Sri Lankan Police officers are trying to control the protesters against the government in Colombo [ Photo: Thilina Kaluthotage ]

Sri Lanka:  Anatomy of Baleful Crisis

Just as no man is an island, no island can remain an island. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizon the momentous developments taking place in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world will have a tremendous impact on Sri Lanka.

15 mins read
15 mins read

The following article is based on the keynote address by the author at the recent seminar titled, The Conundrum of an island: Sri Lanka – Present Crisis, Geo-Political Challenges and Way Ahead, organized by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) which is a Chennai-based Think Tank that mainly carries out research on developments in China and assigns priority to Indian policy interests.

May I, at the outset, express my deep sense of appreciation and heartfelt thanks to my good friends Commodore RS Vasan, Bala and his junior colleagues for associating me with this significant seminar and requesting me to deliver the keynote address.

When I went through the programme I found that I have been allotted 20 minutes. There lies the problem. It takes nearly 20 minutes for a Professor to warm up in the classroom and to expect him to conclude his presentation in 20 minutes is an unfriendly act. However, I shall try to be as brief as possible. As the Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Taylor, told her husband, soon after her 9th marriage: “This too shall be brief”.

Appropriate Title

My congratulations to Commodore Vasan and Bala for choosing an appropriate title – Conundrum of an Island. It reminded me of the poem written by the Great English Poet, John Donne, entitled No Man is an Island. Just as no man is an island, no island can remain an island. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizon the momentous developments taking place in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world will have a tremendous impact on Sri Lanka. Let me quote parts of John Donne’s poem:

                        No man is an island, entire of itself

                        Every man is a piece of the continent,

                        A part of the main…

                        Any man’s death diminishes me

                        Because I am involved in mankind

                        And, therefore, never send to know for

                        Whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

South Asia a Unique Region

     The most striking feature of South Asia is the pre-eminent position of India, which bestrides the region almost like a colossus.  In terms of area, population, economic resources and armed forces, India is more than all the other countries put together. The World Development Report, a few years ago, pointed out that India has 78 per cent of the area, 73 per cent of the population and 77 per cent of gross domestic product.  What is more, India is at the very centre and all other countries are bordering on India. The other countries do not share anything in common, except perhaps fears and misgivings about India. The crux of their foreign policy is how to manage relations with India. In other words, India is the axis around which the wheel of South Asia revolves.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity. And given the ethnic, religious, political and economic linkages, what happens in one country will have its fallout on another. If the Hindu temples are destroyed and the Hindu population comes down, as in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, naturally the Hindus in India will be agitated. And if the Muslims in India are discriminated against and when the Babri Masjid was demolished the Muslims in the region were naturally agitated. If the Tamils in Sri Lanka are singled out for discrimination and subjected to violence, naturally the Tamils in Tamil Nadu will campaign for them. We have to recognize these realities and then evolve a neighbourhood policy.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity.

The ideal neighbourhood policy, with reference to smaller neighbours, was explained by former Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as “asymmetrical reciprocity”. Inaugurating the road between the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh said, “I cannot do anything about the borders, but I can try to make the borders irrelevant”.

In the classroom situation, I am fond of narrating a story which exemplifies the need for a win-win situation. The Christian Missionaries started a school among Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh to teach the children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. A large number of students were admitted to the school. At the end of the year, the Principal decided to celebrate the first anniversary by organising a sports meet. 100 meters race. All the boys were asked to assemble. On your mark, get set and go. All boys began to run. There was a strong boy who was running ahead of others. Everybody cheered him. But mid-way he stopped. The Principal went to him and said, “you were running ahead of others. You could have easily lifted the trophy. Why did you stop in the middle?” The boy told the principal “Madam, in our community that victory is the greatest victory when we all win together”. Win-Win situation – that should be the objective of India’s relations with smaller countries in our region.

Some Issues relating to Nation Building  

I do not know how many of you – I am asking the students – have heard of Khan Abdul Wali Khan. You have not heard his name. You must have heard his father’s name, Abdul Ghaffar Khan– Frontier Gandhi (Sarhadi Gandhi) – as we used to affectionately call him. Khan Abdul Wali Khan who was president of the Awami National Party in Pakistan and a son of the prominent Pashtun nationalist leader Ghaffar Khan passed away a few years ago. Wali Khan was asked by a journalist “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied: “I am all the three combined into one”. The journalist will not give up. ”You must tell me what is your primary identity, what is your secondary identity and what is your third identity?” Wali Khan replied: “I am a Pakistani for the past 35 years, a Muslim for 1800 years and a Pathan for the last 5000 years”.

All of us have multiple identities. When I was an undergraduate student in an affiliated college of Bombay University in the mid-1950s, my Professor used to say: “You are an Indian first, you are an Indian second and you are an Indian last”. Those days, we never disagreed with our teachers, because the teachers did not like that. So all of us nodded our heads in approval. As I grew older, I realized that I have several identities – I am a Tamil because my mother tongue is Tamil; I was born and brought up in Kerala and had my school education in Malayalam medium; in fact, my Malayalam is better than my Tamil, so I have a Kerala identity; I had my under-graduate and post-graduate education in Bombay and started my teaching career in an affiliated college in Bombay University, therefore, I have a Maharashtrian identity; I  have a teacher identity; an Indian identity; I have a South Asian identity; I have a universal identity. These multiple identities must co-exist harmoniously.  They should not clash with one another. That is the basis of ideal nation-building.

I speak several languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, English; I learned Sanskrit as the second language, I can read and write Sanskrit, but cannot speak; while in Bombay, I learned a little bit of Marathi, though I am out of touch with it now; as a doctoral student, I learned Bahasa Indonesia. The more languages I learned I became more tolerant My good friend, K Suresh Singh, former Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, used to tell me “Diversity and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together”.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course.

The distinguished political scientist, Louis Halle, in early 1970’s, surveyed all countries in the world (132) and found only 13 (9.0 per cent) did not have problems of integration because they were inhabited by people speaking the same language, follow the same religion and belong to the same ethnic group.  There is only one country in South Asia which does not have problems of nation building. It is the Maldives. But it is not a model to be followed. It is a downright reactionary country. According to Maldivian Constitution, only a Sunni Muslim can be a citizen of the country.

The Italian political philosopher Massimo d’ Azeglu, I do not know how the Italians pronounce the name, I am pronouncing the name in my Malayalam – Tamil way, said in 1848, after the unification of Italy: “We have made Italy, now, we must make Italians”. The same is true of all countries in our region. We have become independent states but the process of making the Indian nation, Pakistani nation; Bangladeshi nation and Sri Lankan nation have begun only after independence.

Two Contrasting Scenarios

I would like to submit two propositions which can be considered as the yardstick for the success of nation-building experiments in multi-ethnic societies in South Asia. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities so that they can preserve, promote and foster their identities while being part of a wider country.  Second, a federal polity, with entrenched provisions for sharing powers between the Centre and the States, can lead to softening of secessionist demands and pave the way for eventual national integration. Two illustrations, one a success story from India and the second, a tragic narrative from Sri Lanka, both relating to my community – Tamils – are given below. What is interesting to note are the differing political developments and contrasting responses on the issue of nation-building.

            In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course. The scholars studying the Dravidian movement are unanimous in pointing out important milestones – the formation of the Justice Party and the non-Brahmin movement in 1917; E V Ramasamy Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement and Anti – Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-1940s and its demand for a separate state of Dravida Nadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under C N Annadurai in 1949;  the coming into power of DMK after the 1967 general elections; and the domination of DMK and its offshoot All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972 in the politics of Tamil Nadu. The DMK gradually got “domesticated” because the Indian political system provided sufficient space within which the Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be preserved and fostered. What is more, the domestication of the DMK was evident even before Annadurai formally renounced secessionism in 1962 (after the Sino-Indian conflict) and the 16th Amendment to the Constitution (which proscribed secessionism and required from all candidates, seeking political office, an oath of upholding the Constitution) was passed. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in the unity of India got further strengthened when these parties started sharing power in the Centre.

            (Let me give an illustration of how the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils were sacrificed by Karunanidhi and the DMK during the Fourth Eelam War. It needs to be recalled that the Dravidian parties considered protecting the interests of Overseas Tamils as one of their foremost objectives. In the Tamil film, Parasakthi, (the script was written by Karunanidhi)  Gunasekaran, the hero (acted by Sivaji Ganesan) asks the question “Why are the waters of the Bay of Bengal saltish?” and then he replies “It is because of the tears of Overseas Tamils”. During the Fourth Eelam War, the DMK was an ally of the Centre and went on with India’s Sri Lanka policy. It did not do anything constructive to prevent the genocide of the Tamils. Karunanidhi was permitted to do a political gimmick; he undertook a hunger strike in the Marina. He started the fast after breakfast and concluded it before lunch. The Union Ministers rushed to Chennai and persuaded Karunanidhi to withdraw from the hunger strike).

            In contrast, an overview of Sri Lankan Tamil politics since independence clearly shows that the Tamils had been mainly “reactive” to Sinhalese politics. Since Sinhalese-dominated governments never fulfilled their hopes and aspirations, frustrations became intense, demands more radical, which finally culminated in the demand of a separate state of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive cooperation; which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956. The demand progressed to Federal State and non-cooperation during 1967-1972. It escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-76. Finally, it ended with the demand for a separate State in 1976. But, while the demands changed, the mainstream Tamil political leadership confined themselves to strategies of peaceful agitation, parliamentary and non-parliamentary alike. From 1979, militancy began to creep into the agitation and by the beginning of this century, the Tigers became the most dominant force in the Tamil areas.

Fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus. 

            By mid-1970’s, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who were, to begin with, “reluctant secessionists”, began to define themselves as a separate nation, entitled to self-determination and a separate state. Discriminatory legislative enactments and governmental policies in the areas of language, education, land colonization, religion and employment opportunities, the abrogation Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1956 and the Senanayake- Chelvanaygam Pact of 1965, which conferred limited autonomy to the Tamil areas, and, above all, brutal military repression convinced the Tamils that they cannot co-exist with the Sinhalese.

Cardinal principle of India’s Sri Lanka Policy

            India was committed to the principle that Sri Lanka should not solve the ethnic problem through military means. When the July 1983 holocaust took place Prime Minister Indira Gandhi telephoned President Jayewardene: “Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao is coming to Colombo tomorrow to study the situation”.  It must be highlighted that Mrs. Gandhi did not seek Jayewardene’s permission. Narasimha Rae toured Colombo and became deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of the conflict. If the communal fire is not extinguished it would spread to Tamil Nadu also. The fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus.  In other words, the solution must be isolated from competitive Sinhala politics.  

T-72 M1 and the crew from the Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment during Operation PAWN in Sri Lanka [ Photo © Frontier India ]

            At the end of July 1983, Amirtalingam came to India and visited New Delhi. In order to escape the attention of Sinhalese hoodlums on the way to Colombo airport, he was dressed as a Muslim and travelled in Thondaman’s car.  It was a changed Amirtalingam who met Indira Gandhi and G Parthasarathy. Hitherto Amirtalingam’s main support came from the Dravidian parties. Amir used to say” “In India south is fighting against the north, in Sri Lanka north is fighting against the South”. The TULF leader began to realize India has its stakes in Sri Lanka and it would be in the interests of Tamils to get the support of New Delhi. In the closed-door meeting Indira Gandhi told Amirtalalingam that India would not support the creation of an independent state, but a solution less than that of independent Tamil Eelam, Tamils could count on India’s backing. Then the GP asked Amirtalingam: “What is the strength of Tamil militants? Will they be able to defend the Tamils if JR launches a military offensive?”. Amir replied: “The number of militants, all alphabetical combinations together, is less than 100. They are in no position to defend the Tamils”. New Delhi, to assist the Tamils to defend themselves began to provide military training to Tamil militants. It should be pointed that the twin pillars of India’s Sri Lanka policy, at that time, namely mediatory and militant supportive, were contradictory. How can you mediate when you support one side through military training? Naturally, India’s Sri Lanka policy resulted in a quagmire. However, New Delhi was determined not to permit Colombo to solve the problem through military means.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover.

            When in May 1987 Colombo launched Operation Vadamarachi and the LTTE guerrillas were running away from the battlefield, New Delhi stepped in. It violated Sri Lanka’s air space and dropped food materials in Jaffna.  The international community did not even “lift a finger” against New Delhi. JR later explained his dilemma as follows. He first sent Lalith Athulathmudali to Pakistan to seek its support. Lalith realized that Pakistan would not open another front against India. Then he went to China. China was, at that time, interested in normalizing relations with India and advised Lilith to settle the ethnic issue with the help of India. Events moved swiftly and concluded with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and the induction of the IPKF on the invitation of President Jayewardene.

            The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover. India’s response to the fourth Eelam war is an illustration of the changed situation. The Sri Lankan military forces realized that if they have to win the war against the Tigers, the flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu should be stopped. The Sri Lankan Navy, therefore, began to consolidate its hold on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, from Talaimannar to outer islands in Jaffna. On the Indian side, the Coast Guard stepped up its vigil and prevented the refugees from coming to India. During the last stages of the war, five Tamil refugees took a boat from Mullaitheevu and came to India undergoing great suffering. Three of them died of dehydration and two reached the Mandapam camp. Thanks to the NGOs working among the refugees I could meet these two refugees and talk to them They said” Every innocent Tamil, caught between the Sinhalese lions and the Tamil Tigers, would like to come to India as refugees”.   

When the Fourth Eelam War degenerated into a savage war against the Tamils and the Sri Lankan air force began to bomb hospitals, places of worship and orphanages I raised the matter in the National Security Advisory Board, of which I was a member. Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was the Convenor, requested Ambassador Tirumurthy, who was Joint Secretary in charge of Sri Lanka, to initiate the discussion. He performed his duties faithfully and justified New Delhi’s then Sri Lanka policy. When my turn came I pleaded that  India, along with the United States and members of the European Union, should pressurize Sri Lanka to declare a ceasefire, so that those innocent Tamils who want to escape from the war zone could be evacuated to a safer place. My plea turned out to be championing a lost cause. Only 9 members of the 27-member NSAB supported me. The end result was according to the United Nations 40,000 innocent Tamils died during the last stages of the war. India, I submit, is guilty of collaboration with Sri Lankan armed forces. As Lady Macbeth said in the sleepwalking scene: “There is the smell of the blood still. And all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten my dirty hands”.   


Commodore Vasan is pointing the wristwatch to me implying that I have exceeded my allotted 20 minutes, Therefore, let me come to the conclusion. I shall conclude with one of my favourite quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography. The quote is in relation with his visit to Jaffna.

“One little incident lingers in my memory. It was in Jaffna, I think. The teachers and boys of a school stopped our car and I said a few words of greeting. The ardent, eager faces of the boys stood out. And then one of their number came to me, shook hands with me and without question or argument said: “I shall not falter”. The bright young face, with shining eyes, full of determination, is imprinted in my mind. I do not know who he was, I have lost trace of him. But somehow I have the conviction that he will remain true to his words and will not falter when he has to face life’s difficult problems”.

            We in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, should have an interest to see that this young boy, and as he grows older, his son and grandson, do not become once again the cannon fodder in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers, on the contrary, he is provided with opportunities so that he could blossom into another Ananda Coomaraswamy.  

V. Suryanarayan

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is one of India’s leading specialists in South and Southeast Asian Studies. For more than two decades he was associated with the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, first as the founding Director and later as Senior Professor. He was a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India for one term. He is a member of the distinguished faculty of Symbiosis University, Pune. He has written extensively on contemporary South and Southeast Asia.

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