Indo - Sri Lankan Relations : Post Pokhran-II: A Sri Lankan Perspective

07 Apr, 1999    ·   184

Ameen Izzadeen argues that "Sri Lanka’s India policy offers an ideal lesson for relations between a small and big power", and that the tests have not caused any harm.

Ever since Sri Lanka realised the importance of India in its efforts to find a solution to the ethnic conflict in the island nation’s north and east, Colombo has been giving greater weight to the India factor in its foreign policy making. Sri Lanka has learnt a bitter foreign policy lesson by  its blunder in antagonising India in the 1977-87 period with a misguided belief that the United States and the West would come to its aid in the event of a threat from across the Palk Straits. Again,  during the 1989-1993 period , an opportunity to crush the Tamil rebellion in the north-east, was lost largely due  to President Premadasa’s anti-India policy. Aware of these past mistakes, the present regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga has  always shaped its foreign policy decisions to be palatable to New Delhi .



Despite a perception that the BJP government  includes LTTE sympathisers like  George Fernandes, Sri Lanka ’s foreign policy vis a vis India pursues  a tightrope walking or  balancing act. The underlying principle seems to be pleasing India always. Observers say there has been a constant dialogue between Colombo and  South Block in New Delhi on Sri Lanka ’s major foreign policy decisions. In other words, since 1994, Sri Lanka ’s India policy has been based on  real politick. Thus, it came as no surprise to many foreign policy observers when Sri Lanka supported India ’s right to explode the nuclear devices in  May blasts in Pokhran last year, though some eyebrows were raised in the diplomatic community.



Sri Lanka   became the only country which openly supported the India ’s blasts. Diplomats in the Chinese and Pakistani missions expressed shocked at  Sri Lanka ’s reaction, while the US Ambassador sought clarification from the foreign ministry here. Sri Lanka ’s stance on the Indian tests has been described as a sharp deviation from its policy of nuclear disarmament, which it has championed since the 1970s. It's disarmament proposals such as the Indian Ocean Peace Zone, Nuclear Disarmament in Indian Ocean , Global and Complete nuclear disarmament, though idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, became the cornerstone of  Sri Lanka ’s disarmament policy.



When Sri Lanka supported the  Indian tests it was seen as a major sacrifice of its disarmament policy. It should also be noted that Sri Lanka had taken into consideration the US , Pakistani and Chinese concerns. Sri Lanka felt that toeing the Indian line was more beneficial to it than pleasing the US despite Washington ’s action  of declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation. Sri Lanka , however, took steps to explain its position to the US , China and Pakistan , the latter two being sources for military supplies to Sri Lanka . It was against this backdrop that Sri Lanka issued a statement following the Pakistan test, calling upon   India and Pakistan to restrain themselves - a mild and balanced statement with which the Indians could not fault, and  thus maintaining the status quo in Indo-Lanka relations.



Sri Lanka received a fitting reward when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif met in Colombo on the sidelines of the South Asian summit in July last year. Also boosting the Indo-Lanka relations were close military ties in intelligence sharing and an agreement for free trade. Despite Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes’ pro-LTTE stance, the Indian Navy has been helping the Sri Lankan armed forces in locating and destroying suspected LTTE vessels. It is alleged, however, that Mr. Fernandes delayed the Indian Navy’s interception of a LTTE  vessel in early March, allowing the rebels to unload the arms cargo.



The Sri Lankan government sees the Indo-Lanka free trade pact as an instrument that would further cement  ties between the two countries though the pact has come under severe criticism from some trade analysts.  A mention about the Sri Lankan government’s relations with the Congress party - widely believed here to be a government in waiting - also needs to be made, when talking about Sri Lanka ’s balanced India policy. The government in Sri Lanka is not only balanced vis-a-vis regional powers such as China and Pakistan , but in relation to internal political parties in India as well. When President Kumaratunga visited India in December last year, she had a long cordial discussion with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. So did Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe when he visited India last year.



In a nutshell, Sri Lanka ’s relations with India have been cordial, since 1994, and the Pokhran blasts have done little or nothing to cause any dent. Sri Lanka ’s India policy offers an ideal lesson for relations between a small and big power, though some critics describe the policy as bordering on servitude.