Sri Lanka: India’s Battleground?

Ever since the time of yore, India has had a significant role to play in the destiny of its tiny pearl shaped neighbour in the south, Sri Lanka. From the mythological tales of the Hindu Lord Ram’s victory over the Lankan Asura King Ravana, to the politics of the modern era, Sri Lanka rather than being being just a neighbor, has been a battle ground for India’s conflicts. India, especially the southern state of Tamil Nadu, are rather virulent when it comes to Sri Lanka. Though same sentiments are not reciprocated else where in India, India as a country also been dragged into various conflicts with or within Sri Lanka due to its own vested interest. Many of these conflicts, either proxy or direct, have defined Sri Lanka in the modern millennium.

“Pearl of Indian Ocean” is the famous nickname that Sri Lanka adorns itself with, but the world has adorned it with another infamous nickname-“the tear drop of India”, perhaps alluding to the rampant and looming external Indian influence in its domestic affairs. This dominance of India was pervasive throughout its history and evident through the many conflicts that India voluntarily or involuntarily had to be a part of to maintain status quo. The chief conflict lies in Sri Lanka’s location. Being south of India, Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, a domain that India exercises its control over and is wary of having any external influences pervading in the waters. Thus suspicion and prying eyes make it harder for Sri Lanka to follow a foreign policy independently. For example, Sri Lanka is not embroiled in a conflict with Pakistan or China and is open to dialogue and strategic partnership with them- both economically and militarily, but India is. This creates a conflict of interest, thus making the former resentful of the the big brother role donned by the latter. The current situation with India today, is similar to a elder brother trying to reconcile and recover with its sibling. It believes it has a say in the policies of the Sri Lankan government, but Sri Lankans say otherwise. Thus, India supports governments in Sri Lanka that are pro-India and and tries to dislodge ones that are anti-India.

Another reason for the conflict could be the culture and history between the two countries- both were former colonial states under the British. Sri Lanka also has a sizeable Tamil population in the north and eastern parts of the country, and Sinhala in the southern and western parts of the country. The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils was another thorn in the relations between India and Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese atrocities on Tamils erupted waves across shores over to India where India had to face its own Tamil people demanding resolution in Sri Lanka by India. To protect its interests, India entered the conflict, first on the side of the rebels and training militant groups like LTTE. After the 1987 accord, they decided withdraw support given to LTTE and keep more of an mediator stance. India also decided to bring Indian Peace Keeping Force to act as deterrent to the conflict but it only resulted in earning wrath from both corners such that the Sinhalese and Tamils conspired to act against Indians. Rajiv Gandhi, the then Indian Prime Minister was determined to solve the issue through IPKF but the fall of government made the next Prime Minister withdraw support. This move diminished India’s role in the conflict and its far reaching aftermath resulted in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, making India more reclusive.

India’s inability to provide military support to Sri Lanka due to vocal Tamil opposition made the latter procure help from Pakistan, who upon receiving request wasted no time in providing support to the Sri Lankans. Pakistan did not want to miss an opportunity to undermine India’s influence after a plethora of defeats from them. Pakistan, through its experience of fighting against the Balochis, provided military and logistical support. It has been speculated that India tried to intimidate Pakistan by letting the LTTE bomb the Pakistani Ambassadors convoy, an allegation that India denies. Even with these efforts one can say that the Pakistani method was more successful in weeding out LTTE but at the cost of many lives.

With the war’s end, peace and activity has slowly yet steadily been creeping into the island. India has improved its relations with Sri Lanka and Pakistan has lost prominence due to the economic reconstruction efforts provided by India. India seemed to be in a comfortable light until the Sri Lankans found a new ally that was mesmerising the world- China. This unholy nexus was something that India could not digest near its borders. The former Sri Lankan president Mahindra Rajapakse’s pro-China approach hurt India’s sovereignty and sparked hostilities with India. Luckily, Rajapakse’s excessive Chinese economic dependence, which led to increased Chinese autonomy, irked the islanders and resulted in his ousting. Maithripala Sirisena a pro-India candidate came to power providing much relief to India. In this new era, Sri Lanka and India are desperately trying to bury the hatchet and also provide cooperation for the greater development of both nations. Even though the Sri Lankan policy towards India seems favourable, cases like the brief relation with China have indicated otherwise, these are factors that India should account for in the road ahead.

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