Indo-Lanka Defence Cooperation Agreement: A
matter of routine
13 January 2004
The proposed India-Sri Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement is
being considered with some concern by the Tamil press and
politicians. The Tigers remain silent. Instead, we heard their
advisor Balasingham urging the Indian government to take on a 'more
positive role' in the process to realise Tamil rights. His appeal
appeared in other versions in some petitions sent by civil society
groups in the north to the Indian PM.
But on Sunday a mysterious group calling itself the Tamil National
Vigilance Organisation issued a leaflet warning of war if the
Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) was going to ignore the LTTE's ISGA
proposal. Interestingly, the leaflet, among other things, slams
President Chandrika that she had waited until Indian officials spoke
about the ISGA to give her opinion on the LTTE's proposal. In short,
the leaflet, which gave the publisher's address as Tamil Eelam, was
accusing the President of being a pawn in the hands of the Indians.
On the other hand, one can safely venture to say that in many
political and opinion making circles of the south the India-Sri
Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) is considered with a
measure of satisfaction as another instrument in Colombo's
diplomatic arsenal to check the military ambitions of the Liberation
The leaders of the UNP and the SLFP are keen to make political
capital by taking credit for the DCA. But this is possible only in
as much as it is presented to the Sinhala public as a means of
containing the LTTE's military power.
A Sunday paper reported that Defence Secretary Cyril Herath and Army
Commander, Lt. Gen Lionel Balagalle accompanied by Nigel Hatch, an
attorney at law, would be leaving Colombo for New Delhi today to
begin negotiations on the ISL-DCA.
The very sharp contrast in Sinhala and Tamil reactions to the
proposed ISL-DCA (the former is somewhat muted while the latter is
an alarmist) is yet another instance of the deep chasm that divides
the people of this island.
Two fundamental questions appear to be overlooked by either side in
their respective responses to the ISL-DCA. Firstly, it should be
pointed out, lest it be forgotten, that the Indo-Lanka Agreement of
1987 consists of clauses regarding defence co-operation between the
Para 3.1 and Para 4 of the annexure to the ‘87 agreement
specifically state that India will "provide training facilities and
military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces" and that both
countries would set up "a joint consultative mechanism to
continuously review matters of common concern in the light of
objectives stated in Para 1".
Suffice it to say that the annexure to the agreement legally
curtailed Sri Lanka's sovereignty in defence matters. The mechanism
mentioned in the Indo-Lanka Agreement was never set up properly
although in the years that followed the signing, a significant
portion of foreign training for the Sri Lankan armed forces' officer
corps was in India.
Indian strategic policy makers designed the basic format of the DCA
as rudimentary platform for gaining greater influence in the
military affairs of many nations round the globe - preparatory for
the superpower status Delhi foresees for itself in the not so
distant decades of this century. But the immediate goal of the DCA
is to broad base the Indian defence industry and to make it
economically competitive in the world's arms markets.
Delhi's priority today is to progressively reduce its armed forces'
heavy dependence on Russia and some former Soviet republics for
military hardware and spares. The US War College Journal
'Parameters' estimates that 74 percent of the Indian army's hardware
and spares are of Soviet origin. India has been facing a massive
crunch in military spares, especially for its fleet of MiG fighter
jets since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
New defence protocols on cooperation that Russia signed with India
in February 2002 contain provisions for joint ventures in the
defence sector, indigenisation of Russian military products as well
as joint production and transfer of advanced defence technology to
The DCA that India signed with the Czech Republic, Brazil,
Singapore, Vietnam etc., in recent years explore the possibility of
joint production of military hardware and sales with mutual training
programs and joint exercises to improve relations between the Indian
army and the militaries of the countries that signed the agreement
In Sri Lanka the standard, innocuous feature of the DCA format
regarding joint exercises and mutual training programs might take on
an added significance in the light of two matters.
The joint consultative mechanism for defence and intelligence
matters which the GOSL and the GOI are still legally bound to set up
under the terms of the ‘87 Indo-Lanka Agreement (ILA) remains
unimplemented. One finds that many 'informed' politicians and
opinion makers in the south do not consider the exchange of letters
between President J. R Jayawardena and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
that constitute the annexure to the ILA valid any longer. "That was
long ago", one of them said, quite confident in his geopolitical
Senior officials in Delhi, however, continue to insist that the ILA
is valid and legally binding for all time. The second issue is that
the GOSL, quietly but consistently, drifted out of the parameters
set in the ILA for training its armed forces and for procuring its
military supplies. (Delhi ignores the argument that Colombo had to
seek other sources because India did not help Sri Lanka in times of
need during the war)
The process of GOSL's disengagement from the binding defence related
clauses of the ILA started in 1993 with a seemingly innocent
medievac training project by the US army to train Sri Lanka army
soldiers in modern methods of casualty evacuation. By 1997 this had
quietly developed into a multifaceted defence co-operation program
between the Sri Lankan armed forces and US Special Forces.
As in the Philippines and many Central Asian states, the US military
had a ready-made basis for cementing a close relationship with the
core of the Sri Lankan military. In 1997 the US declared the LTTE a
foreign terrorist organisation (FTO)
In Philippines, the strategic gateway between the Pacific and Indian
Ocean, it did not take long for the US to declare the Abu Saiyaff
Muslim militant outfit as a foreign terrorist organisation, enhance
its Special Forces training presence there and to persuade that
country to sign the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Treaty (ACSA) in
1999 - in that order.
The sequence was not lost on Delhi's strategists particularly
because of a development in neighbouring Nepal in the same year that
set off alarm bells in India's defence circles. India signed a
treaty with Nepal in 1950 accompanied by an exchange of letters
stipulating that the latter should decide on its external defence
related matters in consultation with Delhi.
The attempt by the king of Nepal to extricate his country from the
legal bind of this treaty in 1989 was thwarted by developments that
followed India's punitive closure of the common border that year. A
joint communiqué by the Prime Minister's of India and Nepal in June
1990 reaffirmed the basis of the 1950 treaty and exchange of
Yet, nine years later, the king of Nepal and a communist party led
coalition government that was in power at the time signed the ACSA
with the US in defiance of the Indo-Nepal Treaty and the joint
communiqué of ‘90. (Incidentally one must mention that the Nepali
royal family was subsequently wiped out in a bloody palace shoot
Hence Delhi became mindful of the sequence of events in Sri Lanka
whereby the US was becoming a central player in Sri Lanka's military
affairs. Matters came to a head when India got wind of 'alleged'
moves in Colombo to sign the ACSA with US in 2002. It did not take
long for Delhi to nip the matter in the bud on the basis of the
legal obligations which the Indo-Lanka Agreement impose on Sri
Lanka's external defence and strategic affairs.
Things have come full circle today. GOSL appears to have realised,
at least for the time being, its limitations within the ILA. The
Indo-Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement is unique only in as much
as it reaffirms and supplements defence related provisions of the
letters of exchange of the 1987 agreement. It would be naïve on the
part of anyone to believe that the DCA is an instrument for
containing or, for that matter, crushing the LTTE.
When the comforting mists of such beliefs dissipate the Sri Lankan
armed forces might have no one but themselves to face the Tigers.