Reading Rajiv-JR Agreement from back to front - I

Should Sri Lanka offer more concessions to India over Trincomalee?

By Bandu de Silva

Former Ambassador

The Rajiv-JRJ Agreement of July 1987 should be read from back to front. That brings into focus what really India gained from that agreement besides creating Provincial Councils, which would reduce the country’s control by the centre. The latter arrangement was expected to lead to demands for a process of further devolution which could help to consolidate the gains India made over Trincomlee through the agreement. What I am talking about is the notorious exchange of letters under the Annexure to the agreement which was ‘suddenly’ imposed on Sri Lanka. Those who have studied the Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit’s book Assignment Colombo will find no reference to India wanting to extract concessions over Trincomalee and might think it was incorporated into the final document, being brought from nowhere. No. It is not. Those who have inside information on the goings between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments know the Sri Lankan Foreign Office was for quite sometime under pressure to give concessions to India over Trincomalee, though the subject did not figure in discussions between Dixit and President Jayewardene.

As such, I would like to present that the Exchange of Letters shown under the Agreement was the result of the keen interest displayed by India over a long term. The idea of incorporating the Trincomalee harbour in India’s forward security plan – one might even call it India’s self-defence plan – goes back to the time even before India’s Independence in 1947, in what has come to be known as ‘Panikkar Doctrine’. Going further deep into the history of the two lands one would find that the Cholas used Trincomalee as a launching pad into their expansion activities to South East Asia. Vijayabahu I, after engaging in guerilla warfare against the occupying Cholas, had to form an alliance with these South East Asian states to overthrow the Cholas.

Trincomalee’s Significance

Even though Trincomalee’s significance as a strategic port has been downgraded by scholars like Colegate and K. Silva in the early colonial wars-context, its significance was demonstrated during the Second World War. Since then, there was a downgrading of the harbour’s importance after the development of ballistic weapons and the deployment of submarines capable of firing such weapons. Despite these theoretical presentations, even for countries possessing these capabilities, the significance of Trincomalee has not diminished. For India, the regional power, its importance has remained unshaken. Now with the prospects of the Chinese Navy building up a blue water capacity – she has one aircraft career acquired and fitted long after India had them, and with nuclear submarines on the high seas – India’s interest in the Trincomelee harbour as a strategic port, has increased manifold.

Letters Exchanged

The Letters Exchanged in July 1987 specifying India’s interest is seen in the following clauses in these Letters:

"Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests":

"The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka."

Two other clauses, though not directly related to Trincomalee, were also included in the Letters as major concerns to India. The first of these concerned the relevance of employing foreign military and intelligence personnel, which was seen as prejudicial to Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

The second concerned Sri Lanka’s agreement with foreign broadcasting organisations. These were to be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka would be used solely for broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes. (Special emphasis was placed on this clause).

As it turned out, it was as a response to fulfilling all these four conditions that India agreed to deport all Sri Lankans found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism.


There was a background to India’s concerns, though they appeared to be exaggerated. Sri Lanka had not been receiving India’s support in the war against the northern terrorists. On the contrary, India had been supportive of terrorism in Sri Lanka, providing training facilities and safe haven and financial aid to them. Indian missions abroad doubled as terrorist propaganda centres. Indian military planes, supported by missile carrying jet craft, dropped sealed parcels with the logo of the Ordnance Factory at Cawnpour to rebel areas (Dharmapuram) in the guise of a mercy mission, as witnessed by journalists. It was claimed that the underwater demolition techniques imparted to terrorists by Indian experts was meant to use their services for underwater demolition of foreign ships entering the Trincomalee harbour. That itself was a pointer to the importance India had attached to Trincomalee harbour. (The LTTE, however, tried to use these techniques at the Colombo and Galle ports, as well).

The Sri Lankan government looking for military training from a British private firm, and intelligence training by Mossad, became a major concern to India. She suspected they would engage in activities detrimental to India’s own security. Consequently, this became the major issue which was given priority in the Letters Exchanged by India. Another concern was the facilities accorded by Sri Lanka to V.O.A. at Iranwila, on revising an old existing agreement. It was suspected that US would use renewed facilities for intelligence gathering on the movements of the Indian Navy, from its Vizagapatam base.

J.R. Jayewardene government, acting contrary to the strict non-aligned policy of the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike had begun to permit the entry of US naval ships to Trincomalee, whether it was for R&R purposes or otherwise. Banadaranaike, however, permitted naval vessels of other countries to visit the port of Colombo provided they did not carry nuclear weapons.

Oil Tank Farm

Some countries have evinced an interest in the Oil Tank Farm at Trincomalee. Japan was the first to do so. The Japanese interest was in using these tanks as storage because of uncertainty over conditions in the Middle East. Later, other companies came in, but India suspected that US was behind those moves.

This was a time when relations between India under Indira Gandhi and US were at the lowest ebb. Indira Gandhi, while claiming India would not interfere with Sri Lanka ‘s internal affairs, engaged in double-speak, when she declared that India was threatened from the south, meaning from Sri Lankan side, thus adding the island state to the ‘siege phobia’. She began to support Sri Lankan terrorists clandestinely. Dixit, in his book, directed the accusing finger at her for the deterioration of relations with Sri Lanka. (Assignment Colombo, p.349}.

The course of India’s policy towards Sri Lanka changed under Rajiv Gandhi. After the assassination the support for the LTTE waned. India was pleased with the final defeat of LTTE.

(To be continued)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...