Beyond marking time

The problem with India’s Sri Lanka policy is there is no common agreement on it

R Hariharan

This is an extended background of Col Hariharan’s article.

The Sri Lanka government has formally ended its ceasefire agreement signed in 2002 with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It only regularises an existing state of war that had been going on since December 2005. It is a sad development because it shuts the door on the peace process sponsored by the Tokyo Donors Conference. While the four co-chairs of the Tokyo Conference –the EU, Japan, Norway and the US, can walk out of the peace process, India as a close strategic neighbour of Sri Lanka, cannot afford to ignore the development. It will also face the fall out of yet another round of full scale war in Sri Lanka in some ways, because India-Sri Lanka relations have become closer than ever before.

The hesitation of the Indian Prime Minister Manhmohan Singh in accepting the invitation of Sri Lanka to visit Sri Lanka on the occasion of the 60th Independence anniversary on February 4, 2008 would indicate that he understood the gravity of the developing situation.

Sri Lanka’s close physical proximity, cultural, religious and linguistic affinity with India have imparted a unique status to the relations between the two countries. Tamil minorities’ struggle for their rights in Sri Lanka had been a major source of friction between the two countries, till the two countries signed the India-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. After India’s bid to help the country resolve the issue through physical intervention between 1987 and 1990 failed, this issue enjoys a low priority in Indian foreign policy. However, it continues to draw the sympathy of the government and population of India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu. In the last ten years or so, India-Sri Lanka relations which had gone cold in 1990 have thawed. Both countries have assiduously built them with a convergence of strategic and economic interests.

Still at the popular level there is a lot of misunderstanding and mutual suspicion on both sides of the Palk Straits over each others intentions and objectives in fostering the relations. Based upon the extent of India’ involvement, its Sri Lanka policy can be considered in three stages: pre 1983 phase, active intervention phase 1983-90, and post intervention phase 1991-to date. The first two phases of this relation have been widely discussed, and debated. But, there is a lack of objective analysis of the relationship in the post-1991 phase mainly due to the continuing Tamil quest for equal rights and as a corollary the LTTE insurgency.

Learning from active intervention 1983-90

Sri Lanka government has a long history of political confrontation with Tamils clamouring for equal rights since 1956. The situation progressively degenerated with the state increasingly depending upon the use of force to handle the Tamil agitators. As Tamils politicians lost their credibility support for a new breed of militants increased among the population. The LTTE came into limelight in July 1983 when it carried out an ambush in which 13 soldiers of Sri Lanka army were killed. In retaliation violent mobs carried out a pogrom against Tamils.

The ‘Black July pogrom’ and its aftermath marked a watershed in India’s Sri Lanka policy. From 1983 to 87 the objective of India’s engagement with Sri Lanka was two fold. India wanted to help Sri Lanka government and the Tamils to evolve a workable solution to the Tamil problem. At the same time, India wanted to prevent Sri Lanka from becoming the cockpit of super power domination of the region intruding in India’s sphere of influence. Initially, when Tamils were suffering at the hands of Sri Lanka security forces, India provided refuge for the militants. They were also helped with financial and arms support.

Though India’s efforts at enabling the two sides to evolve a solution at Thimphu talks failed, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s keenness saw the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement in 1987. The Indian Peace Keeping Force troops sent to Sri Lanka to assist the implementation of the 1987 agreement got involved in prolonged insurgency war with the LTTE which went back on its support to the agreement. India pulled out the troops in 1990 after the Sri Lanka President Premadasa and the LTTE leader Prabhakaran got together to show India out of the country. The Indo-Sri Lanka relations took a nosedive as a result. In 1991 the LTTE carried out the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a fit of vengeance. It also masterminded the massacre of Sri Lankan Tamil leaders taking refuge in India. That ended the little credibility the LTTE managed to retain among the public.

From this bitter experience India appears to have learnt one clear strategic lesson: India’s strategic involvement in Sri Lanka should be on a firm foundation based upon long-term engagement with the country than on the basis of reactive intervention. Probably it also learnt the limits of external intervention in dealing with the vexing issue of Tamil rights: for achieving a durable solution the Sri Lanka government and the Tamils themselves will have to work it out.

Strategic shifts 1987-2007

During the last two decades, India’s strategic priorities in Indian Ocean Region, and as a corollary Sri Lanka, have changed. This is in keeping with a number of changes in the global economic scene and strategic power balance. Unlike the 80s, national security now means more than physical security. It has been enlarged to include economic security, free trade and commerce, energy security, and lastly upgrade the social security of the population.

In keeping with this, India’s foreign policy perceptions, conditioned earlier by the cold war considerations, have also changed. In the present world dominated by the U.S. as the sole super power, building better India – U.S relations has become number one priority. This is an important component of India’s strategic linkages to safeguard its interests globally. The proposed Indo-US nuclear initiative is part of this change in outlook. The US sees India as not only a valuable and stable democratic power in this region but also as a rapidly growing market and source knowledge power. The US also sees India as an important ally in its global war on terrorism because its multicultural and multi-religious society bridges the Islamic world and the rest of Asia. At the same time, India would like to maintain its close traditional ties with Russia, which continues to be an important strategic partner of India.

India’s Look East policy evolved since 1990s aims at building closer ties with the ASEAN group of nations to expand India’s commercial reach. It has signed a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand as a part of this policy. It is trying to built close trading relations with Myanmar and use it as a gateway to open up the troubled India’s northeast for trade with ASEAN. India is developing infrastructure to develop physical links with the region.

India had been holding talks with Pakistan to revamp its relations. Similarly, India and China have been trying to synergise their areas of convergence for mutual benefit. Though many see India as a counterpoise to check the assertion of Chinese power in this region, India would like to develop a friendly rather than confrontational relation with China.

Indian armed forces are undergoing modernisation to make them mobile, with greater fire power. India’s missile development programmes are well on way to make it a missile power with intermediate range missiles as its component. Globally there had been increasing recognition of India’s ability

The sea-lanes of Indian Ocean have become vital for India’s expanding global trade. They carry fossil fuels so vital for India’s ever increasing energy needs. India sees Sri Lanka as a sentinel of its security astride the Indian Ocean. Indian navy’s development as a blue water navy is on the cards to protect its maritime and economic interests. India’s shift in relationship with Sri Lanka has to be understood in this broad strategic context, than in the background of its historical baggage of cold war period.

The India-Sri Lanka strategic relations

In keeping with these developments India’s strategic interest in Sri Lanka has been enlarged to protect and project India’s strategic and economic interests by building strong bonds with Sri Lanka. India has developed strong trading links with Sri Lanka. It is poised to become $ 5 billion by the year 2010 as the FTA between the two countries is being given more form and content. As a result in both the countries there is greater appreciation of each other’s perceptions and actions at all levels.

India is vigorously trying to build a win-win bilateral relation and cooperation in the political, economic and cultural spheres with Sri Lanka. However, the extent of this cooperation would depend on what Sri Lanka desires. This desire and the changes in India’s strategic perception are reflected in its present approach to the Sri Lanka Tamil struggle for their rights.

After its experience during the period of active intervention, India feels the Sri Lanka Tamil issue is best resolved by Sri Lankans themselves. India’s relations with Sri Lanka in the post-Rajiv Gandhi period (as spelt out by J. N. Dixit in his book My South Block Years) are broadly on the following lines:

* India continues to be supportive of the legitimate political, social and cultural aspirations of the Tamils.
* India, however, opposes the LTTE’s quest for exclusive power and its violent and terrorist methods to attain its goals.
* India would be supportive of initiatives aimed at resolving the crisis in Sri Lanka through political dialogue. India’s support to the current peace process in Sri Lanka underwritten by the Four Co-chairs of the Tokyo donors’ conference with Norway as a mediator reflects this belief.
* India does not believe the issue can be resolved through military means only.

Excerpts of the published article

The attitude of the Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu to the ongoing Eelam War-4 is based upon a clear stand that war alone would not be enough to find a solution to the Tamil problem. India has repeatedly stressed the need for Sri Lanka to evolve a formula for devolving powers to the Tamils. This shows their continued support to the demand of Tamils, while not permitting or condoning any LTTE activity in Indian soil. To the extent possible, the governments are ensuring that the LTTE does not enjoy shelter or sanctuary in India. India’s coast guard and navy have been actively cooperating with the Sri Lankan counterparts to prevent smuggling of supplies for the LTTE from India. This is in keeping with India’s avowed policy of opposing any secessionist or terrorist group operating from its territory.
Sri Lankan leaders of all political hues—including Tamil politicians—have been inviting India to play a major role in the island’s peace process. Even President Mahinda Rajapakse, soon after his election in 2005, requested India to join the four co-chairs sponsoring the peace process. While supporting the international effort at peace making, India has been reluctant to enter the fray. Its support has been consistent on three issues: unity of Sri Lanka as a single national entity, equal rights for Tamils and their language, and preferably a federal system of administration for Tamil areas.

India has reiterated this stand while commenting on the recent abrogation of the ceasefire agreement (CFA). It has said “what is required in Sri Lanka is a settlement of political, constitutional and other issues within the framework of united Sri Lanka”. This should allay the fears of Indian hegemony used both by elements of Sinhala polity and media, and surprisingly the LTTE also, as a red rag to whip up emotions among the public.

Of course, India’s actions shall always be in its own national interest. With the close relations built during the last ten years, a peaceful, stable and prosperous Sri Lanka is an asset for India.

Some Tamils would like India to end its hostility to the LTTE, “in the interest of Tamils”. But India has never seen the LTTE as the sole arbiter of Tamil destiny. Moreover the LTTE remains a banned organisation in India after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. No political party either in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere in India can sell the idea to the public.

Even Tamil leaders with known pro-LTTE sympathies like Vaiko and P K Ramadoss have been soft-pedalling this issue. Except for a small section in Tamil Nadu, the people do not see the current war against the LTTE as a war against Tamils. However, the Indian government has not moved to bring to book the three leaders of LTTE—including Mr Prabhakaran—who are prime-accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The Indian stand thus does not preclude the possibility of India supporting any move by the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE to bury the hatchet. This was shown by the support India had extended to the peace process of 2002.

With the four co-chairs and the international community that supported the peace initiative unhappy with the ending of the CFA, Sri Lanka is likely to look at India for greater understanding and support. This is likely to put India in a bind. Mr Rajapakse’s actions in opting for military operations before dealing with the political issue of devolving equitable powers to the Tamils has not endeared him to India. While the military offensive might be correct in the light of LTTE’s own incorrigible acts of violence during the ceasefire, such logic does not necessarily drive public perceptions. His much-publicised initiative in working out a political consensus is yet to fructify. The ‘mysterious’ killings and the dismal human rights record of the government machinery have raised many eyebrows in India about his intentions.

For greater support from India, Mr Rajapakse’s actions have to be comfortable for the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition that will possibly be facing a parliamentary election in India this year.

While the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was never the main piece of Tamil Nadu’s political agenda, it was a key issue. Right now it stands downgraded. However, if full scale war breaks out and the refugee inflows increase it will stage a comeback, particularly among minor but swing political partners in the coalition at the Centre. In principle the DMK is unlikely to change its stand. However political compulsions can change its mind.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s position on Sri Lanka will continue to be cautious as the UPA coalition cannot afford any more shocks before the elections. This is driven by India’s internal political compulsions rather than ambivalence in its Sri Lanka policy.