The foreign policy followed by Sri Lanka in its first few years of independence was largely determined by two factors: its proximity to India and its colonial past. The one influenced the other. The nature of the colonial bourgeoisie, who became the legatees of power once the British “left”, and their ideological orientation, had a say as well. The conflux of these factors has led several commentators, Marxist or otherwise, to argue that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was structured along elitist and pro-Western lines. Among the reasons cited for this view is the close links between Colombo and Whitehall that survived independence, as seen in the Defence, External Affairs, and Public Officers’ Agreements of 1947.
Those who disfavour this theory contend, or imply, that Sri Lanka did not have the luxury of shaping a policy of its own. The decision to favour an extra-regional power, Britain, over its most immediate neighbours had much to do with the perception of threats from India, the de facto superpower in the subcontinent. The External Affairs Ministry, by dint of the 1947 Constitution placed in the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, had no policy it could evolve on its own; that partly explains why Sri Lanka remained the only Commonwealth country with no Institute of International Affairs until 1959. Obviously its geographical position would have had a say there. But then this couldn’t have been the only factor.
A dependent colony produces a dependent elite. How dependent the elite were can best be seen in the way in which they secured independence: through constitutional cosmetics and formal requests, rather than the Indian strategy of non-violent action. The ideology of this elite naturally influenced the formulation of foreign policy by the so-called “triumvirate”: DS Senanayake, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and Sir Ivor Jennings. Of course, to say that foreign policy was a mere extension of such ideological imperatives would be to simplify matters, since domestic policy is not and cannot be allowed to monopolise external affairs. And yet it did play a role, a pivotal one.
Senanayake’s preference for a West-aligned foreign policy, as opposed to a neutral one – at a time when the idea of a Non-Aligned Movement was still years if not a good decade away – led him to consistently emphasise on the limits imposed on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by its geographical position in his dispatches to Whitehall, during negotiations for independence. In fact reflecting this, Andrew Caldecott’s and Geoffrey Layton’s proposals on constitutional reforms in 1943, the Ministers’ Draft Constitution in 1944, and the Soulbury Constitution all reserved to the UK the twin matters of defence and external affairs: areas which would be most affected by the geopolitical implications of that geographical position. Historians are divided on how and why these matters were willingly conceded to Whitehall by the government. K. M. de Silva, for instance, contends that notwithstanding the British-inclined nature of these pacts, they were devised by Senanayake’s advisers “as a pragmatic solution to a complex problem.” “Pragmatic” is, certainly, a word shrouded in ambiguity; to me, what was “pragmatic” about the agreements was that they cohered with the anti-Marxist ideology of most of those who belonged to the ruling party, the UNP.
Indeed, Senanayake’s denunciations of Communism, of Russia and China, tell us plainly that as with the domestic scene, their stand on the foreign front was determined by a sustained antipathy to Marxism. The biggest source of anxiety for India from Sri Lanka, in its first few years of independence, had been the Senanayake government’s decision to disenfranchise migrant workers, which it had taken as a tactic to derail the Left; what kept India away from interference in the country’s affairs over that act, of course, was the British. It’s pertinent to recall that 40 years later when JR Jayewardene tried the same tactic (in the face of a weakening Non-Aligned Movement and growing consensus between the West and the Iron Curtain) using the Western bloc as a backup, it ended up with disastrous results.
A dependent colony produces a dependent elite. How dependent the elite were can best be seen in the way in which they secured independence
The most alarming statements issued, naturally, from the great Nehru, though as scholars have pointed out he made those assertions – that a small state “may survive as a culturally autonomous area but not as an independent political unit”, and that Sri Lanka could become “an autonomous unit of the Indian federation” – before the country gained independence. D. S. Senanayake’s insistence on defence and external affairs pacts with Britain in the run-up to the 1947 Constitution, even in the face of opposition from some of his colleagues, would have been fanned by perturbing declarations made by someone who happened to be the leader of the region’s biggest powerhouse. My argument, however, is that this couldn’t have been the only factor: the ideological orientation of the elite, in South Asia’s most dependent postcolonial plantation economy, would have played a role there too. After all the scope of foreign policy formulation by a head of state is as influenced by internal determinants, like a country’s political system, as it is by external determinants.
The so-called “Indo-Ceylon problem” as commentators referred to it then never spilt over to a conflict. But the differences between Indian and Sri Lankan political elites, particularly on the issue of immigration, compelled the Sri Lankan government to take on the security of an extra-regional power which had much in common with the ruling elite against a regional superpower which did not. Here was realpolitik at an almost tribal level: an elite’s politico-economic ideology shaping the foreign relations of a nation.
Thus in their choice of an extra-regional bargaining chip, the elite attempted to balance two competing interests – retaining India’s friendship while counterbalancing it – with another, party ideology. Accordingly the UNP under the two Senanayakes preferred the UK, while John Kotelawala swayed towards the US in his friendship with John Forster Dulles and his anxiety to join SEATO. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tilt to China has been described, by at least one scholar, as serving the same end.
India, however, was to remain the regional powerhouse. JR’s failed attempt to join ASEAN, coming in a quarter century after Kotelawala’s campaign to join SEATO irked Nehru, signalled that not even the pro-Western front could dampen the Indian factor. Both the right and the left recognised this; more so the latter, in fact, since Kotelawala and Jayewardene tried to sideline it to their peril, while neither S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (who enjoyed a warmer rapport with Nehru than almost anyone in the UNP), nor his widow (who acted as the mediator in the Sino-Indian War), did so. Therein lay the difference.