Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue. Indian International Centre, New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.

In writing many years ago about the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987, the single most crucial element in bilateral relations since the independence of both countries, I made the following assessment –

The full text of the Accord, revealed only after it had been signed, indicated that in order to win peace Jayawardene had gone far down the road he had tried to avoid. It had already been let slip the previous week that the President would have discretion to postpone the referendum whereby the east could break free from the north if the union proved unsatisfactory. Apart from this and an agreement to appoint an interim administration for the area (which would allow immediate power to the terrorist groups), there was also an appendix to the Accord that, in dealing with Indo-Lankan relations as apart from the internal conflict, made clear that Sri Lanka had formally accepted Indian suzerainty over the region. 

In this appendix, which took the form of an exchange of letters of intent, Jayawardene agreed to ‘reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel’, that ‘Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests’, that ‘the work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka’ and that ‘Sri Lanka’s agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes’.

Perhaps there had been little gain to the country from Jayawardene’s manoeuvres over the past few years and the letters of intent did no more than enunciate what should have from the start been accepted as a cornerstone of any realistic foreign policy for a small country situated so helplessly at the tip of India.  Yet that this should have been set down in writing was indeed a triumph for Gandhi.[i]

In an earlier version of this analysis, I had noted the type of manoeuvre Jayewardene had engaged in, viz ‘with regard to the Voice of America, Israeli agents, Pakistani military training, and the shadowy companies that had been chosen for the tank farm concession’[ii]. I had argued before that Jayawardene’s efforts to present himself as a knight on the side of the West in what turned out to be the dying years of the Cold War were potentially disastrous for Sri Lanka. So it proved, and in getting this reversed India engaged in a programme that sadly provided terrorist groups with support that facilitated their development into dangerous entities.

Such actions were regrettable, though I believe that, from the Sri Lankan side, the provocation we had offered was also serious and potentially dangerous, given the intensity with which the Cold War was fought in South Asia during the eighties. The Indian response therefore was understandable though, as always with such initiatives during the Cold War, its consequences were potentially even more dangerous. I believe it was incumbent on Sri Lanka thereafter to make this clear to India and request that, if good faith were maintained on our side, India owed it to us to ensure that the potentially dangerous consequences were averted.

I think this has been done. My argument here then is that, except for during the disastrous Jayewardene years, relations between India and Sri Lanka have been positive and productive, and both countries have indeed worked overtime since the dangers of those years to ensure that they were not repeated. However we have to bear in mind that there would obviously be individuals in both countries, official as well as unofficial, who are still affected by the memory of those years, and who would therefore advocate measures, whether in terms of what is seen as self-defence or otherwise, which would affect good relations. We need to be wary about such individuals, in particular because some of them are acting in good faith, and ensure that their recommendations are neither followed nor given prominence. I should note that India has generally been more efficient about this at the Centre, given the more adult approach of your media to reporting on political relations between the two countries.

It is important too to note that, though the Cold War is over, there are still international dimensions that need to be recognized. In the early nineties for instance, as I wrote at the time, there were fears that we were once more becoming victims of American worries about India –

‘It is worth noting however that, at the time the Tigers were resisting the Indian army with a vigour that had seemed inconceivable at the start of the operation, the rumour in Colombo was that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind them. This may not have been fair to the Americans, and it was certainly just as plausible that the Indians were encouraging the rumour as perhaps the best method of explaining the tremendous cleft that had appeared between them and the Tigers.  For their part the Americans were at pains to explain that the Accord had not really affected them, and facilities had been made available to the VoA in an area north of Colombo on the same terms as before, which had in any case involved monitoring as required by the Sri Lankan government. At the same time it was clear that they were making a much more concerted effort to develop contacts with opposition groups, not only the SLFP, but also as it seemed the leftwing group led by Kumaranatunga.’

Those worries it seems no longer exist, and Sri Lanka will no longer be a victim of – nor, as happened with Jayewardene, a willing foolish participant in – American/Indian rivalries. Yet, even while we see efforts in the so-called international media to draw attention to other rivalries, we should also be aware of continuing suspicions about India in other Western minds. My own view – and this was confirmed for me, albeit not scientifically, by the British coverage of the last Indian election, as well as visits by British diplomats from both Delhi and Colombo to Chennai at that time – is that the previous British government was worried about the emergence of India, and would have preferred a weak country under pressure from separatist elements. It also wanted to convince the Americans about its special knowledge of South Asia, and resented American efforts to establish direct links with areas in the sub-continent it had previously neglected. Interestingly enough, the attitude, in particular during the first few months of the Obama administration, reminded me of the manoeuvres undertaken in the run-up to Indian independence by the British to kill American support for Indian aspirations, as laid out graphically in recent books by Narendra Singh Sarila[iii] as well as by Jaswant Singh’s recent biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Fortunately we now have a much more practical government in place in Britain, which realizes that it cannot continue to claim moral authority over the sub-continent, and is content to develop a much more adult and hence positive relationship with India, as well as with Sri Lanka. But I believe both India and Sri Lanka must continue vigilant about different tendencies, especially when they chime in with the predilections of our own officials, some of whom still believe in special relationships that privilege particular countries. This approach is not, I believe, generally intended to oppose national interests, but often it can, when positions are pushed to their limits and involve hostility to other countries.

[i] Declining Sri Lanka, Foundation Books, Delhi, 2007, 114-5

[ii] Sri Lanka in Crisis, 1977-88: J R Jayewardene and the erosion of democracy, Council for Liberal Democracy, Colombo 1991, 136

[iii] ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’ …….See for instance Sarila’s account of the removal of Colonel Louis Johnson, Roosevelt’s original envoy, who seemed sympathetic to Congress – which led Churchill to wire to Harry Hopkins, perhaps Roosevelt’s most influential adviser, that ‘We do not at all relish the prospect of Johnson’s return to India. The Viceroy is much perturbed at the prospect.’

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  1. Promoting Contacts, Preserving Confidence – The International Context, Past and Present (Part 1) – New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.
  2. Promoting Contacts, Preserving Confidence – Relations in the Past (Part 2) – New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.
  3. Promoting Contacts, Preserving Confidence – Cooperation in the Current Context (Part 3) – New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.
  4. Promoting Contacts, Preserving Confidence – Reconciliation and the Restoration of Confidence (Part 4) – New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.
  5. Promoting Contacts, Preserving Confidence – Collaboration in Education and Training (Part 5) – New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.
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