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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 »


Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on

Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World

October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro

Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.

When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.

Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.

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With regard to the collapse of relations with India in the eighties, the reasons are clear enough. If anyone doubted the corrosive effect of President Jayewardene’s Cold War adventurism, the Annexe to the Indo-Lankan Accord makes crystal clear what India feared. At the time the Liberal Party regretted the fact that we should have acknowledged Indian supremacy over our foreign relations, but we also said that, without spelling this out, we should always have acted on the assumption that we could not afford to alienate India. We have also always pointed out that, for its part, when it did not feel threatened, India had usually displayed towards Sri Lanka a generosity and understanding that were not always a feature of its relations with its other neighbours.

Why then have we found India ranged against us at the UN Human Rights Council, in 2012 as well as in 2013? How has it happened that, whereas in 2012 there was no certainty until towards the very end as to how India would vote, in 2013 India was under pressure to make the resolution brought by the US even more stringent?

All this happened despite the fact that, in February 2012, India assured us that she would vote in our favour. Unfortunately, contrary to her request that this be kept confidential, this commitment was promptly trumpeted aloud. There is some uncertainty now about who actually let the cat out of the bag. When I told Mahinda Samarasinghe that he had made a mistake in announcing the fact, which I thought was so that he could win brownie points, in the ongoing battle between him and the Minister of External Affairs, he assured me that he had not been responsible. This is not unlikely, given the massive numbers the Ministry had decided to send to Geneva, all of them generals convinced that they knew best how to conduct foreign policy.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2018
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