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Comments on India's gift of a Ship to Sri Lanka Navy; By Col. R. Hariharan

C3S Paper No. 0168/2015

[This article includes comments on the subject made in a TV​ interview to a news channel  on August 31, 2015.]

India has handed over a Coast Guard ship to Sri Lanka Navy as a gift. Tamil Nadu political leaders have strongly condemned it because Sri Lanka Navy had used such “gifts” from India to attack our fishermen and destroy the Sea Tiger boats during the Eelam War. MDMK leader Vaiko has described it as a ‘betrayal’ of Eelam Tamils and Tamil Nadu fishermen. What are your views on this?

India’s Sri Lanka policy is not solely guided by what happened in the Eelam War or the fishermen issue. Indian government is responsible for national security and it has to ensure the country’s foreign policy is tailored to serve our strategic interests. So we should view New Delhi’s gift of a coast guard vessel in this broader context than from the perspective of one or two issues only.

Tamil Nadu political leaders have long used both the fishermen issue as well as the Tamil separatist struggle to strengthen their political constituencies in the state. So it is not surprising that they have strongly criticized gifting away the Indian Coast Guard vessel Varaha to Sri Lanka Navy on August 27.

In any case, the Eelam War is over and the Tamil Tigers have been eliminated in Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka fears the possibility of LTTE’s revival as remnants of the LTTE are still active abroad.   Sri Lanka Navy is responsible to ensure such elements do not clandestinely enter into the country. So it will continue to patrol Sri Lankan waters to check any suspicious movement of boats.

The Tamil Nadu fishermen issue is a complex one because it is connected not only with the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen, but also to the sanctity of international maritime boundary as well as territorial claims. So it will continue to linger unless the two countries make up their mind to resolve the issue once and for all. As the issue has become politically complicated in both countries, we cannot expect its closure in the near future.

Ever since China entered Sri Lanka in a big way India’s maritime security concerns have increased. Chinese naval ships are increasingly sighted in our ocean vicinity. China has financed and completed the Hambantota port project and the expansion of Colombo carrier terminal. Last year, India had strongly objected to the berthing of Chinese warships, including two submarines, in Colombo port. Sri Lanka seems to have understood India’s security concerns as it is a major user of Colombo port facility.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka – the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 12 years – the two nations have come closer. The Sirisena government has responded positively to India’s security concerns about Chinese warships; this is evident from a PTI report on April 15, 2015 from Beijing. It quoted Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at Shanghai Institute of International Studies as saying “the Gwadar port [in Pakistan] will also guarantee China’s naval ships’ maintenance and supply in the Indian Ocean. The move is widely seen as crucial for China, especially as it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will open its ports to Chinese naval ships.”

India, Maldives and Sri Lanka have a maritime coordination agreement under which Indian navy has been protecting the extended economic zone (EEZ) of the three countries. So India’s gift of a ship to the Sri Lanka navy should be viewed in the overall context of strengthening its maritime security which is in the interest of India’s own national security. This becomes even more important now that China’s naval presence Indian Ocean is going to increase in the years to come.

China is also helping to augment Pakistan’s naval capability by selling eight submarines and a few warships. Pakistan has in the past used Colombo to operate intelligence sources to spy on India; sometime back a Sri Lankan employed by the Pak ISI was arrested in Chennai after a bomb explosion. Pakistan and China have a strategic security agreement now apart from very close economic bonds.

So there are many dimensions to India-Sri Lanka defence cooperation.  We can expect greater defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, particularly between the navies, in the coming years. It would not be in our national interest to adopt a negative attitude to fostering good relations with Sri Lanka.

Lastly, at the risk of repeating myself, I would request Tamil Nadu political leaders to understand the dynamics of change in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE and the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa from power. It was Sri Lanka Tamils who helped President Maithripala Sirisena come to power by overwhelmingly voting for him. The Tamil National Alliance is at the forefront of looking after Tamil interests.

However, Sri Lanka Tamils particularly in northern and eastern provinces have not yet fully recovered from the aftermath of the devastating war. Tamil Nadu can help them immensely by assisting in increasing their employment and livelihood opportunities. This would make more meaningful contribution to them, than Tamil Nadu political leaders’ flowery, but negative, rhetoric on Sri Lanka.

[Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail:   Blog:]  

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