• India is the only neighbor of Sri Lanka, separated by the Palk Strait; both nations occupy a strategic position in South Asiaand have sought to build a common security umbrella in the Indian Ocean.Both India and Sri Lanka are republics within the Commonwealth of Nations.
  • Only land border India and Sri Lanka have is in Talaimannaron a Ram Sethu sand dune.
  • As Ethnic ties have bound southern India and Sri Lanka for more than two millennia. India is a home to more than 60 million of the world’s 77 million Tamils, while about 4 million live in Sri Lanka.

Historical relationship

  • The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old. Sri Lanka was established as a country after European colonialism, but was before part of various Indian kingdoms.
  • According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles (such as the Dipavamsa), Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 4th century BCE by Venerable Mahinda, the son of Indian Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Sri Lanka’s King DevanampiyaTissa.
  • During this time, a sapling of the Bodhi Treewas brought to Sri Lanka and the first monasteries and Buddhist monuments were established such as the Isurumuni-vihaara and the Vessagiri-vihaara
  • Venerable Mahinda is also credited with the construction of the Pathamaka-cetiya, the Jambukola-vihaara and the Hatthaalhaka-vihaara, and the refectory.
  • The Pali Canon, having previously been preserved as an oral tradition, was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka around 30 BCE.
  • Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, with the Sanghahaving existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 4th century.
  • For most of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, their ancestors were from India.
  • The two countries share near-identical racial and cultural ties. Sinhalese people who make up 75% of the total population descend from Northern Indian Indo Aryan settlers who migrated the Island from 543BCE to 243BCE.

History of Civil War

A) Background

  • Tamils and Sinhalese are the two major ethnic groups In Sri Lanka. Sinhalese eternal conflict with Tamils for power had been gathering strength since before independence.
  • Many Tamils attended English language schools which were the passport to higher education and better employment in the colonial period. And the Tamil-dominated Northern Province had comparatively better facilities in terms of education and employment.
  • Post-independence Sinhalese nationalism sought to curb the Tamil presence in education and civil administration. In 1949 Indian Tamil plantation workers disenfranchised, the start of a wave of Sinhalese nationalism which alienates the Tamil people in the region.
  • The passing of the infamous “Sinhalese Only Bill” in 1956 was another attempt in the same lines.
  • The constitutional provisions in the 1972 Constitution favoring the Sinhalese language and Buddhist religion, along with their educational policies convinced many Tamils that they had been perceived as a marginal community. The Sinhalese changed the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and made Buddhism the nation’s primary religion.
  • As ethnic tension grew, in 1976, the LTTE was formed under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, and it began to campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where most of the island’s Tamils reside.
  • In 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army convoy, killing thirteen soldiers and triggering riots in which 2,500 Tamils died.

B) India’s role in Civil war and its implications

  • The bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka deteriorated in 1980’s with a rising of the Tamil militant separatism in Sri Lanka.
  • In 1987 with the objective of improving the ties, Indo-Sri Lankan Accordwas signed between India and Sri Lanka.
  • It proposed a political solution to the Sri Lanka’s conflict by establishing a provincial council system and devolution of power for nine provinces in Sri Lanka. (This is popularly known as The Thirteenth Amendment (13A) to the Constitution of Sri Lanka)
  • India also deployed Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka intended to perform a peacekeeping (It is known as Operation Pawan, which ultimately resulted in the assassination of PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1991).
  • After two years of constant military engagement, the IPKF was withdrawn
  • Finally, in 2009, 25 years of violence ended when Sri Lankan government seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. India at that point of agreed to reconstruct the war-torn areas and started many rehabilitation programs.
  • However, the pro-LTTE governments in Tamil Nadu influenced the decisions of Central Government which posed a roadblock in humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka.
  • India voted against Sri Lanka in 2009, 2012 and 2013 at the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution to investigate alleged human rights violations by the state against the Tamil rebels.

C) Rebuilding effort

  • The conclusion of the armed conflict saw the emergence of a major humanitarian challenge, with nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians housed in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Government of India put in place a robust programme of assistance to help the IDPs return to normal life as quickly as possible.
  • The assistance was provided in three phases.
  • First Phase: In the first phase, India provided immediate relief and assistance to the IDPs from the war zone. The assistance included 2.5 lakh family relief packs, medicines worth Rs. 225 million; an emergency field hospital in Pulmodai which treated over 50,000 displaced people
  • Second Phase: In the second phase, India extended resettlement and livelihood assistance which included deployment of seven de-mining teams; assistance by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research to help revive agricultural sector in Northern Sri Lanka; 95,000 packs of agricultural implements for resettling IDP families; 500 tractors etc.
  • Third Phase
  1. Reconstruction and development assistance being provided by India in the third phase include construction of 50,000 houses for the IDPs in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. It is the flagship project of the Government of India.
  2. Renovation of 79 schools in Northern Province;
  3. technical assistance to the ten-year presidential initiative to steer Sri Lanka towards a Trilingual Society by 2020;
  4. setting up language labs in all the nine provinces of Sri Lanka;
  5. scholarship for the Sri Lankan students;
  6. setting up vocational training centres at Hatton,
  7. Restoration of Thiruketheeswaram Temple.
  8. The construction of a 150-bed hospital at Dickoya, upgrading of the hospital at Trincomalee and a US$7.5 million grant for setting up a cancer hospital in Colombo.

Geopolitical Significance of Sri Lanka

  • Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean region as an island State has been of strategic geopolitical relevance to several major powers.
  • Some examples that highlight Western interests in Sri Lanka’s strategic location are the British Defence and External Affairs Agreement of 1948, and the Maritime Agreement with USSR of 1962.
  • Sri Lanka was chosen to build the Voice of America transmitting station (suspected of being used for intelligence gathering purposes and electronic surveillance of the Indian Ocean).
  • China is building state of the art gigantic modern ports all along the Indian Ocean to the south of it, in Gwadar (Pakistan), Chittagong (Bangladesh, KyaukPhru (Myanmar) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka).
  • China’s string of pearl’s strategy is aimed at encircling India to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean.
  • Post 2015, Sri Lanka still relies heavily on Chinafor Port city project and for continuation of Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
  • Although the Hambantota harbour is reportedly making losses, it too has potential for development due to its strategic location.
  • Sri Lanka has a list of highly strategic ports located among busiest sea lanes of communication.
  • Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port is the 25th busiest container port in the world and the natural deep water harbor at Trincomalee is the fifth largest natural harbour in the world.
  • Port city of Trincomalee was the main base for Eastern Fleet and British Royal Navy during the Second World War.
  • Sri Lanka’s location can thus serve both commercial and industrial purposes and be used as a military base.

Areas of Cooperation

A) Commercial ties

  • Sri Lanka has long been a priority destination for direct investment from India.
  • Indian exports account for 14% of Sri Lanka’s global imports. India is also the fifth largest export destination for Sri Lankan goods, accounting for 3.6% of its exports. Both nations are also signatories of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement(SAFTA).
  • Sri Lanka is one of India’s largest trading partners among the SAARC countries. India in turn is 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.
  • Trade between the two countries grew particularly rapidly after the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement which came into force in March 2000.
  • Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement (ETCA): The proposed ETCA between India and Sri Lanka would facilitate trade in services, investments and technological cooperation. With ETCA signed, Indian investments will flow into Sri Lanka to make the island’s production facilities part of the Indian and international value chain.
  • The agreement CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) which is yet to be signed between the countries,seeks to build on the momentum generated by the FTA and take the two economies beyond trade in goods towards greater integration and impart renewed impetus and synergy to bilateral economic interaction.

Political Relations

  • Political relations between India and Sri Lanka have been marked by high-level exchanges of visits at regular intervals.
  • Sri Lanka is a member of regional groupings like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC in which India plays a leading role.
  • Recently, India has invited leaders of BIMSTEC member countries to attend the swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his council of ministers. This is in line with the government’s focus on its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
  • Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years.
  • Former President Rajapaksa took Sri Lanka closer to China and sidelining Indian concerns including over the rehabilitation of Tamils displaced by the long-running Sri Lankan civil war.

Cultural and Educational Relations

  • The Cultural Cooperation Agreementsigned by the two Governments on 29 November, 1977, forms the basis for periodic Cultural Exchange Programmes between the two countries.
  • TheIndian Cultural Centre in Colombo actively promotes awareness of Indian culture by offering classes in Indian music, dance, Hindi and Yoga. Every year, cultural troupes from both countries exchange visits
  • Festival of India in Sri Lanka was launched in November 2015, with ‘Nrityarupa’, a scintillating dance medley from different parts of India performed in Colombo, Kandy and Galle. The theme of the Festival is “Sangam”: a confluence of cultures of India and Sri Lanka.
  • India and Sri Lanka commemorated the 2600th year of the attainment of enlightenment by Lord Buddha (Sam buddhathva Jayanthi) through joint activities.
  • The two Governments also celebrated the 150th Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala in 2014.
  • The India-Sri Lanka Foundation,set up in December 1998 as an intergovernmental initiative, also aims towards enhancement of scientific, technical, educational and cultural cooperation through civil society exchanges and enhancing contact between the younger generations of the two countries.
  • Education is an important area of cooperation. India now offers about 290 scholarship slots annually to Sri Lankan students.
  • In addition, under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Scheme and the Colombo Plan, India offers 370 slots annually to Sri Lankan nationals.
  • Government of India formally launched the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) schemefor Sri Lankan tourists on 14 April 2015 to increase the people to people contact.
  • Buddhism is a connecting link between India and Sri Lanka on religious lines.
  • Education is another important area of cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. India offers scholarship slots annually to deserving Sri Lankan students.
  • Tourism also forms an important link between India and Sri Lanka. India is the largest source of market for Sri Lankan tourism with every fifth tourist being from India.

Indian Diaspora

  • The People of Indian Origin (PIOs) comprise Sindhis, Borahs, Gujaratis, Memons, Parsis, Malayalis and Telugu speaking persons who have settled down in Sri Lanka (most of them after partition) and are engaged in various business ventures.
  • Though their numbers are much lesser as compared to Indian Origin Tamils (IOTs), they are economically prosperous and are well placed.
  • Each of these communities has their organization which organizes festivals and cultural events.
  • The IOTs are mostly employed in either tea or rubber plantations in Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces though during the last decade, the younger generation have been migrating to Colombo in search of employment.
  • A fair number of IOTs living in Colombo are engaged in business. According to Government census figures (2011), the population of IOTs is about 1.6 million.

Defence and Security Cooperation

  • Sri Lanka and New Delhi have long history of security cooperation. In recent years, the two sides have steadily increased their military-to-military relationship.
  • India facilitated arms deals, sold defensive weapons, and provided critical naval and intelligence support to help Sri Lanka target the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
  • Indian Coast Guard giftedan offshore patrol vessel (OPV) to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard for training and surveillance purposes. The Indian Coast Guard also handed over two OPVs to Sri Lanka in 2006 and 2008.
  • India has also held numerous joint military exercises with Sri Lanka, grouped under three different types.
  • The “Mitra Shakti” bilateral exercises, conducted between the two armies, started in 2013 focused on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, with an emphasis on increasing the use of modern communication, reconnaissance and weapon technologies.
  • “SLINEX” is a series of naval exercises between the two navies. First conducted in 2005, these exercises help the two navies understand each other’s procedures. The goal is to enable the navies of both countries to rehearse and improve their own capabilities and enhance operational effectiveness, which is imperative for maintaining maritime security in the region
  • The third joint exercise, called “Dosti,”is a trilateral coast guard exercise that includes the Maldives. Originally started in 1991 between India and the Maldives, it expanded in 2012 to include Sri Lanka and is aimed at achieving interoperability.


  • India has also successfully imparted training to the Sri Lankan military across the three branches of the armed forces for years. Between 2011 and 2013, almost 1,700 Sri Lankan officers trained in India, and around 80 percent of Sri Lankan naval officers received training from India.
  • In April 2019, India and Sri Lanka also concluded agreement on countering Drug and Human trafficking.

Disaster relief

  • Under a line of credit of $167.4 million, the tsunami-damaged Colombo-Matara rail link has been repaired and upgraded.
  • To mitigate the recent drought in Sri Lanka, India has donated 08 lorry mounted water bowsers to Sri Lanka as well as 100 metric tons of rice in May 2017.
  • During the devastation of floods in the end of May 2017, India has responded immediately by sending three ships with relief materials including food supplies, water, inflatable boats, diving team and medical teams for flood relief efforts.

Issues and Conflicts

A) Chinese Influence

  • In recent years, China has extended billions of dollars of loans to the Sri Lankan government for new infrastructure projects, which is not good for India’s strategic depth in Indian Ocean Region.
  • Sri Lanka also handed over the strategic port of Hambantota, which is expected to play a key role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to China on a 99-year lease.
  • China has also supplied arms as well as provide huge loans to Sri Lanka for its development.
  • China also invested sufficiently in the infrastructure of Sri Lanka, which included building of Colombo international container terminal by China Harbor Corporation.
  • In the period of low profile relationship between the two nations, SL apparently started favoring China over India.
  • Over the years Chinese funds started flowing, it has started big buck infrastructure projects in the island nation. The presence of China in Sri Lanka increased significantly in the recent years.
  • As part of Maritime Silk Route (MSR) policy, China built two ports, one in Colombo and another in Hambantota.
  • China has also collaborated in satellite launching activities with Supreme SAT (Pvt.), Sri Lanka’s only satellite operator.
  • Sri Lanka’s debt obligations to China and the link between that debt and the decision to lease Hambantota port to China for 99 years.
  • The rise of Chinese imports in Sri Lanka from only 3.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s total imports in 2000 to 20 percent in 2017 with a simultaneous decline in Indian imports

Indian Response

  • However, the relation between Sri Lanka and India are improving. In order to allay Indian concerns that the Hambantota port will not be used for military purposes, the Sri Lankan government has sought to limit China’s role to running commercial operations at the port while it retains oversight of security operations.
  • The two countries have signed civil nuclear cooperation agreement which is Sri Lanka’s first nuclear partnership with any country.
  • India is also investing into Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
  • India is also planning to build Trincomalee Port to counterweight the Chinese developments at Hambantota Port.
  • In 2014 India abstained from voting on a UNHRC resolution calling for a probe into alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka. And it helped to revamp the century-old relationship with Sri Lanka. (While Pakistan and China voted against the resolution)

B) Civil War’s shadow

  • 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.

C) Fishermen issue

  • Given the proximity of the territorial waters of both countries, especially in the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar, incidents of straying of fishermen are common.
  • Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional fishermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meagre area in their fishing forays.
  • Indian fishermen have extended their fishing activities to Sri Lankan territorial waters. This is owing to the gradual depletion of fishing resources in the Indian continental shelf, the relatively greater availability of fish on the Sri Lankan side, and the Sri Lankan fishermen from the Northern Province not being in a position to exploit the marine resources.
  • Moreover, Sri Lankan fishermen did not have the means, for example, advanced fishing implements like gill nets, modern trawlers, etc.
  • Indian fishermen have also been resorting to bottom trawling (banned as per international fishing regime), which is destructive of the layout of the sea-floor, and the natural habitat for fish breeding
  • Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL rather than return empty-handed, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.Over 730 fishermen have been killed in the last 30 years
  • The Sri Lankan government wants India to ban use of mechanized trawlers in the Palk Strait region, whereas India favors regulating these trawlers instead of banning them altogether.
  • Both countries have agreed on certain practical arrangements to deal with the issue of bona fide fishermen of either side crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line.
  • India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries between the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare of India and Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development of Sri Lanka as the mechanism to help find a permanent solution to the fishermen issue.

D) Katchatheevu Island

  • It is an uninhabited island that India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 based on a conditional agreement called “Kachchativu island pact”.
  • Later on, Sri Lanka declared Katchatheevu, a sacred land given the presence of a Catholic shrine
  • The central government recognizes Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island as per the 1974 accord.
  • But Tamil Nadu claimed that Katchatheevu falls under the Indian Territory and Tamil fishermen have traditionally believed that it belongs to them and therefore want to preserve the right to fish there.

Way Forward

A) Economic

  • Build on the success of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA): explore ways of expanding two-way trade and investment flows
  • 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 and 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.
  • Explore ways and means by which India can assist in mitigating long-term financial risks, including through arrangements between the two Central Banks
  • 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.
  • Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) must be signed to improve the economic cooperation between both countries by promoting greater understanding of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) through addressing residual issues, particularly non-tariff barriers

B) Political and strategic

  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (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
  • 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.

C) Fishing/Maritime

  • Continue the cooperation and dialogue on De-limitation of the Continental Shelf between the two countries in the Bay of Bengal at the bilateral level and
  • Set up a Joint Mechanism for the conservation and 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.
  • 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.
  • Initiate comprehensive and effective measures towards providing alternative means of livelihood for them to curb the natural tendency of Indian fishermen to intrude into Sri Lankan territorial waters.
  • Fishing in the area may be undertaken under institutional arrangements of, say, government recognized and registered fishermen’s cooperatives or through outsourced/contractual arrangements of the Tamilnadu Government’s fisheries department, in order to ensure that fishing is carried out in an organized manner and within an institutional framework.

D) People-to-people contacts

  • Explore ways to significantly expand people-to-people contacts through considering visa on arrival; through promotion of tourism, including religious and medical tourism.
  • Streamline the scholarships schemes by taking steps to remove irritants such as selection processes, time-delays ,the deadline for submission of application forms, hostel facilities
  • 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.
  • Visits by schoolchildren to places of historic and cultural interest in each other’s country.
  • Encourage greater interaction in sports and athletics, particularly below- 21 teams.
  • Encourage two-way flows of artistes and creative personnel and thereby facilitate exchange of experiences in the respective disciplines.
  • Encourage film, music and dance festivals and participation of Sri Lankan film directors in Indian film festivals.
  • 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.
  • India shares a common cultural and security space with the countries in the South Asian region especially Sri Lanka. As a prominent Asian nation with critical national interests in South Asia, India has a special responsibility to ensure peace and stability in its closest neighborhood. India should shed its big brother image and actively take part to rebuild the war-torn country.
  • India needs the support of Sri Lanka to emerge as a Blue water navy in the Indian Ocean and also in pursuing the permanent membership in United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Therefore, the two countries should recognize the legitimacy of each other’s concerns and operate in a way which is mutually beneficial.
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