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Huge Divide Between New Delhi and Chennai on India’s Foreign Policu Towards Sri Lanka

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by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

There is a huge divide between Chennai and New Delhi on how both see Sri Lanka. What remains the primary problem in India’s approach towards Sri Lanka, and why is there a divide within?

Periphery and the Core: Problems of India’s Foreign Policy Paradigm

In a large country like India, relations with neighbouring countries will have their immediate fallout on contiguous Indian States. Thus, India-Pakistan relations will affect Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat; the India-Nepal equation will have its fallout on Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and West Bengal;

India-China relations will impinge upon Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir; India-Bangladesh relations will have its fallout on West Bengal, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Assam; India-Bhutan relations will affect West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam; India-Myanmar relations will have its fallout on Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram; India-Sri Lanka relations will have its consequences on Tamil Nadu; and India-Maldives relations will spill over to the Minicoy islands.

We have not yet evolved a political mechanism by which the interests of the contiguous Indian States are safeguarded while formulating and implementing the neighbourhood policy. In the days of one-party dominance, New Delhi very often followed a neighbourhood policy, which it considered to be in India’s national interest, but which adversely affected the neighbouring Indian states. Two illustrations given below substantiate this point. In October 1964, New Delhi signed the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, which converted the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka into merchandise to be divided between the two countries; thousands of them were conferred Indian citizenship and repatriated to India. This inhuman agreement was severely criticized by Rajagopalachari, Krishna Menon, Kamaraj Nadar, Ramamurthy, and Annadurai. In the same way, New Delhi concluded the maritime boundary agreements with Sri Lanka In 1974 and 1976, which ceded the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka and bartered away the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen. These agreements were opposed by the DMK Government, but New Delhi went ahead.

With the end of one-party dominance and the formation of coalition governments, regional parties began to play a national role. They began to make their inputs into India’s neighbourhood policy. Three examples prove this point. When Deve Gowda was Prime Minister and IK Gujral the Minister for External Affairs, India-Bangladesh relations forged ahead. Gujral was sensitive to the feelings in West Bengal and associated the West Bengal Government with the formulation of the India’s Bangladesh policy, especially in the sharing of Ganges waters. Second, the inclusion of the Sethusamudram project in the manifesto of the UPA Government was due to the persistent efforts made by the DMK Government headed by Karunanidhi. Third, India’s Sri Lanka policy during the final stages of the Fourth Eelam War had the backing of its DMK ally. New Delhi permitted Karunanidhi to indulge in political gimmicks so that he could pose himself as the champion of the Overseas Tamils, but it should be stated that the DMK did not put any serious obstacles in the way of New Delhi pursuing its Sri Lanka policy.

The tumultuous developments taking place in Tamil Nadu should be analyzed within the above-mentioned context. Cutting across party lines, there is sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. People are angry and bitter that innocent Tamil civilians were massacred during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. They also feel strongly that the Sri Lankan Government has gone back on the assurances about devolution of powers to the provinces. The spontaneous upsurge amongst the student community is a shining example of this righteous indignation.

What vitiates the political scenario is the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics and the gimmicks performed by the two Dravidian parties in their desire for one-upmanship. In this competitive outbidding, Karunanidhi is on a weak wicket. He wants to atone for his past misdeeds; he has resurrected the Tamil Eelam Solidarity Organization (TESO) and has called for hartal in support of the Tamil cause. Jayalalithaa is trying to extract maximum leverage from Karunanidhi’s predicament. From being a sharp critic of the Tigers, today she is championing the cause of Tamil Eelam and is advocating a referendum among Sri Lankan Tamils in the island and the Tamil Diaspora. She has injected politics into sports and has given the stamp of approval against the participation of Sri Lankan players in the Indian Premier League. She has suggested that the venue of CHOGM be shifted from Colombo to another country.

She wants Mahinda Rajapaksa to be branded a war criminal and be tried in the International Court of Justice. She wants New Delhi to declare Sri Lanka an ‘unfriendly State’ and has demanded the imposition of an economic embargo. All these statements have provided exciting fare to her fanatical followers within the State, as well as in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. But the tragedy is, all the above impractical suggestions will in no way bring about ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, it will lead to the accentuation of ethnic tensions. Worse, India’s relations with Sri Lanka, already subjected to severe strains, will further take a nose dive.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Madras)

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