India & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam
India clawing back to Sri Lanka's North East
M.R Narayan Swamy (IANS)
in Hindustan Times, 22 March 2006
is slowly, patiently and with a
clear agenda finding its
way back into Sri Lanka's North East, after having almost washed its
hands off the Tamil scene following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination 15
years ago.In just a year after Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran
declared in Trincomalee that the "North East is very close to
India's heart", New Delhi is making its presence felt again in a
troubled region where it once enjoyed tremendous goodwill.
Unlike in the 1980s when it was accused of covertly arming Tamil
guerrillas, India is maintaining a safe distance from the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which New Delhi outlawed in 1992 on
charges of killing
Gandhi. The objective this time is to reach out to the
predominantly Tamil and Muslim people of the northeast with
development projects, which have the full backing of the Sri Lankan
Early this month, India's ambassador in Colombo, Nirupama Rao,
visited the eastern district of Amparai and discussed the needs of
the local South Eastern University and ways of making perennially
flooded areas suitable for paddy cultivation, visited a cultural
museum, and heard from Tamil and Muslim leaders and government
officials about the situation in the district.
On March 20, Rao was present in Kotagala, in Sri Lanka's hill
country that is home to "Indian Tamils", when President Mahinda
Rajapaksa ceremonially opened a biotechnology institute set up with
help from an Indian agriculture expert.
The institute is developing a model farm with sections on
floriculture, vegetable growing, beekeeping and herbal-aromatic
plants cultivation as well as a farm implements workshop and a
tissue culture laboratory. A similar project is in operation in the
mainly Sinhalese Gampaha district.
In November, a month before Rajapaksa visited New Delhi, Rao handed
over medicines urgently needed by the Kilinochchi district hospital
in Sri Lanka's LTTE-controlled north at a simple function held in
her office in Colombo.
All these come on top of New Delhi's decisions to build a hospital
and a vocational training centre in Trincomalee, another hospital in
central hills, re-build small schools in the northeast destroyed by
the 2004 tsunami, and also provide aid like fishing boats and nets
and sewing kits to the northeast. Indian officials say they have no
problems attending to the humanitarian needs of the people living in
LTTE control but they will not deal with the Tigers, whose leader
Velupillai Prabhakaran is wanted in India for the Gandhi killing.
This was stated unambiguously by India's former envoy to Sri Lanka,
Nirupam Sen, in May 2004: "Our rehabilitation and assistance is for
the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of where they live... (But)
there is no question of India engaging the LTTE."
Even while meeting politicians of the pro-LTTE Tamil National
Alliance, Indian diplomats seek to avoid those who come from the
ranks of the Tigers. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was blown up
by an LTTE suicide bomber near Chennai in May 1991, India went into
a shell, virtually withdrawing itself from Sri Lanka. At the same
time, New Delhi cracked down on the Tigers, who once enjoyed
sanctuary in India.
India threw its weight behind the 2002 Norway-brokered and
Western-backed ceasefire agreement between Colombo and the LTTE. It
has no intention of taking the place of Norway or even becoming a
co-chair to the peace process because that would involve dealing
with the Tigers.
However, there was a feeling here in recent times that it was being
edged out of the Sri Lankan scene.The December 2004 tsunami gave
India an opportunity to get involved in gigantic relief efforts in
Sri Lanka.In the northeast, Indian army and navy teams helped
restore communications, provide medical relief and drinking water,
restore the functioning of hospitals and rebuild the damaged bridge
at Arugam Bay.
In April 2005 Shyam Saran visited Sri Lanka and summed up New
Delhi's thinking: "The welfare and well-being of the people living
in the northeast is very close to India's heart." He also made it
clear that India firmly stood for the unity and territorial
integrity of Sri Lanka and, with the northeast in mind, emphasised
the need to promote democracy, pluralism and human rights.
At the same time,
Indian military commanders have in recent times visited Sri Lanka.
Despite protests from a section of politicians in Tamil Nadu, New
Delhi has continued to assist Colombo militarily. At the same
time, it has urged Sri Lanka to go for a federal settlement to meet