Sri Lanka is witnessing a dangerous meltdown which can have serious connotations for India’s security from various angles. As a veteran from the days of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s Operation Pawan, that country holds a special place in my heart. My emotive connection with Sri Lanka makes me that much more concerned. A brief backdrop is necessary before outlining the threat domains.
Sri Lanka has been in a virtual free fall over the last three years but the commencement of this started a couple of years ago. The Rajapaksa family, which has the ignominious honour of being one of the world’s most powerful political families with involvement of a large number of family members in the government, has overseen the destiny of the island state for quite some time. Attempts to bring a dubious Chinese strategic connection to Sri Lanka’s future boomeranged after the realisation that cooperation with China involved no free lunches. The Hambantota port and the Mattala Rajapaksa airport constructed with loans from China at a cost of over $2 billion became white elephants with almost zero utility. Struggling to pay back over $8 billion Chinese loans and investments, an earlier Sri Lankan government had handed over the majority share of the Hambantota port to the Chinese state-owned company on a 99-year lease to raise $1.2 billion.
The economic problem got compounded by the acts of terrorism on April 21, 2019 sponsored by the Islamic State (IS) with alleged linkages in Southern India. Tourism, on which Sri Lanka’s economy is greatly dependent, took a nose dive with 70 per cent reduction. Before there could be any scope for recovery, the coronavirus pandemic hit the island and international remittances from the Sri Lankan diaspora took a 25 per cent hit. Thereafter, everything went south leading to the balance of payments crisis and the inability to service loans. Even as I write, I can see multiple images on Indian television, of violence and street turbulence with Mahinda Rajapaksa having resigned from the post of prime minister.
Situations of national meltdown result in chaos, loss of control and misery among the people across various segments of society. It happened in Syria, resulting in destruction of the economy and the steady stream of displaced people leaving the country for whatever pastures they could find. However, when this happens in a nation already bitterly divided on ethnic, linguistic and religious grounds with a history of an old internal conflict, akin to a civil war, the situation becomes even more dangerous. Global terror organisations mostly gravitate towards such areas of turbulence where persistence of internal violence, low administrative capability, shortage of resources and huge scope for thriving on chaos exist.
The terror events of April 21, 2019 were a trailer and more would have followed while the Islamic State was in the search for pastures, post its eviction from Syria and Iraq, except for the fact that India’s intelligence services were quick in quelling any potential support from the South Indian networks; the IS also found more productive pastures in North Afghanistan. The Easter bombings of 2019, as they are called, occurred when the government of the day had perfectly good control over the administration. Can one imagine the scope for acts of terror which exists today when there is no control of government and political vendetta is in full flow? We are aware that deep set networks for terror finance, ideology and human resources connected with Sri Lanka exist in parts of Southern India. Activation of all these will spell potential threat to our security.
Sri Lanka’s long-standing ethnic problem had caused the war between the separatist LTTE and the government for over 30 years till 2009. In that year, the Sri Lankan government decided to finally adopt the full kinetic option without being concerned about the fallout. The result was a resounding military victory and the vanquishing of one of the most high-profile terror organisations in the world, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). However, the conflict termination resulting in military victory was abysmally managed. I remember asking General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, the former Sri Lanka Army chief, in a seminar in India whether the post conflict management could have been better with higher scope to resolve the ethnic Tamil issue involving the LTTE. He fully agreed with me. Despite all the potential arising from the victory, the roots of the ethnic issue have never been neutralised. Such conditions encourage aspirations and already there are indications that activists in Canada, the US, Australia and Europe are desirous of raking up the Tamil militancy while collapse of governance continues. The combined effect of both these trends would mean a fallout in vulnerable parts of India. Equally, the ability of the island recovering on a fast mode, as per Indian security needs, would get unacceptably delayed.
It is not just the scope of the spread of instability, it very much involves economics too. The island’s FDI from India amounted to about $1.7 billion from 2005 to 2019. After China and the UK, India was the biggest source of FDI for Sri Lanka in 2019, at $139 million. Lots of major Indian companies have invested in Sri Lanka. India relies considerably on Colombo port for global trade given it is a trans-shipment hub. Sixty per cent of India’s trans-shipment cargo is handled by the port. India-linked cargo also accounts for 70 per cent of the port’s total trans-shipment volume. A meltdown in economic terms is bad enough; it gets compounded by the lack of scope of recovery due to the simultaneous socio-political and economic issues.
There is also the issue of displaced people landing on Indian shores. Refugees always bring turbulence in their wake. The expanding torrent gets political significance and before we know anything, they are so well integrated that it’s impossible to send them back. The ethnic connection with elements in India and the history of the LTTE’s strife against Indian forces inspires no confidence in the emerging situation.
India will need to seriously monitor the situation developing in Sri Lanka on multiple fronts. The Sri Lankan security forces are more than sufficient to handle the situation but need to be backed. The external factor has to be kept in mind considering the fact that turmoil in Sri Lanka is always perceived to have an effect on India. Parties inimical to Indian interests would be working overtime to build influence among some radical groups in the midst of the chaos. There is no need to name these elements because their identity is well known. Temporarily, there appears little scope beyond take over by the Army to ensure basic governance, control over the streets and restoration of confidence. India only needs to administratively support the people and just be on the enhanced look out.
The writer is a former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.