Talk of the Palk

There is no shortage of ferment in India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Some of it is manufactured, some of it is genuine, and some of it is India’s fault. Still, bilateral relations at the government level are arguably the best they have been since independence, especially considering how messy they were during the civil war.

But this is not the impression one gets at the ground level. Here, a closer look at some of the present sources of friction.

A minor source of discord is the supposed attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen. The attacks have nothing to do with Tamil vs Sinhala squabbles — actually, many of the incidents pit Indian Tamils against Lankan Tamils. The Palk Straits are the source of the problem: the Straits haven’t been fished for decades, and are now a treasure trove of catch. “Lobsters like this,” one US diplomat told me, stretching his arms to their maximum. According to Indian diplomats, Indian fishing armadas of several hundred ships are on the prowl. Mark the incidents on the map and the clear majority of them are in Lankan waters.

But at the heart of the friction is the issue of a Tamil political settlement in Lanka. Here, Colombo is to blame. By the end of the civil war, partly thanks to the Tamil Tigers’ silly actions, sympathy among Indian Tamils for their brethren was at a minimum. A political settlement would have sealed the peace, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime decided against it. Or rather, they instead endorsed a political package, promised to implement it, and then never did. The Tamil areas are now a military protectorate.

It didn’t take long for the Indian Tamil parties to realize that the Lankan Tamil issue was about to be resurrected. J. Jayalalitha’s lobbying was the primary reason that New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in August. This was a clear sign that Eelam was back, even if only rhetorically. Jayalalitha was a sworn enemy of the Tamil Tigers. But she was inoculating herself against what she saw as the coming Eelam virus.

Sri Lanka has never explained its refusal to carry out the political settlement to Indians, let alone Tamils. Of course, there are theories: hubris after the war, fears about the oversized military, etc. New Delhi is sending the message that Rajapaksa is kindling a Tamil problem across the Palk Strait, but hasn’t gotten a clear response.

The irony is that in every other way, Lanka has been as agreeable to India as possible —  even on China, closely following the maxim that the Chinese can run and use ports but never own them. And Trincomalee remains effectively Indian: naval cooperation is as close to inter-operability as the Indian system allows. India and Lanka would be in a bilateral golden age — if only they could get over one small thing.

Back to Top Back to Top