Context: The pandemic presents an opportunity for Sri Lanka and India to focus on the revitalization of partnerships.

Uniqueness of India-Sri Lanka relationship

  • The India-Sri Lanka relationship, de jure, is between equals as sovereign nations
  • However, the relationship is asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and also social indicators and geographical location, on the other. 
  • The relationship is also steeped in myth and legend, and influenced by religious, cultural and social affinities. 
  • Hardships of COVID-19 present an opportune time for Sri Lanka and India to nourish the roots of the relationship using modern toolkits, but leveraging age-old wisdom and experience.

Historical ties

  • Ashoka and Buddhism 
    • The advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during the time of Emperor Ashoka was the result of cross-border discourse. 
    • For many centuries, later on, the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura housed an international community that included traders from India, China, Rome, Arabia, and Persia. 
    • Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka also contain shrines for Hindu deities
  • Colonial-era
    • Labor from south India was brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations. 
    • The Indian freedom struggle had its influence on Sri Lanka as well. There was cross-border support for the revival of culture, tradition, local languages, spiritual practices and philosophies, and education. 
    • Both countries transformed into modern nations with constitutional and institutionalized governance under colonial rule.
    • Process engineering by colonial powers for identification and categorization of people was a factor in the emergence of separatist ideologies based on ethnicity, language, and religion.
    • This mindset is now ingrained and accentuated in politics. Episodic instances of communal hostility are referenced often to suit tactical political gain.
  • Contemporary times 
    • Sri Lanka’s strategic location makes it apparent that not only economic fortunes but the security of both countries are inextricably linked. Therefore the calamity in one country can adversely impact the other. 
    • Currently, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest. 

Way ahead

  • Addressing issues and imbalances
    • The socio-economic development of Sri Lanka has remained linked to India.
    • Though robust partnerships with other countries have been often sought in line with the non-alliance foreign policies of both countries, such efforts must be bounded by an atmosphere needed for peace, prosperity, and stability. 
  • Economic integration
    • Sri Lanka can also encourage Indian entrepreneurs to make Colombo another business hub for them, as logistical capacities and facilities for rest and recreation keep improving in Sri Lanka.
    • Integrating the two countries but with special and differential treatment for Sri Lanka due to economic asymmetries can be fast-tracked for this purpose.
  • People to people connect
    • There is immense potential for both countries to accentuate or create complementariness, using locational and human resource potential, for harnessing benefits in the modern value chains.
    • Robust partnerships across the economic and social spectrum can also promote people-to-people bonhomie

While avoiding advocacy of zero-sum solutions on crucial issues, both countries must seek to harmonize strategic and other interests in line with common values and socioeconomic compulsions.


Image Source: TH