An ‘Ireland’ in South Asia?

India’s engagement with its southern neighbour Sri Lanka has historically been more patchy than rosy, a ‘tortuous engagement’ of sorts. As a superpower rivalry betwixt US and China picks up momentum, Sri Lanka finds itself in the crosshairs of these giants of the world order. China has sedulously been endeavouring to lure Colombo via lavish gifts and extravagant aids. The US, as exemplified by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit, has been trying to showcase that the South Asian island and Washington have democracy in common. In this situation, India has a pivotal role to play in determining which side Colombo will lean. India is the single most influential foreign power in Lanka. With a bloody history as its legacy, India has to look for fresh ways to frame a coherent neighbourhood policy. In order to formulate a robust plan for the future, it is imperative to comprehend what transpired in the past. In this essay, we look at the recent history of the island, particularly those 30 years during which it was mired in an internecine civil war.

Origins of Civil War

The civil war in Sri Lanka that lasted 26 years from 1983 to 2009 was macabre and brutal, with both sides committing blood-curdling acts of terrorism. It sometimes baffles onlookers to think that the state can kill its own people in such large numbers, the callousness of which could probably only be matched by Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurdish people in Iraq in the 1980s. Neither side in the civil war held the moral high ground and the Sri Lankan government especially abased itself by either actively committing genocide with all the might of its state machinery or condoning sanguinary ethnic riots that inflicted disproportionate harm on the Tamil minority.

The story of the Sri Lankan civil war is one of competing nationalist ideologies that ended up reaffirming the maxim “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” On the one side, the Sinhala-speaking population, praying to Buddha, spread over much of the island except the north and the east, form the majority. On the other, the Tamil-speaking people, largely Hindu, populate the north and the east of the country.

Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known previously, had been paying fealty to the Union Jack until 1948 when it achieved independence. But during the colonial period, from the early 19th century, there was no movement for self-determination, unlike in nearby India. The cooperation that Ceylon offered to the British resulted in the creation of an English-speaking elite ruling class. The Tamil representation in the ruling class was disproportionate to their actual numbers in the country due to their educational standards and literacy. While the Sinhalese obviously occupied most government jobs and liaised amicably with the colonisers, they resented the inordinate Tamil representation in the ruling elite.

Meanwhile, the British were looking for slaves to work the sprawling tea plantations in the mid-country hills. To this end, they shipped in tens of thousands of Tamils from the Madras Presidency (present day Tamil Nadu) in British India to Ceylon. These so-called ‘Indian Tamils’ (alternatively called ‘estate Tamils’ or ‘upcountry Tamils’) would bear the brunt of the bigoted policies of the Sinhala Nationalists soon after independence in 1948.

Sinhalese Identity to the Nation

The identification of Sinhalese with their language is intrinsically related to their identification with their religion. As in India, the emergence of Sinhala-speaking Buddhists as a coherent political unit was nurtured by people who felt threatened by the initial success of Christian missionaries in South Asia. These devout Buddhists viewed the introduction of Western culture in their land as an attempt to dilute their rich heritage, civilisation and way of life and set out to restore the domination of Buddhism. Among the most important of these philosophers was Anagarika Dharmapala who emerged as the foremost exponent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Tamil Language and the Sinhalese Discrimination of Tamilians

Tamils, despite their numerical insignificance compared to the Sinhalese, inspire a ‘minority feeling’ among the latter. This is due to the fact that just across the Palk strait in India, the state of Tamil Nadu is home to about seven crore Tamils. The fear of the Tamils across the two countries uniting to oppose them has been perpetual among the Sinhalese.

Tamil Nationalism has deep roots. Tamil language is ancient and one of the two classical languages of India (the other being Sanskrit). It is the only language that has a clear connection between its ancient and modern forms. The rich and belletristic Sangam literature included prose, poetry and grammar. When these works were published in the early 20th century in print, this gave fillip to the mobilisation of the Tamil-speaking population of India. Ramasamy Naiker aka Periyar, from Erode in Madras Presidency, channeled this community feeling and tried to mobilise the amorphous ‘Dravidians’ together. Dravidian political parties sprang up in Tamil Nadu that drew inspiration from Periyar and articulated his ideas to win power.

But Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka was markedly different in at least two respects. Firstly, the Dravidian ideology that sought to mobilise the four main lingo-ethnic groups in South India, did not appeal to the Sri Lankan Tamils. They identify as Tamil and Tamil alone. No other classification feels appropriate to them. Secondly, their sense of nationalism is reinforced by the presence of a sole nemesis. Unlike in India, a country with a multitude of linguistic groups, ethnicities and nationalities where there was no rivalry between Tamils and any other ethnic group (although there existed tensions with the central government for imposing Hindi), the principal political fault-line in Sri Lanka is quite clear.

Immediately after independence, in 1948, the government led by the United National Party passed the Ceylon Citizen Act which deprived the ‘Indian’ Tamils of citizenship. This can be seen as the first move by the Sri Lankan state to assume the role of first-class citizens and subjugate Tamils. Although the act did not affect the indigenous Tamils, it was an ominous move to make at the wake of independence. They will be the next target of the Sinhalese dominated state.

The Sinhalese ethnic-nationalism was furthered by a new party called Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Solomon Bandaranaike. He came to power in 1956 and passed the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act. Another nail in the coffin of Tamil rights was hammered. This act made Sinhala the national language and Tamil was not even recognised. One after the other Tamil grievances against the ruling Sinhalese piled up.

In 1972, a new constitution was drafted that favoured the Sinhalese for government jobs and severed all colonial ties. That was the last straw that provoked the Tamils to militarise. All constitutional and democratic attempts to claim equality had failed and there was no other way for them to demand their rights. The two major Tamil parties came together to form the Tamil United Front (TULF) and calls for independence among the population became more widespread.

India’s Role in the Island Nation

The youngsters who took up arms were helped by the economic downturn in the 1970s. Then President J.R. Jayawardene steered the country in a liberal direction and it ruffled feathers in India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi resented Jayawardene’s market-oriented policies and was not prepared to let a neighbour leave the Non-Aligned Movement and become an ally of the West. In order to gain leverage over Sri Lanka, under Indira Gandhi’s behest, India trained Tamil militant groups in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Initially, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was only one of several Tamil quasi-armies and militant groups. Its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was exceptionally astute and through his political acumen and skill in combat, established LTTE as the foremost of groups fighting for Tamil independence.

A dozen soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army were ambushed and killed in 1983 in the Tamil areas by the LTTE. This event is seen as the inception of what would be a protracted and exhausting conflagration for the next two and a half decades. The chutzpah of the Tamil Tigers startled the Sinhalese and they exacted revenge by carrying out a pogrom in the south. Tamils living in cities like Colombo were singled out and slaughtered by angry Sinhalese mobs. This round of violence also forced vulnerable Tamils to leave Sri Lanka for places like Toronto, London, New York and Canberra.

The violence continued through the 1980s without any negotiation or mediation. In 1987 the huge neighbour India tried its hand at mediation and signed the Indo-Lanka Accord with Sri Lanka. This accord laid out that the Tamil populated North and East would be granted substantial autonomy and in return the LTTE would lay down arms. These provisions were included in the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution.

India also sent its troops to the island, known as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to keep the peace. This move would prove to be an unmitigated disaster. The presence of foreign troops in their country was an affront to the rabid Sinhala nationalists belonging to the firebrand group People’s Liberation Front (JVP). They resented the concessions granted to the Tamils by a foreign power and were deeply aggrieved by their government’s reluctance to stand up to India. The JVP launched an insurrection against President J.R. Jayawardene’s government trying to force him to expel foreign forces from their land. On the other hand, the Tigers also found the presence of IPKF galling. The ranks and files of the LTTE had fought the Sri Lankan state all along putting their life at risk aiming not for reasonable autonomy but complete independence. The compromise mediated by India caused displeasure to its cadres and they decided to fight the IPKF.

The force that arrived in the island to restrain the army ended up joining hands with it. Fighting broke out between the JVP and the Sri Lankan Army in the south and the IPKF attempted to subdue the LTTE in the north and east. In the process, the IPKF committed vile atrocities against not just LTTE fighters but also against Tamil civil civilians. In the end, a doughty LTTE caused 1500 deaths to the Indian army and sent them packing. The ill-advised decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi to intervene in Sri Lanka ended up a humiliation. Rajiv was assassinated in 1991 by suicide-bombers with alleged links to LTTE.

How Colombo Won the Civil War

The help from Tamil diaspora in western countries was crucial to LTTE. The group also had an extensive network of contacts with arms suppliers and other insurrectionary groups. The civil war raged on through the 1990s without showing any signs of abating. Neither side was interested in negotiating a peaceful end and were hell-bent on destroying the other. The peace deal mediated by Norway in the early 2000s did not last long.

The 2005 Presidential elections became a turning point in the war. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected and received a mandate to stamp out the LTTE once and for all. There were frequent skirmishes between the SLA and the Tigers usually followed by a pogrom of Tamils in areas where they did not form a majority. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother, held the position of Defence Minister and by the time the LTTE was defeated in 2009, he had the blood of tens of thousands of Tamils on his hands.


The defection of one of the key confidantes of Prabhakaran in the mid-2000s debilitated the LTTE and it lost a sizable proportion of its determined soldiers. The Sri Lankan army captured one area after another previously held by LTTE. When Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of the would-be Eelam state was captured, it was over for LTTE. Prabhakaran was promptly captured and killed and so was his 12-year old son. The roots of the incredibly valiant Tamil separatist movement was cut off, leaving a trail of destruction and genocide in its wake.

While Gotabaya Rajapaska’s hardline policy against Tamil minorities (that accompanied the defeat of LTTE) resulted in large-scale post war crimes and caused further alienation of Tamils, the complicity of other players cannot be ignored. While the Indian government at that time, led by Congress Party, was happy to see the decimation of LTTE (which had assassinated former Indian Prime Minister and Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi), it didn’t initiate any constructive dialogue with Colombo on the plight of Tamils in the island nation. The Indian government ignored the pleas of Tamil Nadu state to intervene in the island to protect the beleaguered Tamils. The international community also turned a blind eye to the carnage of innocent civilians. The war crimes of Sri Lankan military have been condoned by the international media but the people responsible for the inhuman activities have still not been brought to book. Unless Colombo takes a conciliatory approach towards Tamil minorities, it is very difficult to presume that a Tamil nationalist uprising will not explode again.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: Wikipedia Commons / Ranveig

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