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Sri Lanka’s India First Policy (1 September 2020)

Sri Lanka’s India First Policy (1 September 2020)

Why in News:

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear that Sri Lanka’s strategic security policy will have an “India first” approach though Colombo remains open to dealing with other key players for economic development, the country’s new foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage has said.  


Colombage, a retired admiral who commanded Sri Lanka’s navy during 2012-14 and is perceived as close to Rajapaksa, made the remarks in two interviews to the media. He also said Rajapaksa’s administration has adopted a posture of neutrality in its dealings with key powers at the regional and global level as Sri Lanka cannot become a “staging area” for any country to do “anything against another country – especially...India”. India has focussed on improving ties with Rajapaksa’s administration. PM Modi was the first world leader to congratulate Rajapaksa even before the final results of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections were declared in August, after his SLPP party took an unassailable lead.


During the three-decade long course of the civil war, India supported Sri Lanka to act against LTTE forces.

The massive Chinese involvement during the Rajapaksa tenure has garnered the deepest controversy in recent years.

After 2015, Sri Lanka relies heavily on China for Port city project and for continuation of Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

Summary of the Debate


           Setusamudram. What is Sethusamudram? GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION Palk Strait Palk  Bay Adam's Bridge Gulf of Mannar. - ppt download

Current scenario between India and Sri Lanka:

  • Both countries are in relationship for more than 2,500 years old.
  • India is the Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner globally.
  • India’s exports to Sri Lanka amounted to $5.3 billion in 2015-17 whereas its imports from the country were at $743 million.
  • President Rajapaksa visited India in November last year, just 10 days after becoming president. During the vist India has announced $ 400 million as a line of credit to boost infrastructure and development, and also offered another $ 50 million to fight terrorism and enhance intelligence gathering.
  • Last month, India had announced $ 400 million as currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the SAARC framework and also said that Colombo’s request for a bilateral swap facility for $ 1.1 billion was being considered.
  • Before the pandemic hit, the largest numbers of tourists visiting Sri Lanka were Indians.
  • Sri Lankans of every ethnicity, every religion comes to India for pilgrimage, education and Medical facilities.
  • Indian Army had a webinar with Sri Lankan medical services, where Indian Army tried to share their expertise as far as handling of pandemic is concerned.
  • India and Sri Lanka conduct joint Military ( 'Mitra Shakti') and Naval exercise (SLINEX).



  • Tamil question in Sri Lanka is extremely complicated.
  • Chinese negative role in the entire region is a big concern for India, it has been making significant forays into Sri Lanka, especially in the defence field.
  • Sri Lankan in 2017 handed over the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.
  • The continuous arrest of Indian fishermen on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar by Sri Lankan authorities has been a long-standing problem with the Sri lanka

Way Forward:

  • India is in position to help Sri Lanka in variety of ways and the government is actively engaged with the Sri Lankan side in this regard.
  • Sri Lanka has to first specify what their needs are and India have to see, to whatextent it can be partners in this regard.
  • Both countries can do so much together in the areas of industry, trade, education, forestry development, environment, etc.
  • India should engage with other strategic partners of Sri Lanka like Japan for instance, who also have similar interests as of India’s to ensure that the Chinese lure for Sri Lanka is brought down as much as possible.
  • Helping Sri Lanka coming out of this economic crisis, the post-pandemic crisis would go long way in strengthening these bonds.
  • A land bridge between Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi will be extremely durable at much lesser cost and today, a large number of Indians want to visit Sri Lanka and large number of Sri Lankans wants to come to India. So, the bridge would pay for its cost within three years itself by the movement of goods and people.

Important points made by the Guests

Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation    

  • Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory over LTTE was primarily facilitated with India’s cooperation, but after promising 13th Amendment plus during the war. After the war, he went back and he felt that his reliance on India had probably reduced and that is when we started seeing a far more autocratic tendency at that point of time.
  • The transformation from Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency to Maithripala Sirisena was primarily facilitated because of India’s bringing the diverse political group together.
  • After that Sri Lanka has realised that, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned India will always be the first and Mahinda has earlier said that, ‘India is relative whereas China is a friend’.
  • When Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election, there were some concerns because the previous government was seen as pro India. After that government of India has moved very fast and mended bridges with both Gotabaya as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa.
  • Yesterday Indian High Commissioner hosted a dinner where 19 cabinet ministers of Sri Lanka attended, which by itself including two members of the Rajapaksha family.
  • As far as India and Sri Lanka is concerned, our defence cooperation has been far greater than the cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs level, because civil war would not have been won without an active cooperation with the security forces of the two countries.
  • Anybody in Sri Lanka security forces realize this that while many other countries would have helped them in the civil war; it was India, which was critical and crucial in their victory as far as the civil war is concerned.

Prabhu Dayal, Former Ambassador    

  • There had been a lot of justified concern in India about the growing closeness between China and Sri Lanka, particularly after the previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had leased Hambantota Port to the Chinese for 99 years.
  • Therefore, PM Modi’s government has carefully focused on improving ties with president Rajapaksa’s administration and has taken very meaningful steps in this regard.
  • Sri Lankan foreign secretary in his press briefings and his TV interview, addressed India’s concern about Hambantoata port, which was given by the previous government, he said that had been a mistake.
  • While addressing India’s security concerns, he said that Sri Lanka cannot depend on any one country for economic development.

Rajesh Sundaram, Journalist & Author   

  • Sri Lanka has been hit by the pandemic, the economy has taken a hit and they would want Indian money as much as they want the Chinese money.
  • When Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, they had India in a very anxious situation, they had Chinese navy ships in their waters, and they had Hambantota Port, which was given out lease. But nothing that is coming out of the policy makers right now.
  • India did play a role during the final stages of the civil war but so did Pakistan, they sent their pilots to the areas. The Chinese were very much active.
  • At that time, India had a policy where we said that we will not help them militarily directly but in a defensive way. There were other countries, which went out there and helped them militarily, which helped them in a much bigger way in getting them victory in civil conflict that they had at that time.
  • The Tamil ethnic issue is a issue, which has been clearly fallen off the agenda between India and Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans don’t care because after the full military victory, the legitimate political aspirations and offering rights to the Tamil people has fallen off the agenda for them and there is no great push from the Indian side for this as well.



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