chapter  6
India and Sri Lanka
Pages 27

Britain granted Ceylon (Sri Lanka) independence in 1948, a year after India and Pakistan were granted independence. The transfer of power was relatively peaceful compared to the violent events surrounding the Partition of British India and the independence of India and Pakistan. During the first two decades after its independence, Sri Lanka maintained strong links with Britain, inheriting the British Westminster model of government, adopting English as the official language, maintaining dominion status until 1972 and signing a bilateral defense agreement. Apart from India, Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia that has a long tradition of civilian governments elected directly by the people. However, the poor treatment of the island’s minority Tamil community at the hands of the Sinhalese majority community has tarnished Sri Lanka’s claims of being a representative democracy (Embree 1997). It has also strained relations between the Sinhalese, who are primarily Theravada Buddhists and the Tamils, who are primarily Hindus. The Tamils, residing in the island’s north and central provinces, have long complained about being treated as “second-class” citizens by the Sinhalese-dominated establishment. Using their numerical majority, the Sinhalese created a unitary state that was pro-Sinhalese and pro-Buddhist in its outlook, while systematically ignoring the legitimate political, social and economic grievances of the Tamils (Bose 1994). Political exclusion and a deepening sense of alienation felt by the Tamils within the country ultimately led to a brutal and destructive civil war beginning in 1983. As fighting intensified, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor India intervened in the conflict in 1987. Home to more than fifty million Tamils at the time, India had an important stake in the ongoing conflict on the island. India was also unhappy about Sri Lanka seeking military assistance and training from extra-regional actors, like the US, China and Israel during the civil war (Kodikara 1995). Ultimately, it was able to pressure the Sri Lankan government to call off its military offensive against the major Tamil secessionist group the Tamil Tigers and offer a political package, which included the devolution of power to the Tamils in the north and east. In order to facilitate the peace process it offered to send an Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF ) to the island. However, the IPKF soon became engaged in a firefight with the Tamil Tigers, who refused to disarm. This upset the Tamils in both Sri Lanka and India. Sinhalese nationalists were also unhappy

with India’s unwelcome intervention in what they regarded was Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Taking advantage of this nationalist sentiment, the MarxistLeninist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) launched an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. Previously, the JVP had launched a failed insurrection in 1971. This time too, the government was able to subdue the JVP.1 However, the

insurgency contributed to a growing desire among the Sinhalese to rid their island of Indian influence, which they felt contributed to instability and violence within the country. In March 1990, the deeply unpopular IPKF was withdrawn having failed to enforce the peace. Following this debacle, India consistently rejected calls for intervention and mediation to bring the conflict on the island to an end. The civil war finally came to an end in 2009. Relations between India and Sri Lanka have improved substantially over the past decade due to burgeoning economic ties. The end of the civil war presents an opportunity for India to not only develop economic links further but also to persuade the government to respond to the concerns of the Tamil minority, thereby creating a more representative political system in Sri Lanka.