India and Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was earlier known as Ceylon (until 1972). It is a small island country situated in the Indian Ocean to the south of India. Its total area is 25,332 sq. miles. It has geographical proximity to India.

Only 18 miles wide shallow water in the Palk Straits separates Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka from the Southernmost tip of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Some tense relations due to the ethnic conflict between Tamils and the Sinhalese. Despite ethnic problems India has never sought to impose its will on Sri Lanka. India's foreign policy towards this southern neighbour on mutual understanding and friendship. India-Sri Lanka relations have generally been cordial.

Problem of Indian Tamils

Jaffna province of Sri Lanka has large concentration of Tamil population. The problem became serious when Tamilians began demanding a national homeland or Eelam in northern Sri Lanka.

It is important to understand that there are essentially two categories of Tamilians in Sri Lanka. The Ceylon Tamils whose forefathers had migrated to Sri Lanka centuries ago and the second category is of Indian Tamils whose forefathers were taken by the Britishers as plantation workers in the 19th century.  Many of them without citizenship and the problem of their status dominated early India-Sri Lanka relations.

The issue of Tamilians and the policy pursued by government cast a dark shadow on Indo-Sri Lanka relations. India from time to time complained against the discriminatory policy of the Ceylon government.

A territorial dispute arose between India and Sri Lanka over the ownership of one mile India and the only 300-yardwide small island known as Kacchativu in 1968. In 1974 under the agreement signed between the two countries, India accepted Sri Lankan ownership of the island.

An important area of common interest between the two neighbours is the foreign policy of nonalignment.

Tamil Separatism

The ethnic problem between Tamils and Sinhalese assumed serious proportions in 1983. As the gulf between the communities developed, militancy, separatist organisations became active.

Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) demanded separate homeland for Tamils in 1988 - Tamil Eelam. A reign of terror was unleashed against the agitating Tamils in 1983.

The worst racial riots in the history of the country made thousands of Tamils refugees in India. India offered to help resolve the crisis, but it was interpreted as Indian intervention in Sri Lanka on behalf of the Tamils.

When the situation became grim, India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement in 1987. India offered military assistance under the Accord. Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent to Sri Lanka to help restore normalcy in the country. The deployment of IPKF was also an extension of India's policy of reminding Sri Lanka and outside powers that if their involvement inside the region were to have an anti-Indian orientation.

Areas of Mutual Cooperation

  • India encouraged Sri Lanka to invite the peace process between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
  • In 1998 Sri Lanka invited Norway to work out a peaceful solution to the ethnic problem.
  • India stands for unity of Sri Lanka The greatest milestone of this process was the cease-fire agreement of 2002 between LTTE and Sri Lanka and the revival of the dialogue between the two.
  • From India’s long-term point of view, Norway recognised India's legitimate interests in Sri Lanka and stated that it has no desire to come in the way of any Indian initiative to end the conflict in the region.