India-Sri Lanka relations: Charting out an independent foreign policy

As a student of International Affairs there are more than few questions often linger in my mind when it comes to India-Sri Lanka relations. Why should the state level politics of Tamil Nadu be considered as a dominant determinant in our foreign policy directions towards Sri Lanka? Should it be made independent of the fishermen issue? By giving credence to such voices are we weakening the territorial integrity our good friend and neighbour Sri Lanka? Shouldn’t that be to our own detriment if we isolate Sri Lanka as we leave a strategic vacuum and indirectly inviting our perceived rivals to exploit the situation?

The latest reports of five Tamil Nadu fishermen being awarded death sentence for drug smuggling is indeed another flashpoint. This de-facto assumption of “we are always right” and Sri Lankans are always prejudiced towards Indians show the maturity levels of certain political entities within the State of Tamil Nadu. It is constantly alleged by politicians like Dr Subramanian Swamy that these political groups are being loyal to the LTTE’s support and are deeply affected by the cutoff of LTTE funding ever since the comprehensive defeat of LTTE in the hands of Sri Lankan army allegedly with the help of Indian Government. Hence a zero sum game with Sri Lanka is seen as an opportunity for revenge against the Sri Lanka Government than anything else.

What they should have done is to demand the invocation of a bi-lateral treaty between India and Sri-Lanka that was signed in 2010 that would allow these convicted fishermen to appeal in the Indian court and prove their innocence. There is a dangerous trend in Tamil Nadu; that if you don’t subscribe to LTTE position you are an anti-Tamil, which is not only ridiculous but absurd.

Seventh Schedule List 1 – Union List of Indian Constitution puts foreign policy squarely under the control of the Central Government to make sure that some regional pressure groups cannot hold India’s foreign relations to ransom.

One of the key determinants of a foreign policy should be Collective National Interest and not the personal and political ambitions of State-level political groups. It is natural for cynics to argue that saving the Tamil population of Sri Lanka and also upholding the interest of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu is also National Interest. It is purely because of this that I shall use the term Collective National Interest. Can we put our Collective National Interest in jeopardy for the benefit of few pressure groups in a single State? Does that not mean we are doing grave injustice to the other 28 Indian States? Hence the usage of term Collective National Interest is a key in this discussion.

I intend to define it in the following words. “If a foreign policy decision satisfies only a tiny amount of population, a specific region or a State, an insignificant pressure group on a national scale and poses a grave threat to the nation state as a whole because of concessions made to please certain groups is against the Collective National Interest “Since it will be too vague and broad to define what is Collective National Interest, I am defining what is not “Collective National Interest”.

It is a fact that the element of State politics of TN has always been on table when it comes to India’s policy towards Sri-Lanka. The controversial point is to see LTTE as legitimate representative of Tamil population of the island nation. The ubiquitous presence of erstwhile LTTE head V Prabhakaran’s photos in banners during protests in favour of Tamil fishermen, including a recent isolated protest in Chennai on death sentence given to five Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka on drug smuggling charges, is not promising. After all, Tamil Nadu elected a Government in 1990s that supported the banned LTTE and the then Central Government had to dismiss it by resorting to Article 356 of the Indian Constitution.

This brings us back to our fundamental question — Can the pressure groups from one Indian State hold strategic relations between two independent sovereign nations to ransom? The answer is certainly no.

In the name of compulsions of coalition politics, the UPA Governments of both the terms (2004 to 2014) straddled from being indecisive to being indifferent to India’s strategic interest, hence we have our neighbours and rivals — Pakistan and China — gaining a strategic depth in this tiny island nation to the detriment of India. Reports of Pakistan’s ISI training Sri Lankan Muslims and the existence of ports built by exclusive Chinese assistance is one case in point. It is important to note that Sri Lanka, before allowing the Chinese, had sought Indian assistance. Perhaps due to the policy paralysis that existed in the last 10 years, India could never reach a decision on it, thereby effectively ceding the space to Chinese influence in India’s backyard.

It is important to note that just like the Himalayan blunders which India made vis-à-vis Kashmir when it comes India-Pakistan crisis and the mistakes on Tibet and other border-related issues vis-à-vis China, this mess on India-Sri Lanka relations can be attributed to Congress as a ruling party and the decisions it has taken.

It is understood that domestic politics and foreign policy are two independent issues and there is a high chance of each overstepping the other’s domain. For example anti-India rhetoric has always caught the attraction of voters in Pakistan’s domestic politics.

It is often misunderstood that super powers when formulating their foreign policy directions, give more importance to global interests than their country’s national interest. Take the case of relations between Saudi Arabia and USA. It is a known fact that in Saudi Arabia, women have few rights, homosexuals are executed, and there is no practice of upholding human rights even in the most elementary forms. All this in the name of upholding the law of god — Sharia. Contrast this with USA’s stand on human rights, values and other liberal ideas. Dependence on Saudi Oil however, is why the two countries are allies.

In a realistic world, a nation state’s Collective National Interest is more important than a specific pressure group. Hypothetically speaking, Pakistan may decide to sympathise with the separatists of Xinjiang region in China and says that it wants to side with Xinjiang Muslims because being an Islamic republic, it becomes its natural responsibility to look after the interests of Muslims in that region, (because that is the position it takes when it comes to Muslims of India in general and Kashmir in particular). But why cannot it do the same with Muslims of Xinjiang? Because in this case, Collective National Interest (ie. security) is more important than its stated theocratic duty to support Ummah, as it cannot stand against China. This explains the overriding importance of Collective National Interest as a key determinant to foreign policy.

It is important to note that some pressure groups that operate in Tamil Nadu support the LTTE head instead of Tamils. The stated position of the terrorist group LTTE was to carve out a territory out of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern territories and declare it a separate State for Tamils. This is a dangerous precedent and also against the principles of the United Nations — intervening in another country’s internal affairs. Some groups in TN want to politicise the issue at hand for narrow gains. These groups are driven by their hate towards the current Sri Lankan President than their love towards Sri Lankan Tamils. The current President of Sri Lanka Rajapaksa’s very existence is a symbol of LTTE’s comprehensive defeat. So these groups want to avenge the death of Prabhakaran rather than do something concrete for Sri Lankan Tamils. Hence this frenzy continues with no regard for Collective National Interest.

What is more appalling is that these political parties and their affiliated groups outrightly hold allegiances with the LTTE head and not to the people. The same LTTE head who, by all international standards, committed war crimes during the civil war. He used every method used by Islamist groups to fighting an organised state. One glaring example of his tricks was to abduct children from homes and indoctrinate them to create soldiers for his guerilla army.

The Government of India’s dilemma in international fora is a telling example on the confused stand it has taken so far on anti-Sri Lanka resolutions at UN because of ostensible limitations of coalition politics in Indian polity. India has always tried to balance it out through the humanitarian assistance it has provided to war-stricken northern and eastern areas. In foreign policy, one must try to put themselves in the other’s shoes. If a foreign country or a source tries to side with a group that wants to break India to form new entity what our action will be? Our action should be same as what Sri Lanka’s action against the terrorist group LTTE. It is important to note that we should have never sided with groups that wanted to break the country of Sri Lanka.

The gruesome murder of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was a watershed moment that changed the perception of Tamil population of India on LTTE and the values it stood for. It shows that the population as a whole doesn’t care about personal dreams of the leaders of the aforementioned pressure groups. The constant attempts to make this into an electoral issue by these very pressure groups were rejected by voters of Tamil Nadu.

It is a historic opportunity for the new Government to set things right and undo the past wrongs when it comes to our relations with Sri Lanka and chart out an independent foreign policy. Initial signs are encouraging. Narendra Modi after all, chose to invite Sri Lanka’s President for his swearing ceremony, despite the protests of unrepresentative political parties of Tamil Nadu on this issue.

India should have strategic superiority in Sri Lanka, not Pakistan and China, who have been trying to use Sri Lankan territory to the detriment of India’s National Interest.

This was also published on NitiCentral Portal on NOV 11. Here is the link –

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