The Sri Lankan dilemma

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

T S Gopi Rethinaraj’s argument
Thus viewing Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict through the prism of Indian federalism is misleading. India has always been keen in ending the ethnic conflict by actively engaging with the Sinhalese, and has consistently advocated a federal solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. This, according to New Delhi’s assessment, would meet the aspirations of all ethnic groups in the island. While the federal political structure has worked remarkably well in the context of India, where coexistence of several ethnic/linguistic states acts as buffer to any chauvinism from the Hindi heartland, it is unlikely to work in Sri Lanka where there are only two main ethnic groups. But Colombo is not even prepared to offer Tamils the Indian-type solution, which would still preserve their political dominance in Sri Lanka. The failure to take into account this deep Sinhalese-Tamil divide explains the stagnation in India’s Sri Lanka policy.

Colombo has always keenly followed political undercurrents in India and within Tamil Nadu and benefits from the prevailing chaos. It has not only been successful is driving a wedge between the concerns of Tamil Nadu politics and the central government, but has also carefully cultivated certain Indian bureaucrats and journalists whose views on the ethnic conflict are compatible to the Sinhalese project. Historically too the Sinhalese have cleverly played one Indian kingdom against another to have an edge over the Tamil Hindu Jaffna kingdom. India’s succumbing to this contemporary scheming is, in the long run, deeply inimical to its interests and security.

Unless India makes a course correction, some political parties are likely to exploit the situation to revive the long-forgotten separatist propaganda in Tamil Nadu. While the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was more sensitive and remained equidistant from the two warring groups, the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has been providing significant military assistance to the Sri Lankan government. This policy is inadvertently contributing to the Tamil subjugation project of the current Sri Lankan government.

India must not allow its long term interests to be corroded due to the machinations of the Sinhalese regime and its Indian supporters. It should intervene as it did in East Pakistan if Colombo does not show any sincerity and returns to its old ways. Indeed, a strong case could be made that an independent Tamil Eelam will not only be in India’s interests but permanently avoid exploitation by the Sinhalese. A unified Sri Lanka under Sinhalese domination will be deeply inimical to Indian security and strategic interests. Presence of two states in India’s southern frontiers will act as a powerful deterrent to both successor states from pursuing policies that are prejudicial to the Indian Navy’s predominance in the region.

India would do well to remember how it lost all leverage with China by meekly accepting the latter’s invasion of Tibet. India’s appeasement policies in response to developments in Tibet in the 1950s not only paved way for Tibet’s invasion, but emboldened China to lay claim over vast tracts of India’s territory. Of course India doesn’t have any border to settle with Sri Lanka, but it occupies its soft underbelly and a strategic position in the Indian Ocean. Colombo will permanently continue to exploit India in the absence of a buffer that an independent Tamil Eelam could provide.

Subramanian Swamy’s argument

Why is the LTTE on the run? In one word, it is because of their hubris. It killed even Tamils who were not only for Eelam, but also were opposing tooth and nail the Sri Lanka majority hegemonism: leaders like such as Amrithalingam, Yogeswaran, Neelam Tiruchelvam, and militants such as Sri Sabaratnam. Why? Because Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, thought he could get Eelam singlehandedly. He welcomes leaders who slavishly serve him, but stifles independent-minded ones. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent 100,000 Indian troops to the island and de facto carved out a Tamil area in North-east Sri Lanka, with a full fledged, elected Tamil chief minister. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) did not allow a single Sri Lankan soldier to enter the region.

But that was not good enough for the LTTE because Rajiv Gandhi wanted political plurality and leaders to hold office via elections. As the LTTE believes in a single party Marxist state, Mr Prabhakaran decided that Rajiv Gandhi should be killed.

So should India now intervene to prevent the decimation of the LTTE? That is the question of importance for us. Now is the moment of truth for clarity and transparency.

At present, there is confusion in our approach to Sri Lanka because of a hidden compulsion of the UPA government. The confusion is manifested in the following contradiction: on one hand, the Indian government has banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation; yet on the other, despite the continuing assassinations of pro-Indian Sri Lankan politicians and its open interference within India by financing pro-LTTE politicians and training other terrorist organisations, the Indian government pontificates that the “peace dialogue” of the Sri Lanka government with the LTTE must take place. Such talks in the past have ended up legitimising the terrorist outfit, thus making the ban meaningless.

Hence, India has to take stock now and decide what to do to repair our policy towards the LTTE, and secure our geographical neighbourhood.

We have to regard the LTTE a part of the problem in the Sri Lankan crisis and not a part of any solution, for the LTTE has links with terrorists operating in India.