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Moving forward India SLText of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata

At an international seminar held on November 6th and 7th 2014 on

An Appraisal of India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Way Forward


In the period leading up to the victory over the terrorist Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, India and Sri Lanka enjoyed an excellent relationship. It was clear that, despite the opposition of politicians in Tamilnadu, India was supportive of the military initiatives of the Sri Lankan government. More importantly, it assisted Sri Lanka in dealing effectively with the efforts of some Western countries to stop the Sri Lankan offensive, and then to condemn it after the military success of May 2009. This was most obvious in Geneva, where the Indian Permanent Representative, together with his Pakistani counterpart, comprised the negotiating team that accompanied the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, into discussions with Western nations that had wanted a resolution critical of Sri Lanka.

Since then the relationship deteriorated. In 2012 India voted in favour of a resolution put forward by the United States that was strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government. And though much aid and assistance was given to Sri Lanka for reconstruction after the war, India seems to feel that this is not properly appreciated – as evinced by recent remarks by the Indian High Commissioner.

Conversely, a response to his speech in a Sri Lankan newspaper displays even great angst, culminating in the complaint that ‘In the more recent past, India repeatedly voted against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva whereas in view of India’s domestic political constraints, all India had to do was abstain which Sri Lanka would have appreciated immensely.’ Before that there had been a catalogue of the support offered in the eighties by India to terrorist movements in Sri Lanka.

That support is a fact, and India must recognize not only the damage done to Sri Lanka by its support for terrorists in the eighties, but also the continuing exploitation of that support by forces in Sri Lanka that I would describe as racist. But Sri Lanka too must recognize that those actions were committed thirty years ago, and also that there were reasons for India to behave as it did. Though I think it is important to affirm the moral principle that assistance to terrorists is totally beyond the pale, we have to understand that India felt threatened at the time by the hostility evinced by the United States during the Cold War period.

When the government of President J R Jayewardene abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditional policies of Non-Alignment and close understanding with India, to the extent of offering facilities in Sri Lanka to a country that made no secret that India was the principal target of its military adventurism in the Indian Ocean, India reacted aggressively. As your current Deputy National Security Adviser, Mr Gupta, put it succinctly, though such a response was not justifiable, it was understandable.

This was in the context of an attempt by one of his subordinates at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis to defend Indian support for terrorists. I appreciated Mr Gupta’s forthrightness at the time, and I believe this should be shared by Indian analysts of the current relationship. At the same time it is even more important that Sri Lankan analysts, such as they are because we do not have a tradition of intellectual rigidity, recognize the seminal damage done to the relationship by the adventurism of the then Sri Lankan government.

The current Sri Lankan government must also recognize that today, thirty years later, India might be worried by what seems total commitment to China. I do not think this is what China wants, and I do not think any serious thinker in Sri Lanka would argue that the relationship with China must be developed with no regard for Indian sensitivities. But sadly Sri Lanka currently has no coherent foreign policy, and the practices and pronouncements of many of those in positions of influence create the impression that we are putting all our eggs into the China basket. This impression is fuelled by the United States, ironically so, given that in the eighties it saw China as a tool to be used against its great enemy at the time, the Soviet Union, with which India was closely allied. Read the rest of this entry »


download (1)A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.

However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.

Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –

Sri Lankan relations with the different regions of Asia present a fascinating prism through which to examine our changing position in the world. The subject also suggests areas in which we might develop our position further, in terms of defining more clearly our objectives, and endeavouring to fulfil them more coherently.

Though the field requires constant attention and care, there is not really much need of further definition with regard to three areas. South Asia, the SAARC Region, and in particular India must remain our main focal point. The attention government pays to ensure that we are on a similar wavelength to India is a feature we should never have allowed to lapse, while continuing of course to ensure positive relations with Pakistan and the other countries in the region.

With regard to East Asia, similar principles apply. Our friendship with China has been a cornerstone of our approach to other countries, and this obtained even in the era soon after we obtained independence, when the Soviet bloc considered us a satellite of the West. From the time of the Rubber-Rice Pact, negotiated by R G Senanayake, we made clear our determination not to let the formulaic approach of other countries adversely affect our relations with the most populous country in the world. During the last years of the Cold War, friendship with China accorded with the predilections of the West, but now that the latter is wary of increasing Chinese capabilities, we should not let ourselves be stampeded into a less affectionate relation.

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Interview with Ceylon Today

Q: India abstained from voting at the UN Human Rights resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva,last week. Given that India had voted for the previous resolution in 2013, do you see a major shift in the Indian stance on the matters related to the international scrutiny on the Sri Lankan government over its human rights record?

No, I think India has been absolutely consistent. Like our cabinet, which endorsed the LLRC Action Plan, it believes we need to do much to promote reconciliation, but it believes we must do this ourselves. This time, unlike in previous years, the US and its allies included external intrusion, which goes against the principles of the UN. India, given its leading role in promoting a multi-polar world rather than domination by one ethos, could not support such a dramatic departure from international norms.

Q: In your opinion, what did prompt India to abstain from voting?

Recognition that this sort of intrusion could set unfortunate precedents for all countries that do not play ball with  the West.

Q:  India’s permanent representative at  Geneva cited the ‘intrusive nature’ of the UN resolution as the reason for their decision to abstain. But, were there geopolitical concerns such as countering Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, that could have underpinned the Indian decision?

Had that been the main reason, India might as well have played along with the West, which seems keen on going back to the absolute divisions of Cold War days. Though China has been a solid friend to Sri Lanka, given geographical and economic realities, India throwing its weight behind the West would have left us helpless – and indeed China has pointed this out in urging us always to maintain good relations with India.

Q: India’s decision to abstain would give it a greater leverage on the matters concerning justice and accountability in Sri Lanka as well political aspirations of Tamils.  Do you agree?

It should make us realize that we need to work together with India, just as we did during the conflict. India like us was committed to eradicating terrorism, and like the President it saw this as essential for the benefit of all Sri Lankans including the Tamils. But I fear the dwarfs who dominate policy making will continue to sow distrust. Recently for instance there were attempts to convince the President that the Indian government was behind the Tamil Nadu state’s attempt to pardon Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. I cannot understand how that could be believed, and fortunately Delhi acted immediately so the President would have seen the true picture.  

Q: The incumbent government has repeatedly failed to honor the undertakings given to New Delhi in terms of implementing a political solution in line with the 13  amendment Plus. So you expect that the government of Sri Lanka would now be compelled to work on a political solution, at least as a gesture of goodwill towards New Delhi?

We should be working on a political solution for the sake of our own people. But clear instructions give by the President are ignored so the impression has been created that he  cannot be trusted. This is a tragic situation, given what I believe is his essentially pluralistic vision, but he must now work seriously on implementing the manifesto on which he won  election, instead of seeing his main role as simply to win election after election. If he continues to rely on people who have repeatedly let him down, and are only interested in their careers and their fortunes, and see him simply as an instrument of winning elections that none of them could do without him, then the victories of 2009 will soon be lost.

Q: Would Indian support to Sri Lanka  serve as a a deterrence against multilateral initiatives by the advanced democracies to push for an investigation into the alleged violation of human rights and humanitarian laws in Sri Lanka?

I hope it will, but we need to work closely with India to make it clear that our own initiatives will suffice to promote human rights in general, as well as both restorative justice and a political dispensation in which all our people can have confidence.  We should fast forward implementation of all the LLRC recommendations, and if we have any reservations, we should explain the reasons for this. We should also set up an advisory group, of countries such as India and Japan and South Africa, and perhaps Australia and Brazil too, to help us move forward, and ensure transparency as well as speed.

Q: What should Sri Lanka do to harness the goodwill of India?

First, we need a coherent foreign policy that is based on traditional SLFP values of Non-Alignment. The last of the groupies of the Jayewardene-Hameed era, who ruined our relations with India, is now Foreign Secretary, which is preposterous, whereas the position should have gone to someone like our present High Commissioner in Delhi, who has the confidence of India. Since his term is up, he should be replaced by someone who has good relations with India and Indians. Most important of all, we need a new Foreign Minister, given that his total mishandling of India in 2012 led to them voting against us.

We should also move on the matters that were agreed during the discussions with the TNA. We had suggested nothing ourselves until I was put on the team, and then the TNA responded positively to two suggestions I made – but since two members of our team were determined to sabotage the talks, nothing further came of these. In fact, when Mr Sumanthiran and i had reached a generally acceptable agreement on land, the President was told that I was giving too much away. This was before the saboteurs had even seen our draft, whereas in fact Mr Sumanthiran was accused of the same by some of his team after they saw the draft.

Thirdly, we must stop centralized control of Indian aid, and instead develop systems that will allow for greater flexibility and local consultation. Reconciliation  should be an essential component of all aid programmes, and there should be greater stress on human resources development and entrepreneurship. Given how the monopoly of the prevalent model of economic development failed to win hearts and minds, there should be a cabinet sub-committe, headed by the Senior HRD Minister, with National Languages, Skills Development, Agriculture and Water Resources and Management, to develop a blueprint for interventions.

We also need more Track Two contacts, with more coherent use of institutions like the Indo-Lanka Foundation, and joint projects between think tanks, of which India has several, whereas we have none of any consequence. We must also restore the type of relationship we had with Chennai, when diplomats like Amza and Nakandawala and Krishnamoorthy were there. The stupidity of the last named being suddenly transferred indicates the complete lack of principle or policy on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as run by its current leaders.
Ceylon Today 6 April 2014



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

The election of President Rajapakse in 2005 saw a regime that began with a perspective that its predecessors had wasted valuable time in acquiring. Though he continued with the Ceasefire Agreement and tried to negotiate with the LTTE, he also realized the importance of strengthening his defences, spurred as he also was by the blatant violations of the CFA by the Tigers in the first couple of months after he took office. Helped by having a Presidential Secretary and a Secretary of Defence who had no financial or family connections with arms dealers, an unusual state of affairs for Sri Lankan officials, he was able to build up a confident and disciplined military. So too, when the negotiations began, the Sri Lankan government had no illusions about the bad faith of the Tigers, and they could stick to principles without succumbing to Tiger threats or blandishments. Efforts by the Tigers to sweep the issue of child soldiers under the carpet for instance were resisted firmly.

This was the more difficult because the Tigers had used the follies of the Wickremesinghe years, and the slipshod approaches of the Kumaratunga period that followed, to enhance their standing with the so-called international community. The UN for example had poured money into Tigerland with no supervision of what was done with it, while a few Western nations hankered after the happy days of Wickremesinghe when they were allowed to call the shots. The United States, I should note, was an exception to this since, though under severe pressure from the Tiger led diaspora and international agencies that saw themselves as arbiters of the destiny of smaller nations – the smaller the better, for their proconsular purposes – they understood the need to stand firm against terrorism.

But even the United States had to speak with a characteristically Western forked tongue, and it was on its old friends in the Non-Aligned Movement, plus the former Socialist bloc, that Sri Lanka had to rely most heavily in this most momentous period in her recent history. India was foremost amongst these, and kept its position straight despite much more potentially significant pressures from politicians in Tamilnadu. The Indians made it clear that there should be no indulgence to the Tigers, but all efforts should be made to improve the position of the Tamils.

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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.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2018
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