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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of  Struggle for Tamil Eelam  >  India & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > India's Credibility of Being a Regional Power Rests on Securing Lankan Peace says Avtar Bhasin, sometime Director, Historical Division, Indian External Affairs Ministry

India & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam

India's Credibility of Being a Regional Power
Rests on Securing Lankan Peace

P.K.Balachandran, Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka
reporting on Avtar Singh Bhasin's "India in Sri Lanka – between the Lion and the Tigers,"
1 November 2004

 ".. Rajiv Gandhi wished to drive home the point that the IPKF’s fight in Sri Lanka was for the unity of India...There is little chance of any change coming about in the decision making process in the LTTE so long as Prabhakaran heads the organisation. And there is no chance of his being replaced in his lifetime.."  


The credibility of India’s notion or ambition of being the regional power will depend critically on the success or failure of its bid to bring peace and stability to Sri Lanka without directly intervening in the ethnic conflict there, says the Indian historian, Avtar Singh Bhasin.


"...the U.S. is embroiled in a difficult conflict in Iraq, only marginally successful in its intervention in Afghanistan, and is witnessing a rise in Islamist activity around the world -- couple this with a mounting a U.S. budget deficit, and the United States is in a precarious geopolitical position...This development would help to accelerate a global trend toward multi polarity, with each major power consolidating its interests within its region of influence.." Power & Interest Report on the Waning Influence of Neo Conservative Strategists in US - 1 November 2004

"... A supplementary rationale for the troop redeployment plan is that it bases U.S. forces in states that are more pliable to Washington's will. Regimes in weak and poor states, particularly those in close proximity to regional powers, are better disposed to an American presence than are mature industrial powers ...There is little doubt that the closest approximation to an American "empire" would be the cultivation of dependency on the United States in weak states and regimes.." Power & Interest Report on US Troop Redeployment - 1 September  2004

After the political and military debacles of the 1980s, when it directly and brazenly intervened in Sri Lanka, only to retreat in ignominy, India sulked and chose to recede into the background. But given its size and strategic imperatives, and the possibility of hostile powers gaining a foothold in the island, India could not, for very long, be indifferent to the goings on in the troubled island, just 30 kms away from its southern shores. India has, therefore, chosen a rather peculiar policy of influencing the events in the island to suit its ideological and geopolitical needs without being a direct participant in the ethnic-imbroglio there.

"If India, without being interventionist, succeeds in stabilising the Sri Lankan situation, she would establish her credibility in the region," says Bhasin in his latest book: "India in Sri Lanka – between the Lion and the Tigers," (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa, pages 353, October 2004).

Bhasin, who has several publications on India’s relations with its neighbours, was in the historical division of the Indian Ministry of External affairs for three decades, and had been a Senior Fellow at the Indian Council for Historical Research in New Delhi.

According to him, one of the critical differences between the past and the present is the absence of Tamil ethno-nationalism in Tamil Nadu now. Ethno-nationalism in Tamil Nadu was the main trigger for direct intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s – a policy which proved to be an unmitigated disaster.


"Tamil militancy received support both from Tamil Nadu and from the Central Government ...as a response to Jayawardene's concrete and expanded military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, Israel and Pakistan. ...The assessment was that these presences would pose a strategic threat to India .... In normal terms of international law and principles of neutrality was Mrs. Gandhi correct in giving political and material support to Sri Lankan Tamils ? The answer is obvious and has to be in the negative... Inter-state relations are not governed by the logic of  morality. They were and they remain an amoral phenomenon....." Jyotindra Nath Dixit, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka 1985 to 1989, Foreign Secretary in 1991 to 1994 and in 2004,  National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India on Indian Involvement in Sri Lanka and the Indo Sri Lanka Agreement: A Retrospective Evaluation in Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka, International Alert Publication, February 1998

"New Delhi is no longer burdened with the baggage of Tamil ethno-nationalism. Tamil public opinion in India, except for some stray voices, would be indulgent to denying any space to the LTTE in Sri Lanka," Bhasin claims.

And this has been so since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in May 1991. Even the DMK, which went out of the way to support the LTTE in its confrontation with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1988 and 1990, backed out. Bhasin quotes the DMK chief, M Karunanidhi, as telling anti-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil leader Douglas Devananda on May 2, 1996: "We have had enough of the LTTE and we are now fed up with them."

The author’s line is that the field is now clear for India to pursue a policy of promoting peace and stability in Sri Lanka which would be conducive to India’s political, economic and strategic interests, untrammelled by the shrill demands of ethnocentric forces whether in Tamil Nadu or in Sri Lanka.

Holistic approach

But India is not oblivious to the need for a just solution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, which will meet the aspirations of all the communities in the island. India knows that this is the bedrock of peace and stability not only in Sri Lanka, but in India and the region as well.

Comment:  "Unsavoury regimes these days hire the best talent available to spruce up their international image... The PR technique is simple enough: minimise the human rights abuses, talk about it as a 'complex' two sided story, play up efforts at reform... If possible, it is best to put these words in the mouth of some apparently 'neutral' group of 'concerned citizens', or a lofty institute with academic credentials."  Richard Swift, New Internationalist, in Mind Games, July 1999

Bhasin considers the joint communiqué issued in October 2003, at the end of the visit of the then Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to New Delhi, as being the bedrock of India’s policy on Sri Lanka.

In that communiqué, India made it clear that it supported a "negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights."

India also said that any "interim arrangement" for the administration of the Tamil-speaking North Eastern Province (NEP), the area which the LTTE claims, should be "an integral part of the final settlement and should be in the framework of the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka."

India went on to make it clear that it expected the LTTE’s response to the Wickremesinghe government’s July 2003 proposal for an interim administrative set up in the North Eastern Province to be "reasonable and comprehensive."

Bhasin points out that while India has been addressing all the parties to the dispute, the LTTE is a special target. The point to be noted is that while New Delhi has made up with the Sri Lankan state, overlooking the very bitter experiences of the past, it has been reluctant to patch up with the LTTE. Memories of September-October 1987 when the LTTE took on the IPKF; of 1988-90 when the LTTE joined hands with the anti-India Preamdasa-led Sri Lankan government to oust India; and of 1991 when the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil, seem to be indelibly etched in New Delhi’s mind.

India has been warning LTTE that it does not expect it to cross the threshold whereby the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka is compromised. India has explicitly said that it has an "abiding interest" in the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
India and ISGA

Bhasin thinks that the LTTE’s proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North-Eastern Province will not be acceptable to India because it does not come within the parameters set by it.

As he puts it: "India cannot look benignly to an emergence of an ISGA-type administration in close proximity to Tamil Nadu and controlled by an organisation wedded to terrorism. Its control over the waters where the Indian fishermen operate on a daily basis would be most unpalatable."

"The recent arrest of some Indian fishermen by the LTTE Sea Tigers brought home to India the possibility of such a situation emerging routinely. A state within a state that ISGA would be, and given its lack of accountability to international law and community, it is the last thing that India would wish in her neighbourhood," Bhasin says.

The LTTE's proposal for an ISGA has "defied all canons of federalism," he feels. It has denied any role to the Sri Lankan government with regard to important matters like international agreements, natural resources, police and judicial administration, auditing of accounts, finance, taxation and land administration. The ISGA will have "plenary powers" outside the jurisdiction of the Sri Lankan constitution, he notes.

"The ISGA, instead of creating an interactive society would unbind whatever links there were between the Tamils and other communities in the region," Bhasin says.

According to him the LTTE’s proposal belies "hopes raised as a result of the agreement arrived at in December 2002 at Oslo, when the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE pledged to explore a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka acceptable to all communities."

Prabhakaran and LTTE

The Indian commentator and analyst has very sharp views on dictatorially-run organisations, which may be reflecting the Indian establishment’s stand. For such organisations, Bhasin says, sharing power is not just a political concession, but blasphemous.

"It (sharing power) represents total defeat – the loss of a lifetime’s accumulation of power as well as the complete deflation of what is often a megalomaniacal sense of pride and self importance."

"The LTTE has been in that unfortunate state since its inception, where the word of Prabhakaran had been the consecrated gospel. Those who dared to differ were not thrown out but simply wiped out," he says.

There is little chance of any change coming about in the decision making process in the LTTE so long as Prabhakaran heads the organisation. And there is no chance of his being replaced in his lifetime," he concludes.

Bhasin hints that an ISGA-like set up under the full control of the LTTE could well impact on Tamil Nadu. Rajiv Gandhi, he said, understood the implications of the existence of a LTTE-controlled area under Prabhakaran for south of India.

In his address to the All India Congress Committee in July 1990, Rajiv Gandhi had said that if the LTTE had succeeded in its separatist agenda in 1987-90, separatist tendencies in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu could have sprung up.

"Rajiv Gandhi wished to drive home the point that the IPKF’s fight in Sri Lanka was for the unity of India," Bhasin says.

Colombo-Delhi rapprochement

The LTTE’s proposal for an ISGA brought the Sri Lankan government closer to India than perhaps ever before. As Bhasin puts it: "Colombo too is quite conscious that the emergence of an ISGA-type administration would be anathema to India and to that extent it would be advantageous to take India on board since the interest of both converged."

The Wickremesinghe Government’s 2003 proposal for a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) was taken up in the second half of 2004 by the new United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) regime led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However in March 2004, even prior to the coming of the UPFA to power, India had removed Sri Lanka from the negative list in regard to the supply military equipment.

The DCA, the final draft of which is now being considered by the political leaderships in the two countries, will formalise existing cooperation and enable cooperation in the future.

Bhasin says that even as early as April 2000, when India had chosen not to offer military aid to Sri Lanka to beat back the LTTE then knocking at the doors of Jaffna, it did give Colombo a credit of US$ 100 million "leaving vague the areas for which it could be utilised."

The hint is that it could be used to purchase urgently needed military equipment. Giving his own views on the DCA, Bhasin says: "Since India cannot be present at the negotiating table, the agreement if signed, would be a significant message to the LTTE to behave. India needs to do every bit to make sure that Colombo gains all the confidence it needs to deal with the Tigers, whose morale and self-esteem is somewhat shaken by the developments in the East."

By "developments in the East", the author means the revolt of the Batticaloa LTTE commander Col Karuna in March-April this year, which triggered a Northern Tamil-Eastern Tamil divide, which is continuing to plague the LTTE.

The DCA is also expected to see that the strategic vacuum in Sri Lanka is not filled by forces inimical to India, Bhasin says. In this context he notes: "The appointment of a former Chief of Pakistan intelligence, Col. Bashir Wali, as High Commissioner in Colombo, has already raised the hackles of the Indian security establishment. Pakistan’s every move in India’s neighbourhood is well calculated and meaningful. Wali's appointment could not be dismissed lightly as innocuous."

Consensus on India

Bhasin points out that the two main political formations in Sri Lanka, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the United National Front (UNF) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, may not see eye to eye on the ethnic issue and the LTTE, but both want India to play an "active" role in the peace process.

Both want close ties with India. Both are keen on keeping India’s strategic interests in view. Both want to keep India informed at every step. Interestingly both appreciate India's reasons for not wanting to be involved directly. Realising that the political space was closed (because of bitter experiences in the recent past), India decided to look at economic cooperation and investment as means of making its presence felt in Sri Lanka. And this, according to Bhasin, took place quite early in the 1990s (perhaps with the coming into power of the more pragmatic Narasimha Rao regime).

A Joint Commission was set up in July 1991. In March 1995, President Kumaratunga addressed the chambers of commerce and industry in New Delhi. In 1997 came the agreement on promotion and protection of investments. To cap it all, there was the Free Trade Agreement in 1998. There is a move towards a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The Wickremesinghe government started giving Indians visas on arrival unilaterally. India adopted an open skies policy following his October 2003 visit to New Delhi. Bhasin describes as a development of "far reaching importance" Wickremesinghe’s suggestion of integrating Sri Lanka’s economy with that of South India.


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