A seminal contribution to the literature on Indo-Sri Lankan relations

"A Decade of Confrontation:
Sri Lanka and India in the 1980s"
John Gooneratne
Stamford Lake Publication,
Sri Lanka, ISBN 955-8156-39-6

Book Review
by J. N. Dixit
Former Indian High Commissioner to
Sri Lanka, and Foreign Secretary of India

"Ambassador John Gooneratne in some respects has written a seminal book on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and India’s involvement in it. Particularly relevant and useful are the first two chapters from pages 1 to 61, the Introduction and on The Challenge of Nation Building. The remaining four chapters are titled:

(a) India: Seeking Hegemony,

(b) Challenging the Odds - Sri Lanka’s Response to Regional Geopolitical imperatives,

(c) Denouement - The Indo—Sri Lanka Agreement (29 July 1987), and

(d) Conclusions, referring to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict reaching critical dimensions between 1983 and 1990 and the Indian involvement in the crisis.

I described the book as a seminal contribution to the literature on Indo-Sri Lankan relations in the context of the ethnic conflict, because most books have as a starting point the Tamil-Sinhalese riots of July 1983 and end with the withdrawal of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force from Sri Lanka. Ambassador Gooneratne has related the decade of the 80s to the historical causations going back to the earliest connections between India and Sri Lanka. So the book has a certain historical depth and perspective, missing from most books written about the interaction between Sri Lanka and India during the 80s. I have deliberately used the word ‘interaction,’ but the author describing the book in its title: as "A Decade of Confrontation" reflects the mindset and the collective attitude of the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lanka about both the reasons for the ethnic conflict and about the Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan crisis. This is not a critical value judgement but a factual statement. I would go one step further, that from the Sinhalese point of view Gooneratne’s perceptions, interpretations and analyses are logical. The question is whether the continuing ethnic violence in Sri Lanka should be assessed and analysed only from the point of view of the Sinhalese majority, given the fact that Sri Lanka is a plural civil society with a sizeable minority of Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims. There is no answer to this question in Ambassador Gooneratne’s book.

Ambassador Gooneratne’s treatment of the controversial subject of India’s supporting Tamil militants is fair and objective. He has also touched upon events and developments in US-Sri Lankan relations and US-Pakistani relations which animated the strategic dimensions of Indira Gandhi’s Sri Lanka policy from 1980 onwards. He has been less objective and fair about Rajiv Gandhi’s motivations and initiatives regarding Sri Lanka which led to the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 and induction of the IPKF. He has chosen to assess Rajiv Gandhi’s policies in purely academic, international legal, and politically normative terms, without acknowledging the fact that regardless of the so called "failure" of the IPKF, Sri Lanka still remains a united country because of the intervention of the Indian armed forces in the Sri Lankan situation on the invitation of President Jayewardene. That Rajiv Gandhi refused the suggestions from Tamil Nadu that India should behave as Turkey in Cyprus, because of his commitment to Sri Lanka’s sovereign identity and territorial unity, should have been taken into account by Gooneratne.

"Challenging the Odds" is a particularly relevant addition to any book on the Sri Lankan crisis because it deals with Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in broader terms in the context of the ethnic crisis and in the background of Sri Lanka’s concerns about India (pp. 100 to 150). This category of analysis is usually missing from books written on Indo- Sri Lankan relations during the last two decades of the last century. The references to Pakistan by Gooneratne are interesting in that there are hints of Sri Lankan concerns about India being rooted in the manner in which India dealt with the East Pakistan crisis. There are also references to India’s intergrating Sikkim into the Indian Union with critical undercurrents.

Gooneratne concludes his book with an assessment which is clinically objective and refreshingly devoid of polemics. The book is characterised by analytical precision (to the extent that the author could divest himself of his Sinhalese identity, a difficult exercise) and scholarly rigour.

Each chapter has detailed notes giving the readings and references. The book also has a very useful bilbliography and fairly meticulous index. Of all the books written by Sinhalese authors, this is the most comprehensive and objective work that one has read despite some marginal critical opinions expressed above. Ambassador Gooneratne deserves thanks for adding such a valuable work on Indo-Sri Lankan relations which remain of profound and abiding interest to readers not only in India and Sri Lanka but in the whole South Asian region."
(Courtesy: The Book Review, New Delhi)