Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

India: Necessity, not option

Peace talks in Sri Lanka are temporarily on hold. The Ceasfire Agreement of 2002 has crashed and burned and the Norwegians and the SLMM have bid a quick but reluctant goodbye. To all intents and purposes, the country has been left to descend into its own spiral of ruin as the parties engage themselves in all out war. The exclamations and interjections of the nationalists have won and peaceniks, media professionals and the members of the international community now live like fiddlers on a rather shaky roof.

The author does not want to use this paper to discuss the reasons for the failure of the peace talks. Instead she would like to take a quick look here at foreign mediation, specifically the role of India.  International involvement in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict has not enjoyed a particularly successful history, from the challenges faced by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the 1980’s to the failure of the Norwegian facilitators to hold fruitful peace talks and sustain the  Ceasefire Agreement in the latter part of the 2000’s. Strident nationalistic voices in the country, inclusive of certain state actors also, have made no bones about their hostility to the presence of international agencies and foreign governing bodies in the peace process, leading to a systematic process of de-internationalization within the country. The role of international facilitation and involvement in the negotiations surrounding the ethnic conflict has thereby become a serious bone of contention in political discourse.

With Western powers hastily scuttling away, India and her role in the resolution of Sri Lanka’s conflict, has increasingly come under the microscope.  India, now becoming one of the world’s most influential democracies, finds herself in a particular spot with regards to the Sri Lankan conflict.  This is due to the island nation’s geo-political location, their common colonial experience, socio-cultural systems and also due to the sympathies existing between the Tamil people of India and their counterparts in Sri Lanka. India’s most notorious foray into this fracas is in the Indo- Lanka Accord of 1987  that committed New Delhi to deploying a peacekeeping force on the island, making the Indian government the principal guarantor of a solution to the ethnic conflict. Nationalist sentiment among the Sinhalese, however, eventually led to the government’s call for India to quit the island.  Since then India has played a silent but vigilant role in the Sri Lankan situation.  There are still many among the island’s political voices, though, who would say that India is the ideal international actor to become involved in the mediation and facilitation of a permanent settlement to the ethnic crisis.  In a 1988 paper on India’s role in Sri Lanka, Venkateshwar Rao goes as far as to say that India is the “security manager” in South Asia, and certainly for Sri Lanka. With discussions surrounding the 13th Amendment attracting as much heat as the much tossed about federal debate, we find ourselves coming full circle with regards to Indian involvement in Sri Lanka.  In fact, as the political climate surrounding the conflict intensifies, one sees that India is largely beginning to take up again the mantle of  involving itself in the solution of the  Sri Lankan conflict.  In December,  India issued a joint statement with the European Union to the effect that all countries must involve themselves in encouraging a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka. Most recently The Indian government recently hosted Army Commander Sarath Fonseka on a week long visit during which the army chief toured the Indian side of the Kashmiri border and held discussions with his Indian counterparts. This visit caused much outcry incited both the LTTE and the JVP to somewhat share the same platform to oppose this move by India. While the JVP’s motivations are primarily on nationalist grounds, the LTTE claims that it is “deeply hurt” of this obvious taking of sides by the Indian government. The Indian Premier Manmohan Singh as well as President Patil have also taken time in the recent months to stress that there is no “military solution for Sri Lanka, only a peaceful one.” That the President made this little statement during the course of her budget speech is indicative of how seriously India is cogitating her role in Sri Lanka.

And why should not India involve herself in Sri Lanka’s conflict? As a growing regional superpower ( her only chief competitors are China and Japan) and an international presence that is only seconded by  certain Western democracies, India has become the elder sibling for the South Asian region.  While South Asia has, largely, been unable to emulate the power alliances of Europe, the countries in this region have instead, had issues with collective security and collective self-defence.  C Raja Mohan argues that it has been impossible for South Asia to have had even cordial neighbourly relations- a problem that has obfuscated any “hopeful signs for democratization within the region”.  Between Indo-Pak tensions, and the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka, the Subcontinent has experienced, post- Cold War, a highly unstable security condition that has made it easy for Western powers to enter and take charge of the subcontinent’s rickety security status.  While each country should be responsible for the resolution of its own problems, it is also important for there to be regional co-operation and alliance. 

And who better to create and strengthen this alliance than India? An involvement and an influence in Sri Lanka will only foster and solidify this role of India as the ‘leader’ of such a regional coalition.  Being able to play a significant role in the Sri Lankan peace process allows for India to thereby exert and involve India in the island nation’s politics and policies on a long term basis; Sri Lanka will become one of a greater South Asian bloc under the captainship of India. Already certain moves have been made by other regional powers to influence the policies of Sri Lanka- Pakistan increased its credit line to the government on arms and ammunition at the end of 2007, Japan is already provides 55% of the country’s foreign direct investment, China also provides foreign funding and the year 2007 saw warm meetings between the leaders of China and Sri Lanka. Further to this, for India to take on the Western superpowers as an internationally dominant force, it needs to quell the squabble of its regional neighbours and the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is one of the regions most protracted and paramount problems.  India’s absolute need for this was reflected in a statement by National Security Advisor M.K Narayanan when he voiced his displeasure over Sri Lanka’s procurement of arms from Pakistan stating that such a move compromises the “pre-eminent” position of India in the region.  It is interesting to note that Pakistan’s increase of the credit line  by US $ 31 million was soon followed, ten days later by an announcement that  the Sri Lankan air forces would take part in “a series of joint exercises with nuclear armed India” in order to combat the LTTE’s air force. The author feels quite certain that Pakistan and China will continue to involve themselves in the Sri Lankan conflict. China will gain an advantage by establishing a strategic foothold in Sri Lanka beyond security orientation relating to India, as it gives it a greater focus in the area of Indian Ocean security.  For Pakistan, a relationship and involvement in Sri Lanka brings them one step closer to negating India’s increasing assertion in South Asia.

Secondly, Sri Lanka provides ample economic opportunity for a country like India.  At this time, Sri Lanka provides one of two three large markets for Indian exports. With some slight decline in 2004,  Sri Lanka’s exports to India increased from US $ 47.1 Mn. in 1999 to US $ 589.1 Mn. in 2005.     Sri Lanka’s imports from India continuously increased from US$ 510.2 Mn. in 1999 to US $ 2744.3  Mn. in 2007.  Trade balance between the two countries is widening much in favour of India. In 2007, Sri Lanka’s adverse trade deficit with India (US$ 2229.4) approximated to 60% of her adverse trade balance with the entire world (US$ 3727.4)    The export-import ratio which was turning in favour of Sri Lanka upto 2005 (2.4 to 1.0) has turned  in favour  of India in 2006 & 2007 (5.3 to 1.0). ( Source: Daily Mirror, Financial Times 07/03/08)

At this point in the history of the ethnic conflict, i.e- Eelam War IV, the need for political settlement and peaceful negotiation looms larger.  This fourth war is highlighted as being one of the most brutal in the country’s history with human rights and life being destroyed by no small means. It is without doubt that Sri Lanka is in dire need of a third party to mediate and facilitate said discussions. The invitation and acceptance of third party facilitation and arbitration in a conflict of a prolonged and intense nature, as the Sri Lankan conflict is, is paramount and ideal- at the same time, the intervention made by such a party is also a political decision, made on the part not only of the warring parties but also on the part of the third party. This political aspect is wont to then raise questions of the partiality of this international third party; contentions will arise with regards to issues of power, interests, bureaucratic politics as well as economic and foreign policies.

 While much talk has been made of the formation of a southern consensus to a political solution has been made, the processes of the APRC (a body designated with intent to co-ordinating such compromise) have only offered up the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. And, with the war reaching new heights and Prabhakaran and Rajapakse stepping up the ante on aggressive, military rhetoric, both sides move further and further away from the negotiating table. Further to this, high end donors such as America and Japan have indicated that development aid to the country may be discontinued if political settlement cannot be reached.  For Sri Lanka to combat such statements and prove that it is making some move toward peaceful settlement it must have a solid peace process mediated by a third party firmly in place.  Therefore Sri Lanka cannot escape the fact that the space left by the Norwegians must be filled, and that a strong armed third party must take control of the unstable situation.India’s proximity to Sri Lanka and cultural similarities place her in a unique position to be the ideal mediator of the Sri Lankan conflict due to India’s similar ethnic cleavages, languages and geographical proximity. India, as a non-Western power will further have the chance to advocate a political solution that is “home-grown”.    

Mahinda Rajapakse’s recent pro-Indian speechifying to journalist Shekhar Gupta and to weekly magazine India Today shows that the government has recognised this need and are laying a path for India to step into the conflict. Manmohan Singh was invited to be Chief Guest at this years Independence Day celebration. The 13th Amendment, part of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 has been much touted and praised as an ideal political solution.  Where the Indians failed in 1987 was that they entered Sri Lanka as a force, as an aggressor. Were they to become involved as a keen mediator in the peace process, on the invitation of the government they would undoubtedly have more success.

If Mahinda were to test the temperature of his public, he would notice that the time is ripe for such an invitation to be extended to India .A mapping of approval and disapproval ratings of the need for an international third party’s involvement in the resolution of the ethnic conflict over the course of a period of five years shows a gradual decline in the positive response toward international third party facilitation in the minds of the Sinhala population surveyed. At the end of the year 2001, one observes that approval is high (92%) for such involvement but declines rapidly to 70% only a year later. Approval picks up again in 2005 and 2006 but falls once more to 62% by February of 2007.  Similarly, the level of disapproval also gradually rises from 8% in 2001 to 38% in 2007. However, even with this rising sense of disapproval, the positive response with regards to international third party involvement remains higher than the negative reaction. In the case of India specifically, a steady sense of approval is exhibited from within the ranks of the Sinhalese. While this sense of approval dropped below 50% in both 2004 and 2007 the positive image of India as facilitator has constantly remained higher than a negative image. 

This approval of Indian involvement is also echoed amongst the minority communities. In fact, in February of 2007, 81% of the Up Country Tamils and 65% of the Muslim population sampled felt that Indian involvement would have a positive impact on the ethnic crisis. The views described above, however, are tested when asking who should be involved in a peace process and if so, what their role should be. The questions do not extend themselves to ask if these foreign powers should assist in a war effort. Thereby, we cannot, at this time, analyse what the reception of the public will be to India being part of a military operation.  What one can readily conclude is that the public will take kindly to an Indian face on a foreign mediator.

In conclusion, for both India and Sri Lanka, Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process is no longer an option to mull over on a sunny day; it has now become a necessity. Sri Lanka needs a non western but powerful facilitator to get away from this descending spiral of conflict.  Public opinion suggests that India would not be rejected as it was before as a ‘big brother’ type mediator to quell the sibling rivalry between the GoSL and the LTTE.  Further, the situation has become more conducive to Indian involvement in the wake of the fractious split in the JVP- which has always been a strong critic of India. The time is ripe for both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to engage themselves thusly for the benefit of both nations.

Anupama M Ranawana

The writer is a researcher at Social Indicator- the polling unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author and do not in anyway represent the views and opinions of any organisation she is affiliated to.


All statistical data represented in this paper is taken from the Peace Confidence Index (PCI) a quarterly survey published by Social Indicator- Centre for Policy Alternatives that measures the state of war and peace in Sri Lanka. In her primary analysis the author has chosen to concern herself only with the opinion of the Sinhalese as this is the sample from which the most amount of swing and variance is recorded. Opinions from minority communities remain fixed and regard any mediation and involvement in a positive light.