Resetting India-Sri Lanka relations: The way forward

Wednesday, 23 January 2013 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The report of the Indo-Lanka Joint Study Group for resetting India-Sri Lanka relations was released recently. The report was handed to high officials of both the Sri Lankan and Indian Government. The India-Sri Lanka Joint Study Group was set up under a joint initiative of the Manipal Global Education (MaGE) of India and the Pathfinder Foundation of Sri Lanka

Indian participants of the study group were Ambassador A. Gopinathan, former Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, former Chief of the Army Staff, General Deepak Kappor, a leading specialist in South and South East Asian studies Prof. V. Suryanarayanan and former Secretary at Indian Cabinet P.K.H. Tharakan, whilst from Sri Lanka it was former Foreign Secretaries Bernard Goonetilleke, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara and Nihal Rodrigo, former Commonwealth Secretariat official Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, former legal advisor to the Foreign Ministry Dr. Rohan Perera, and former Deputy High Commissioner Dr. Vethody Kumaran Valsan. The Joint Study Group was conceived as a discreet and informal dialogue process to jointly explore ways of strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two neighbours with a view to generating innovative recommendations and complementing official efforts to this end. The report recommends a structured, systematic and continuous dialogue, based on mutual respect and sovereign equality between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka, so as to deal with issues that arise from time to time and remove any potential irritants. It also proposes preparing a road-map for enhancing economic relations over the next two decades. It calls on the latter to place a special emphasis on the reconstruction and development efforts in northern Sri Lanka. The report recommends intensified interaction in diverse fields, including education, culture, fine arts, sports and media. It calls for the effective and expeditious implementation of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), in particular those relating to post-conflict reconciliation. It also calls for the establishment of a joint mechanism for the management of fisheries and other marine resources in the Palk Bay. The Study Group calls upon the two Governments to pay urgent attention to implementing the recommendations contained in the report.

Following are excerpts of the report:


The Indo-Lanka Joint Study Group has been set up to initiate a discreet and informal dialogue process to jointly explore ways to strengthen the relationship between the two neighbours. This informal channel of dialogue will seek to generate innovative recommendations and complement official efforts at strengthening the bilateral relationship.

India and Sri Lanka are separated by the narrow and shallow Palk Strait. However, Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relations need not be a mirror image of this geographic reality. The history of both countries has been intertwined with religious, cultural and social affinities that help to foster goodwill and friendship among the peoples of the two countries.

Over six decades ago, both countries freed themselves from colonialism. They have since successfully cooperated in facing the challenges of global developments. The two countries will obviously need to face and overcome more onerous challenges in the new millennium. Casting aside mutual suspicions and apprehensions of each other’s motives, the two countries need to work together to lay a firm foundation for closer and mutually beneficial cooperation in many fields, particularly in areas such as security, trade, education, health, culture etc. This would ensure peace and prosperity for the peoples of both countries.

It is likely that irritants may surface from time to time. This is natural between two countries located so close to each other and asymmetrical in many aspects. Situations will continue to arise where vested interests exploit them to achieve their narrow ends at the expense of the traditionally close bilateral relations. Such developments may test the patience of the peoples and even political leaders of the two countries, thereby limiting the space to resolve such differences through consultations. The relationship should be strong enough to withstand such challenges, with the political leadership addressing such situations, not through emotions, but statesmanship, thereby further strengthening the traditionally close relationship.

Lack of candour and accommodation in bilateral interactions should be replaced by frank dialogue between political leaders and other interlocutors on either side, thereby removing opportunities for negative political orchestration by interested parties and individuals. The adversarial elements of the relationship that had emerged, from time to time, should be replaced with mutual trust, openness and understanding of the contentious issues involved. It is time to reset Indo-Lanka relations.

Lack of trust is not only confined to the political level. It has permeated various levels of society over a period of time due to many perceptions such as:

  • Aggressive stand taken by India from time to time with regard to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lanka’s failure to fulfil certain bilateral commitments, especially those relating to addressing ethnic issues.
  • Coercive diplomacy leading to provocative statements and postures being adopted in both countries in recent times.
  • Lack of adequate follow up of the military victory with a political process to address the ethnic issue.
  • Lack of rapport at leadership level at certain times in the recent decades, including paucity of high-level visits from India to Sri Lanka.


1. General: Ways to improve bilateral relations


  • To address these concerns, confidence building measures should be put in place and trust, co-operation and understanding should be enhanced in all areas of bilateral relations. To this end, all efforts must be made by both governments to avoid making public statements on sensitive policy issues that could potentially erode efforts to maintain and enhance confidence and trust between the two countries.

In this regard:

  • Identify key areas for further action in the economic sphere, people to people contacts and political and strategic issues.
  • Identify areas of convergence and divergence, so as to expand the former and reduce the latter.

2. Economic

In the medium term, prepare a vision and Road-Map 2035 for economic relations consulting/associating with, as necessary, corporate sectors, academic communities and strategic communities/think-tanks of the two countries.

  • To this end, entrust the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Colombo and the Research Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) New Delhi to update and expand the 1991-1992 RIS-Wider Study, within the next year, with the view to providing a comprehensive projection of bilateral economic relations in their multifarious dimensions over the next two decades.
  • In the short term, priority should be attached to the following:
  • Build on the success of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA): explore ways of expanding two-way trade and investment flows by identifying impediments and constraints and suggesting measures for removing or lessening them, including by factoring in the specific concerns of the corporate sector.
  • Identify the need for further assistance for reconstruction and development work in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, including through enhancing in situ livelihood and economic security of the populace.
  • Identify the need for further assistance for vocational training and skills development on a large scale, especially for the displaced persons, including returnees from India.
  • Help Sri Lankan enterprises to plug into India’s supply chains, in both manufacturing and services, especially by building strong links with entities in southern India, including through strengthening linkages between business associations and creating institutional capacity for supporting the Sri Lankan private sector seeking to do business with or in India. In this connection the recently announced Indian initiative for developing an automotive component industry and a pharmaceutical hub in Sri Lanka signals an important breakthrough that needs to be built upon.
  • Explore ways and means by which India can assist in mitigating long-term financial risks, including through arrangements between the two Central Banks, taking into account the volatile global economic landscape and recent graduation of Sri Lanka as a lower middle-income country, no longer eligible for concessional financing. The recent establishment of the RBI financed SAARC Swap Arrangement of US$ 2 billion, with a country limit of US$ 400 million, constitutes an important advance in this direction.
  • Explore ways to significantly expand people-to-people contacts through considering visa on arrival; through promotion of tourism, including religious and medical tourism.
  • Introduce measures to strengthen connectivity between the two countries, including through further liberalisation of air services, maritime transportation and construction of a land link by undertaking a feasibility study.
  • Examine prospects for bilateral cooperation in the areas of energy security, such as power generation, the petroleum sector, renewable sources of energy and energy conservation.
  • Accelerate the implementation of existing Indian sponsored projects, which have been affected by delays, including bureaucratic, in contrast with some other projects, which are being expeditiously executed.
  • Ensure a level-playing field and adequate transparency in the processes of awarding contracts, and the need for appreciation of sensitivities in work in the strategic areas.
  • Promote greater understanding of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) negotiations, including through addressing residual issues, particularly non-tariff barriers and other impediments, in the implementation of FTA 1.This would help create a positive environment for the negotiations, providing greater transparency and taking into account the need to deal effectively with the asymmetry between the two economies.
  • Pay greater attention to the needs and requirements for socio-economic well-being of the people of Indian origin in plantations.

3. Political and strategic issues

  • The objectives should be improved and stable bilateral relations, peace, security and people’s welfare, while frankly recognising domestic political considerations on both sides.
  • While recognising many areas of strategic convergence, efforts must be made to address divergences through free and frank engagements at policy level
  • It is acknowledged that the relations between the two countries are multi-faceted. However, the impact of the ethnic issue on these relations must be addressed with sensitivity by both sides to ensure that the larger national interests of each other are not prejudiced.
  • Recognise the importance of a well-structured domestic process of reconciliation and accountability in today’s context with strong political support from all stakeholders; it is also important to give effect to bilateral understandings and commitments in this regard.
  • Assist the Sri Lanka Government to achieve national reconciliation, devolution and economic development, including by fostering long-term partnership and capital investment.
  • Address the genuine grievances of the people, rather than demands of groups with vested interests.
  • Encourage all concerned, in particular the political parties, including the minority parties and the opposition in Sri Lanka, to reposition themselves in relation to the post LTTE realities by (a) committing to effective devolution through provinces, down to grassroots level taking into account past experiences without necessarily being constrained by them and (b) initiating a structured dialogue towards political consensus on the ethnic issue, in particular with the affected parties, and at a multiparty forum, within a specified time-frame.
  • Encourage effective and expeditious implementation of recommendations of the LLRC Report, in particular those relating to post conflict reconciliation.
  • Institute a dialogue between the two countries based on sovereign equality and mutual respect, where strategic interests of either are likely to be affected. In particular, political sensitivities and security implications need to be taken fully into account as a means of maintaining mutual confidence in all aspects of the bilateral relationship. Towards this end, strengthen institutional mechanisms that have been established to address different aspects of the bilateral relationship.
  • Both countries should refrain from raising in multilateral fora, issues which would best be dealt at the bilateral level.
  • Strengthen mutual consultative arrangements for combating terrorism, trafficking in narcotic drugs, people-smuggling and other forms of transnational organised crime and arrange for regular intelligence-sharing on all issues of common concern.
  • Continue the cooperation and dialogue on (i) De-limitation of the Continental Shelf between the two countries in the Bay of Bengal at the bilateral level and (ii) adopting a common position on the Statement of Understanding (SoU) concerning a specific method to be used in establishing the outer edge of the Continental Margin in the southern part of the Bay of Bengal in pursuing their respective submissions before the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
  • Take action to set up a Joint Mechanism for the conservation and sustainable management of fisheries and other marine resources in the Palk Bay on the lines set out in Annexure 1 ‘Joint Mechanism for the Sustainable Management of Fisheries and other Marine Resources in the Palk Bay’.
  • Take action to strengthen measures to prevent poaching in the internal waters, territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones of the two countries. For this purpose take action to streamline the working methods and procedures of existing Working Group on Fisheries and hold other meetings at operational levels between the navies, coast guards, immigration and customs officials of the two countries, particularly by providing for speedy investigation and clarification of allegations concerning serious incidents involving fishermen.
  • Expand existing defence cooperation to strengthen maritime security cooperation and protection of sea-lanes including closer cooperation to deal with acts of piracy.

4. People-to-people contacts

4.1 Education


  • Streamline the scholarships schemes by taking steps to remove irritants such as selection processes, time-delays between the declaration of results of the qualifying examinations and the deadline for submission of application forms, hostel facilities, and students not being awarded institutions of their choice and so on.
  • Explore feasibility of making available affordable reprints of text-books on technical subjects from India.
  • Study the feasibility of making available teachers from India to meet any temporary shortages for the teaching of English and Tamil.
  • Encourage interaction between think-tanks in the two countries, and for this purpose, prepare a list of candidate institutions in respective countries, which can engage in this task.
  • Conduct a feasibility study for establishment of an offshore campus of a reputed Institute of Technology from India in Sri Lanka.
  • University Grants Commissions of the two countries to discuss areas of enhanced cooperation.
  • Visits by schoolchildren to places of historic and cultural interest in each other’s country.

4.2 Sports

  • Encourage greater interaction in sports and athletics, particularly below- 21 teams.

4.3 Arts, music and cinema

  • Encourage two-way flows of artistes and creative personnel and thereby facilitate exchange of experiences in the respective disciplines.
  • Encourage location shooting in Sri Lanka.
  • Encourage film, music and dance festivals
  • Encourage participation of Sri Lankan film directors in Indian film festivals.

4.4 Media

  • Encourage greater flow of correspondents between the two countries and facilitate exchange of experiences.
  • Offer training opportunities and short-term placements in Indian media institutions for Sri Lankan journalists.


The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is a multifaceted one. It has tremendous scope for significant expansion and rapid improvement in the coming years. This report sets out some of the ways in which this potential can be realised.

A speedy reconciliation process in Sri Lanka would have a salutary impact on further strengthening bilateral relations.

The Joint Study Group urges the two Governments to pay urgent attention to implementing the recommendations contained in this report.