Within a day of his swearing-in as Sri Lanka’s new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a visit from Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar in Colombo, and accepted an invitation to visit India, as his first trip abroad in office, which commenced recently.

Recent developments

  • Line of credit: India announced a line of credit of $ 400 million to boost the island nation's development. 
  • Cooperation on counter-terrorism: As part common strategy, India announced a special Line of Credit of $50 million for strengthening Sri Lanka’s abilities to counter terror threats.

Background of Sri Lanka, its Civil War and India angle

  • Great Britain ruled Sri Lanka—then called Ceylon—from 1815 to 1948.
    • British brought in approximately a million Tamil speakers from India to work as plantation laborers.
    • Tamils and Sinhalese are the two major ethnic groups In Sri Lanka.
  • The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 effectively barred Indian Tamils from holding citizenship, making stateless people out of some 700,000. 
  • This was not remedied until 2003, and anger over such measures fueled the bloody rioting.
  • In 1976 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was formed to fight for Tamil rights and in 1983 Civil war started.
    • The Tamil Tigers declared the "First Eelam War" (1983-87) with the aim of creating a separate Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka called Eelam. 
    • It was later shown that India was arming and training Tamil guerrillas in camps in southern India. Relations between the Sri Lankan government and India deteriorated.
  • The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed in Colombo on 29 July 1987.
    • The accord was expected to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War by enabling the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987
    • Under the terms of the agreement, Colombo agreed to a devolution of power to the provinces, the Sri Lankan troops were to be withdrawn to their barracks in the north and the Tamil rebels were to surrender their arms.
  • 1987 Peacekeeping Mission: India was concerned about separatism in its own Tamil region, Tamil Nadu, as well as a potential flood of refugees from Sri Lanka. The peacekeepers' mission was to disarm militants on both sides, in preparation for peace talks.
    • The Indian peacekeeping force of 100,000 troops not only was unable to quell the conflict, it actually began fighting with the Tamil Tigers.
    • In 1990, Sri Lanka forced India to recall its peacekeepers; 1,200 Indian soldiers had died battling the insurgents. 
    • The following year, a Tamil suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally. President Premadasa would die in a similar attack in May 1993.

Second Eelam War

  • After the peacekeepers withdrew, the Sri Lankan Civil War entered an even bloodier phase, which the Tamil Tigers named the Second Eelam War. The government troops could not capture Jaffna itself despite repeated assaults in 1992-93.

Third Eelam War

  • The September 11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent War on Terror made it more difficult for the Tamil Tigers to get overseas funding and support. The United States also began to offer direct aid to the Sri Lankan government, despite its terrible human rights record over the course of the civil war.
  • Throughout 2002 and 2003, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers negotiated various ceasefires mediated by the Norwegians
  • On May 16, 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tamil Tigers. 
  • The devastating conflict had finally ended after 26 years with hideous atrocities on both sides, and some 100,000 deaths. 
  • The only question remaining is whether the perpetrators of those atrocities will face trials for their crimes.

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old. Both countries have a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction.

Political Relations: Prime Minister Modi made a solidarity visit to Sri Lanka in 2019 after the Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier visited Sri Lanka in 2017 as a Chief Guest to attend the International Day of Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka.  

Commercial Relations: Sri Lanka is one of India’s largest trading partners in SAARC. Trade between the two countries grew particularly rapidly after the entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000.

Development Cooperation: The Indian Housing Project, with an initial commitment to build 50,000 houses for the war affected as well as the estate workers in the plantation areas, is Government of India (GoI)’s flagship project of developmental assistance to Sri Lanka.

Tourism: India is a top source for tourist influx into Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan tourists too are among the top ten sources for the Indian tourism market.

Human resource development: 

  • Sri Lankan students can also appear for National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) in centers in India for MBBS/BDS admissions. IIT JEE (Advanced) entrance examinations have commenced in Sri Lanka from 2017. 
  • Prime Minister Modi has announced the extension of the Indian-aided ambulance service to more areas in Sri Lanka.

Indian Community: According to unofficial statistics, it is estimated that around 14,000 Indian expatriates are living in Sri Lanka. Tamil Diaspora are mostly employed in either tea or rubber plantations.

Strategic relations: In 1971, India helped Sri Lanka put down a countrywide rebellion when the government asked for external assistance.

  • Although India was politically constrained from selling offensive weapons to Sri Lanka, it facilitated arms deals, sold defensive weapons, and provided critical naval and intelligence support to help Sri Lanka target the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. 
  • New Delhi has particularly provided support in the maritime realm
  • The “Mitra Shakti” bilateral exercises is conducted between the two armies which focuses on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.
  • “SLINEX” is a series of naval exercises between the two navies. 
  • The third joint exercise, called “Dosti,” is a trilateral coast guard exercise that includes the Maldives. 
  • India has also successfully imparted training to the Sri Lankan military across the three branches of the armed forces for years.
  • The most significant aspect is that of civilian nuclear co-operation, which envisages an “exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Significance of India –Sri Lanka relations

  • Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, just a few kilometers from the Indian coast and near one of the busiest sea lanes in the world – one that carries much of the oil.
  • Indo-Chinese competition in the Indian Ocean: India believes that China’s interest in Sri Lanka and its growing footprint there is part of an encirclement strategy to contain India.
  • India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy : Sri Lanka is at the core of our 'Neighbourhood First' policy and Sagar doctrine.
  • The Sri Lankan Tamils — India is concerned about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils devastated by war and is working for their rehabilitation.
  • Maritime interests: it is important for the coast guards of the two countries to establish the safety and security of the Indian Ocean region. 
  • “Strategic significance” of the nuclear agreement : Sri Lanka’s decision to sign a nuclear agreement with India rather than Pakistan, with which it had explored a similar pact two years ago, “shows the importance Sri Lanka attaches to its relations with New Delhi.”
  • International cooperation
    • Sri Lanka is an active partner in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
    • Sri Lanka, with its geo-strategic location as well as its diverse experience in maritime safety and security issues, contributes much to Indian Ocean Rim Association – IORA
    • Both countries also cooperate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.


  • China factor: China has been the largest supplier of arms to Sri Lanka since the 1950s. In 2014 Sri Lanka allowed two Chinese submarines and a warship to dock at its port in Colombo. This was seen as a major breach of trust between New Delhi and Colombo and also heightened tensions with Beijing. 
    • Chinese are mulling projects in the eastern port city of Trincomalee, which India considers a strategic location in terms of national security. 
  • Belt and Road initiative: As part of the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) policy, China built two ports, one in Colombo and another in Hambantota.
  • Sri Lanka’s security dilemma: Growing too close to China could create problems with India while leaning too much in favor of India could affect Chinese military sales to the country and other aspects of their bilateral relationship. 
  • India’s efforts to counter China
    • Trincomalee Port: India is also planning to build Trincomalee Port which is envisioned as an Indian counterweight to Chinese developments at Hambantota Port.
    • International support: In 2014 India abstained from voting on a UNHRC resolution calling for a probe into alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka Pakistan and China voted against the resolution.
  • Fishing issues: The Palk Bay region has become a highly contested site in recent decades. Multiple issues include ongoing disagreement over, frequent poaching by Indian fisherman in Sri Lankan waters, and the damaging economic and environmental effects of trawling.
  • Island of Kachchatheevu: Through the 1974 agreement, India agreed to Sri Lanka's sovereignty over Katchchativu but with some safeguards to its Indian fishermen through Article 5 but it was vague enough for the Sri Lankan government deny the fishing rights. Tamil Nadu is seeking retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka.

The Palk bay, which is 137 kilometers in length and varies from 64 to 137 kilometers (roughly 40 to 85 miles) in width, is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

  • Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project: Aside from environmental and livelihood concerns of its fishermen, Sri Lanka is more concerned about the loss of container traffic at its Colombo and Galle ports.
  • Economic issues: India wants to go ahead with an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with Sri Lanka, replacing the aborted Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
  • Regionalization of issues: Tamil political parties want New Delhi to be proactive for bringing Sri Lanka to justice for war crimes.
  • IDPs rehabilitation and War crimes: Painfully slow pace of rehabilitation of Tamil refugees is a sore point with India. Tamil Nadu is pressurizing New Delhi to bring punish Sri Lanka for war crimes.
  • Ethno-religious nationalism: The election of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa —ushers in an authoritarian populist regime that upholds a form of ethno-religious nationalism. His closeness to Beijing worries India.

Way forward

  • Expediting delivery of projects: India’s plans to counter Chinese investment will be tested by the pace of delivery of projects like the joint India-Japan agreement to develop the East Container Terminal at Colombo harbour, and other projects like the offer to operate the Mattala Airport.
  • Sino-Indian cooperation for Sri Lankan neutrality: China and India, should share investment responsibilities in Sri Lanka so that Sri Lanka remains neutral vis a vis India and China. 
  • Resolving territorial issues: Two courses of action exist: (1) get back the island of Kachchatheevu on “lease in perpetuity” or (2) permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish within a designated area of Sri Lankan waters and vice versa. The Tin Bigha case is a good example to emulate.
  • Fishing issues: India should persuade Colombo to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters for five nautical miles from the IMBL.
    • Proposed solutions, could include limiting the days, timeframe, and location for fishing and an immediate end to bottom trawling.
  • Counter-terrosism: the two countries must improve cooperation in counter-terror training as India has vast experience in this arena.
  • Maritime cooperation: It "may include measures such as joint naval patrolling, controlling of smuggling and piratical activities, and the strengthening of communication networks."
  • Japanese cooperation: There is now mention of Sri Lanka joining hands with India and Japan on the ‘security front’ too. There needs to be more clarity on the issue.
  • Neutral approach: India must avoid touting governments in Sri Lanka as pro-China or Pro- India. This way it can improve the relations freely without any baggage.

India must view the Palk Bay region as a common heritage of the two countries and project this vision. With Sri Lankan assurance that Sri Lankan soil will not be used by anyone against India, it is imperative that the government in New Delhi continues to foster this relationship.