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India-Sri Lanka Relations: A Complex Tapestry of History, Politics, and Economics

Today marks the 77th Independence Day of India. The Indian Independence Act of July 18th that year bore witness to a nation’s determination to reclaim its identity and destiny.

Madhuri Ranasinghe

Independence Day encapsulates not just a political change but a transformation of the soul of a nation. It signifies the birth of a free and independent Indian nation—a nation that would go on to script its own destiny, fostering democracy, diversity, and unity. Yet, this day is also a poignant reminder of the partition that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan. As the clock struck midnight on August 14–15, 1947, the subcontinent was split into two, forging new paths and identities.

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is a complex tapestry woven with historical, political, cultural, and economic threads. With a legacy of more than 2500 years of intellectual, cultural, religious, and linguistic interaction, these two neighbouring nations have shared a bond that transcends time and geography. From trade and investment to development, education, culture, and defence, their cooperation has evolved over the years. However, the journey hasn’t been without its challenges, particularly when it comes to political differences and economic trajectories.

While India and Sri Lanka share historical, cultural, and religious ties, their political trajectories and economic experiences have diverged significantly over time. These differences have had a profound impact on their respective development paths and outcomes.

Historical Bonds and Political Dynamics

India and Sri Lanka share deep historical connections that stretch back to the spread of Buddhism from India to the island nation. The teachings of Lord Buddha were carried by Emperor Ashoka’s children, Arhat Mahinda and Theri Sangamitta, to Sri Lanka, leaving an indelible mark on the culture and spirituality of the country. Even in contemporary times, the cultural exchange programs between the two countries continue to strengthen these ties.

One of the most significant political differences between India and Sri Lanka has been their handling of ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka faced a prolonged and brutal civil war primarily between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed separatist group. The conflict was rooted in historical ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. In contrast, while India has its share of ethnic diversity, it has managed to address ethnic issues through democratic means and political negotiations rather than through prolonged armed conflict.

A notable turning point emerged with the conclusion of the extended conflict spanning nearly three decades between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. While endorsing Sri Lanka’s efforts to combat terrorist elements, India also voiced apprehensions regarding the well-being of civilian communities caught up in the conflict’s aftermath.

India has consistently emphasized the importance of national reconciliation and a political settlement to address the ethnic issues in Sri Lanka. The goal is to achieve a negotiated political solution that respects democracy, pluralism, and human rights within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. High-level visits, bilateral talks, and joint statements have been crucial in maintaining open channels of communication and understanding.

Adopting a federal system of government that devolves significant powers to states, India allows for regional autonomy and representation. This approach has enabled India to accommodate its diverse linguistic and cultural groups, maintaining unity while preserving local identities. In contrast, Sri Lanka’s political structure is more centralized, which contributed to the sense of exclusion among certain ethnic groups and regional disparities.

One of the ongoing challenges for Sri Lanka is building and maintaining a unified national identity. The legacy of ethnic tensions and the aftermath of the civil conflict have created divides within the country. Achieving true reconciliation among various ethnic communities is crucial for a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka.

Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka: Navigating Migration, Plantation Life, and Identity

The history of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka is deeply intertwined with the island nation’s social, economic, and political landscape. Indian Tamils, also known as “Plantation Tamils” or “Hill Country Tamils,” are descendants of labourers brought by the British colonial authorities during the 19th and early 20th centuries to work on the tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. These labourers were primarily from the southern parts of India, particularly Tamil Nadu.

The Indian Tamils played a pivotal role in the development of Sri Lanka’s plantation economy, contributing significantly to the growth of the tea and rubber industries. However, their arrival also led to complex social and cultural dynamics within Sri Lankan society. The Indian Tamil community faced various challenges, including poor working conditions, limited access to education, and cultural differences that sometimes created tensions with the local Sinhalese population.

Over the years, the Indian Tamil community in Sri Lanka has gone through periods of both integration and marginalization. The lack of citizenship rights and political representation for Indian Tamils became a significant issue, leading to their classification as “stateless” and resulting in limited access to basic services and opportunities. This eventually culminated in their repatriation to India in the late 20th century, a process that brought about significant changes in the demographic composition of the region.

While many Indian Tamils returned to India, a substantial number chose to remain in Sri Lanka, forming a minority community with unique cultural and linguistic ties to their ancestral homeland. Efforts have been made to address historical injustices and improve the conditions of those who stayed, but issues related to citizenship, land ownership, and social integration have persisted.

Economic Ties and Diverging Paths

While political relations have seen their complexities, economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka has been substantial. The India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) has played a pivotal role in expanding trade between the two nations. India has been one of Sri Lanka’s largest trade partners, with merchandise trade witnessing significant growth.

However, the economic trajectories of India and Sri Lanka have diverged in some respects. While India has emerged as a rapidly growing economy with diverse sectors and robust foreign direct investment (FDI), Sri Lanka has faced economic challenges. The reasons behind Sri Lanka’s economic struggles are multifaceted and include factors such as political instability, inefficient governance, and the impact of civil conflicts.

India has positioned itself as a rapidly developing global economy with diverse sectors such as IT, services, manufacturing, and agriculture contributing to its growth. In contrast, Sri Lanka’s economy has been more concentrated on sectors like tea, tourism, and textiles. While Sri Lanka has made progress in improving human development indicators, it faces challenges in diversifying its economy and fostering sustainable growth.

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is a testament to the complexities of international ties. From historical bonds and cultural connections to diplomatic relations and economic collaboration, these two nations have navigated various challenges and opportunities.

As they move forward, the focus on political reconciliation, economic growth, and social harmony will remain paramount. Drawing on their shared historical heritage and the lessons of their respective paths, India and Sri Lanka have the potential to build a future of cooperation and prosperity for their peoples and the region as a whole.