Sri Lanka

India Table of Contents

The two major factors influencing India's relations with Sri Lanka have been security and the shared ethnicity of Tamils living in southern India and in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Before 1980 common security perceptions and New Delhi's reluctance to intervene in internal affairs in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo made for relatively close ties between the two countries' governments. Beginning in the mid-1950s, and coinciding with the withdrawal of Britain's military presence in the Indian Ocean, India and Sri Lanka increasingly came to share regional security interests. In the 1970s, New Delhi and Colombo enjoyed close ties on the strength of the relationship between Indira Gandhi and Sri Lanka's prime minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias (S.R.D.) Bandaranaike. India fully approved Sri Lanka's desire to replace the British security umbrella with an Indian one, and both sides pursued a policy of nonalignment and cooperated to minimize Western influence in the Indian Ocean.

In the 1980s, ethnic conflict between Sri Lankan Sinhalese in the south and Sri Lankan Tamils in the north escalated, and Tamil separatists established bases and received funding, weapons, and, reportedly, training in India. The clandestine assistance came from private sources and, according to some observers, the state government of Tamil Nadu, and was tolerated by the central government until 1987. Anti-Tamil violence in Colombo in July 1983 prompted India to intervene in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, but mediatory efforts failed to prevent the deterioration of the situation. In May 1987, after the Sri Lankan government attempted to regain control of the Jaffna region, in the extreme northern area of the island, by means of an economic blockade and military action, India supplied food and medicine by air and sea to the region. On July 29, 1987, Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayawardene signed an accord designed to settle the conflict by sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to establish order and disarm Tamil separatists, to establish new administrative bodies and hold elections to accommodate Tamil demands for autonomy, and to repatriate Tamil refugees in India and Sri Lanka. The accord also forbade the military use of Sri Lankan ports or broadcasting facilities by outside powers. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the most militant separatist group, refused to disarm, and Indian troops sustained heavy casualties while failing to destroy the LTTE. In June 1989, newly elected Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF. Despite the tensions between the two countries created by this request, New Delhi completed the withdrawal in March 1990 (see Peacekeeping Operations, ch. 10).

Bilateral relations improved somewhat in the early 1990s, as the government attempted to expand economic, scientific, and cultural cooperation. India continued to take an interest in the status of Sri Lankan Tamils, but without the direct intervention that characterized the 1980s. The May 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, allegedly by the LTTE, forced New Delhi to crack down on the LTTE presence in Tamil Nadu and to institute naval patrols in the Palk Strait to interdict LTTE movements to India. In January 1992, repatriation of Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka commenced and was still underway in 1994.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress