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

But before we look to the future, let us review relations in the past, and the generally positive tenor of interactions. In the first decade after independence there were some slight tensions, caused I believe largely by our own adherence to an Old Commonwealth model of independence, and suspicion on the part of at least one of our leaders of the emerging idea of Non-Alignment. I should note however that Nehru’s effortless superiority may also have contributed to a sense of resentment, as may be seen in the retort of Sir John Kotelawala when Nehru remonstrated with him for his unabashedly pro-Western speech at Bandung. Upbraided for not having consulted Nehru beforehand, Sir John responded that Nehru had not consulted him before his own much more significant speech.

Fortunately that situation changed with the election of Mr Bandaranaike whose approach to international relations was much more in line with Nehru’s. Personal affinities continued when Mrs Bandaranaike took over, and in time her own relations with Indira Gandhi took cooperation between the countries further. Thus we had Sri Lanka able to offer itself as a peace-maker during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, and also maintaining the trust of India despite providing refuelling facilities to Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict, when India disallowed Pakistan flying over her territories to what was then East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh.

Those days saw too the Sirima-Shastri pact which provided a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of the then stateless labour which the British had brought over for their plantations, as well as a determination in favour of Sri Lanka of the status of Kachchativu, an island in the Palk Straits between the two countries. Underlying the generally benevolent Indian approach to Sri Lanka then was I believe total confidence that we would support Indian interests in any international forum.

All that changed with Jayewardene’s Cold War adventurism following his election to power with a massive majority in 1977. Relations were also soured by his personal attitude, beginning with his belief following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the Indian general election at around the same time that both countries would be governed by pro-Western parties for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for him, while he was able to destroy democracy in Sri Lanka, with the tacit support of the West, India was more resilient, and its old freedom fighters, even if pro-Western, fundamentally more decent.

India continued then to have a vibrant parliamentary democracy and free elections, and Mrs Gandhi was soon back in power, her personal suspicions of Jayewardene fuelled by the various maneuvers noted above. Hence her government’s support for terrorist forces, an initiative that was given moral authority by the vicious attacks on Tamils and Tamil sentiments that elements in Jayewardene’s government engaged in, almost certainly with his support, in 1981 and 1983.

Jayewardene’s ridiculous efforts to put off the inevitable between 1983 and 1987 only saw the terrorists get stronger and his own reputation internationally plummet. Even though Mrs Thatcher continued to advocate support for Sri Lanka, for instance when Jayewardene sent his Foreign Minister to inquire whether he could invoke the 1947 Mutual Defence Treaty in case India invaded, British officials convinced her that this was not practical. By 1987, with his refusals to compromise having led to heightened terrorist activity, India was able to get a resolution passed against us at the UN Human Rights Committee (moved by Argentina, since Sri Lanka had been one of the few countries to back Britain over the Falklands War). Thus, it was with certainty that the world would not oppose her that India intervened during the 1987 Sri Lankan military offensive against the terrorists in the North.

Jayewardene finally realized the game was up, and compromised with his most effective enemy. Sadly, while this involved some conciliation of the terrorists, he took no steps to conciliate the Sinhala opposition in the form of Mrs Bandaranaike. The result was that violence within the country exploded. The Tigers were dissatisfied with the compromises offered and, though the Indians fought against them resolutely on Jayewardene’s behalf, they were able to take advantage of other internal problems in both countries, and survived to fight another day. Meanwhile there was even worse violence in the South, alleviated only after much bloodshed and after Jayewardene had at last been forced, by his own party as much as anyone else, to give up power.

The next decade and a half saw a bizarre tendency in Sri Lanka on the part of parties in opposition to treat the Tigers as much misunderstood little lambs. President Premadasa and President Kumaratunga both came into power in the conviction that they could negotiate peace with the Tigers and, though both were soon disabused, this approach did much to strengthen the credentials of the Tigers during this period. It also suggested to them that, however blatant their suppression of other Tamil voices, all would be forgiven them in the immense gullibility, or else political manoeuvring, of Sri Lankan politicians. Ranil Wickremesinghe indeed went further, and continued to play ball with the Tigers even when it was patently clear that they were abusing his Ceasefire Agreement to an appalling and incredibly dangerous degree.

During this period India behaved with forbearance, and in the first two cases was justified in the rapidity with which the two Presidents realized that they could rely on India much more than on the Tigers. It is a measure of President Premadasa’s immense capacity to learn that, though he had entered into power with a mindset of hostility towards India, he was soon able to mend fences, with the assistance of distinguished diplomats such as Neville Kanakaratne. The general professionalism of the Indian Foreign Ministry also contributed to this – and I believe contributed immeasurably to President Kumaratunga becoming confident enough in 2003 to check the indulgent excesses of the Wickremesinghe government, when he forgot as Prime Minister the constitutional authority of the elected President.

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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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