Sri Lanka’s India First Policy – The Big Picture – RSTV IAS UPSC

  • IASbaba
  • September 11, 2020
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The Big Picture- RSTV, UPSC Articles
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Sri Lanka’s India First Policy


TOPIC: General Studies 2

  • India and its neighbour – Sri Lanka

In News: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear that Sri Lanka’s strategic security policy will have an “India first” approach though Colombo remains open to dealing with other key players for economic development. Rajapaksa’s administration has adopted a posture of neutrality in its dealings with key powers at the regional and global level as Sri Lanka cannot become a “staging area” for any country to do “anything against another country – especially…India”.

India’s Approach towards Sri Lanka

  • India has focussed on improving ties with Rajapaksa’s administration. PM Modi was the first world leader to congratulate Rajapaksa even before the final results of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections were declared in August, after his SLPP party took an unassailable lead.
  • India announced a -million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the SAARC framework, and Colombo’s request for a bilateral swap facility for billion was also being considered.
  • When Rajapaksa visited India last November, just 10 days after becoming president, New Delhi announced a -million line of credit to boost infrastructure and development, and offered another million to fight terrorism and enhance intelligence gathering.
  • Air connectivity to Sri Lanka’s north and east is already being improved — there is a flight from India to Jaffna, and another one being proposed for Batticaloa.
  • On security, there have been a discussion on intelligence sharing, training and the utilisation of a special -million Line of Credit extended by India after Easter Sunday bombings.
  • India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are expected to revive their trilateral on security, including joint maritime security talks and anti-terror cooperation.
  • India hopes that the “expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect” would be realised and that devolution of powers according to the 13th amendment would be taken forward.

Importance of Sri Lanka to India

  • Geopolitical Significance: Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean region as an island State has been of strategic geopolitical relevance to India’s maritime interests in region
  • Defence & Security Cooperation: India and Sri Lanka conducts joint Military (‘Mitra Shakti’) and Naval exercise (SLINEX). This increases synergy between both militaries thus safeguarding the common interest of countries
  • Economic importance: Sri Lanka is one of India’s largest trading partners among the SAARC countries. India in turn is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner globally.
  • Collaboration at multilateral fora: Sri Lanka is a member of regional groupings like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC in which India plays a leading role.
  • Containing China: Among others, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest, which is threatened by increasing presence of China in the subcontinent

Concerns in the relationship

  • Growing Closeness with China: Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years Ex: Hambantota port built by China; participation in BRI; arms supplies etc
  • Unresolved Tamil Issues: The rehabilitation of Tamils displaced by Sri Lankan civil war and provision of autonomy to Northern & Eastern Sri Lanka where Indian Origin Tamils are in majority, has not progressed at the required pace
  • Fear of Protectionism: Policies and thinking are becoming communally exclusive, localised and inward-looking.
  • Asymmetry in relationship: There is asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and social indicators and geographical location, on the other. 
  • Trade Balance in favour of India: Exports from India to Sri Lanka in 2018 were US billion, while exports from Sri Lanka to India are US million. Sri Lanka wants to reduce this imbalance and wants greater access to Indian markets

The Way Forward

The unique India-Sri Lanka relationship, de jure, is between equals as sovereign nations. But it’s asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and social indicators and geographical location, on the other. It is steeped in myth and legend, and influenced by religious, cultural and social affinities. This is an opportune time for Sri Lanka and India to nourish the roots of the relationship using modern toolkits, but leveraging age-old wisdom and experience.

  • India and Sri Lanka constantly strive for excellence in neighbourly relations, recognising that a calamity in one country can adversely impact the other.
  • Though robust partnerships with other countries must be sought in line with the non-alliance foreign policies of both countries, such efforts must be bounded by an atmosphere needed for peace, prosperity and stability.
  • Among others, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest.
  • While avoiding advocacy of zero sum solutions on crucial issues, both countries must seek to harmonise strategic and other interests in line with common values and socioeconomic compulsions.


A. The Palk Bay:

  • A narrow strip of water separating the state of Tamil Nadu in India from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka
  • Divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL); bordering it are five Indian districts and three Sri Lankan districts.
  • Think: Dimensions of the fishermen issue of India and Sri Lanka

B. Historical ties between India and Sri Lanka

  • The advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the time of Emperor Ashoka was the result of cross-border discourse
  • For many centuries in the first millennia, the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura housed an international community which included traders from India, China, Rome, Arabia and Persia.
  • Later, Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka travelled to India, China, Cambodia and Java leaving behind inscriptions. Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, to this day, contain shrines for Hindu deities.
  • The colonial expansion of European maritime nations reshaped the Sri Lankan economy. Labour from south India was brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations.
  • The Indian freedom struggle had its influence on Sri Lanka as well. There was cross-border support for the revival of culture, tradition, local languages, spiritual practices and philosophies, and education.
  • Both countries transformed into modern nations with constitutional and institutionalised governance under colonial rule.

C. Sri Lanka to Draft a New Constitution

  • Sri Lanka will draft a new Constitution and abolish the 19th Amendment.
  • The Amendment curtailed the powers of the President and strengthened the role of Parliament.
  • Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) has won a landslide victory in the recently held parliamentary elections (August 2020).
  • 19th Amendment
    • It was passed in 2015.
    • It sought to clip the President’s executive powers.
    • It also strengthened independence of key pillars such as the judiciary, public service and election.
    • nsIt brought back the two-term limit on Presidency.
    • It was hailed by many, including members of civil society, as a progressive legislation.
    • Sri Lanka’s constitution has been changed 19 times from 1978, creating a lot of uncertainties and confusion

Connecting the Dots:

  • Discuss the fault lines between India and Sri Lanka’s relationship.
  • How does Sri Lanka feature in India’s strategic roadmap for the future? What concerns does India have with respect to China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka? Examine.

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