India can live without the Lankan quagmire

Posted in India | 01-Jun-06 | Author: P.R. Kumaraswamy

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol in Colombo.

With increasing ethnic violence in the island republic, India will not longer be able to maintain its indifferent posture vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Either by desire or accident New Delhi would have come out of its decade long hibernation following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 21 May 1991. Since then India withdrew to a shell and consciously avoided taking any meaningful step in the resolution of the conflict.

As a retaliation for the assassination, in May 1992, it proscribed the Tamil Tigers and prevented its members from openly operating in Indian soil. Carrying of this posture the government of Tamil Nadu even prosecuted political figures who aired pro-Tiger views in public. Neither the deteriorating situation in the island republic nor periodic requests from the Sri Lankan government, especially from President Mahindra Rajapaksa induced the government modify its position. As the far away Norway got involved in broking a peace between the warring sides, India chose to remain a mute spectator.

Given its geographic proximity, historic links, political interests and above all, strong ethnic connections, how does one explain the Indian non-involvement?

What Vietnam was to the US, Afghanistan to the Soviets and Lebanon to Israel, Lanka was India’s quagmire. Its active involvement in the ethnic conflict in Lanka in the 1980s proved to be a disastrous. Nearly two decades later, it is yet to overcome the trauma.

At one level, it was in favor of the rights of the Tamil who were marginalized in Sri Lanka. Successful governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority have systematically suppressed the minority and adopted policies that were blatantly undemocratic, anti-minority and exclusive. The periodic violence not only terrorized the community and forced thousands of them to flee to neighboring India.

At the same time, New Delhi was vehemently opposed to the separatist demands championed by the Tamil Tigers but felt that a unified federal Sri Lanka would be for the benefit of all. In short, autonomy for the Tamils and a unified state for the Sri Lankans were its policy option. This was the ideal policy that would not have resolved the conflict in Lanka but also would have served India’s long-term interests in the region.

The execution of this complex policy however, went haywire from the very beginning. In the mid-1980s partisan political calculations compelled the Congress-run Central government to pay more attention to pro-Tiger winds blowing in Tamil Nadu. The support for Tamils in Sri Lanka became the barometer for many politicians to exhibit their credentials as Tamil politicians. Not only the Tigers and other Tamil militant groups were operating in India but were also supported financially by various parties, groups and even governments.

The desire of the Sri Lankan government to pursue the military option vis-à-vis the ethnic problem fueled the Indian desire to perceive the LTTE as a potential leverage vis-à-vis Colombo. As a result, before long New Delhi started providing them with arms as well as various forms of military training. In strengthening the militants and exerting pressure upon the Lankan government, New Delhi hoped to force Colombo seek a negotiated diplomatic solution. This strategy worked partially when Colombo offered olive branches to the militants.

Instead of underwriting a peace agreement between the Lankan government and militants, as suggested by saner elements within his cabinet, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi opted for a peace treaty with Sri Lanka. With the result when the militants refused to lay down their arms as demanded by the Indo-Sri Lankan peace treaty of 1987, to which they were not a party, it became the responsibility of India to forcibly disarm the militants who were armed and trained by the Indian army only a few months ago.

Instead of ensuring autonomy for the Tamils, the Indian army was used to ‘implement’ the Accord, namely, fighting the Tamil militants. Not only it was a military fiasco, but also a political disaster for all those involved. Critics of President Jayewardene portrayed the Indian presence as ‘occupation’ while the politicians in Tamil Nadu called the Indian peacekeepers as ‘people killing force.’

When the Indian army eventually pulled out Sri Lanka in March 1990, it satisfied none. For the hard-line politicians in Colombo, India failed to disarm the militants. For the Tamils India not only failed to ensure autonomy but left them at the mercy of the Lankan government. For the politician in Tamil Nadu, instead of ensuring rights of the Tamil, the army pursued a military campaign against the minorities.

For the army which lost more than 1,000 men, mostly officers, it was a costly, controversial and thankless venture. The far too many intelligence agents worked at cross purpose and completed the fiasco. Above all the top political as well as military leadership exhibited a careless and cavalier attitude towards matters strategic.

In short, it was an ill-planned, short-sighted, emotional, costly, unwise and thankless political adventure. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi just over a year after the pullout of last Indian soldier dispelled any lingering doubts about the whole saga. The Lankan adventure was something everyone wanted to forget quickly and the establishment shied away from asking the simple question: what went wrong.

The Indian strategy since then has been to remain far removed from the events that were unfolding in that state. While eager to pursue closer economic cooperation, it had kept away from the Lankan quagmire. Even while aspiring for a great power status in Asia and in the wider world, it was not prepared to get involved in the ethnic conflict. Its involvement has largely been confined to periodic ‘consultations’ with the Norwegian interlocutors. Once bitten twice shy.

Political settlement would be feasible if both the warring parties had exhausted their military option and compelled by war weariness they are forced to sue for peace. Though considerably weakened, neither side is prepared to give up the military options. Under such situation, there are little prospects of India being a mediator. The official ban imposed upon the LTTE would also be an impediment for any substantial negotiations between New Delhi and the Tamil Tigers.

While the Lankan government might have no choice but to negotiate with the LTTE, India has lesser incentives to engage with the Tamil militants. Given the bitter and bloody experience of the past, no government in New Delhi would be able to vouch for the militants or trust their pledges. The Congress party has an additional hurdle to cross. Negotiating with a group that was responsible for the murder of Rajiv Gandhi would be politically costlier for the party, especially since Prabhakaran still remains the supremo of the Tamil Tigers.

The renewal of ethnic violence, growing terrorist attacks against civilian population and the resultant military actions would compel Indian to abandon its indifference. Should things worsen then there would be a flow of Tamil refugees from Lanka into Tamil Nadu which would result in domestic pressures in Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally of the Congress party has won the just concluded elections in Tamil Nadu. This victory should provide some buffer for the Indian government and exert caution among various political forces in Tamil Nadu.

Short of a major upheaval, India is unlikely to get involved in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The maximum one could expect India is to play a leading role in organizing a multilateral effort towards a political settlement. Whether effective or not, it would be unrealistic to expect India to play an active role in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Right or wrong, it was a quagmire in the past. No reason to think otherwise even two decades later.

In other words, if there is one country which has a direct interest as well as the ability to influence events in Sri Lanka, then it is India. It has significant leverages vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan government as well as the Tamil militants. It has a vested interests in securing a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Even if multilateral efforts are to resolve the problem, India will be a major player. Yet because of its past baggages, it will be extremely difficult for Sri Lanka, Tamil Tigers or the international community to induce India to get involved.