Will India Extend its Political Reach in Sri Lanka?

On a recent visit to Tamil Nadu, India, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the role India can play to stabilize South Asia. In light of China’s growing influence over the region, India — seen as a natural ally to the U.S. and counterweight to China — is now being encouraged to step up its projection of power on its neighbors. This is important for both India and the West since any influence exerted by China is generally not received well, especially by America, which is wary of its growing global clout.

A recent article advises that even though India may not be able to match the aid China selectively doles out to neighbors, it has strengths that it can use to its advantage. It suggests that the Indian democratic structure and pluralism can find support among liberal-leaning elements of the Sri Lankan state, for example.

Such a statement only superficially reflects the complexity of India and Sri Lanka’s relationship. It assumes it is pragmatic for India to skirt around the current issue of conflict in the Sri Lankan state, and still manage to improve the relationship with its neighbor. Realistically, however, any change of foreign policy toward Sri Lanka must be sensitive to the previous experiences between the two countries. India’s relationship with Sri Lanka is embedded in a dark past: It is well known that India helped arm and train the separatist group Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in the late 1980’s. However, in a change of heart, the Indian government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi later decided to send in its army on a “peace keeping” mission to fight against the very group it had nurtured (a classic parallel to U.S. support of Al-Qaeda during its formation).

Despite Sri Lanka's proximity, India has taken little interest in the social and political development of the country these past decades. Instead of focusing its foreign policy to address a state in conflict, India’s policy has mostly taken the route of economic engagement. Similarly, China has also focused its policy on economic integration with Sri Lanka. The difference being that while India pledged a $100 million in aid, China had already transferred a net worth of $1.2 billion in loans and grants in 2009 alone, becoming the biggest donor to Sri Lanka.

In light of the recent violence inflicted by Sri Lanka to annihilate LTTE, which has affected its civilian population, India would be well-served to become engaged in political and humanitarian causes. The problem arises on whether India can actually begin to play such a role since its own past actions have exacerbated conflict in the region.

However, calls from the international community asking India to actively exert its influence to help arrest further descent into instability might help Indian diplomats to step up their game. A first step appears to be the measures taken by India (both in terms of providing aid for resettlement, as well as sending delegations to Colombo) to encourage President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to invest in the rehabilitation of displaced Tamilians – the very ethnic group whose support, and later repression India had an active role in. Addressing this sensitive issue once again more directly, India has shed its overly cautious approach and will hopefully continue to play a larger role in rebuilding Sri Lanka, irrespective of the counter it provides to China (as much as the world may wish otherwise).

Photo Credit: Maurits Burgers