Home » Sri Lanka and India: From non-traditional threats to security cooperation – Observer Research Foundation

Sri Lanka and India: From non-traditional threats to security cooperation – Observer Research Foundation

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India is growing wary of the security threats posed by non-traditional sources from Sri Lanka

“Security threat to India is a threat to Sri Lanka”, the Times of India quoted Milinda Moragoda, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi. On the very day, The Hindu, reported how the state’s coastal police intelligence was anxious about the increased Chinese presence in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, across the waters of the narrow Palk Strait.

The report in The Hindu, in a way, introduced a new element into Chinese threat to India—and therefore, a threat to Sri Lanka—going by the envoy’s declaration. This is apart from the constant and continual Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) arrests/attacks on Indian fishers who cross the international maritime boundary line, which is accepted by both national governments and to which India, in particular, has reiterated its commitment.

“Our security concerns are totally in line,” Times of India quoted Moragoda in a report. “The basic principle is that we believe what is a security threat to India is also a security threat to us and we assume India also thinks the same,” he said, repeating a decade-old Sri Lankan security perception over which successive governments in Colombo have built a consensus.

The CSC is an expanded version of the India-Maldives bi-annual Coast Guard Dosti exercises, which commenced in 1991 and to which Sri Lanka agreed in 2011, at the end of the decades-old ethnic war.

The November 2020 formation of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) readily comes to mind. The CSC is an expanded version of the India-Maldives bi-annual Coast Guard Dosti exercises, which commenced in 1991 and to which Sri Lanka agreed in 2011, at the end of the decades-old ethnic war. At the formation of the CSC, with the Sri Lankan capital Colombo as the secretariat, Mauritius became a full member. Bangladesh and Seychelles joined as observers states.

Indulging China

If the CSC is a regional forum for cooperation in non-traditional security, the very upgradation of the form and content, from the earlier ‘Maritime Security Cooperation’ into ‘Maritime and Security Cooperation’ in 2020, says a lot. If nothing specific, it did not seem to have ruled out larger cooperation in traditional areas too. Expectations, if not indications, are that the CSC could pave the way for a formal defence cooperation agreement among member nations, later if not sooner.

Here is where frequent Sri Lanka is indulgent of adversarial China when it comes to military ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which irks India to no end. It also questions the CSC’s future, considering that there are other member nations whose views may need to be ascertained.

There is truth in the Sri Lankan claim that the nation would have security arrangements only with India, whatever the developmental participation of other nations, starting with China. However, New Delhi’s past concerns were proved right with the visit of China’s Yuan Wang-5 research/spy ship to the China-controlled Hambantota Port. There was no denying the Indian concerns.

“The movement of PLA cadres and deployment of hi-tech gadgets such as satellites, drones, and other communication equipment in northern Sri Lanka required constant surveillance in coastal districts, the advisory sent to all cities/districts in the State said.

More recent social media posts have claimed that both India and the United States have expressed concerns to Colombo over refuelling facility for Chinese naval vessels at Hambantota, or in the seas off the port. If true, it lends permanency to institutionalisation of the Yuan Wang-5 episode. Therefore, it will be a tougher call for Sri Lanka, as it has ‘commercial contractual obligations’ to Hambantota’s Chinese developers.

Vital installations

It is in the background of the Yuan Wang-5 controversy that the Tamil Nadu Coastal Security Group issued a recent alert, ‘citing a Central Intelligence agency’, The Hindu reported. It called for adequate security arrangements in view of vital installations such as nuclear establishments (Koodamkulam and Kalpakkam) and seaports (Thoothukudi and Cuddalore in the neighbourhood) along the Tamil Nadu coast.

According to The Hindu, the security alert said, “The activities of the Chinese in the neighbouring country are a concern to national security and called for intensified vigil along the coastline” . “The movement of PLA cadres and deployment of hi-tech gadgets such as satellites, drones, and other communication equipment in northern Sri Lanka required constant surveillance in coastal districts, the advisory sent to all cities/districts in the State said. Citing sources, the alert claimed that the PLA deployed sophisticated gadgets in the garb of launching sea cucumber farming.”

The report goes on to add that, “The free movement of Chinese nationals in many parts of northern Sri Lanka, including Mullaitheevu, Paruthitheevu, Analaitheevu, Meesalai and Chavakkacheri, had triggered discontentment among Tamil fishermen. They had expressed the apprehension that the Chinese were exploiting the rich sea wealth, which is their only source of livelihood… The fear of the local Tamils was that the prevailing situation might lead to a division among Sri Lankan nationals and curtail the influence of India on Tamils living in the northern and eastern parts of the island nation.”

During the visit to the North, Amb Zhenhong took a SLN vessel for a ride up to the ‘international maritime boundary line’.

The Sri Lankan Tamil media has been reporting on these and also the local fishers’ protests in the matter, over the past years, especially after Chinese Ambassador, Qi Zhenhong, visited the Northern Province in December and the multi-ethnic Eastern Province more recently. During the visit to the North, Amb Zhenhong took a SLN vessel for a ride up to the ‘international maritime boundary line’. However, those media reports have limited inputs to the Chinese deployment of satellites and drones for the purpose.

Harsher treatment

If the alert on divisions among the Sri Lankan Tamils fishers is anything to go by, India may be seeing newer threats to its security from non-traditional sources. It is then not unlikely that the pro-China Tamil fishers in Sri Lanka’s North and East may be harsher in their treatment of Indian fishers crossing into their seas, if only to provoke diplomatic issues between the two IOR neighbours. Thus far, the Indian fishers have been risking only arrests/attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy.

This is at a time when all sections of Sri Lankan Tamil fishers are opposed to Indian-Tamil fishers encroaching upon their fishing fields, coveting their catch, and destroying their gear, apart from future catch with their methods of bottom-trawling with the use of purse-in nets, both banned in Sri Lanka. Tensions are also growing between traditional fishers and new local entrants into bottom-trawling, which the former protests the Sri Lanka Navy and Fisheries Department officials have not stopped, despite memoranda and rallies.

New development

There is a more recent development in the context of the continuing economic crisis in the island-nation, and the periodic arrival of northern Tamils in recent weeks and months in Tamil Nadu. The Hindu report has not clarified if the coastal security alert relates to them too, and if so, any specific procedure for vetting them has been circulated.

The CAA is not applicable to ‘Hindus’ from Sri Lanka at present, and the Centre had overlooked demands to the effect when Parliament was debating the new law.

As may be recalled, through the ‘Eelam War’ and even its conclusion in 2009, the Sri Lankan authorities have been particularly concerned about fishers from either side being used to smuggle in people, drugs, and weapons. In more recent months, anti-drug squads in both countries and also common neighbour Maldives, have been launching joint and independent operations to bust drug-smugglers. Indian authorities have also taken into custody some Sri Lankan Tamils with links to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

What the Tamil Nadu security alert means under such circumstances too are unclear.

Citizenship for Tamil-Hindus?

This apart, on 17 October, Justice G Swaminathan at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ruled that ‘principles of CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) apply to Sri Lanka’s Hindu Tamils… who were the primary victims of racial strife in the island-nation’. It remains to be seen how the Centre, which alone has executive jurisdiction over citizenship matters under the Constitution, would go on in appeal against the single judge order.

As may be known, the CAA is not applicable to ‘Hindus’ from Sri Lanka at present, and the Centre had overlooked demands to the effect when Parliament was debating the new law. In his time, Tamil Nadu’s late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Chief Minister M Karunanidhi had openly appealed for the Centre to facilitate the same. However, such demands and expectations from the Tamil refugees have remained minimal. The Sri Lankan government also recently appointed a committee to facilitate the return of the refugees back home, though not much work seems to have been done on the ground so far.

On earlier occasions too, it was pointed out how leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamil polity and society have been asserting that they were as much integral to the country’s social fabric as the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, independent of their religious and linguistic identities, both of which sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist policy and clergy have used to dub them as ‘Indians’ (who should have no place in Sri Lanka). Octogenarian Tamil political veteran R Sampanthan, in a recent letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe but in an entirely different context, stressed how the Sri Lankan Tamils and their Hindu temples had been older to the arrival from India of Prince Vijaya, acknowledged as the forebear of the Sinhala community.

Justice Swaminathan’s verdict goes against the grain of the Tamil belief, though interpreted in a way, the ‘Hindu Tamils’ in Sri Lanka could be considered for Indian citizenship under the CAA. The question also remains if the Sri Lankan Tamils would want to be divided on religious lines as both Hindus and Christians form the core of the ‘ethnic movement’ with the Tamil Church in the North and the East too identifying as much with the cause. Though from time to time, Hindu groups have sought to identify with Hindu political outfits in India but without wanting to upset the local dynamics.

India also needs to watch the unpredictable security threats, if any, from the fallout of such a court verdict, all of which are of the non-traditional kind, unless it leads to the revival of militancy on a later date.

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