Home » News » Opinion » How India Lost Sri Lanka to China—Starting with Strategic Blunders during Indira Gandhi Regime

How India Lost Sri Lanka to China—Starting with Strategic Blunders during Indira Gandhi Regime

By: R Bhagwan Singh

Edited By:

Last Updated: July 13, 2021, 09:58 IST

General Wei Fenghe, China's State Councilor and Defence Minister (L) with Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters

General Wei Fenghe, China's State Councilor and Defence Minister (L) with Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters

The hard truth is that the emergence of a new war theatre down south seems imminent, given the way things are going. It’s something that India can hardly afford.

Amid all their stress and tension over the Chinese entanglements up in the Himalayas, the wise mandarins of the South Block seem to have been napping even as the Dragon waded through the Palk Strait off Tamil Nadu. Not that the huge beast, while gobbling up one little nation after another in pursuit of its long-drawn expansionist stratagem, has crept close to the south Indian coast quietly through a new moon night. The howls warning of the Chinese debt-trap consuming Sri Lanka and the impending security threat to not just India but also to the entire Indian Ocean Region (IOR) were heard across continents.

Already, Chinese experts and workers engaged in multiple projects have inundated the little island since the end of the civil war in May 2009. I remember what President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told me during an interview over lunch at his Colombo house in 2011. Replying to my question on the Indian discomfiture at his Chinese romance, he shot back, “Every project I gave the Chinese, I first offered to India. But you guys did not accept. I must develop my country, no?”

I mentioned this to a senior member of the Indian High Commission who had invited me for tea that evening and his quick response was: “Ah, he wants everything free. How can we do that?” I remember telling him it might be a prudent investment for protecting future Indian interests. But then, perhaps, he was actually referring to the ‘other unaccounted payments’ that the Chinese might have been liberal with during their project negotiations in the island.

On the day I landed in Colombo for that interview, a young woman Chinese minister had brought a huge ballet group of some 100 men and women to perform the opening show at the exquisite ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa Lotus Auditorium’ that the Chinese had built in the Lankan capital in honour of then President.

Strategic Missteps

Well, since then, China has managed many deals in Sri Lanka, such as the latest coup of wresting a crucial port project in Colombo from the contracted India-Japan coalition. The simple scary truth is that the Chinese investments of close to $15 billion in the tiny island is equal to more than 14 per cent of the Lankan GDP (2019 status) and surpass the Indian presence over seven times. Sri Lanka has ended up as a Chinese ‘debt-trap’ and a perilous one as it could seriously compromise the Indian interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), notwithstanding the Quad umbrella.

Last heard, early this year to be more precise, a Chinese company won a contract to set up ‘hybrid wind and solar energy’ projects on the Delft, Nainativu and Analativu islands in the Palk Strait off Jaffna peninsula. “Of these, Delft is just 20 nautical miles (30 kms) from Rameswaram and less than 40 minutes ride by a fisher boat. We are very worried,” said S.P. Loganathan, a native of Rameswaram, who has been helping me with reporting on Sri Lanka since 1983 when the first Tamil refugee boats landed there from the strife-torn north Lanka.

Rameswaram has been famous for its Ramanathaswamy temple, where according to Hindu mythology, Lord Ram had worshipped Shiv to atone for the sin of killing a Brahmin, Ravan, to rescue Sita, who was kept a prisoner by him in his kingdom Lanka. Closer to present day, the temple town has been frequently in the news for the attacks on its fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy while out at sea. Apart from this thorny issue, there is also the old cry of politicians and social activists in Tamil Nadu, asking Delhi to retrieve the Katchatheevu island gifted away over a cup of tea by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi while hosting her Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Delhi in 1974.

Katchatheevu used to be part of the Ramanathapuram zamindari (south Tamil Nadu) and it was unconstitutional to cede a part of the Indian territory—which meant altering the nation’s boundaries—to another country without the permission of two-thirds of Parliament. So, Katchatheevu is now Sri Lankan property; nay, a strategically crucial IOR dot on the Chinese radar. “It’s only 12 nautical miles from my home, just 30 minutes boat ride,” cautioned Loganathan.

It’s not just this ageing journalist and his fishermen buddies who are worried, even the scholarly strategists in the policy centres of Chennai and Delhi are concerned about the Chinese incursion. “The windmills on the islands are just a front; there are clearly deeper designs. India is the target and a new war theatre could be opening up down south,” said a worried government official and a long-time Lanka expert.

ALSO READ | Dragon’s New Lair: How China’s Expansionism is Taking Root in Sri Lanka

Promised anonymity, he is ready to admit that India has “messed it all up, over a period of time” and that it “could be too late now, unless some urgent remedial measures are taken by us, such as stretching the Quad’s areas of visible and invisible influence”. Quad is the collective of the Indian Ocean countries of India, Japan, the US and Australia, that has been undertaking joint naval exercises to demonstrate clout in the IOR and also pledging big-time dollars to wean away the smaller nations from the liberal yuan doles from Beijing. For its part, the Dragon has been breathing fire upon these pygmies to scare them away from the Quad.

Dragon’s Expansionist Designs

Among the fast-growing population of pessimists insisting that India has lost its game in Sri Lanka is a lesser-known ‘senior’ of the vanquished Tamil militancy in the island. I must mention here his most recent phone conversation from Colombo, because he has always had his fingers on the pulse of the island polity. “I have been telling you this for years now, anna (elder brother),” he said, after reeling out the various incidents that illustrate the growing power of the Rajapaksa brothers ruling the country, and their guardian-angel, the Dragon. “Your leaders in Delhi did nothing to stop this Chinese invasion. They can now do nothing for at least another two or three decades,” said this ex-member of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO).

The man must know; for, the TELO chief Selvam Adaikalanathan, a RAW baby during the creation of the Eelam militancy, now occupies the exalted position of the deputy chairman of the Sri Lanka-China Parliamentary Friendship Association headed by the ‘powerful’ Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, who is widely expected to succeed his father, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the throne in Colombo.

This ‘revival’ association announced in April is said to be an influential power group to steer the Rajapaksa regime’s decisions on Chinese projects through positive parliamentary interventions, and to counter the opposition politicians’ criticism that the government is ‘selling the island away to China’. After his wondrous visit to witness the ‘economic growth, hi-tech infra and high living standards’ in China a couple of years back—it was part of the Chinese strategy to take groups of lawmakers, journalists and opinion-makers to build a solid support base in the ‘targeted’ country—Adaikalanathan was eminently qualified for his role in the ‘friendship association’. What’s wrong with him dreaming of a similar spectacular growth in his country that got almost nothing from Mother India?

In the month that followed, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the controversial Bill allowing the China-sponsored ‘Colombo Port City’ with 149 MPs in the House of 225 voting in its favour. Opposition politicians and civil society groups had opposed the Bill as it ‘directly affected’ Sri Lankan sovereignty. “You say so much about (Tamil) Eelam, but this is Cheelam (Chinese Eelam),” said M.A. Sumanthiran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), while participating in the debate on the Bill in the Parliament. “…and it is Cheelam you are enacting in your own laws, when you don’t have jurisdiction over that territory”, the Jaffna MP argued in vain. What he had obviously meant was that the $1.4 billion port city, launched in 2014 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, and being built on land reclaimed adjacent to the iconic Galle Face Beach, will be administered by the Chinese and developed as a business-finance hub that could challenge Singapore and Hong Kong in technology and infrastructure.

That the project launched during the earlier reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa had smooth sailing through the government of rival Ranil Wickremesinghe-Maithripala Sirisena and is galloping towards completion under the present reign of Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrates the Chinese economic power and bares the Dragon’s expansionist designs. “The Chinese have the deepest pockets in the world, have unlimited spending capacity, even under the table; whereas the Indian leadership is forever hamstrung by impoverished budgets to draw from and the hawkeyed CAG (Comptroller & Auditor General) to pick holes on even frugal spending,” said a senior civil servant.

‘No Outsiders Can Dictate Us’

President Xi Jinping is undisputedly the most powerful Leader of State in the world today, even stronger in his seat than the President of America. And he has not one but three thrones to adorn—as the President of his country, the head of the all-powerful Communist Party and the super boss of the military. And he seems determined to conquer new geographical terrain, win over new partners even if that meant investing billions of dollars on his ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), touted as the means to “enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future,” and even as most of the western world and its allies such as India have declared ‘war’ against him.

The BRI overwhelming not just Pakistan but most of India’s neighbours worries Delhi. And the Lankan slip is particularly hurtful as it has all the potential of opening up a new war theatre in hitherto peaceful south India as China is expected to ‘protect its installations and human resources’ invested in the island, including the Tamil-dominated northern Lanka.

ALSO READ | India-Sri Lanka Relationship Hits Roadblocks. Is China Playing Dirty Games in Indian Ocean?

Remember Mahinda Rajapaksa openly accusing the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of engineering his humiliating defeat in the January 2015 presidential elections? Well, the Rajapaksas have come a long way since then—thanks again to the liberal support from the Chinese who have begun actively participating in the Lankan political manipulations—and with the youngest of brothers Basil taking charge as the finance minister on Thursday (July 8), the Sri Lankan government now has seven members from the Rajapaksa family and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa obliquely addressing Delhi when he declares now and then that ‘no outsiders can dictate to us’.

India’s Eelam Misadventure

The story of how India lost its precious pearl in the sea down south to the Dragon would make for a sad read. India was in firm control over the affairs of Sri Lanka till about the end of its bloody civil war in 2009. Informed diplomatic sources recall how things turned sour after Indira Gandhi decided to follow her big, tall adviser G. Parthasarathy (Sr) and chose the perilous path of injecting Eelam militancy—through the RAW—into the Sri Lankan Tamil youth, thereby alienating the majority Sinhala polity in the southern neighbour.

Multiple Eelam groups of Tamils, some as young as 13-14 years of age, were created, trained in India (mostly in Tamil Nadu), armed and funded, and sent back to carry out sabotage attacks in the island targeting the armed forces and Sinhala civilians. Ultimately, these Eelam groups fought among each other and the dominant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE took on the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to earn the sobriquet ‘vanquisher of the world’s second largest military’, and later in 1991 killed Rajiv Gandhi during electioneering in Tamil Nadu.

The bloody finale of the Eelam campaign saw not just the decimation of the Tigers and the killing of their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran but also the massacre of at least 70,000 civilians in one of the most brutal civil wars in human history. It also turned the Tamils in the island against India and Delhi did precious little to change that hostile mindset through substantial injection of meaningful help for the war-affected people. China is now trying just that in order to win over the population in north Lanka and ensure smooth sailing for all its projects and anti-India schemes in the region.

The saying that one learns not to make mistakes by learning from the past may not apply to India’s foreign policy makers; yet, it could be relevant here to recall some of those blunders.

At a time when Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardene was among the weakest heads of state in the Asian continent and his military was low in terms of the number of soldiers and lower in battle morale, not to speak of its skeletal weaponry, Indira Gandhi heading the regional super power could have easily achieved permanent solution to the problems of the minority Tamils in the island without losing one drop of blood, if she had, to recall what a senior diplomat once told me, “merely phoned the wily fox and invited herself to a hot cup of the famous Ceylon tea at his presidential palace, Temple Trees, while dropping a hint that the Tamil issue could be part of their neighbourly chat and she was confident that as a senior statesman, JR would be generous to his own Tamil people”.

Between the MEA, RAW and later the MI (Military Intelligence), Indian interests in Sri Lanka got irretrievably messed up. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) initiated the Eelam debacle, the RAW carried it to its bloody end and the MI caused the slaughter of hundreds of soldiers and officers in the three years of IPKF operation by repeatedly misreading the savage Tiger’s mind, manners and machinations, until the troops were ignominiously withdrawn in 1990 under very hostile circumstances in both India and Sri Lanka. While the MI is no longer a player in the Lankan affairs, instances are many to show that the MEA and RAW continue to be in top-gear, deepening the mess south of the Palk Strait. The Indian High Commission in Colombo has been mostly run by non-Tamils, who knew little beyond the Delhi briefs about the intricate Sinhala-Tamil conflict.

When Indira Gandhi launched her Eelam misadventure, India alienated the majority Sinhala community who accused the Big Brother of plotting to break the little island into two subservient pieces; and when the Eelam war ended in May 2009, the Tamils started hating India accusing it of helping ‘butcher’ Mahinda Rajapaksa in the genocide. The present Chinese moves to win over Tamil leaders and launch projects in north Lanka could hasten the Indian alienation unless Delhi does some fast-track repairing through Tamil officers posted in its Colombo mission to retain the Tamils as a buffer against any Chinese ‘adventure’.

Pushing Sri Lanka towards China

“India is not even talking to us though we have sent representations seeking appointments,” said a senior leader of the Lankan Tamil diaspora based in London. He sounded bitter recalling that India did not support their resolution before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seeking investigation of war crimes during final stages of the Eelam campaign. “You thought you will please the Rajapaksas and ensure they stay on your side; but they have only cozied up closer to China,” he said. While India abstained from voting at the UNHCHR, China voted against the resolution.

ALSO READ | Why the Colombo Port City Project Has Got India Worried

‘Eelanadu’ is a popular Tamil newspaper coming out of Jaffna every morning. Its Sunday column by senior scribe Ranjan Arun Prasad was titled, ‘Between India and China, who is the real friend of Sri Lanka?’ The one-page analysis dealt with a whole lot of bitter experiences that the island and its people suffered at Delhi’s hands and concluded, in a big bold screamer, ‘The attitude of indifference and deep alienation that drives the Indian foreign policy has pushed away not just Sri Lanka but also the other Asian countries towards China’.

Even assuming that the Chinese ‘hospitality’ is helping the Dragon win heaps of effusive journalism in the island, Prasad’s column demonstrates that the lack of positive contact from the Indian Missions in Colombo and Jaffna has caused deep disaffection in the Tamil media and consequently the Tamil population. “We have had, mostly, Hindi-speaking north Indians heading the Indian Missions in Colombo all these years. They neither knew our language nor could they understand our grassroots issues. Even the recently posted High Commissioner is a north Indian, which only proves to us again that India does not care”, said a former editor of the highly-influential ‘Tamil Mirror’ newspaper published in Colombo.

I asked a retired Ambassador about this and his reply shocked me. “There is an unwritten understanding in the MEA that no Tamil would be sent as the head of the Colombo mission, perhaps as a show of goodwill towards the Sinhala-dominated Lankan government, which again amounts to India tacitly admitting Tamils do not matter there. And do you know there is a similar arrangement that no non-Muslim would be sent to Saudi Arabia,” he said. The bizarre ‘unwritten’ diktat, it appears, was an element of the Congress’ concoction of non-alignment for winning friends across the post cold war world.

“Oh no, not at all. You can see it all for yourself, loud and clear,” was the quick response from the Ambassador friend to my innocent query whether the ‘arrangement’ won us any special relationship with these two countries.
The hard truth, delivered to us over years of mismanagement in the South Block, is that the emergence of a new war theatre down south seems imminent, given the way things are going. It’s something that India can hardly afford.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

Read all the Latest News, Breaking News and Coronavirus News here

first published:July 13, 2021, 09:58 IST
last updated:July 13, 2021, 09:58 IST