India-Sri Lanka relations

Sri Lanka has a special place in Indian hearts, given the time-tested bonds, going back almost to the very beginning of recorded history in the subcontinent. Our relationship is built upon the strong foundations of a shared cultural and socio-economic heritage and extensive people-to-people interactions over millennia.



  • The earliest mention of Sri Lanka dates back to the time of the Ramayana. Ravana, who held Sita captive in Lanka, was rescued by Ram with the help of Hanuman.
  • The relations go back to the times of the advent of Buddhism. Buddhism as a movement spread over Sri Lanka some 2000 years ago.
  • The north and north east region of Lanka has been economically integrated to India.
  • The native people of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) were colonially under the British, but were not a part of British India Empire, being administered separately.
  • From the 1830s onwards, British acquired indentured labour from India, especially from Tamil Nadu, to Ceylon. The Tamils who were transported by the British settled in the northern part of Ceylon.



  • India became independent in 1947 while Ceylon in 1948.
  • After Ceylon became independent, the Sinhalese government discriminated against Tamils, thereby deepening the void in Indo–Ceylon relations.
  • Ceylon, devised a mechanism to make it tough for Tamils to acquire state citizenship. They also wanted to ensure they put an end to Tamil dominance in public services. Through the Sinhalese language barrier, they made it tough for Tamil administrators.
  • However, in 1964, there was a Shastri–Sirimavo pact that was signed whereby Ceylon agreed to give three lakh Indian Tamils in Ceylon citizenship and India also agreed to repatriate a sizeable number to India. However, the matter of repatriation did not complete till 1988.
  • After the 1971 Indo–Pak war, Indian allegiance shifted towards the USSR as Sri Lanka gradually drifted towards the US.
  • Jayewardene advanced a liberal and open economy and positioned Sri Lanka westward.
  • The situation especially deteriorated in 1977 and 1981 due to Tamil riots.
  • Post 1980, India adopted a very delicate policy. It is widely alleged by scholars and theorists that India used the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) to train Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka.
  • The aim was to use Tamil rebels to destabilise the Jayewardene regime and also while also ensuring that the Tamil rebels do not succeed in creating a separate state.
  • It was in 1976 that the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), a separatist and insurgent militant force, was formed by V Prabhakaran.
  • As the R&AW had gradually succeeded in destabilizing the Sri Lankan government, it slowly stopped supporting the rebels.
  • But by this time, the LTTE had emerged as a powerful force and began to assert itself as the sole representative of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
  • When Indira Gandhi died, Jayewardene took the help of Pakistan and the US to get Sri Lankan forces trained to counter the LTTE rebels.
  • In 1987, Jayewardene formally requested India to oppose any kind of military intervention by the LTTE in Sri Lanka but India failed to act
  • India–Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) had been signed on 29 July 1987, which assigned a certain amount of autonomy to Tamil areas.
  • Sinhalese began to perceive India’s role as an undue interference in Sinhalese internal affairs that was not in Sri Lanka’s best interests.
  • In November 1989, in the Indian elections, V P Singh won and in March 1990, it ended the IPKF mission
  • The IPKF was recalled to India. In 1991, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and then was subsequently designated as a terrorist organisation.
  • After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, many Tamil groups also began to stop supporting the LTTE.
  • As India realised the failure of its mission, it also felt the need to go for a fresh look at India’s Sri Lanka policy.


India and Sri Lanka Accord-30 Years
  • The India-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) was an attempt to conclude the ethnic war of SriLanka through constitutional and political means.
  • The basic idea of the Accord was that the ISLA would provide India an opportunity to shape the post war political trajectory of Sri Lanka.
  • ISLA had two goals.
      • the idea was to persuade the conflicting ethnic groups to join mainstream politics
      • Seek political devolution in Sri Lanka by altering the constitution of the state to get autonomy for the Tamil community.
  • The ISLA was rejected by the LTTE and it resorted to violence against India and Sri Lanka both and continued till 2009.
  • As per ISLA, the LTTE was to give up their weapons to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and Sri Lanka was to accommodate the Tamils and go for devolution.
  • The Sri Lankan government in 1987, through the 13th Amendment, resorted to the devolution of power by creating Provincial Councils.
  • But they have become an extension of the ruling political party in power at the Centre. A large number of LTTE cadres avoided surrendering weapons to the IPKF and consumed cyanide.



  • As the Cold War ended, India opened up its economy and gave itself a fresh outlook to explore relations with the outside world.
  • This did impact our perception of Sri Lanka. Even the subsequent heads of state of Sri Lanka, namely, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, took steps to improve relations.
  • In 1998, India–Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement was signed.
  • From 2000 till 2003, India, encouraged dialogue and ceasefire between Sri Lanka and the LTTE, without being formally involved in the process.
  • Rajapaksa became President in November 2005. The period from 2005 to 2006 saw civil unrest in Lanka. The government of Rajapaksa increased the military backlash and launched Eelam war–IV from 2006 to 2009.
  • Prabhakaran, the most prominent leader of the LTTE, was killed in 2007 and by May 2009, the LTTE was wiped out.
  • During the Eelam war–IV, as India stayed out, Sri Lanka developed proximity with Pakistan and China.
  • Th post-LTTE period witnessed rising concern on the part of India as Pakistani pilots supplied training and ornament to Sri Lanka.
  • Arms were also provided by China, along with substantial economic aid. China was granted access to the Hambantota port, which India had earlier declined to develop citing financial reasons.
  • This has increased Indian fears as the possibility of a civilian–military nexus in Sri Lanka could endanger Indian security.
  • The major focus of India now is to ensure that Pakistan and China don’t use Sri Lanka against India.



  • Sri Lanka located at the southern tip of peninsular India is strategically important for India in the most comprehensive sense.
  • The strategic importance of Sri Lanka was well realized by Britain for the security of both British India and the Indian Ocean and they developed a major naval base at Trincomolee on the eastern coast.
  • This island nation lies astride the major sea lanes of communication from Europe to East Asia and the oil tanker routes from the oil producing countries of the Gulf to China, Japan and other Pacific countries.
  • In the military sense it is important to the United States as these same sea routes are used for transference of naval power from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.
  • India too has a vital strategic stake in Sri Lanka for her own security interests. An unfriendly Sri Lanka would strategically discomfit India.
  • Sri Lanka is also strategically important to India in terms of her Indian Ocean strategy and in terms of networking of partners for her aims of establishing an Indian Ocean Rim Community.
  • For the Indian Navy, it is important as the switching of naval fleets from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and vice versa the fleets have to take a round of Sri Lanka.
  • exposure to China’s Belt and Road Initiative through terminals in the Port of Colombo and the Port of Hambantota, both of which have attracted Chinese investment. China is one of Sri Lanka’s key trading partners.
  • Deepwater ports with the capacity to accommodate large vessels.



Strategic opportunities are always fleeting ones and so is the case of India forging a strategic partnership with Sri Lanka. If India dithers because of domestic politics compulsions, China is waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum. The Chinese strategic encirclement of India would then be fully complete and India will have no one to blame but itself.

Sri Lanka is one of India’s major development partners and this partnership has been an important pillar of bilateral ties between the two countries over the years. With grants alone amounting to around USD 570 million, the overall commitment by GOI is to the tune of more than USD 3.5 billion. India’s portfolio of development projects encompasses virtually all major sectors of the economy, including housing, infrastructure, education, health, agriculture, fisheries, industry, handicrafts, culture and sports.


Development Cooperation

Demand driven and people-centric nature of India’s development partnership with Sri Lanka has been the cornerstone of this relationship.


Indian Housing Project

  • With an initial commitment to build 50,000 houses in war affected areas and estate workers in the plantation areas, is Government of India (GoI)’s flagship grant project in Sri Lanka. India announced that an additional 10,000 houses would be constructed in plantation areas.
  • As on date, close to 49,300 houses spread across different provinces such as Northern, Eastern, Central etc have already been completed.
  • There are also four smaller housing programmes for constructing 2400 houses across Sri Lanka. Overall, India has so far committed to construct close to 62,500 houses in Sri Lanka.


Social services

  • The country-wide 1990 Emergency Ambulance Service is another flagship project.
  • the 150-bed Dickoya hospital, livelihood assistance to nearly 70,000 people from fishing and farming community in Hambantota, supply of medical equipment to Vavuniya Hospital and 150 Boats and Fishing gear for Mullaithivu fishermen.
  • A modern 1500 – seat auditorium named after Rabindranath Tagore in Ruhuna University, Matara, is the largest in any University in Sri Lanka.
  • There are another 20 ongoing grant projects across diverse spheres. This includes the iconic Jaffna Cultural Center, construction of 153 houses and infrastructure facilities in Anuradhapura; Upgradation of Saraswathy Central College in Pusselawa, Kandy;



11 Lines of credit (LOC) have been extended to Sri Lanka by the Export Import Bank of India in the last 15 years. Important sectors include: Railway, transport, connectivity, defence, solar.


Some important Projects completed are:

  • Supply of defence equipments;
  • Upgradation of railway line from Colombo to Matara;
  • Signalling and telecommunication system;
  • Supply of engine kits for buses, diesel locomotives railways, DMUs, Carrier and fuel tank wagons etc.
  • Various projects for procurement of rolling stocks for Sri Lankan Railways, Upgradation of railway tracks, setting up of railway workshop etc are at different stages of implementation.
  • A project for rehabilitation of the Kanakesanthurai harbour is being executed under a LOC
  • Projects under this LOC will include- rooftop solar units for Government buildings, rooftop solar units for low income families and a floating solar power plant.


India & Japan are allowed to build a new container terminal


  • Sri Lanka’s government said, it will allow India and Japan to develop a new container terminal at the country’s main port, several weeks after scrapping a deal with the two countries to develop one of the key terminals at the same port.
  • Sri Lanka halted the 2019 agreement for India and Japan to develop and operate the crucial East Container Terminal at Colombo Port after weeks of protests by trade unions and opposition parties.
  • India has selected Adani ports, which was earlier chosen to invest in the East Container Terminal. Which will be operated on a build, operate and transfer basis for 35 years.


China’s angle to the move


  • India, which considers the Indian ocean region to be its strategic backyard, has worried by rival China’s growing economic and political influence over neighbouring Sri Lanka.
  • China considers Sri Lanka to be a critical link in its massive “Belt and Road” global infrastructure building initiative and has provided billions of dollars in loans for Sri Lankan projects over the past decade. The projects include a seaport, airport, port city, highways and power stations.
  • China already operates the Colombo International Container Terminal as a joint venture with the Ports Authority.
  • Critics say the Chinese-funded projects are not financially viable and that Sri Lanka will face difficulty in repaying the loans.
  • In 2017, Sri Lanka leased a Chinese-built port located near busy shipping routes to a Chinese company for 99 years to end the heavy burden of repaying the Chinese loan used to build it.
  • Japan and India are members of Quad, a group of Indo-Pacific nations that also includes the US and Australia that is seeking to counter Chinese influence in the region

  • India and Sri Lanka enjoy a vibrant and growing economic and commercial partnership, which has witnessed considerable expansion over the years.
  • The entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) in 2000 contributed significantly towards the expansion of trade between the two countries.
  • Economic ties between the two nations also include a flourishing development partnership that encompasses areas such as infrastructure, connectivity, transportation, housing, health, livelihood and rehabilitation, education, and industrial development.


  • India has traditionally been among Sri Lanka’s largest trade partners and Sri Lanka remains among the largest trade partners of India in the SAARC.
  • In 2020, India was Sri Lanka’s 2nd largest trading partner with the bilateral merchandise trade amounting to about USD $ 3.6 billion.
  • Sri Lankan exports to India have increased substantially since 2000 when ISLFTA came into force and more than 60% of Sri Lanka’s total exports to India over the past few years have used the ISFTA benefits.
  • Interestingly, only about 5% of India’s total exports to Sri Lanka in the past few years have used the ISFTA provisions, thereby indicating their overall competitiveness in the Sri Lankan market.



  • India is also one of the largest contributors to Foreign Direct Investment in Sri Lanka. A number of leading companies from India have invested and established their presence in Sri Lanka.
  • According to BoI, FDI from India amounted to about US$ 1.7 billion during the period 2005 to 2019.
  • The main investments from India are in the areas of petroleum retail, tourism & hotel, manufacturing, real estate, telecommunication, banking and financial services.
  • Similarly, investments by Sri Lankan companies in India are also surging and taking advantage of India’s dynamic economy and wider market. Significant examples include Brandix, Damro, LTL Holdings, and other investments in the freight servicing and logistics sector.

The latest incident, which led to the death of four Indian fishermen, has once again brought the dispute to the fore. Indian fishermen went missing as they ventured into Palk Strait. A few days later, the Sri Lankan Navy announced that it had recovered four bodies, suspected to be of the missing fishermen. As news reached the shores of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, protests erupted as more than 200 fishermen blocked roads.


The issue

A maritime dispute between India and Sri Lanka remains unsolved, despite an agreement 47 years ago. Notwithstanding the 1974 Indo-Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement, Indian fishermen tend to cross the maritime border into Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, which in turn leads to assaults by the Sri Lankan Navy.

The fishermen were beaten to death by Sri Lankan naval officers.


Story behind fisherman issue

  • For centuries, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen communities have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict.
  • The scenario changed when India and Sri Lanka signed four Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974-76, which defined their respective understanding of the international maritime boundary between the two countries.
  • The idea behind these agreements was that they’d facilitate law enforcement and resource management in the Palk Strait.
  • Through the agreements, the Katchatheevu Island was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian government without consulting the Tamil Nadu state government.
  • Since then, Indian fishermen have only been allowed “access” to the island for resting, drying of nets and the annual St. Anthony’s festival, but not for fishing.
  • Despite the agreements, there is no well-defined maritime boundary between the two countries, leading to Indian fishermen trespassing into Sri Lankan waters in search of a better catch.
  • Between 1983 and 2009, Indian fishermen had easier access to the rich Sri Lankan waters as the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait was not heavily guarded.
  • In the last few decades, fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf has depleted. As a result, more fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters and also resort to the use of modern fishing trolleys which Lankan fishermen are unable to match.
  • The Indian fishermen saw a golden business opportunity during the LTTE era as the Sri Lankan government had disallowed the easy movement of Sri Lankan fishermen in waters owing to military operations.
  • Since 2009, the Sri Lankan navy has tightened surveillance of its northern maritime boundary to halt a potential return of Tamil insurgents.
  • With the LTTE war over, since 2010, there is a resurgence of Sri Lankan fishermen in Palk Bay. They were trying to reclaim their legitimate lost base and, in the process, became engaged in conflict.
  • This, in turn, increasing the number of arrests of Indian fishermen,
  • Sri Lankan authorities argue that they are simply protecting the maritime boundaries of the country against poaching, and securing the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen.


Way forward

  • The department of ocean development and ministry of agriculture have to ensure assistance to the states so that fishermen are able to find alternative livelihood to fishing in Palk Bay.
  • The Sri Lankan Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Minister appointed a three-member committee to find a lasting solution to the issue.
  • According to the minister, India had accepted a draft solution submitted by Sri Lanka in January last year, but further progress was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Sri Lanka had suggested joint patrols and operations between the two countries to guarantee effective results on illegal fishing and trespassing. There is an immediate need to sign a protocol for joint patrolling.
  • Despite having met more than once since 2016, a solution is yet to be finalized. Irrespective of the circumstances, a potential solution to the dispute relies on the response from the respective governments of India and Sri Lanka.
  • If both countries are unable to settle the dispute, then they could seek assistance from international maritime experts through the United Nations.
  • The Indian government has renewed the thrust on ocean economy in recent times with the PM signing MoU on ocean economy with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Maldives in 2015.


  • Kachchatheevu is a small island located about 10 miles north east of Rameshwaram.
  • The fishermen used it to dry their nets and catch fish.
  • When the Zamindari system was abolished, Kachchatheevu became a part of the Presidency of Madras.
  • When India became independent and initiated a boundary negotiation at the maritime level with Sri Lanka, Kachchatheevu was a disputed territory between Ceylon and the British and there was never an agreement on boundary ever.
  • In 1947 and 1976, as per agreements, the issue was bilaterally resolved between India and Sri Lanka, and the resultant maritime agreement has allowed Indians to visit Kachchatheevu for pilgrimage for which no visa is required.
  • The Indian government has maintained that the right of access to Kachchatheevu does not cover any fishing rights.

  • China factor in India-Sri Lanka relation: In terms of being the platform for India-China strategic competition, Sri Lanka has endorsed China’s flagship connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is also, one of the important nodes for China’s maritime strategy.
  • Lack of bipartition support to India-Sri Lanka ties soured precipitously when Mahindra Rajapaksha leased the strategically significant port of Hambantota to China, an issue highly sensitive toIndia.
  • Ethnic issue: It is the prolonged conflict between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka that has severely undermined bilateral ties in recent decades. The issue also involves war-crimes probe and accountability issues in SriLanka.
  • Fishing Disputes: 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.