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May 18, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Hard decision on Sri Lanka

A few months ago, when an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked by terrorists, a debate broke out in the media whether India was a hard state or a soft state. After the hijackers secured the release of three jailed terrorists in exchange for the passengers and the crew, everyone concluded that India was indeed a soft state.

The recent events in Sri Lanka have once again put the country at the crossroads of decision making. What India does now will once and for all determine whether we are a hard or a soft state. Although their pride prevents the Sri Lankan government from openly inviting India to intervene militarily, they have made no efforts to hide the fact that they would more than welcome such an intervention. So far the Indian government has dilly-dallied and prevaricated in taking any action but has also made it clear that military intervention is out of question, a typical way out for a soft state.

In coming to any decision about the Sri Lankan situation, India's decision-makers are no doubt affected by the history of our intervention in 1987-'90. A number of critics including senior defence officers have termed the intervention as wrong and the results as disastrous. But was it really so?

Indian armed forces went into Sri Lanka with perfectly good intentions -- to separate the Tamil Eelam fighters from the Sri Lankan forces and to facilitate peace. Rajiv Gandhi, or probably his advisers, had a better sense of history as well as a long term view of events. He knew what a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka would mean for India 20 years down the line. Unfortunately, he was also swayed by the advice of an Army Chief who thought he could "finish off these lungi-clad ragtag army in two weeks." The rest is history.

The lungi-clad fighters fought the mighty Indian Army to a standstill over three years inflicting nearly 2000 casualties. Indians must also be remembering the treachery of the Premadasa government in supplying arms to the LTTE when they were down and out. Ultimately the Sri Lankan government proved not only ungrateful but downright hostile. How can we now come to the aid of the same people who were against us ten years ago?

Unfortunately, while one may certainly draw lessons from history, one should not be unduly influenced by past experience. The question facing India is quite simple. It is whether we should prevent a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka now or choose to fight a breakaway greater Eelam in India 30 years from now. The world's history is full of efforts and experiments when people divided by religion, language, ethnicity and culture have joined together to forge a nation. Although a few have succeeded, in most cases the experiment has not worked. In practically every case the minority has become disillusioned and has decided to break away and take its destiny in its own hands.

In Germany and Italy, Bismarck's and Garibaldi's efforts to unite different states into a nation have succeeded. But Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia broke up after his death. The Irish fought the British for over 700 years, ultimately declaring themselves an Irish Free State, just ten years before we got our independence. The 15 states of the Soviet Union could no longer withstand the centrifugal forces and each decided to go its own way after a 100 years together. Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 and broke up into two states in 1993.

The fissiparous tendencies are evident even to this day. The French speaking Quebec province wants to get away from the rest of Canada and it is only a matter of time before that happens. No state may have broken apart from the Indian Union yet, but right from the death of Potti Sriramulu every minority has managed to carve out its own state.

It is therefore inevitable that given the present situation, a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka will be formed within a few years. Inevitable that is, unless India intervenes now. And a Sri Lankan Tamil Eelam may well lead to a greater Tamil Eelam within a few years.

History also tells us how nations have dealt with the efforts of their minorities to destroy their territorial integrity. Nearly 150 years ago America fought a great Civil War, which lasted over three years, to prevent its south from breaking away. It lost millions of men in that battle which was supposed to be fought over a principle but was really to preserve the Union. Now, there is a hard nation for you. Others, including the Soviet Union, gave into the demands meekly and ended up as a conglomeration of nations.

How far is India willing to go to preserve the inevitable danger of a breakup? What is more important -- to preserve the unity of a coalition for a few more years in power or to preserve the unity of a nation?

There will always be criticism of any military intervention. Some say, why should we bail out the Sri Lankan Army with the blood of our jawans? Why should we fight their war for them? Wrong. By intervening in Sri Lanka we will not be fighting their war. We will be fighting our war on a foreign soil.

In 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany which eventually led to the Second World War. Were Britain and France fighting the Polish people's war? Certainly not. They had realised that if Hitler was not stopped in Poland his next targets would be France and Britain, which in fact was what happened. In the Seventies, Vietnam, fearing that the excesses of the despotic leader Pol Pot would spill over into their own country, intervened militarily in neighbouring Cambodia and established Hun Sen as the Prime Minister. Eventually this led to UN sponsored elections some 13 years later.

India has time and again proclaimed its commitment to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. That integrity cannot be preserved by simple proclamations. The time has come to put our money where our mouth is. The time has come to take what may be the hardest decision this government is likely to be faced with during its tenure. However unpalatable that decision may be to the general public, to the people of Tamil Nadu and to the Armed Forces, the hard decision is to help Sri Lanka militarily. By helping Sri Lanka now, we would have once and for all demonstrated our determination to preserve the territorial integrity of not only our neighbouring states but of India itself.

If he has any difficulty coming to a quick decision, the following immortal words may help Prime Minister Vajpayee make up his mind.

"He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, That dares not put it to touch, to gain or lose it all."

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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