Former Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Laskhman Kadirgamar said not long before an assassin’s bullet killed him that relations between his country and neighbour, India, had reached a point of “irreversible excellence”.
Twenty years after the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on this day, there is little doubt that Colombo is probably the only neighbouring capital with which New Delhi shares least discord, despite the simmering ethnic war between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalas in the island nation.
Exemplary cooperation after the 2004 tsunami, visas-on-arrival for Indians, the Free Trade Area agreement and the forthcoming Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement are cited as role models in the excellent bilateral relationship. “Sri Lanka has turned out to be our friendliest neighbour,” said G Parthasarathy, a former foreign service official who was the ministry spokesman when the accord was signed and closely liaised between New Delhi and political parties in Tamil Nadu.
However, other officials said the ethnic issues needed to be resolved. “… the ethnic issue is a problem, which can spill over into troubling bilateral relations if the Tamil refugee influx swells beyond a trickle and fuels already raised sentiments against Colombo in Tamil Nadu,” a senior Indian official said.
Political relations between the two capitals may appear hunky dory, but India finds its hands tied on attempts to broker peace between Sri Lanka’s government and the Tamil minority for whom the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have become the sole mouthpiece. India was the first country to ban the LTTE as a terrorist organisation shortly after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.
“India has the goodwill of the Sri Lankan people and is in a unique position where it finds itself a credible mediator not only for the government in Colombo and the LTTE, but also the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna,” Parthasarathy said, referring to the Sinhala nationalist JVP party.
“We should be a lot more proactive in dealing with Sri Lanka,” said Lt Gen (retd) Depinder Singh, who commanded the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) when they went into Sri Lanka to implement the accord. Indian forces withdrew from Sri Lanka in 1990, after losing more than 1,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to control the LTTE.
A Sri Lankan democracy activist said India had an important role to play as nationalists on both sides of Sri Lanka’s divide were holding a political solution hostage to war.
“India can contribute towards guaranteeing any credible solution that emerges within Sri Lanka, and strengthening the forces of democracy and pluralism which occupy the middle group in the country,” said Alihan Kadirgamar, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.
“The problem is the absence of movement on genuine devolution,” another senior official said. “Colombo has done nowhere near enough,” he said, adding that the problem was that Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse thought a military solution to the ethnic issue was possible.
India will not, as a matter of policy, enter into a defence pact with Sri Lanka because of what analysts called the Tamil Nadu factor. Beyond training armed forces personnel and policemen, New Delhi has only supplied “defensive” equipment to Sri Lanka’s armed forces that have bought arms from Israel, Pakistan and China.
“We have a special relationship with India, which has cooperated in maintaining the integrity of the Sri Lankan nation,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said in April, when asked about cooperation between the navies of both countries. “There is no enhanced military cooperation between us.”
Two decades later, opinion is divided amongst analysts over India’s decision to send troops to Sri Lanka. “The decision was a diplomatic and political masterpiece. When we entered, the Sri Lankan army was tired, facing a coup-like situation and the LTTE was in tatters. We could have forced them to arrive at a solution to the problem,” Singh said.
Instead, Indian troops found themselves battling the LTTE which was being helped by the Sri Lankan government. It was, Singh said, not a military but a diplomatic failure for India. “I’ve always maintained that the decision to go in was an eminently good one.”
Parthasarthy said the decision to go in was taken under compulsion. “Withdrawal of the army in such a brusque manner was wrong. We should not have withdrawn without completing the assignments,” he said. LTTE’s surrender of arms should have taken place along with more effective devolution of powers by the government to the Tamils, he added.