Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Jayanath Colombage has described India as “part of the family,” and suggested that, like siblings, the two share many similarities and occasional disagreements. However, the current state of ties is complicated, especially given Sri Lanka’s increasingly close relationship with China. Sub-national influences from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the majority Tamil regions of Sri Lanka are also significant. These complicated dynamics have led some scholars to characterize the India-Sri Lanka relationship as “two countries, four verticals.”
The diplomatic dynamic between India and Sri Lanka has been changing noticeably heading into the 2020s. India’s economic investment in Sri Lanka has increased dramatically since the end of the civil war in 2009. China has also greatly increased its presence in the country. Although China provided support for the Sri Lankan government during the war’s final stages, the two countries grew even closer after 2009, with Beijing investing USD 12.1 billion in infrastructure projects from 2006 to 2019. The geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka and its sea lanes, particularly amid the rollout of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made Sri Lanka increasingly important to China. In addition to these infrastructure projects, in 2017, China gained access to the strategic Hambantota port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Critics labelled the 99-year lease “debt-trap diplomacy,” although Sri Lanka’s leaders have pushed back against these claims.
India, for its part, wishes to stay engaged in Sri Lanka to help counterbalance China. However, Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record toward the Tamils has led the Tamil diaspora in India to pressure the Indian government to respond. India has generally taken a position of non-interference on human rights issues, especially since its poorly executed interference in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. However, as Tamil Nadu becomes more politically competitive at the national level, the BJP and other parties may take a more interventionist approach toward Sri Lanka. India consequently finds itself in a delicate position: trying to build ties with Sri Lanka, counter China, and address concerns of an increasingly important voting bloc in Tamil Nadu, all the while maintaining its general policy of non-interference. Likewise, Colombo fears Tamil Nadu’s state politics might increasingly shape New Delhi’s policies.
India intervenes in the Sri Lankan Civil War
In India, the linguistic divide between the Hindi-dominated north and the Dravidian south has made political consolidation difficult. Since independence, many Tamils have felt excluded from mainstream Indian politics. These feelings of exclusion nurtured separatist tendencies among some Tamils in India. However, these exclusionary concerns were later channelled through Tamil identity parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which have become an integral part of Indian regional politics. The regional parties speak more broadly to the sentiments of many in the Tamil diaspora of shared exclusion. Shared historical, political, cultural, and linguistic ties have mobilized Tamil identity movements that seek to protect the broader community. As the civil war developed in Sri Lanka between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the central government, many Indian Tamils saw it as a shared struggled and pressured India to intervene on behalf of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
India did initially demonstrate sympathy for the Tamil struggle and attempted to mitigate Tamil concerns. The successive governments of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi provided sanctuary and support for separatists in Tamil Nadu. Although India did not want to intervene in the escalating violence in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi made it known that military intervention remained an option. Diplomatic interventions, such as the Thimphu talks, had a limited impact. New Delhi opted to intervene militarily amid the growing number of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, concerns about national security, the internal stability of Tamil Nadu, and a possible resurgence of Tamil separatism in India. Reports of mass civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s Vadamarachchi operation in Jaffna added to the growing anger and pressure from Tamils toward the Gandhi government. India thus intervened with Operation Poomalai in 1987, a relief mission that utilized both an airdrop and an unarmed flotilla. The move angered the Sri Lankan government, which called the mission “a naked violation of our independence.” Despite anger toward India, Sri Lanka’s President Jayewardene later signed the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which deployed Indian peacekeeping troops (IPKF) to the war-impacted regions. The Accord also led to the adoption of Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment, which aimed to provide provincial councils and power-sharing agreements for Sri Lanka’s provinces on education, health, agriculture, housing, police, and land policies.
The IPKF quickly evolved from a peacekeeping mission into a military-centric operation, which increasingly faced criticism for its human rights abuses of Tamil civilians. India also faced unexpected casualties, which made the operation increasingly unpopular. Gandhi’s decreasing popularity amid other scandals led to his defeat in the 1989 election. As a result, the new Prime Minister, VP Singh, ordered the withdrawal of the IPKF. Despite the loss of his position, Gandhi continued to campaign to return the IPKF to Sri Lanka. The LTTE did not look fondly upon Gandhi’s plan, and he was assassinated by an LTTE member in 1991 while attending a re-election rally in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. Following Gandhi’s assassination, India declared the LTTE a terrorist organization and embraced a more distanced diplomatic approach toward Sri Lanka through the war’s end in 2009. As Sri Lanka entered the post-conflict era, New Delhi has mostly continued this legacy of non-interference. However, the growing influence of the Tamil Nadu electorate may make the national parties reconsider their policies toward Sri Lanka.
The Colombo-Chennai-Jaffna-Delhi- (Beijing?) nexus today
With the growing power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014, the party has sought to increase its political presence in southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. In 2021, the BJP contested 20 seats, the highest number since it came into existence. To help attract voters, the party increased its presence across the state and used Tamil words in its campaign alongside images of popular Tamil deities, such as Lord Murugan. Narendra Modi also spoke at a rally in Chennai, telling the audience that “India is always committed to ensuring that the Tamils in Sri Lanka lived with equity, equality, justice, peace, and dignity.”
The BJP’s attempt to connect with the Tamil electorate on a Hindu identity worked to some extent, with the party ultimately winning four seats. However, many voters still felt the BJP’s support for Tamil issues was disingenuous. For example, in March 2021, the Indian government abstained from voting on a UNHRC resolution against an investigation into Sri Lanka’s war crimes. The vote came just weeks before the Tamil Nadu assembly election and led regional Tamil opposition parties to harshly criticize India’s position. DMK chief MK Stalin called India’s abstention “an unpardonable betrayal” and contended that the BJP-led union government was against the Eelam Tamils—both Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad advocating for more meaningful transitional justice initiatives for Tamils on the island. Stalin later declared victory in the assembly elections and became the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
The exclusion of Tamil refugees in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the BJP-led parliament in December 2019, also baffled many Tamils. There are currently 100,000 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, mainly in Tamil Nadu, and many of them had hoped that CAA would give them a path to citizenship. The CAA seeks to expedite citizenship for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The exclusion of Sri Lankan Hindus from the CAA was curious given the Hindu nationalist government’s broader vision of India as a Hindu homeland. The AIADMK, which eventually voted in support of CAA, had asked to include Tamil refugees as part of the legislation without success. For many Tamil voters, India’s abstention at the UN and failure to include Tamil refugees in the CAA cast doubts about the BJP’s willingness to go beyond rhetoric and address Tamil concerns on a national and global stage.
The Tamils’ increasing frustration toward Sri Lanka comes alongside the country’s backsliding on key reconciliation efforts. Initially, Sri Lanka appeared to be making efforts toward inclusion in the post-conflict environment. Following Maithripala Sirisena’s presidential win in 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UNHRC 30/1, which would investigate war crimes that occurred during the war and promote reconciliation. The 2015 inclusion of the Tamil National anthem in independence day events also appeared to be a sign of progress. However, the government subsequently scrapped reconciliatory language for more nationalist rhetoric and exclusionary policies following the April 2019 Easter attacks by National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Since the 2019 election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has also withdrawn from the UNHRC 30/1, excluded the Tamil anthem on Independence day events, bulldozed the civilian war memorial in Jaffna, and pardoned a military Sergeant who had killed Tamil civilians.
The exclusionary actions by the Rajapaksa family have given the Modi administration a platform to criticize Sri Lanka on an international stage. While direct diplomatic pressure has been mostly limited, India has raised some concerns. For example, this past summer, New Delhi’s envoy to Colombo, Gopal Baglay, met with Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to reiterate India’s support for the 13th amendment, saying that full implementation of the amendment would support Tamil aspirations for “equality, justice, peace, and reconciliation.” While vocal support for the 13th amendment indicates India’s willingness to address Tamil issues, its abstention on the 2021 UNHRC vote further demonstrates India’s lack of willingness to directly confront Sri Lanka’s human rights record. India’s history of internal religious and ethnolinguistic strife may also reflect the government’s hesitation to criticize countries with similar populist stances, which is especially true given the recent parallels between the Hindu and Buddhist nationalist governments.
India has shown more willingness to confront Sri Lanka concerning maritime boundaries in the Palk Bay, which separates Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. This contestation is likely part of a broader goal of challenging the increased Chinese presence in the region. Sri Lanka recently approved a project that allows Chinese firms to install an energy project just 50 km from Tamil Nadu’s coast. Around the same time, India increasingly questioned control of Kachchatheevu Island, which India ceded to Sri Lanka in the 1970s. Additional accusations of abuse toward Indian Tamil fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities have led the BJP government to announce it is considering reclaiming the island. As Tamil Nadu becomes more politically competitive the discussion surrounding the contested island will likely increase. Such discussions (or actions) not only allow the party to court Tamil votes but also challenge the growing regional presence of China while demonstrating a willingness to protect Tamil Nadu from outside threats.
China’s increasing presence in Tamil Nadu’s backyard reflects the quickly changing regional security environment but also draws attention to the tangled web of subnational, regional, and international diplomacy in South Asia. As China continues to expand its Belt-Road Initiative, its partnership with Sri Lanka will only grow in importance even as influential groups, such as the Buddhist clergy, have expressed concern about China’s projects. The flourishing Sino-Lankan friendship will likely increase India’s anxiety toward its southern neighbor and shape its regional diplomatic policies and willingness to act, particularly in the Palk Bay. India may begin to grow its military presence in Tamil Nadu, especially near the ports, which will undoubtedly shape Tamil concerns. President Rajapaksa has tried to tame Indian fears by ensuring that its relationship with China doesn’t compromise Indian security. That reassurance, however, is unlikely to assuage India’s concerns and only reasserts the growing importance of the region. Many geopolitical analyses of Asia focus primarily on the South China Sea, but the Palk Bay and the India-Sri Lanka-China nexus promise to provide another potential source for troubled waters.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a joint-series run with 9DashLine exploring the role of subnational diplomacy in South Asia.