India’s entanglement in Sri-Lankan civil war: From Tamil Eelam to UNHRC

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At the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, 2019, External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar had called India’s role of the Indian peace-keeping force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka – a misadventure. While discussing the phases of Indian foreign policy, in his words – “The third phase, from 1971 to 1991, was one of greater Indian regional assertion. It started with the decisive dismantlement of an India-Pakistan equivalence through the creation of Bangladesh, but ended with the IPKF misadventure in Sri Lanka”. Since then till today this issue has been a bone of contention between India and Sri Lanka in South Asia.

Seeds of the civil war: The legacy of Pax-Britannica

There is one common factor in the contemporary issues around the world i.e., rooted in the dark period of British colonialism. First, The boundary between India and Pakistan is demarcated, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited India got the task of ‘drawing’ lines of Partition. Second, Britishers migrated people from the Bengal region to Rakhine province during the colonial period to exploit natural resources for the Industrial revolution. Today Myanmar is facing a ‘clash of civilization’ between the migrated Rohingya Muslims and Bamar Buddhists in Myanmar. It has been the root cause of Rohingya issues.

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Similarly, British colonial rule is the root cause of the Sri Lanka civil war between 1983 to 2009. During the British colonial period, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. First of all, Britishers migrated Tamil people to Sri Lanka in the interest of colonial power. According to Nadarajan’s book, History of the Ceylon Tamils (1999), Indian Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka as indentured laborers during the 19th and 20th centuries to work on coffee, tea, and rubber plantations owned by the British. Indian Tamils had been lumped together with Sri Lankan Tamils for the Sri Lankan Census from 1871 to 1901.

Initially, there were little tensions between the two ethnic communities – Tamils and Sinhalese. Under the leadership of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, in 1919, major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). The major objective of CNC was to pressurize British power for constitutional reforms. This unity bothered Britishers. Similar to India, the British power had played the ‘communal card’ in Sri Lanka as well. In 1936, Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil.

Precipitating factor behind Sinhala and Tamil friction

However, in 1944 J.R. Jayawardene moved in the State Council that Sinhala should replace English as the official language. Just after independence in 1948, a controversial law was passed by the Parliament called the Ceylon Citizenship Act 1948. Political scientist Amita Shastri noted that the Citizenship Act sharply delineated ethnic differences, and distorted the political system to weigh it in favor of the Sinhalese majority. This act left barely seven lakhs of Tamilians without citizenship.

There were a competition and an ethnic outbidding between the two major Sinhalese-dominated parties – the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party at the expense of the Tamil minority. This directly contributed to the alienation of the Tamil population. Later it took the shape of secessionism where Tamil started demanding a separate homeland and the outbreak of ethnic violence and civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. It lasted long in 2009 when Prabhakaran was killed with 18 of his most loyal bodyguards.

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Shelter and Succor (1979-82): Start of creation

Even before Rajiv Gandhi, the relation between India and Sri Lanka was frictional. Indira Gandhi was a socialist leader leaning toward the USSR but Sri Lanka was close to the US. During the 1971 war with Pakistan, Sri Lanka planned to open their ports for US Navy vessels. The next blow came between India and Sri Lanka’s relation when Sri Lanka allowed the Pakistan air force to refuel in their airports.

In the 1980s, Moderates failed to counter Sinhala chauvinism. Tamil youth in north and east where Tamil population was in majority, started forming militants group. There were many militant groups led by Tamil ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Out of them, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the most powerful. It started eliminating other rival Tamil groups and became Leviathan in this civil war.

It led to the end of the intra-Tamil leadership conflict. Since then, the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil militant groups was visible. The modus operandi of LTTE was based on assassinations and of Sri Lankan government was to setup up a series of checkpoints around the city. When Sri Lanka police crackdown in Jaffna, Prabhakaran, and others moved into Chennai. In 1982, Prabhakaran was arrested in Chennai but later he jumped bail to return to Jaffna.

Training the Tigers (1983-87): Duplication of Bangladesh liberation

LTTE successfully eliminated other Tamil factions and became the sole representative of Tamils by 1986. In the same year, it captured Jaffna. It has significant impacts on India’s Tamilnadu region. There was a fear of secessionism if the government of India maintained a distance from this issue on the logic of ignorance by New Delhi. Political parties in Tamil Nadu were supporting the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. The anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka in 1983 led to a wave of refugees coming to India.

Jain Commission report claims that after an anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983, “R&AW took the Tamil militant groups under its wing and provided them training and weapons.” R&AW begins training Tamil groups in camps in various states in India. According to India Today, at least 1200 people were trained by 1984. In 1984, arms delivery begins and continues till 1987. LTTE started actions against Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna with India as a base.

The competitive populism between the then Tamil Nadu C.M. M.G. Ramachandran and opposition leader M. Karunanidhi added more fuel to this fire. India Today report claims that MGR patronized LTTE and paid crores of rupees as a relief which was used to sustain militancy. Before 1986, LTTE demanded autonomy but after 1986 it ‘uncompromisingly demanded secession through the creation of a Tamil Eelam.’ In 1987, Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene tried to persuade Rajiv Gandhi to bring back the LTTE on the demand of autonomy instead of secessionism.

Dual Policy (1987-88): India’s mismanagement

Rajiv Gandhi started planning for an accord. Political secretary, Hardeep Puri was told to proceed to Jaffna and inform LTTE about the only outline of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and get his willingness to come to New Delhi for an exchange of views. Hardeep Puri returned from Jaffna after holding discussions with Prabhakaran. He confirmed that Prabhakaran was agreed to the proposed accord with two conditions: (1) Sri Lankan forces should close all military camps set up in the Vadamarachi region (2) He would be taken to New Delhi in an Indian airforce plane which implies New Delhi’s recognition of LTTE.

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Prabhakaran along with his family was airlifted with the help of an Indian airforce helicopter from Jaffna to Delhi via Madras. At the first meeting at Ashoka hotel in New Delhi, Prabhakaran refused to endorse the agreement. According to Prabhakaran, he was not awarded with the fact that the agreement was going to be signed between India and Sri Lanka. After rounds of meeting with Indian officials and politicians including Tamil Nadu CM, Prabhakaran accepted that he was agreed with the accord.

One of the ministers told to Rajiv Gandhi keep Prabhakaran in New Delhi till he surrenders all arms and ammunitions given by Indian agencies. But Rajiv Gandhi left Prabhakaran at face value. Prabhakaran took a ride of Indian diplomats, the Indian army, politicians, and R&AW officials. In the meanwhile, his organization used India’s assistance to strengthen itself. On the one hand, India consistently supported the unified Sri Lanka cause, and on the other hand, India was supporting the LTTE.

Fighting the LTTE (1989)

Even after getting thrust by LTTE against the accord, the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord was signed. It collectively addressed three contentious issues – (1) Strategic interests, (2) People of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, and  (3) Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka. It saw the induction of the Indian peacekeeping force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan forces would withdraw from the north and the Tamil rebels would disarm. The accord expected to enable the 13th amendment in the Sri Lankan constitution to end the civil war.

The friction between the Indian government and LTTE started taking place. First, the Peace accord was rejected by the LTTE since it was not made a party to the accord. Second, When Rajiv Gandhi visited Colombo to sign the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, he was attacked by a guard with a rifle butt. Third, Due to the increasing power of LTTE, its demand has been escalated from autonomy to independence but India’s commitment to unified Sri Lanka was intact.

Rajiv Gandhi decided to intervene with three objectives – (1) To neutralize the fear of secessionism, (2) To avoid the potential swarm of refugees from Sri Lanka, and (3) To keep Americans from gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka. Indian Peacekeeping force entered Sri Lanka fought against the LTTE. R Hariharan says that – After sacrificing nearly 1200 soldiers in Sri Lanka, India felt cheated when Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa joined hands with the LTTE to send the Indian troops out of Sri Lanka before they had completed their job.

In 1990, IPKF returns home. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in a political rally by LTTE. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, LTTE started losing goodwill in the eye of the Indian Tamil people. LTTE lost all active and passive support from India. Mahinda Rajapaksa fought election in 2005 with the promise to defeat LTTE.  During Eelam War 2006, India didn’t help LTTE and instead help the Sri Lankan military in training, and providing intelligence inputs. India’s bitter experience ended with the last chapter of Prabhakaran in 2009 when he was killed.

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UNHRC voting: India abstains from voting

Sri Lanka faced a new resolution calling on to hold human rights and deliver justice to victims of 26 years-long civil war. India voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 but India abstained from voting in 2014. The resolution 30/1 launched in 2015 deals with promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka. The 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.” In 2021 also, India abstained from voting in UNHRC.

India abstains from voting in UNHRC against Sri Lanka because – First, India has learned lessons from the bitter experiences. Second, Sri Lanka has openly asked for India’s help. For this, the Sri Lankan government had cancelled the speech of Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan in the Sri Lankan parliament. Third, India has been fearful of Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka. Recently, Sri Lanka cancelled the trilateral deal with India and Japan to develop the Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT).

Fourth, India has been on the way to deal the sensitive issues like Kashmir. Thus, it would not be a wise idea to create unnecessary diplomatic adversaries. Fifth, India’s relation in its neighborhood has been facing a tough time. Traditionally Pakistan is an unhappy neighbor of India. India-China met two standoffs – Doklam in 2016 and Galwan in 2020. Friction between India and Nepal over constitutional development and the Madhesi cause is still prevalent. Bangladesh has expressed sorrow against India over the citizenship amendment act 2019.

Thus, India has taken the best possible decision to secure India’s interest in the neighborhood as well as managed the geopolitical calculations.


  1. Ministry of external affairs | External Affairs Minister’s speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, 2019
  2. The New Indian Express | How a man who had never visited India got the task of ‘drawing’ lines of Partition
  3. Decoding Dream India | Why did the world fail assisting Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar
  4. The Indian Express | Story of Sri Lanka’s citizenship law
  5. India Today | Jain Commission opens up old wounds India inflicted upon itself
  6. The Hindu | Looking back at the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord
  7. BBC | Velupillai Prabhakaran: Man who killed Rajiv Gandhi
  8. Rediff | J.N. Dixit on Sri Lankan civil war
  9. The Hindu | Lankan man attacked Rajiv Gandhi with rifle butt
  10. Hindustan Times | India abstains from UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka’s human rights record
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