India comes out with strong possible terms
By Satheesan Kumaaran
July 21, 2008

India has come out with its strongest possible terms in dealing with the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. India can no longer afford to remain a spectator as it has been since the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. This most recent development is not entirely unexpected where Sri Lanka's internal conflict is right in India's backyard impacting India on several fronts.

India has had on-and-off relations with Sri Lanka since India gained independence from Britain in 1947. They were not necessarily all good. In the late 70s and early 80s, India wanted to keep Sri Lanka in check by making it deal with its own problems, so India created the issue of Plantation Tamils vis--vis the native Sri Lankan Tamils. Around this time, India also helped train Tamil militants to fight the Sri Lankan government forces, despite vehement condemnation from Sri Lanka, at the time when the Tamils were discriminated against in many levels and spheres...

After the death of Indira Gandhi in 1984 her son, pilot-turned-politician, Rajiv Gandhi, mishandled the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. Senior advisors advised Gandhi that befriending Sri Lanka would be in India's best interest. India would be in a better position to keep Sri Lanka-based strategic locations, like Trincomalee, for itself, preventing Sri Lanka from allowing other world powers a strong hold in the region. But, India realized it was not in a position to intervene directly in these issues. India got the opportunity in 1987 when the Sri Lankan armed forces were at the mercy of the LTTE in the northeast. UNP leader, J. R. Jayawardene, asked Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 to send armed forces to fight the LTTE and agreed in writing that the troops would only help keep peace on the island. As part of the written agreement, Sri Lanka consented never to allow foreign countries access to its ports without India's consent. Gandhi came to Sri Lanka and signed the accord on July 29, 1987 - the Indo-Lanka agreement.

On July 30, 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was assaulted by a Sinhalese naval cadet named Vijayamunige Rohana de Silva, while receiving the guard of honour, but escaped unharmed. A political and diplomatic calamity was avoided, but, if it weren't for this agreement the ethnic conflict on the island would have been resolved a long time ago. Things between India and Sri Lankan Tamils completely changed after Gandhi was killed on May 21, 1991, while electioneering in Sriperumputhur near Chennai, allegedly by the LTTE. India since then has maintained a hands-off policy towards the Sri Lankan internal conflict.

When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Manmohan Singh came to power in 2004, it began to recognize the grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils under pressure from southern Indian politicians. South Indian politicians changed their attitudes over the Eelam Tamils' grievances following clashes that erupted between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The support towards Eelam Tamils at the grassroots level in south India began to increase after LTTE launched several successful attacks against Sri Lankan armed forces. On Rajapaksa coming to power in 2005 he increased the violence against Tamils in the northeast and created a sense of sympathy in India for the Eelam Tamils. India, however, played a key role, though indirectly, in bringing the LTTE and the GoSL to the negotiating table.

Tamil circles also speculated that the LTTE had halted all its military operations against the Sri Lankan armed forces at the urging of India and other foreign governments to give them a chance to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Although the LTTE has been beaten severely by the Sri Lankan army and has lost some leading political and military cadres, the LTTE has maintained its silence.

It is in this context that India's Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan, and Defence Secretary, Vijay Singh arrived in Colombo on June 20 for a secret, two-day visit.

India's words of wisdom to the GoSL
On June 18, Indian High Commissioner, Alok Prasad, informed Sri Lanka's Presidential Secretariat that a high-level Indian delegation would arrive within 48 hours and would want to consult with them. Their priority was a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also sought a meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The visit was to remain confidential with no publicity given to it. The JVP and several government ministers were opposed to India's intervention in Sri Lanka's internal matters. They also feared that India would face criticism from some Indian politicians for sending the three-man delegation to Sri Lanka, as these men, especially Narayanan, had held anti-LTTE views since the early 1980s. Even Sri Lanka's Foreign Affairs Ministry was not informed until the delegation arrived at the Katunayake airport on June 20 at about 11:40 a.m.

Upon their arrival in Colombo they held a meeting with Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa, and then Arumugam Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). The next day they met with the EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda, and finally President Rajapaksa.

The delegation put forward some proposals that Rajapaksa apparently refused. The Indian delegation gave him two options: One, to allow the SAARC summit to be held from July 27 to August 3 in Colombo as proposed, and, two, should the president not accept, India would have no choice but to not lend its support to the SAARC summit in Colombo. They told the president of intelligence they had received that the LTTE would launch attacks in Colombo during or prior to the SAARC summit in Colombo. The president then had no choice but to accept the Indian delegation's demands.

What are these demands?
The demands are:
(1) A peace package to bring an end to the Tamil national question. The delegation was not satisfied when the President told them that he would bring a peaceful settlement to the conflict once the LTTE is wiped out of the North, which he estimated would take seven to eight months. The Indian delegation responded with an intelligence report that stated that the GoSL could not win against the LTTE militarily and the time frame Rajapaksa proposed was too long. They also told him that the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) was moving far too slowly.

The visiting delegation referenced the statement issued by their Government soon after the interim report of the APRC was released in January of this year. India declared those proposals as a "welcome first step" and urged the Government to move ahead with forward thinking proposals. They also sought Government views on the much touted "southern consensus" amidst fears that priority may be shifting to "divisive politics."

Talks also revolved around the non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and not allowing the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) into the APRC unless disarmed.

(2) Economic issues. The Indian delegation wanted to make sure Indian companies were not made scapegoats of a crisis in energy or food supply. They feared this would force a different turn on bilateral relations. There had also been discrete exchange of views on the economic involvements of China, Iran and Malaysia.

(3) Defence procurements. They expressed their dissatisfaction over GoSL continuing to buy arms from Pakistan and China. Rajapaksa told the delegation that they would not need to go to other countries for weapons if India provided them. The Indian delegation responded by saying that India would come to Sri Lanka's aid only in the area of self-defence, but would not supply weapons to fight the Tamil minority on the island.

(4) Security situation. The delegation examined whether the intensifying military campaign against the LTTE resulted in retaliatory strikes and security lapses. They also expressed serious concern over the flow of Sri Lankan refugees into India, and the hardships caused to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka including those in the plantation sector due to stringent security operations throughout the country.

(5) SAARC summit in Colombo. The delegation reported attacks and/or discovery of weapons, bombs or improvised explosive devices in every potential SAARC venue, and several explosions have happened in and around Colombo after it was identified as the next venue. The Indian delegation urged the Government to provide the proper environment and security for the SAARC summit. India was particularly concerned about safety for their delegation, as well as for those from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal, and that an Indian connection would certainly be concocted in the event any unfortunate incidents occurred. If this situation remained unresolved, the delegation maintained, India might not attend the SAARC summit. Improved security could happen only by an improvement in the ground situation.

The delegation also highlighted several factors: (a) The ongoing military campaign in the north and resultant threats elsewhere; (b) the security situation in the south; (c) the absence of a "southern consensus" through the APRC; (d) feared accusations against India over political and economic issues and whether the trend would intensify; and (e) unhealthy relations with the International Community over human rights and a growing list of other issues.

India to send military aid to Sri Lanka again
Since Rajapaksa agreed to all the demands of the Indian delegation India is now taking care of the matter of security in Sri Lanka's south, patrolling the air, land and sea. India will be sending helicopters to Colombo to monitor the security situation and to prevent LTTE attacks in Colombo during and prior to the SAARC summit. The Indian navy will also patrol the seas around Colombo city with fast attack craft during the summit.

India also said it wanted a political solution to the Tamil national question from the GoSL because New Delhi no longer wanted a prolonged ethnic conflict. India is expecting a political solution within the next three months and Rajapaksa has promised to do so. India continues to urge Colombo to see the GoSL peace proposals to end the ethnic conflict. Otherwise, India would have no choice but to not attend the SAARC summit in Colombo.

However, opponents of having Indian armed men in Colombo argue that this is a litmus test for India to gauge the extent of its future involvements, either directly or indirectly, in dealing with Sri Lanka's problems. They also argue that India is trying to show the world that India is a 'big brother' in south Asia and no other global power can intervene in Sri Lanka when the country comes under attack by LTTE military operations.

In the early 2000s, the GoSL had sought foreign intervention to secure the liberation of the Sri Lankan armed forces trapped in Jaffna peninsula when the LTTE overthrew SLA camps and pushed into the SLA-controlled Jaffna peninsula after blocking the air, land and sea routes. When the Sri Lankan armed forces faced death with their supply routes cut off, India intervened immediately to prevent any other foreign armed forces from getting involved.

The LTTE demanded that if India or any other country came to help the Sri Lankan armed forces that they should not leave them anywhere in the Tamil homeland, including the port city of Trincomalee. More specifically, India should escort them to its shores before escorting them to the Sinhala (homeland) areas. The GoSL did not agree to these conditions. In return, India proposed that the LTTE and GoSL engage in peace talks, to allow the Sri Lankan armed forces to remain in Jaffna safely. However, no agreement came out of the peace talks. In the event that the LTTE did launch military operations against the soldiers in Jaffna a third force would be sent in to help the Sri Lankan soldiers.

So long as the LTTE remains on India's terrorist list, they cannot deal with the LTTE legally. India needs to lift the ban on the LTTE before it can hold face-to-face meetings with the LTTE and it is doubtful whether India will do this soon, since India will be holding its elections next year and politicians do not want to make the issue of lifting the ban on the LTTE an election issue.

India invites TNA to New Delhi
Before leaving, the Indian delegation met with TNA leader, R. Sampanthan. The TNA is said to be the proxy of the LTTE in the parliament. At the conclusion of the discussion, the Indian delegation invited Sampanthan to visit New Delhi for further discussions. Sampanthan mentioned the growing influence of Pakistan and China on military affairs in Sri Lanka. The TNA expressed its satisfaction saying that it was happy to accept the invitation to New Delhi. The TNA have the support of the people in the North and East and the LTTE. Hopefully, the TNA can certainly help bridge the gap between India and the LTTE. The TNA had sought appointments with Indian leaders on several occasions, but did not succeed. Sampanthan's most recent interview with the media on his interaction with the Indian delegation is of particular significance and gives an insight into the thinking of the Tamil speaking people and the LTTE.

In the meantime, in a letter to the Indian Prime Minister, General Secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Vaiko, has accused India of "equipping the GoSL to help its war machine to continue to perpetrate its genocidal attacks against the Tamils... throwing to winds the farsighted foreign policy adopted by Pundit Nehru and Mrs. Indira Gandhi," and urged the Prime Minister to not participate in the SAARC summit. He said further in the letter that: "I accuse that the Government of India gave a red carpet welcome to the Sri Lanka President and the Ministers whose hands are stained with the blood of Tamils...I accuse that the Government of India has sanctioned a loan of 100 million dollars at 2% interest to the Defence Ministry of Sri Lanka enabling them to purchase weapons from Pakistan and China, which would be used to decimate the Tamil race."

He wrote further: "I accuse that the Government of India, burying fathoms deep all the norms of humanism, prevented the supply of food and medicines to the suffering Tamils in that island by not giving permission to the International Red Cross to send the materials collected in Tamil Nadu...I am pained to make the accusation that the Indian Government, particularly the abovementioned officials are assisting the Sri Lanka Government, which is making all out military offensive to liquidate the Tamil race, throwing to winds the farsighted foreign policy adopted by Pundit Nehru and Mrs. Indira Gandhi."

India has been the home to the Tamil militancy, to nearly 75 million Tamils, and to those with family ties to Tamils living in Sri Lanka under disparaging circumstances. The Indian Government has a vested interest in getting involved in bringing an end to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. India has never favoured the Tamils nor is India in favour of the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese have always viewed India with suspicion. However, due to political pressure from south India, India will have no choice but to support the Tamils to maintain their power base in the Tamil Eelam. Positive involvement of India is dependant on the support of Indian Tamils, giving Indian Tamils a golden opportunity to encourage India to help bring a positive end to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. The war between the LTTE and the GoSL will undoubtedly bring destruction and misery, and as a big brother in the region, India has the moral obligation to directly intervene to end the three-decade-long Tamil/Sinhala conflict. The question is whether it is in her interest to do so.

Courtesy: The Tamil Mirror (July Issue)

(The author can be reached at: satheessan_kumaaran@yahoo.com)