India-Sri Lanka relations

Brief History of India Sri Lanka Relations

  • India Sri Lanka relationship is 2500 years old with significant cultural and political contacts
  • In the ancient phase of history, Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka by Mahinda, the son of Ashoka
  • In the medieval phase of history, the Chola kings like Rajaraja and Rajendra -1 occupied the Northern part of Sri Lanka
  • Sri Lanka was also under British rule and got its independence in 1948. Post independence, both India and Sri Lanka became members of Commonwealth of Nations
  • Indian government intervened in Sri Lankan civil war to bring out peace in the nation.

India’s Intervention for Peace in Sri Lankan Civil War:

Areas of Cooperation:

Diplomatic Cooperation:

  • Diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka are marked by visits of high level Government functionaries. A notable diplomatic event in the recent past was our Indian Prime Minister’s address to the Sri Lankan parliament in 2015
  • India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission was established in 1992. The commission facilitates discussions relating to bilateral affairs of both the countries
  • India and Sri Lanka signed a civilian nuclear energy deal in 2015. The agreement aims at cooperation to explore nuclear energy for peaceful purposes

Economic Cooperation:

  •  India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2010. India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner
  • India is the source of one of the largest foreign direct investments in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is also a potential source of foreign investment in India

Defence and Security Cooperation:

  • India and Sri Lanka conducts one of the largest joint Military exercises called ‘Mitra Shakthi
  • India and Sri Lanka conducts joint Naval exercise called ‘SLINEX
  • India is the largest provider of defence training program to Sri Lankan soldiers and Defence officials
  • India, Sri Lanka and Maldives signed a trilateral maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. The cooperation aims at improving surveillance, anti-piracy operations and reducing maritime pollution

Development Assistance:

  • The war between Sri Lankan Government and LTTE came to an end in 2009. The armed conflict led to many casualties and internal displacement
  • As an immediate response India provided all war relief measures including food, medicine etc.,. As a long term measure, India announced reconstruction of 50000 houses to provide shelter to Internally Displaced People (IDP)
  • India is one of the largest provider of development credit to Sri Lanka. As of 2016, a total of USD 1284 million has been provided by India. The credit is mostly provided for the Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development
  • India has provided medical equipment and ambulances to hospitals in Sri Lanka

Cultural and Educational Cooperation:

  • India and Sri Lanka signed a cultural cooperation agreement back in 1977
  • India Sri Lanka foundation was setup in 1998. It aims at technical, scientific, cultural and educational cooperation by engaging civil society organizations of both the countries
  • India cultural centre in Colombo promotes Indian culture by providing courses in Indian music, dance, yoga etc.,
  • India provides scholarships to qualified Sri Lankan students in Undergraduate and research studies
  • Tourism is one of the important areas of cooperation. Sri Lankan tourists are one of the top ten visitors to India
  • Sri Lanka is also a partner in Nalanda university project of India

Areas of Conflict

Fisherman Issue:

Fisherman issue arises from the complicated nature of maritime boundary between the two countries.  The maritime boundary between the two countries is settled according to the United Nations Law on the Convention of Seas (UNCLOS).


As per UNCLOS, fishing is allowed in the Exclusive Economic Zone. In the case of India and Sri Lanka, the Exclusive economic Zone (EEZ) of both the countries overlap with each other (see map below). Thus bilateral Maritime Boundary Agreements were signed to decide maritime boundary between two countries (see illustration below the map).

Map Source: Frontline

  1. The Indian fishermen are not aware of the distance they travel and hence mistakenly enter the Sri Lankan waters and get arrested frequently by Sri Lankan navy.
  2. Sri Lanka has accused Indian fishermen of using mechanised trawlers that diminishes the catch of Sri Lankan fishermen and damages their vessels. Thus Sri Lanka wants a ban on mechanised trawlers but no settlement on these issues has been reached
  3. The use of gill nets and synthetic nets by Indian fishermen has also been complained by Sri Lanka for causing damage to the ordinary nets of Sri Lankan fishermen

The Federal Perspective:

  • The maritime boundary agreement that ceded the island of Katchatheevu in 1974 led to longstanding contention with with the Tamilnadu state as it was not consulted on the decision. The state demands for the retrieval of Katchatheevu and the  fishing rights that were traditionally enjoyed by Indian fishermen in that region.
  • The state, through its legislations has demanded centre to take actions against Sri Lankan government for its wartime crimes against Tamils. This led to cancellation of visit to Sri Lanka by our former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2013.

China’s Ambitions:

China has plans to increase its strategic presence in the Indian ocean. Sri Lanka due to its location in Indian ocean is of vital interest to China. Thus China has moved closer to Sri Lanka. Some notable engagements are

  • China has signed many naval agreements and provides military equipments to Sri Lanka
  • China plans to develop the Hambantota deep sea port and Mattala international airport in Sri Lanka

There are reports that China plans for encircling India by building a series of ports in the Indian ocean. This is known as ‘String of Pearls‘ theory. Concrete evidence to support this theory is absent.

There are also concerns from India about the Chinese aircraft maintenance facility in Trincomalee of Sri Lanka as it is a strategic location from our Indian defence perspective.

Bilateral relations between two countries are not always a source of threat however, the docking of a nuclear submarine in Sri Lanka in 2014 has also created concerns for India’s security.

Way Forward:

  • India and Sri Lanka should bring a permanent solution to the issues of fishermen by more bilateral engagements at the highest level of Government
  • The devolution of powers by Sri Lankan Government to ethnic minority provinces has been reported to be inadequate. India has asked Sri Lanka to bring peace to the ethnic demands through a negotiated political settlement
  • Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) negotiations between the two countries are stalled for many years. This must be signed to improve the economic cooperation


  1. Ministry of External Affairs
  2. Sri Lankan Embassy
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Times of India
  5. The Diplomat
  6. The Hindu
  7. thewire.in
  8. idsa
  9. Livemint
  10. reuters.com
  11. India Year Book
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