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May 23, 2000
The lure of Lanka
Historically, the little landmass just off Rameswaram has held a fatal attraction for those living on the mainland. Put it down to the epic composed by Valmiki that headquartered Ravan in this idyll, or just plain expansionism, Sri Lanka has exerted influence across the Bay of Bengal that is in inverse proportion to its size, and some would say even importance.
Historically again, as the Cholas, Pandyas etc fought for suzerainty in a region that falls within Tamil Nadu boundaries, it was inevitable that the war spilled over into the island. The fight was also given an added piquancy by the fact that Buddhism had been driven out of India to this little landmass.
With independence conferring sovereign status in the region, it was inevitable that India, being the largest nation, try to exert an influence commensurate with its size. It was inevitable also that Sri Lanka resent this. By no means is this situation peculiar to the subcontinent; the US similarly believes that it has sole right over nations within its ocean rim, as does China in the east.
But what India needs to decide, once and for all, is the nature of its involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. Between Indira Gandhi's premiership and her son's, New Delhi had swung from one extreme to the other: first arming and training the Liberation Tigers to become death machines, and later fighting them.
As India wrestles with the island-nation's problems, the question of involvement can only be looked at through one prism: is a united Sri Lanka in India's strategic, geopolitical interests? Or should India aid the break-up of a sovereign nation citing ties of history, language and culture?
No one is arguing here that Sri Lankans and the island's Tamil population constitute a single nationality. Culturally, linguistically and ethnically, they are as dissimilar as a Keralite is from a Kashmiri. What binds them together is the land, and ironically it is the same factor that is dividing them.
The island's Tamils, however, would like India to aid their 'liberation' much as New Delhi aided the East Pakistanis in 1971. But the two instances are slightly unalike.
The critical difference is that in 1971, India was fighting as much to save its own founding principle as it was to save Mujib-ur-Rehman's people. Pakistan had been created rather in the manner that Eve, or so the Bible informs us, was created out of Adam. Pakistan's rationale was that the peoples of the Indian subcontinent constituted two distinct nationalities; India's premise was that nationhood transcended subnational urges, and in 1971 it was these two principles that were at war, with history choosing India as the victor.
In Lanka, however, there is no such clash. On what basis could India interfere on the side of the LTTE, when parts of its territory are under siege, when those waging war against New Delhi are being aided and abetted by external forces?
Between 1971 and 2000, nationhood as a concept has come under strain all over the world, India being no exception. One can either be an anarchist and say off with all nations; or one can treat nationhood as something sacred and strive to preserve it.
There is no doubt where India stands on this question, nor can there be any room for doubt in the future about the course India ought to take. India's options lie with a united Sri Lanka, not with a truncated one, however much local sentiment may desire otherwise. What we did in 1987 was a historical blunder, as was what we did prior to 1985.
If India has a role to play in the island-nation's affairs, it should be as a mediator between the two sides, not as an aggressor against either side. Given factors of contiguity, commonality, etc that bind at least a part of India with Sri Lanka, for peace to prevail in that country, Indian involvement is a sine qua non.
What exactly this involvement will have to be cannot be a matter of dispute. Having conceded that a united Sri Lanka is in India's best interests, it is imperative for India to work for a modus vivendi between the two segments of the Lankan population who are at war with each other.
India cannot be a mute spectator to the strife tearing apart this teardrop-shaped nation; nor can it abet the Tigers in their path of annihilation. How exactly it will go about this tough job is a task for its external affairs mandarins. Having failed in the past on far easier questions, perhaps it's time the law of averages worked in their favour.
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