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The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike - RELATIONS WITH INDIA

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The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike
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A firm grasp of the implications of Sri Lanka’s unalterable geopolitical context, together with a close relationship between the Bandaranaike and the Nehru families, going back as far as the 1930s, before India and Sri Lanka had achieved independence, was a hallmark of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s India policy. She maintained close relations with Indian prime ministers Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, while holding firm to Sri Lanka’s national interest. Thus, her bold attempt to mediate in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and her resolution of two important bilateral disputes – the citizenship status of almost a million persons of Indian origin who had been brought to work on the tea and rubber plantations in British colonial times, and the maritime boundary between the two countries in the Palk Strait – strengthened Sri Lanka’s most important bilateral relationship. The fact that Sri Lanka’s finest diplomat, Shirley Amerasinghe, was High Commissioner in New Delhi at the time of the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 ensured that, in terms of an informed analysis of Indian policies and professional advice on the policy parameters of the bilateral relationship, Mrs. Bandaranaike was well served.

The issue of the citizenship of persons of Indian origin who had been brought to the country by the British colonial authorities as indentured labour on tea and rubber plantations had been an irritant in Sri Lanka-India relations from the 1930s. Diplomatic efforts to find a solution, including the 1954 Nehru-Kotelawala Pact, had only partially succeeded, until Mrs. Bandaranaike’s visit to India in 1964, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was Prime Minister. Anecdotal evidence from those present indicates that the two Prime Ministers reached agreement and entrusted officials of both sides with working out the details.

The Sri Lanka side soon complained to Mrs. Bandaranaike that Indian officials – belonging to a ‘babuocracy’ traditionally powerful, obdurate and ungenerous in their dealings with neighbouring countries – were thwarting the implementation of the agreement. Mrs. Bandaranaike telephoned Prime Minister Shastri to say that she would leave New Delhi the next day unless their original agreement was readied for signature. Senior Indian officials scurried to her presence shortly thereafter with assurances that the agreement would be ready. In October 1964 the Sirima-Shastri Pact was signed, whereby 525,000 persons of Indian origin would be repatriated to India while 300,000 would be granted Sri Lankan citizenship.

Mrs. Bandaranaike re-opened the issue after her re-election in 1970, and, on the basis of her excellent personal relationship with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she agreed on 28 June 1974 that the citizenship of the remaining 150,000 persons would be resolved by granting 75,000 of them Indian citizenship and 75,000 Sri Lankan citizenship. In subsequent years, the United National Party Government’s domestic political considerations in Sri Lanka, influenced by the Ceylon Workers Congress, resulted in the granting of Sri Lankan citizenship to all persons of Indian origin remaining in Sri Lanka.

Another success of Mrs. Bandaranaike was the resolution of the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka. The status of an uninhabited island, Kachativu, in the Palk Strait had been the subject of controversy and chauvinistic statements in both countries. Extensive research by Sri Lankan officials like Foreign Secretary W. T. Jayasinghe and Legal Adviser Christopher Pinto and the political sagacity of the two women premiers led to the June 1964 agreements demarcating the maritime boundary between the two countries, Kachativu falling on Sri Lanka’s side with the proviso that Indian nationals would continue to be able to visit the island to dry their fishing nets and visit the church there as they had done in the past without the requirement of visas. Another agreement in March 1976 demarcated the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. Both agreements became vital in the context of the UN Law of the Sea negotiations and Sri Lanka’s claims for resources in her territorial waters and on her seabed.

In the years after her electoral defeat in 1977, the action of the J.R. Jayewardene government in vindictively and undemocratically depriving Mrs.Bandaranaike of her civic rights contributed to the deterioration of Indo-Sri Lanka relations. During this period, however, Mrs. Bandaranaike remained in close contact with Mrs. Indira Gandhi.