Has prioritising India’s security secured our security? 
Posted on March 20th, 2023

By Shivanthi ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today

We have pledged to make India’s national security our topmost priority. This was first articulated in 2020 by the then Foreign Secretary Admiral (Rtd) Jayanath Colombage. During incumbent Foreign Minister Ali Sabry’s recent visit to India, this pledge was again reiterated. He explicitly stated that Sri Lanka would go to the extent of disallowing any other from undermining under the guise of anything” India’s legitimate security or other interests. This brings forth the most pertinent question as to whether prioritizing India’s security would secure our security. 

‘India’s Security First’ – A Corruption of former Prez GR’s Original Stance 

It is noteworthy that both Admiral Colombage and Minister Sabry are offsprings of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration. Yet, their take on Sri Lanka’s policy vis-a-vis India is a corruption of the stance former President Gotabaya clearly stated during his interview with the Hindustan Times in late November, 2019.

The interview was with senior and highly respected journalist Padma Rao Sundarji when the latter was in India – his first official State visit as the Executive President of Sri Lanka. 

Journalist Sundarji’s first question was the former President’s objective of visiting India. It was obvious from the latter’s response that he was keen to avoid during his tenure the misunderstandings that spoilt bilateral relations during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. 

In this regard, former President Gotabaya clearly stated, We will not do anything to jeopardise India’s interests or act against the concerns of India.” 

Elaborating further, the former President emphasized Sri Lanka’s wish to remain neutral, avoiding any involvement with world power rivalries. Observing the importance the Indian Ocean has assumed, committed as a strategically located nation to do everything possible to keep the region as a zone of peace. 

Hence, it is clear that former President Gotabaya did not enter Office with plans to make Sri Lanka a dominion of India. The plan was very much to be a strategic partner of the region and engage with all nations in the truest sense of neutrality. It is in that sense, President Gotabaya pledged to refrain from any act that will jeopardise India’s interests or concerns. 

Assuring to refrain from causing India any concern
(as specified by the former President ) and vowing to disallow any other from undermining India’s legitimate security and concerns by making India’s security Sri Lanka’s top priority are two very different agendas. How former President Gotabaya’s original stance came to be thus corrupted is an interesting question. 

Hurting China to Heal India

The very next day following former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuming Office, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar came in person to extend an invitation to a State visit in India. Whilst in India, the former President made two statements – one that was applauded and the other that caused some concern back in Sri Lanka. 

The latter’s stance on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution (13A) was applauded. His plans to release the Hambantota Port from the 99-year lease from China caused some concern. 

There was high hope that the Gotabaya Administration would be able to regain full control of this strategic asset. Hence, it was not the plan to regain it that caused concern. The worry was with the blunt manner it was expressed. 

China and India are rivals. Hence, Sri Lanka needs to be careful in the comments she makes of one rival with the other. The fact that the former President communicated his plans with India on a matter that concerns China, before even discussing it with China, in a manner that was rather dismissive of China, was bound to hurt China’s sensitivities. Thus, it was the lack of diplomacy and not the principle that caused concern. 

These concerns, most unfortunately, were not without merit. China reminded the Gotabaya Government that the leasing of the Port was a commercial agreement. To challenge it would be bad business, noted China. This dashed Sri Lankans’ hopes of nullifying the lease agreement. 

Unable to challenge this argument, the Gotabaya Administration concentrated on the security aspect. As such, all matters pertaining to the security of the Port was re-established with the Government of Sri Lanka. This was not contested by the Chinese Government. 

However, the relationship with China did not improve there onwards. The two invitations from the Chinese Government were quietly shelved by the Gotabaya Government. Whether it was really due to the then ongoing pandemic is an open question for China increasingly experienced step-motherly treatment from the Gotabaya Government. This includes the cancellation of projects Chinese companies won through the tender process due to ‘third party’ concerns. 

It was not only China, but even Sri Lanka’s other all-weather friends but bitter rivals of India like Pakistan felt sidelined. This was especially felt during the then Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s visit, when the State visit arrangements were made modest for no apparent reason. 

It is in this context that the two opposing arguments from the former Central Bank Governor Ajith Cabraal and former President Gotabaya must be analysed. Cabraal vehemently disagrees with the debt ‘standstill’ unilaterally taken by Sri Lanka on 12.04.2022. He claims such a drastic step was unnecessary as there was over USD 10 billion credit in the pipeline. Out of this, USD 2.5 billion was expected from China. 

According to the former President, Sri Lanka was waiting for these pledges to materialise for a year, but without result. The bottom line however, is that the mismanagement of our foreign policy is as much to blame for the forex crisis as our economic mismanagement. 

India’s Reiteration for 13A

When former President Gotabaya visited India, he met Indian PM Narendra Modi for an hour-long discussion. Soon after, in a press release PM Modi stated, I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th Amendment.” 

For Sri Lankans, this was a surprise statement from India. The 13A came about in 1987 with the Indian intervention. Since then, it has remained a very controversial topic. Generally, it is seen as a white elephant, which caused an extra layer in the political administration. That layer has not delivered any tangible benefits, but is an enormous cost to the tax payer, say critics. 

It is not only Sri Lanka that has suffered because of the 13A. It had been a costly affair also to India. Hence, the 13A is a reminder of India’s failed policy with regard to Sri Lanka. In that context, one would have thought India would have preferred to forget than resurface the 13A. 

Sri Lanka was pressurized to accept the 13A on the pledge that India will end terrorism in Sri Lanka. India however, failed miserably in this endeavour. Not only India failed to usher peace in to the Island Nation by ending terrorism, but also became a victim of it. As disclosed by the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes in December 1999, the IPKF suffered 1,165 personnel killed in action and 3,009 others wounded. 

When the Indian Government withdrew its military contingent in 1990, Sri Lanka’s security situation was in a far worse state than it was when the IPKF landed in 1987. The LTTE emerged with the exaggerated title, ‘militarily undefeatable’. Buoyed by this recognition, the LTTE dealt India with the worst blow by assassinating former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 on Indian soil. 

India promoted the 13A as a solution to terrorism. However, implementing the 13A did not resolve the issue. In fact, it exacerbated the problem. Therefore, it is a matter of great curiosity that the Modi Government began to call for the implementation of the 13A from the day the former President took Office. 

This is made even more curious for India was not as interested in the Provincial Council system during the Yahapalana Government. During that Government, Provincial Councils fell defunct as elections were not held. 

India’s Security First Amidst Demands to Implement 13A in Full

As noted by Sundarji, much water has flown since the 13A was introduced. Thus, some considerations to these changes might be needed before implementing it. 

Responding to this observation, the former President explained that since Independence in 1948, certain Tamil politicians from the North and East have been focused on devolution and not development. However, the people in these areas are in need of development. 

The 13A is already part of Sri Lankan law. The reason Sri Lankans are opposed to the implementation of powers as Police and land is because of its potential to heighten ethnic tension, which can lead to armed conflict. After suffering for over 30 years of terrorism, Sri Lankans’ legitimate fears cannot be overridden. 

The justification for pushing the Sri Lankan Government to implement powers it has been reluctant to do so thus far is to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamil for equality, justice, peace and respect.” It is noteworthy that over 50 per cent of Tamils live outside the North and East Provinces. Furthermore, not a single entity had ventured forward to specify the exact points Tamils are denied equality, justice, peace or respect.

Hence, it is hard to dismiss nagging worries that India’s interest on a failed constitutional amendment might have a hidden agenda detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. Unless India clarifies these observations, we need to ask ourselves one simple question. We may make  India’s security our topmost concern. In the process we may even destroy our other bilateral relationships. However, is India committed to our security? 


(The views and opinions expressed in this article are writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of
Ceylon Today)

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe

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