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
reporting on Avtar Singh Bhasin's "India in Sri Lanka – between the Lion and the
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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.
"Unsavoury regimes these
days hire the best talent available to spruce up their
international image... The PR technique is simple enough:
the human rights abuses, talk about it as a 'complex' two
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
Richard Swift, New Internationalist, in Mind Games, July
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.