicopters being used by the Ceylonese Air Force. Six Soviet MiG-17 fighter planes and two helicopters arrived in Colombo in readinesss for combat missions against the insurgents. Pakistan made available a few helicopters. Arms and ammunitions also came from Yugoslavia and UAR. Australia also decided to sell arms and equipment to Ceylon.

27. de Silva, n. 8, pp. 25.

28. For an overview on Indian efforts refer Ajay Darshan Behera, "Mediation to intervention: India's Role in the Sri Lankan Conflict," in Virender Grover ed., Encyclopedia of SAARC Nations, vol. 3. It is interesting to note that there is no unanimous view regarding whether it was the Sinhalese who came to the island first or the Sri Lankan Tamils. Some opine that the Sinhalese are the early migrants into Sri Lanka, from those regions that constitute Bengal & Orissa today. The date of this migration is put at 5th or early 6th century B.C. The Tamils are considered late-comers, being the descendants of the Chola Kings of South India who periodically invaded Sri Lanka during the Second Century BC. However, there are Tamil historical chronicals that claim Tamils as the pre-Sinhala Dravidian indigenous inhabitants of the island. Thus there are various opinions on this issue.

29. For a detailed Sri Lankan view on the events refer K.M. de Silva, Regional Powers and Small State Security—India and Sri Lanka, (Vikas: New Delhi, 1996).

30. Rohan Gunaratna, Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka—The Role of India's Intelligence Agencies (Colombo: South Asian Network on Conflict Research, 1993), pp. 11.

31. Muni, n. 16, p. 52.

32. Gunaratna, n. 30, pp. 11.

33. Ibid.

34. Muni, n. 16, pp. 54.

35. Ibid.

36. Gunaratna, n. 30, pp. 12.

37. Muni, n. 16, pp. 54.

38. Gunaratna, n. 30, pp. 13.

39. Muni, n. 16, pp. 54.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., p. 55.

42. Text of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

43. Refer various Annual Reports of the MEA since 1995.

44. For details refer, Rohan Gunaratna, "Internationalisation of the Tamil Conflict (And its Implications)", South Asia, Journal of South Asian Studies, special issue, vol. 20, 1997, pp. 119-152.

45. D.B.S. Jeyraj, "Norway as Facilitator", The Hindu, February 24, 2000.

46. For details on international reaction refer Muni n. 16, pp. 97-100 Regarding the Chinese response, President Jayewardene said. "They were good friends and gave us military equipment, guns etc. at very reasonable terms. But what could they do? I could not ask them to start a border war in the north to keep the Indians busy. Even if I had, I doubt if they would have done it."