Indo-Lanka relations:Shared challenges and ‘Quad’ strategies



The Sri Lankan delegation with Indian President Droupadi Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhavan. President Murmu assured the visiting delegation that Sri Lanka occupied a special place in India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth of All in the Region) Vision. From left: Ministers Kanchana Wijesekera, Doudlas Devananda, Ali Sabry, PC, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Murmu, Minister Jeevan Thondaman, Presidential Advisor Sagala Ratnayake, Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardena and Presidential Secretary Saman Ekanayake (pic courtesy PMD)

The developing Indo-Lanka relations, particularly the process since early 2022 should be examined taking into consideration the significant role played by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Milinda Moragoda, who received the Cabinet rank. At the time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent the former UNP Minister, one -time close associate of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the wartime Defence Secretary wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of the impending onslaught on him.

Having moved into Delhi, late August 2022, Moragoda officially announced his policy framework ‘Integrated Country Strategy for the Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India 2021/2023.’ prepared before the country suffered the worst economic crisis. President Rajapaksa picked Moragoda, regardless of a section of those who backed at the presidential election, declaring strong opposition.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Khukri class Missile Corvette ‘Khanjar’ entered Trincomalee harbour at 7.45 am on 29 July, the 36th anniversary of the Indian Army deployment in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The latest visit is in line with the much-touted India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. INS ‘Khanjar’ followed Indian Naval Submarine Vagir visit to Colombo in the third week of June, this year.

The Indian High Commission, in Colombo, underscored the significance of the latest literal gunboat diplomacy “in view of the potential for cooperation between India and Sri Lanka for augmenting capabilities of the Sri Lanka Navy for efficiently addressing shared challenges for maritime security in the region”.

India pulled out the last contingent of her ‘Peace Keeping Force’ (IPKF), a misnomer no doubt from Sri Lanka’s North and East, in late March 1990, also from Trincomalee after the then President, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa, called for their abrupt removal. The LTTE tricked Premadasa to call for Indian withdrawal to pave the way for the resumption of Eelam War II thinking that it had the definite upper hand with the West giving it underhand support by having created safe havens in their countries to raise funds and arms from the black-market, even by dealing in the drug trade, for its war effort here and Premadasa was facing so many domestic enemies. Fighting broke out in the second week of June 1990. The rest is history.

It would be pertinent to ask what these often repeated shared challenges India and bankrupt Sri Lanka faced in the region though there is no doubt US, Japan, Australia and India faced shared challenges because of their openly ganging up against China. It would be an irreparable strategic mistake on Sri Lanka’s part not to examine the post-war challenges taking into consideration (1) Indo-Lanka bilateral relations/partnership (2) Sri Lanka’s relations with ‘Quad’ countries, namely US (Sri Lanka entered into Access and Crosss Servicing Agreement with the US in Aug. 2017. The US has still not given up on agreement on Millennium Challenge Corporation compact and Status of Forces Agreement), Japan (Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership finalized in Oct. 2015), Australia and India (3) ‘Quad’ concerns over growing Chinese power and Sri Lanka’s relationship with Beijing, one of the major creditors (4) Tamil Nadu politics and the Center’s interest in the 13th Amendment enacted in 1988 in line with the Indo-Lanka Accord and finally (5) the next Indian general elections scheduled to be conducted between April-May 2024.

Regardless of the 26-member Indian Opposition alliance vowing to challenge Premier Narendra Modi’s BJP, the incumbent Premier is widely expected to comfortably secure a third term. The Opposition strategy is unlikely to receive a boost, regardless of the failure on the part of the Modi administration to quell continuing violence in Manipur. Having received the executive leadership in 2014, Modi is set to extend his term by six more years.

During the recently concluded Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa’s visit, Tokyo stressed the importance of their ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative meant to address the Chinese challenge. Yoshimasa also discussed the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), which has enabled grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea to various parts of the world, and then found fault with Russia for terminating the initiative.

Against the backdrop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s two-day visit to New Delhi last month, the Colombo based media over a week received quite useful but rare background briefing from the Indian High Commission.

The inclusion of Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda in President Wickremesinghe’s delegation is a grim reminder of India’s despicable intervention in Sri Lanka nearly 40 years ago. Having entered mainstream politics on the invitation of the late President Premadasa in 1989, Devananada served successive governments and currently holds the Fisheries portfolio. Devananda was among those who received weapons training in Lebanon and India. Devananda declared as an offender in India and is wanted on charges of murder, attempted murder, rioting, unlawful assembly and kidnapping. Regardless of consequences, Minister Devananda should be definitely summoned by the proposed South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). TRC cannot under any circumstances be selective in its investigations if a genuine attempt is to be made to ascertain the truth, including the origins of terrorism.

Prez polls next year

Having finalized a spate of agreements and reached political understanding with President Wickremesinghe, New Delhi would be naturally concerned about the outcome of next year’s presidential election in Sri Lanka. The contentious issue is whether UNP leader Wickremesinghe, with just one National List MP, could form a coalition that included the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to regain the presidency. Having elected as the President by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramana (SLPP) in July last year to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, Wickremesinghe is not on the same page with the ruling party on several issues, including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and Cabinet appointments.

Although several SLPP lawmakers have declared Wickremesinghe as their choice at the next presidential election, the SLPP is likely to take a contrary stand. If that happened, the already divided SLPP would lose quite a number of lawmakers to Wickremesinghe. Let me point out that Wickremesinghe’s delegation to New Delhi included three lawmakers Ali Sabry, PC, Jeevan Thondaman and Kanchana Wijesekera elected on the SLPP ticket or appointed through the SLPP National List.

New Delhi seems quite confident that whatever the outcome of the election its agenda here can be sustained. Having bankrupted the country, the utterly corrupt, irresponsible and shameless Sri Lankan political party system will have no option but to be dictated by external powers. Could Sri Lanka have obtained USD 2.9 bn IMF bailout package in March this year without direct Indian intervention? Certainly not. In fact, if not for prompt Indian assistance that was provided, even before Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, the situation here could have been far worse. The truth is New Delhi provided as much as USD 4 bn worth assistance whereas the IMF package covered a period of four years.

However, Wickremesinghe’s election by Parliament, as the caretaker President, appeared to have facilitated New Delhi’s strategy, though Delhi tends to assure us it didn’t find working with the Rajapaksa’s difficult. But anyone who read ‘Choices: Inside the making of Indian foreign policy’ by one-time Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, could understand how the decision-makers in New Delhi perceived the threat the Rajapaksas’ relationship with Beijing posed. In spite of repeated vehement denials by successive Colombo governments of forming any suicidal anti-India axis with China, paranoid New Delhi, wanting to bring Colombo under its clutches, still insists that clandestine Chinese activities here posed a serious threat to their security interests. The Indian leadership reiterated its concerns with President Wickremesinghe. The foolish decision to lease Hambantota port by the Yahapalana government, led by Wickremesinghe, to China in 2017, for a period of 99-years, under controversial circumstances, will remain a thorny issue.

In a public statement issued during President Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi, the Indian leader underscored their stand in a few lines. “Sri Lanka has an important place in both, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘SAGAR’ vision. Today we shared our views on bilateral, regional and international issues. We believe that the security interests and development of India and Sri Lanka are intertwined. And therefore, it is essential that we work together keeping in mind each other’s safety and sensitivities.”

Having declared so, Premier Modi made reference to Economic Partnership that encompassed maritime, energy, and people-to-people and their long term commitment to Sri Lanka on the basis of mutual cooperation in tourism, power, trade, higher education and skill development. New Delhi’s strategy, though seemed to be facilitated by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster last year, will have to negotiate major obstacles in case Wickremesinghe fails to retain power.

Regardless of much repeated accusations by lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa as well as author Sena Thoradeniya in his latest book ‘Galle Face Protest: Systems Change or Anarchy? Politics, Religion and Culture in a Time of Terror in Sri Lanka’ that both the US and India conspired not only to oust Gotabaya Rajapaksa but were keen to prevent Wickremesinghe taking over the presidency, the Quad nations, however, threw their weight behind Wickremesinghe after their first wish failed as Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena chose not to be part of any conspiracy. The current arrangements seem to be working fine with the disjointed Opposition making feeble attempts to challenge the executive.

However, Wickremesinghe’s international partners should be mindful of the incumbent government’s political strategy. Wickremesinghe appears to be determined not to conduct both Provincial Council and Local Government polls under any circumstances. Would he seek to postpone the presidential election, too, on some pretext?

APC farce

India remains concerned over Sri Lanka’s reluctance to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Successive Indian governments dealt with the issue at hand and Narendra Modi, eyeing a third term, is no exception. President Wickremesinghe was urged to implement the Amendment enacted way back in 1988. The devolving of police powers remains the bone of contention with President Wickremesinghe struggling not to offend those seeking full implementation and those opposed to the move. If the UNP leader is expecting to contest the next presidential poll, he couldn’t afford to antagonize electorates outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces and the Hill country.

The All-Party Conference called by President Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat (Old Parliament) soon after his return from New Delhi ended inconclusively on the evening of 26 July with one-time LTTE ally, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) totally rejecting the UNP leader’s stand on the controversial Amendment. Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, didn’t mince his words outside the Presidential Secretariat when he ridiculed the President’s offer either to conduct the inordinately delayed Provincial Council polls or proceed with the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. At the end, President Wickremesinghe had no option but to admit that he couldn’t proceed as his party lacked the required numbers in Parliament. The public reduced the number of MPs elected and appointed on the UNP lists from 107 at the 2015 general election to just one at the last general election in 2020.

Wickremesinghe is in a deepening political dilemma. In spite of exercising executive powers, President Wickremesinghe lacked a party mechanism on the ground to face an election at any level. The President and his top advisors, though being aware of the developing crisis, are reluctant to acknowledge their difficulties. The delay in appointing SLPP’s nominees to the Cabinet, as requested by the ruling party in July last year, remained perhaps the most serious issue that caused the continuing friction.

Having examined the latest APC bid that did nothing but further divided political parties represented in Parliament, President Wickremesinghe is very much unlikely to receive support of the SLPP, the main Opposition party SJB or the rebel SLPP groups in this regard. The JVP didn’t bother even to participate in the APC. But, wily Wickremesinghe couldn’t have been unaware of the outcome. For obvious reasons, Wickremesinghe didn’t expect support from any invited party and the result suited his strategy. The President conveniently placed the responsibility of reaching consensus on this matter on the Parliament, thereby washing his hands off the issue at hand. The bottom line is that the latest APC was meant to fail as no one could have proceeded. It was nothing but a gaudy public show where the President and leaders of political parties sought to score some political mileage.

Unfortunately, the government lacked the strength to set the record straight. The full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was based on total disarming of the LTTE. Unfortunately, the late JRJ went ahead with the Amendment though the LTTE declared war on the Indian Army in Oct. 1987 having declined to hand over its weapons in terms of the Indo-Lanka accord, other than some token items.

Manipur violence

The continuing violence in BJP-run State of Manipur underscored the failure on the part of the Modi government to act swiftly and decisively to bring the situation under control. Violence that erupted in May this year following the majority Meiteis (mostly Hindus) demand for tribal status continued in spite of quite a strong deployment of Indian forces in the State neighbouring Myanmar. Meiteis’ demand has prompted the minority Kukis (mostly Christians) to ask for territorial autonomy or separate administration. So far, violence has claimed over 160 deaths while over 60,000 were forced out of their homes. People found fault with Premier Modi for the inordinate delay in commenting on the violence in India state while the Indian leader ironically had the audacity to ask President Wickremesinghe to ensure a life of respect and dignity for the Tamil community here. Modi remained silent until the release of a video taken on 04 May, 2023 of Kuki women being paraded naked by Meiteis. The video surfaced after India lifted a ban on the internet. The Indian Premier responded to the developing crisis in Manipur several weeks after violence erupted there.

The US response to the crisis in Manipur sounded more circumspect and differed from its usual bellicose reactions in cases of similar situations elsewhere. The media quoted US Ambassador in New Delhi Eric Garcetti as having described the ongoing violence in Manipur as an ‘internal matter.’

Despite the toned down reaction from Washington, Congress MP Manish Tewari has reacted sharply to the US statement. The media quoted the former Information and Broadcasting Minister as having said that India never appreciated any statement on its internal matters. “There is gun violence in the US and several people are killed. We never told the US to learn from us as to how to rein that in. The US faces riots over racism. We never told them that we would lecture them. Perhaps it is important for the new Ambassador to take cognizance of the history of India-US relations,” the MP was further quoted as having said.

Manipur mayhem reminds that India notwithstanding its recently attained economic and military power can suffer from such turmoil. The 2002 Gujarat riots which may have claimed the lives of as many as 2,000 people took place during Modi’s tenure as the Chief Minister of the Western Indian State. The sharp difference in the US response to Gujarat violence and the current situation in Manipur underscored how the big power reacted to such developments depending on its relationship with the country concerned.

Those who pursue Sri Lanka on accountability issues leaving aside the origins of terrorism in Sri Lanka are following an agenda meant to deprive China of any opportunities here.