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May 17, 2000
Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)
The Sri Lankan crisis: India's misplaced priorities
The initial error was made by Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in going public over the possibility of his country asking for India's help in defending Jaffna and in a remote contingency, in the evacuation of the military garrison which might get trapped there.
The cat having got out of the bag, India should have said as little as possible, merely "not another IPKF" and the rest at an appropriate time. The question of any military co-operation short of another IPKF should have remained under wraps. Unfortunately, under pressure from its political allies in the South, the government shot from the hip, instantly ruling out any military assistance and foreclosing other options.
Such hasty comments in the past have cost us dearly. We did it after the nuclear tests (no first use), during Kargil (no crossing the LoC) and so on. The pious declarations ignore the geostrategic reality of a politico-military crisis situation.
The government is making a huge mistake in not bolstering Sri Lanka's military capacity to defend Jaffna. Earlier it ignored the distress signals from the ground fighting in Sri Lanka. Being tied up with Pakistan and the Clinton visit, it failed to read into the sudden and total collapse of the Sri Lankan Army in the Wanni jungles last November. The second set of smoke signals came when Elephant Pass was attacked a month later and caved in on April 22 this year. It was only when Kadirgamar met the prime minister on May 3, that the Cabinet Committee on security met the same evening for the first time to take stock of the Kadirgamar request, including evacuation of 40,000 troops.
Despite fierce battles raging in India's backyard, in a repeat of Kargil and Kandahar, no contingency planning seems to have been done to meet the Jaffna crisis such as it has evolved. There is an element of surprise in the manner the crisis has been recognised. There is a strong presence of the RAW in the south and in Colombo. It is strange that India should have been waiting for a request for help from Sri Lanka.
Everyone knows that Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity is a priority concern for India and a military victory for the LTTE in Jaffna would send the wrong message to separatists in India. India's national interests are more important than placating political concerns of Tamil Nadu. Southern comfort and Tamil emotion such as it is, should not get exaggerated. A minimum action plan factoring these sentiments and sensitivities should have been drawn up for the south much earlier.
Whom is this government supporting? A sovereign government or a banned terrorist organisation? Despite assurance to Sri Lanka that Tamil Nadu will not become a base for the LTTE's nefarious activities -- trafficking in drugs, weapons and smuggling -- a recent investigation by New Delhi Television has revealed an elaborate network of illegal activities carried out by LTTE operators from the south of Tamil Nadu.
The LTTE is the world's leading guerilla group as well as the most dreaded terrorist organisation. Its leader is implicated in the assassination of a former Indian prime minister and several Sri Lankan leaders. This group is directly involved in the export of military expertise, drugs for arms and intelligence sharing with other secessionist groups in India. India, which is spearheading an international jehad against terrorism, cannot be seen to be mollycoddling the LTTE.
Tamil Nadu's political leaders objecting to Indian military support for Sri Lanka are the ones who collaborated with the LTTE against the IPKF. These are the leaders who called the IPKF names like 'Indian Tamil Killing Force and refused to welcome them back at Chennai harbour. They are now preventing India from helping in the fight against the terrorist organisation they have harboured and supported.
By the time India gets into the act, it may be too late as the last line of defence for the Sri Lanka military in Jaffna -- KKS Harbour, Palaly Airfield and Point Pedro -- will have come under LTTE gunfire. If the LTTE succeeds, which is not unlikely, you may have a Saigon-like situation. What will it be? Safe passage, cease-fire under ICRC or a fighting withdrawal?
The LTTE is unlikely to accept any cease-fire when it has the golden chance of destroying and humiliating one third of the Sri Lankan military. Greater dishonour will come to India, the regional influencer, letting a terrorist group win the war with horrendous implications for India and Sri Lanka.
Major General Ashok K Mehta served in the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka.
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