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Lanka turmoil: Threat to India's soft underbelly
January 11, 2008
While many Tamils disagree with the means used by the Tigers and its fascist outlook, they nevertheless regard them as saviours in face of Sinhala chauvinism. This is the greatest strength of the Tigers and makes it possible for them to survive. There is no military solution to the underlying political problem, a fact well understood in India.
The Indian Ocean is a unique area in as much as for an ocean it has very few littoral countries. As a consequence most of its vast expanse consists of open or international sea. It is reputed to be very rich in minerals and future as resources on land are exhausted, a race for seabed exploitation is a distinct possibility. The Chinese naval expansion at 13 percent per annum as well as its attempts to build a base at Coco Island in Mynmar and a port in Gawadar, Pakistan, portends an Indian Ocean rivalry. India can ill afford to lose control of this area, vital for its security. Located at the apex of Indian Ocean, a friendly and peaceful Sri Lanka is essential for India's defence.
The future domination of the Indian Ocean by China poses a threat to the vital interests of Japan [Images] as well as the United States. It is a well known secret that the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka (the Indian Peace Keeping Force interlude of 1987) was prompted by the fear of the Trincomalee harbour falling into hostile hands. Logically, today the interests of India, Japan and the US seem to coincide in having peace in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil-Sinhala rivalry is 'mother of old conflicts'. The two sides trace their animosities to the battle between Tamil King Ellara (after whom Eelam is named) and Sinhalese King Duttagamini in 167 (or 145) BC! Obviously it was not a continuing conflict and there were many periods of peace. But it must be understood that in the perception of ordinary Tamils and Sinhalas, the conflict is as old. This in itself becomes an obstacle to a solution.
Since the Buddhist revival of 1956-1957, Sri Lanka has become a 'Buddhist' State, much on the lines of many Islamic states. But even worse, the law of the land denies equal opportunities to non-Sinhala citizens. Many, specially Indian commentators, have flippantly 'advised' Tamils to accept Sri Lankan unity without realising that Sri Lanka is not a secular State like India nor is it a 'fair State' like the UK in terms of rule of law. Thus there is a fundamental problem in the nature of the Sri Lankan State at the root of this conflict.
Geography dictates that any conflict in the countries of the Indian subcontinent affects India as she is at the centre and her borders touch every country. Common borders, race, religion and history make India and Sri Lanka one of the closest neighbors in the region with the possible exception of Nepal. But mere cultural similarities or even common religion or race do not necessarily lead to peaceful relations.
Sri Lanka is a plural society and multi-ethnic country. Like other developing countries, the process of economic development as well as nation building has often led to clashes between various groups. India has experienced this and so has Sri Lanka. In the late 19th century conflicts took place mainly between the Buddhists, Catholics and Muslims. The most serious riots against the Catholics took place in 1883 and 1903. Major anti-Muslim riots took place in 1915. But since 1958, the focus of Sinhala violence has shifted to the Tamils. Major anti-Tamil riots took place in 1958, 1977 and 1981-83. This antagonism has led to a feeling of insecurity amongst the Tamils and the movement for Tamil Eelam or homeland was born out of this cauldron of hate.
The people of Tamil Nadu have historical and blood relations with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. They will not remain inactive and watch the genocidal tactics of the Sri Lanka army against their brethren. The rise of Dravidian parties has ensured a competitive backing for the rights of the Sri Lanka Tamils. The late Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran went a step further and linked Tamil survival with Indian nationalism.
Indian support to the Tamil militants was good politics, both regionally as well as nationally. India intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987 initially with the sole aim of saving the Tamils. That subsequently it ended up fighting the Tamils themselves was the result of naivete of the top Indian leaders, bungling of an egotist diplomat and the shrewdness the then Sri Lanka leadership.
Contours of a possible solution
Tamil Eelam is no solution. The new State cannot be in peace with Sri Lanka as the Eastern province claimed by the LTTE has a mixed population, the boundary is not well defined and is 600 km long. Perpetual bloodshed is predetermined in case of that outcome.
On the other hand most Sri Lankan Tamils would be quite satisfied with an Indian type federal structure. The first step in the direction has to be taken by the Sinhlas by recognising that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic State not a Buddhist one. The Sinhalas have to give up their insistence on a unitary State and accept federalism.
A federal structure with a Kashmir-like arrangement where with Article 370, the Kashmiri identity is preserved. A three-language formula could solve the language issue. Sri Lanka needs to ensure equality before law for all citizens and no Sinhala bias. There should be open negotiations and a ceasefire. India could guarantee this accord.
Unfortunately, with our capital located in Delhi, the ruling establishment is often oblivious to the Indian Ocean.
Before an ideological dispute can be solved it needs to be converted into a tangible dispute over territory or rights. The Middle East process only got off the ground once the Palestinians recognised Israel's right to exist and Israel in turn accepted the demand for a Palestinian state. Once the ideological hurdle is crossed can there be give and take over territory. Till such time this happens, there is very little chance of peace. World and major powers like the US and Japan have to convince or coerce the Sri Lankans into abandoning the path of military solution. India has to act and realise that between inaction and military intervention, there are many tools available to it.
The dialogue must be open and the world at large told of the issues involved. But the first step for the process to begin is for both sides to accept that they are in a no win situation. If the world and India fails to convince the Sri Lankans, then we are looking at a fire next door with China gleefully fishing in troubled waters!
Colonel Anil Athale (retd) is the coordinator of Initiative for Peace and Disarmament, a Pune-based think-tank.