India’s Looming Shadow in Sri Lankan Affairs

Palitha Senanayake

The Press and social media in Sri Lanka had been awash these days with what transpired at the recent summit between the Sri Lankan Prime Minister and his Indian counterpart Hon. Narendra Modi. The reason for this media interest had been the controversial request made my Mr. Modi, in response to Sri Lanka’s assurance that their foreign policy is ‘India first’. Mr Modi in turn mentioned  that Sri Lanka should implement the 13th amendment fully to grant equality to Tamils and to accommodate Tamil aspirations. In [response], Mahinda Rajapakse sidelined the Tamil part  and stated that aspirations of ‘all the Sri Lankans’ will be accommodated in the proposed new constitution.

The Tamil issue had been the moot point in Indo –Sri Lanka relations for the past few decades and considering  the recent  history  of this issue as long as India places ‘Tamils first’ in its relations with Sri Lanka, the Island nation would be pushed to a position  where it will have to choose between its goodwill to India and its own  national well- being.  Succinctly, Sri Lanka could take care not to be engaged in any activity that will endanger the security of India, but if on the other hand if India demands that Sri Lanka should endanger its own stability as a nation, that would certainly be too much to expect from the island nation. Considering the fact that India imposed itself on this issue but failed, having played its part in a manner India thought was appropriate, this suggestion now would certainly create consternation in the Sri Lanka constituency  leading to a recalcitrant strategy on the part of Sri Lanka.  

The 13th amendment was introduced under duress and undue influence on Sri Lanka by India at a time when the island nation’s survival was threatened by a terrorist outfit that had earned the sympathy and support of the West and India. Although the move lacked popular support in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan President Jayawardene at the time considered it necessary to enter in to this agreement purely on the condition that India takes the responsibility of disarming the militant movement if Sri Lanka implemented the provisions of the 13th amendment. This was a master stroke on the part of President Jayawardene because he postulated that the LTTE, being the terrorist outfit for whom peace is anathema, could never be brought to mainstream even if you offered them concessions India proposed. On the other hand Mr. Jayawardene  maintained that as long as India continued to support the LTTE, Sri Lanka would never be able to overcome the LTTE militarily. Thus it was an ingenious move to make India realize what the LTTE was and then cease to patronize it so that Sri Lanka could then neutralize the movement eventually.  

Just as envisioned by Jayawardene, the conflict continued despite the 13 amendment and it then turned out to be between the Indian army and the LTTE instead of the SL army and the LTTE. Two years later, the Indian army that practically forced itself on Sri Lanka entertaining notions of superiority due to their numbers and resources, withdrew from Sri Lanka, battered and bruised, with the pride badly dented. The Tamil Diaspora authored a book titled, ‘The Satanic Forces’ projecting the Indian forces as the most primitive and   archaic army in the world.

 The situation in Sri Lanka was even more ironic because the devolutionary provisions India wanted for the Tamils through the 13th amendment could never be availed by the Tamils because of terrorism in the ‘Tamil areas’ while those were thrust upon, superfluously, on other peaceful provinces of the island. Thus we had a situation where the majority in Sri Lanka was administered a medicine for a sickness that they never had while the Tamil minority for whom the medicine was prescribed for their alleged illness was unable to take it due to LTTE activity.  A paradoxical situation indeed, where the majority would suffer with unwanted medicine while the minority also suffered for not being able to take the medicine.  Well, that was the situation from 1988 up till 2009 when the Sri Lanka army overwhelmed the LTTE.

When we consider the ravaging of the conflict thereafter between the SL army and the LTTE, the position is even more direful. The numbers of civilians and the combatants killed up to 1987 ( Indo-Lanka accord) was only a few hundreds and it was mainly combatants whereas from 1987 up to the time LTTE was vanquished, the death toll reached nearly 70,000 in 23 years. After the Indian exit, the LTTE fought with a new sense of confidence claiming that they defeated the Indian army which is the 4th biggest army in the world and therefore the SL army was just ‘peanuts’ for them.  On granting of concessions aimed at peace , the LTTE leader was on record propelling his followers, “Our goal is nothing but a separate state, see,  we killed hundreds and they offered us District Councils; we killed thousands and they offered us Provincial councils ; we killed tens of thousands and they are now offer us a Union of Regions. So the theory is, that the more we kill the more we get ”. “Then should we stop killing?” This shows that, terrorists take to arms, not because they want solutions but because they want to continue in their own way taking the law on to their hands.

However, now the question is, having utterly failed in its attempt to bring peace to Tamils in Sri Lanka according to its own perception of ‘what the Tamil problem is‘  in Sri Lanka, and also having become the ‘villain’ of both, the minority and the majority of Sri Lanka, it is beyond reason why India is should demand that Sri Lanka should persist with the aborted 13th amendment that India was instrumental in introducing. The 13th amendment solved no ‘ethnic problem’ in Sri Lanka but exacerbated it.

The other side of all this is, what is India’s interest and should India be concerned about an ‘ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka? In Sri Lanka, there is an ethnic minority called ’Indian Tamils’ and they get on well with the majority and today they have reached commendable social heights having come to Sri Lanka as indentured labor during the colonial times.On the other hand it is with this group called ‘Ceylon Tamils’ that this whole question of a ‘Sri Lankan Tamil issue’ revolves. These ‘Ceylon Tamils’, claim that they had been in Sri Lanka for 3000 years, a period that exceeds the documented Sinhala history in Sri Lanka. Recently a Tamil leader, C. Vigneshwaran  claimed in Parliament that the Tamil  language is the language spoken by the oldest inhabitants in Sri Lanka. This claim is in contrast to all the evidence available, even in India and thus infuriated the Sri Lankans.  Thus, Tamils have created their own history on Sri Lanka, just as Goebbels did on Europe when Hitler wanted to justify his invasion of Europe.

Therefore, the issue with the ‘Ceylon Tamils’ in Sri Lanka is not about aspirations or equality but that of who has a bigger claim for the country.  K. Narayan Swamy who authored  4 books on the LTTE and the Sri Lankan conflict states that the members of the LTTE use Leon Uris’s book,’ the EXODUS’, as their Bible. Now what does this book EXODUS relate? It is about how Israelis, having settled in Palestine, made it their home by bringing their Diaspora to settle in that country, chasing the Palestinians away. Tamils too have a powerful Diaspora living in 63 countries in the world and they dream of having their own country, one day. For this they have chosen Sri Lanka from where most of the educated Tamils have hailed and in where they were able to launch a protracted struggle for some time.  

Practically too as a further proof of this,  the Tamils leaders have never perceived the concessions granted by the Sri Lanka Government to the Tamils since independence, as a gesture of goodwill in a spirit of co-existence. Instead they have treated such concessions as their ‘right’ and have used those only to further their separatist ambitions.  For instance language rights were granted to Tamils in 1961 by the SL Government. The Tamils however did not wish to stop at that and wanted their language upgraded to the level of Sinhala and this they achieved through Indian intervention.  After having received that too, now the Tamils wanted the country’s national anthem to have lyrics in Tamil. Similarly, with the Indo Lanka accord in 1987, the Tamil leaders agreed to the 13th amendment as a lasting solution. But today they are talking in terms of 13 plus as a solution to their problem.  It is the same with other concessions granted as well and this points to a plan originally conceived by SJV Chelvanayagam in 1947 that the Tamils should have their own separate state eventually by following  a policy of ‘little now and more later’.

The obscure reality of the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka is that, the Tamils have been fighting in Sri Lanka for three decades with the most organized terror outfit in the world, not because they did not have power but because in the global context they enjoyed the edge over the Sri Lanka Government, diplomatically and in other ways.  Imagine with all that western support and the support of India? The Sri Lanka leaders know this well enough and now that terrorism is gone they need to handle the diplomatic aspect delicately.

In such a scenario should India interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka when Sri Lanka has spelt out its foreign policy as being ‘India first’? Beyond that the real question for India is THIS: would the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka be in India’s interest? And then what would be the repercussions of such an event in the ret of the Southern Indian states?



  • I have refined the vocabulary at a few points and also inserted highlighting emphasis.
  • The author is a Sri Lankan migrant abroad and not an academic –so the effort he has put in is significant in revealing the understandings of past events and some strands of the reasoning present among Sinhala migrants abroad. These thoughts include fears.
  • Senanayake errs in asserting that the “Tamil Diaspora authored a book titled, ‘The Satanic Forces’.” It was Pirapaharan and the Tiger leadership that prepared that book as part of its bold assassination plot directed at Rajiv Gandhi — a blow that succeeded but also went beyond to blow up in the LTTE’s face.
  • For Senanayake to assert that the Indian Tamils “get on well with the majority” and have “today … reached commendable social heights,” is a leap too far and a warning to commentators that they should not venture into realms where they lack first-hand knowledge. I too lack in-depth awarness of the situation in the hill-country; so my thoughts must be appraised by those more familiar with their situation today. But I can suggest that (a) the Indian Tamils today certainly possess better groundings now than they did, say, in the 1980s; and (b) that they are a majority in Nuwara Eliya District and have considerable bargaining power within the electoral process; while (c) their business interests have been quite substantial for decades both upcountry in the Pettah adn Colombo north.
  • Senanayake’s essay is further proof of the analytical contention presented by Robert Kearney and many such political scientists in the 1960s: namely, that the Sinhalese are a majority with the fears of a minority –because of the looming presence of Tamil-speakers in neighbouring India. Indeed, this is a geo-political situation set in stone: Continental India looms over little Sri Lanka now … as it has done, in some sense, over the centuries.


Retd. Lt. KH Perera’s Account of the Background, Circumstances and Immediate Aftermath of the Assault on Rajiv Gandhi, on 30th July 1987

B.H. Farmer, ‘The Social Basis of Nationalism in Ceylon’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.24

(1964), pp.431–9 and Robert N. Kearney, ‘Sinhalese

Ilankai Tamil Sangam n. d. “Compilation of Material on IPKF …. ‘The Satanic Force’,” Kearney, Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon, Durham: Duke University Press, 1967.

W.H. Wriggins, Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 1960.

A.J. Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Hurst,

2000). F

Michael Roberts

1979c  “Stimulants and Ingredients in the Awakening of Latter-Day Nationalisms”, in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 214-42.

1979d  “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940”, inCollective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 337-60.

2010b “Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s Metamorphosis in Death?” South Asian History and CultureVol 1, No. 1, pp.25-41.

1997a  “Sri Lanka: Intellectual Currents and Conditions in the Study of Nationalism,” in Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol 1, ed. by Michael Roberts, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 1-43.

1996c  “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 30: 245-72.

2019 Clobbering Rajiv Gandhi as Chastisement in 1987: A Guti Dheema,” 5 August 2019,

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One response to “India’s Looming Shadow in Sri Lankan Affairs

  1. Rajamanikkam.

    Why is there always talk of Sri Lankans and Tamils as separate entities ? Tamils have been in Lanka from prehistoric times even before Vijaya arrived from Bengal. Is it difficult to accept that it would have been easier to cross the Palk strait than cross Bay of Bengal before the days of steam ships ?

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