April 15, 2002


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Dealing with the Tigers: India's tightrope options

Now that peace appears to be on hand in Sri Lanka after twenty years of war, India should reappraise its attitudes towards the actors there. First, there is the strategic question of Pax Indica in the Indian Ocean sealanes and the littoral states. Second, there is the implication of acquiescence in a de facto partition of a neighbouring state. Third, the potential impact on Tamil Nadu and the region.

It is not unreasonable to speak of a Pax Indica. In centuries past, the ties of trade and culture had made the ocean virtually an Indian lake. As I remember reading somewhere, it was the case that Indian cultural ideas held sway all over Southeast Asia; so much so that at one point "an inhabitant of the Ganges Plain or the Deccan would have felt equally at home anywhere in Southeast Asia". As the Cholas demonstrated a thousand years ago, Indian naval power may also be significant factor.

It is increasingly clear that the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are going to have great significance in the global energy trade in the near future. As more and more of China's needs and almost all of Japan's are met by oil shipped from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca, control of the sea lanes becomes a critical choke point: it is the jugular vein of these East Asian economies.

India is clearly the preponderant power in the Indian Ocean. As India continues its naval buildup, acquiring the Admiral Gorshkov and nuclear-powered submarines as well as building its own generation of warships, it is the only power in the region that can project its force across the entire region from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca. India recently announced an agreement with the Americans to escort US Navy supply ships through the pirate-infested waters of the Straits of Malacca.

Not that there are no other actors. Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal's Cocos Islands (Burmese territory) are worrisome; but the recently activated Andaman and Nicobar Command is expressly intended to contain this. The Andamans chain is only 40 miles away from Indonesia's restive but oil rich Aceh territory; the signs of continuing warmth with Indonesia with President Megawati Soekarnoputri's visit to Delhi are reassuring. We might see Indonesian oil and gas coming into India.

The major wild card in this scenario are the Americans. They already have a toehold in the region with the leased British island of Diego Garcia. I have mentioned previously the possibility of India offering port facilities at Kochi and Visakhapatnam to the American navy. This would be fraught with political issues, but would be an example of growing Indo-US warmth in military activities.

However, I had a chat with a US naval officer recently. His reaction was interesting: "We don't need Kochi or Visakhapatnam because we have Diego Garcia." Both of us left unsaid one word -- Trincomalee. This Sri Lankan port in the east of the island is one of the world's finest and deepest natural harbours and is the perfect choice for a naval base: Diego Garcia pales in comparison. Indians have been aware of this, and have signed a treaty with the Sri Lankan government that in essence gives India a veto over who gets to use Trincomalee.

Now what happens if and when Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam set up their semi- or fully autonomous regime in the north and east of Sri Lanka, with Trincomalee as their capital? In the national interest, I submit that India needs to be on good terms with whoever controls Trincomalee. This is an urgent strategic imperative. If Prabhakaran rules Trincomalee, he is, by definition, India's friend. This is a simple calculus of self-interest.

I disagree with all the rabble-rousers in the Indian media as well as the Congress making noises about extraditing Prabhakaran to stand trial in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case. Yes, yes, it was deplorable that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, but arresting Prabhakaran isn't going to bring Rajiv Gandhi back. Some contend that Prabhakaran is a war criminal, but that is a very fine qualification for dying comfortably of old age. For instance, here are the war criminals and those guilty of crimes against humanity that I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Richard Nixon, died of old age, war crimes against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
  • Henry Kissinger, living comfortably in New York, war crimes against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
  • Mao Tse Tung and Deng Xiao Ping, died of old age, war crimes against Tibet and against the Chinese population during the Great Leap Forward
  • General Tikka Khan, died of old age, war crimes against East Pakistan
  • General Augusto Pinochet, his trial in limbo, crimes against humanity in Chile
Slobodan Milosevic is the only one that I can think of who has got into trouble. Generally what happens is that the small fry get caught, charged, and hanged, but the big bosses get away. Incidentally, you may have noticed that the International Criminal Court has just come into being; the US has not ratified the treaty, and is in fact considering unsigning it, fearing, with good reason, that their own various war criminals may one day be hauled up and sentenced.

Anyway, we who are unable to force General Musharraf (a potential war criminal for his continued support of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the murdering terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir) to release Masood Azhar and Sheikh Omar (relatively small fry) should not even dream of getting Prabhakaran handed over to India to stand trial. Whose army is going to enforce that, I ask?

In any case, I am not one of those who believe Rajiv Gandhi's regime was Camelot: only his friend Mani Shankar Aiyar would proclaim that the 10 per cent GDP growth during Rajiv Gandhi's regime was a great economic success. Aiyar forgets that it was unsustainable and based on massive borrowing: this is what brought India to the verge of bankruptcy in 1991. Aiyar has also scorned reports that India's current GDP growth rate is among the highest in the world. I invite his attention to the latest Economist. The three highest rates in the world are as follows, and remember China's habit of inflating its numbers by 2 to 3 per cent:

  • China, 6.6 per cent in Q4 2001
  • India, 6.3 per cent in Q4 2001
  • Russia, 4.9 per cent in Q3 2001
The point, therefore, is that India should play its cards correctly, without alienating Prabhakaran or the Sri Lankan government of Ranil Wickremasinghe at this time. Let us do what is in the national interest, not get our knickers in a twist over ideology and moralising and revenge.

But the de facto partition of Sri Lanka does bring with it a significant question: does India look like it is winking at the success of an armed insurrection in a neighbouring country? It may be true that there are all sorts of justifications: the Sinhalese did in fact try cultural genocide against the Tamils, for instance by burning the Jaffna library. But it is clear that most nation states automatically militate against the forced redrawing of maps by military means.

It is true that India did redraw Pakistan's map in 1971, and may in fact help to redraw it again in the near future if/when Pakistan collapses into five or so statelets. But then Pakistan is odd: a nation without a cause, an inherently unstable chimera, a creation of naughty imperialists. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, one would think, could accommodate Tamil aspirations in a federal setup; much like India is managing its own federalist and centrifugal forces. This is an interesting conundrum for India's planners. What is the message we are sending out to potential secessionists?

In point of fact, I think that message should really be economic: are you better off in the Indian Union or not? It is clear to me that the steam has gone out of the Tamil secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu as the result of economics. It is clear to Tamils that their state, through adroit politicking, has managed to get its fair share (or more) of federal monies and industry. Tamil Nadu, on average, is prospering, its state GDP growing faster than the national average.

In the spirit of "let's not fix what ain't broke", Tamils have become fairly content to be part of the Indian Union. Prosperity makes everyone less radical, clearly. Yes, there is still a set of radical self-proclaimed 'Dravidians' even though the Aryan/Dravidian divide is a clear fabrication; these are the only hotheads who keep talking of the Tamil Eelam state, an independent country.

I get pretty nervous when they talk about Tamil Eelam. Yet another partition? This is certainly not in India's interest. In the grandiose tradition of all secessionists, the maps of Eelam on the Internet include all of Tamil Nadu (naturally), all of North and East Sri Lanka (some may contest this) and all of Kerala (I certainly contest this!).

From my personal perspective, apart from the historical Chera kingdoms, Kerala has nothing whatsoever to do with a Tamil homeland. Kerala has a distinctive culture, a distinctive language. Our language and culture are both derived from a harmonious synthesis of two classical languages, Tamil and Sanskrit, so that for Malayalis most Tamil and Sanskrit are understandable. The reverse is not true. For instance, I have greatly enjoyed the semi-classical Tamil film song 'Alai payuthe, kanna, ananda mohana venu ganamithu' remixed with a rock beat. And the great Tamil classic Silappadikaram was written by someone from Kerala, Chera Prince Ilango Adigal: we are proud of that fact.

However, the definition of 'Malayalathanima' (Malayaliness) has very little to do with Tamil. It is rooted in the beautiful tropical paradise landscape and in an inexplicable, brooding melancholia, an existential sorrow, exemplified in some of the writings of M Mukundan. Not for us the aggressive, boisterous love of language and an ancient Sangam culture that many Tamils have. The two cultures are as different as the monsoon-fed West Coast and the arid East Coast. And most Malayalis do not want to secede from the Indian Union anyway. We do not want to be part of a Tamil Eelam.

We have also seen what can happen to a region that becomes Tamilised. There is Kanyakumari district, which was for at least 500 years part of the Malayali heartland, the kingdom of Travancore. In fact, the capital of Travancore was Padamanabhapuram in Kanyakumari district; it was also the scene of its greatest military triumph, at the battle of Colachel, which decimated the Dutch invaders. See my earlier column In Remembrance of Things Past: The Battle of Colachel.

Yet, during the states reorganisation, Kanyakumari district was given to Tamil Nadu. Today, for a Malayali, stepping into Kanyakumari is a bittersweet experience. The land looks like Kerala, but in 45 years, the area has been entirely Tamilised, and Malayalam has vanished. Not that the state of Kerala has done a brilliant job by any means, but it is sad to see the virtual extinction of a culture. The loss of homeland and language are tragedies.

Yet I think India has to step warily into the minefield of Sri Lanka's politics. It is possible that we haven't seen the end game yet, although peace in the island would be of great interest to Indians. We would like to visit this emerald isle without fearing for our lives. And there is surely the prospect of trade. India should not rush in, waving moralistic statements, where angels fear to tread. Let us look out strictly for the national interest, moralisation be damned.


A couple of readers wrote to me suggesting that I should never suggest anything that might anger the Chinese. For, they said, didn't I remember how badly they defeated India in 1962? Yes, I do, but that is because of unpreparedness on the part of Nehru and Krishna Menon. I turn around and ask: do you remember how badly the great People's Liberation Army was mauled by the Vietnamese in 1980? India will not be a pushover anymore, now that we have realised how perfidious the Chinese are.

A reader from Detroit, who said he was in his 70s, told me that Nehru was the greatest Indian ever. Surely the reader is entitled to his opinion, as I am to mine, which is that Nehru was the greatest disaster ever. Yes, one man can affect the course of history: my favourite example is the murder of Dara Shikoh. Further, this reader exhorted me to "write like a Tamilian if you are a Tamilian". I have no idea what a Tamilian (sic) is supposed to write like. Fortunately, I am not a Tamil, so I don't have to write like a Tamil.

I have been hearing from some disgruntled readers who object to my quoting from Noam Chomsky, Pink Floyd, etc. I shouldn't quote? I may not agree with Chomsky on many matters, but I will happily use his ideas and his research: I am not dogmatic. In fact, like venture capitalists who talk of 'other people's money', I am happy to use 'other people's ideas'. The most hilarious letter was one from a fellow with an Indian name, who was really upset that I quoted at length from Paul Kennedy. I wonder if he is Kennedy's legal heir to be so perturbed.

A reader sent me the details of the exploration off the sea at Mahabalipuram. Apparently, they have discovered a large city several square miles in size with clearly manmade structures at depths of only a few metres. This certainly fits in with the local legend of the seven temples of Mahabalipuram, of which only the very last one is still standing. There are persistent stories from Tamil fishermen of other submerged cities off Poompuhar and Kanyakumari: there is the legend of the lost cities of Kumari Kandam. Coupled with the Gulf of Cambay discovery at much greater depth and possibly greater antiquity (9,500 years), the Mahabalipuram discovery, which could be 4,000 years old, points yet again to the need for rewriting Indian history and getting rid of the colonial and Marxist lies that have been its shame.


What game is he playing now?
Prabhakaran wants to 'build bridges' with India
Guns and more guns for a statement of peace

Rajeev Srinivasan

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