January 18, 2020
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Sri Lanka: Wait And Watch

Sri Lanka: Wait And Watch

"THE worst-case scenario for Sri Lanka would be an Indian government which begins to shift from its fierce opposition to the Tamil separatist rebels. Therefore, the continuation in power of the Congress party would be seen as the least problematic for Colombo," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of Colombo University.

Sri Lanka's excessive concern with who rules India as well as Tamil Nadu, and the Centre-state relations, stems from the bitter events of the past two decades. Despite the majority Sinhalese fear of the emotional attachment 60-million Tamils in India display towards the Sri Lankan minority Tamil population in the north and east of the Island, and a wave of invasions by Dravidian rulers centuries ago, successive post-Independence governments in Sri Lanka have always maintained close relations with India. However, all this changed in 1977 when President J.R. Jayawardene shifted Sri Lanka's non-aligned foreign policy to a pro-American policy to such an extent that New Delhi began worrying about the possible establishment of an American naval base in the strategic Trincomalee harbour, destablising its southern front.

The 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and the large influx of refugees into Tamil Nadu had stirred intense emotions in south India. This gave India the excuse to arm, finance and train the Tamil separatist rebels. The Indian ploy worked, the 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord was signed in exchange for India forcing the LTTE to sign a peace accord on which the latter promptly reneged and fought a bitter four-year battle with the Indian peace-keeping force. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, allegedly by an LTTE woman suicide bomber, ended any moral or material support to the LTTE. Since then India has backed the Sri Lankan government in the ongoing separatist war in the north and east of the Island.

"Except for two fringe elements in Tamil Nadu (PMK and MDMK), all major political parties in India today have a correct perception of our ethnic problem. All major parties have clearly distanced themselves from the terror campaigns of the LTTE. This is a far cry from the situation that persisted in the 1980s, and is clearly consistent with Sri Lanka's national interests," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Ravinatha Ariyasingha.

 "It is never possible to divorce or eliminate sentimental links between Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Tamils. However, these sentiments have to be given expression to. It is here that we see a change. It is highly unlikely that these sentiments would manifest in the same way as they did in the 1980s," says former Sri Lankan foreign minister, A.C.S. Hameed.

 However, the possibility of a BJP-DMK alliance governing India continues to worry Sri Lankan policymakers. "While the Congress view of the ethnic problem is dominated by the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP has no such constraints. If India moves away from a secular state to a more religious one, it would strengthen the claims of Tamil Hindus here and such a government could be more sympathetic towards that group," says Bradmon Weerakoon, foreign policy adviser to the Sri Lankan President from 1989 to 1994.

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