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May 24, 2000


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Why India cannot be indifferent to the Lanka crisis

E-Mail this column to a friend I must have been rather balanced in my column on Jaffna, 'Damned if we do, damned if we don't' about India's impossible dilemma in the current crisis. I received peeved mail from all parties to the conflict -- Tamil Sri Lankans accused me of ignoring human rights violations; Sinhalese Sri Lankans accused me of not supporting their nation's territorial integrity; and Tamil Indians accused me of not sympathising with their island cousins or even impugning their patriotism.

This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma the Indian State is facing -- there is no straightforward solution. Indians are battle-fatigued -- and the easiest path is one of non-involvement, where we say "a pox on both your houses". But this may no longer be possible -- India, I fear, will be forced to play a more positive role.

Otherwise, the vacuum will be filled by others -- for instance, the Indian Army's report for 1999 suggests that the Chinese have sold arms at way below market prices to the Sri Lankan Army, attempting to create a client state. Pakistan, too, is no doubt fishing in these troubled waters, perhaps selling arms to the Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The US likes Trinco, despite having set up Diego Garcia as a substitute.

There is a school of thought in India that it suits us to keep the stalemate going in Lanka -- but this is a cynical stand. India really does not need yet another unstable neighbour, another refugee influx, and continuing violence in its backyard. We need to be helping our sub-continental brethren, not abandoning them in their time of need.

But the dilemma remains: how? The only sensible way is negotiation. If that doesn't work, what then? At worst India may have to consider a multilateral peace-keeping force, only this time there should be clear objectives: maintain a no-violence buffer zone, with shoot-on-sight orders under the United Nations Chapter 7 rules which allow the use of force. No more of the nonsense that the Premadasa government pulled: allying with the LTTE against peace-keepers!

Since the root cause of the revolt is economic, continuing war is the last thing, possibly the very last thing, that Sri Lanka needs -- it is beggaring its small economy. Given its high levels of human development, it may otherwise have been an Asian tiger-in-the-making.

I received e-mail from Tamil Sri Lankans who assert that their terrible ill-treatment by Sinhalese can only be corrected by a Tamil Eelam state, that the Tigers have become true representatives of the Tamils, that a Tamil Eelam state will be India's natural partner and will have no interest in fomenting separatism in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and that I am repeating Sinhalese propaganda about the LTTE and even that I have been bribed by the Sri Lankan government (I wish I were important for governments to bribe!).

Let me look at each of these. Ordinary Indians are worried about the LTTE. Indians appreciate the dedication to the cause, the utter fearlessness, and the fierce fighting spirit of the Tigers. India has no wish to fight them -- once was bad enough; and we worry about what they will do in Tamil Nadu once they have carved out a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

I am aware of, and regret, the systematic discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. They have been turned into second-class citizens and many have even been deprived of Sri Lankan citizenship. There have been massacres, atrocities and pogroms aimed at them. The Jaffna library was burned to erase their culture. There are few job opportunities in Tamil-majority areas. I have read voluminous lists of horrors -- and people (especially reader Rajiv from Australia) are sending me more of this every day. I have also had Sri Lankan friends for decades.

As a Malayalee, I share some cultural elements with Tamil Sri Lankans. This makes me far more sympathetic than most Indians to the Tamil cause. Because of the documented fact of institutionalized discrimination against the Tamils, it is a reasonable desire to gain autonomy. But the desire for a separate state (the end) and the path of violence (the means) are both unfortunate.

Is it impossible to get to a negotiated settlement with limited autonomy for Tamil-dominated areas? What I hear from Sinhalese Sri Lankans suggests that despite a minority opposed to a compromise, most are sick of the war. They are aware of the justified grievances of the Tamils and would like to address them. Sinhalese may pursue any reasonable means to bring this horrible war to an end, including, if necessary, a partition.

The Sinhalese are also aware that the passage of time is not making things better -- the LTTE has become a formidable fighting force, battle-hardened veterans of both guerilla warfare and conventional warfare; practically a professional army, heavily armed and highly motivated. I wish they would give the Norwegian negotiators a chance. Unfortunately, it appears they have no wish to -- they will not settle for anything other than secession.

But Indians fear that we will be endorsing something like Partition by supporting the LTTE. A two-nation theory -- that Sinhalese and Tamils need two separate states -- is anathema to Indians, as in our case, we have seen this idea fail dismally, leading to unending war and animosity. Look at Ethiopia and Eritrea for the latest instance of the TNT not working.

Reader Ganes suggested that there is now no distinction between Tamils and the LTTE. Alienation has reached such a stage that all Tamil Lankans support the Tigers. I am not sure if this is an accurate statement of facts, but I did get mail from a Colombo Tamil, reader Raj, suggesting that even they, far from Jaffna and supposedly privileged, are beginning to support the Tigers.

That brings me to India's primary concern: Tamil Nadu. A tiny nation like the proposed Tamil Eelam (north and east Sri Lanka) will not be economically viable. What will it export? What are its natural resources other than Trincomalee? What industry does it have? It would be tempting, given the contiguity with the large and industrially forward state of Tamil Nadu, for an Eelam to want to expand to include the Indian state.

How can anybody guarantee that this will not happen? India is already beset with separatism in the North and Northeast. Of course, the main guarantee is if Tamil Nadu feels it is better off with India than with Eelam. South India is progressing rapidly and Madras has the advantage, compared to Bangalore and Hyderabad, of being a major port with strong air links. Madras is, de facto, the capital of the South, the most happening part of India. But will Tamil cultural pride overcome the call of economics?

It is not necessarily that Tamil Indians would want to secede, but that Eelam would want to force a merger with them. Of course, the Tigers can be very persuasive when they want to be.

I did receive mail from Tamil Indians, like reader Venkat, suggesting that they are not interested in seceding to join an Eelam and that they are patriotic Indians. There is reason to believe this: after all, Tamils made the nationalist film Roja as well as the CD Vande Mataram. It appears that the Indian Peace-Keeping Force misadventure and the lives of 1,000 men bought India this much: Tamils in Tamil Nadu now see themselves generally as Indians first and Tamils second.

The opposite side is the question several people asked me: why didn't India, in 1971, worry about West Bengal joining hands with Bangladesh to form a Greater Bangla? After all, Bengalis are equally chauvinistic about language and culture. Touche. Quite honestly, I have no answer.

My friend Priya asked me why India cannot send troops to fight for Tamils as we did for the Bengalis. The answer is that India has a hard time seeing the Tigers as representing the best interest of Tamils, whereas the Mukti Bahini clearly did with Bengalis. Also, vivisecting Pakistan had fairly concrete benefits for India, whereas vivisecting Sri Lanka may not.

One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist -- and it is hard to get away from this dichotomy (unlike what reader Bruce asserted, I never refer to the Tigers as either freedom fighters or terrorists, both loaded terms. I call them guerillas, an accurate and non-judgmental term). I have mentioned this before in the case of the Gadar Party, hounded by Americans. Any means, fair or foul, used in this game is justified by those involved.

Thus, it is rumoured that the Tigers are involved in various activities to raise money. What I said about the Tigers' possible links with the ISI and narcotics and piracy is based on reports in the Economist, India Today and other media. Several Tamils demanded explicit proof -- but as a columnist I depend on published data. Nobody gives me classified documents.

My views on Trincomalee (Tirukonamalai, reader Sudha informs me) were borne out in an article in The New Indian Express on May 15. It reported, astonishingly, that a month back, the Sri Lankan government made an unconditional offer to India, giving our navy significant control over Trinco. India would have the right to decide which (nation's) ships were to be allowed to use the port.

This is a tremendous concession -- and I am sure the quid pro quo desired was full co-operation with the army against the LTTE. Obviously, the strategic value of the port as a bargaining chip is not lost on anyone. It may be remembered that India's right to ensure that Trinco was closed to those 'inimical to India' (a code word then for the US) was a key article of the 1987 IPKF agreement. It also reversed a prior agreement by the Jayawardene government with the Americans regarding the use of some facilities there.

What I said about the current battle for Jaffna perhaps not being the end of the war was borne out by General A S Kalkat. He suggested in an interview that the key elements are the Palaly air force base and Kankesanturai port, as I mentioned. These two -- which the Sri Lankan Army held even when the Tigers controlled Jaffna town before 1995 -- are the lifeline for the army (not the land route via Elephant Pass).

If the LTTE captures Palaly and KKS, the game is truly up -- a third of Sri Lanka's army will be marooned in Jaffna. They will be forced to abandon armour and heavy artillery if they have to be evacuated. As I write this, the LTTE has shelled Palaly -- it seems to have momentum on its side and may capture the entire peninsula.

Reader Rajiv, a Sinhalese, suggested that the IPKF, although technically invited to Sri Lanka, was viewed as follows by Sinhalese: "Having waged a proxy war against our nation using the LTTE, India had then beaten us into a humiliating pact. This would entail Indian troops occupying our soil and forcing a Cyprus-style partition of the island."

India has no such ambitions -- we really would prefer if Sri Lankans stop fighting each other and make the island the tropical paradise it should be. Indians would just love to come visit its national parks and beaches as soon as peace is brokered. We are cousins -- our connections go back to the Buddhist Pali canon of circa 400 BCE, the older Ramayana links, and migrations: Sinhalese from Orissa and Tamils from Tamil Nadu in pre-historic times.


I received many links to news/opinion from Tamil Sri Lankans, none from Sinhalese. I forward some with neither comment nor endorsement.

For an overseas Tamil's retort to my previous column, see Then and provide a pan-Tamil perspective. While and are friendly to the LTTE.

The following are primarily news sites: and

A Sinhalese perspective is available on


Many people seem to misunderstand what "MFN" means. 'Most favoured nation' is not some particular privilege given to a country. It is simply diplomatspeak for standard tariffs that are offered to most countries. Thus the United States offering MFN to China -- now they wisely call it 'permanent normal trading relations' -- is not some huge favour. India, it seems, already has MFN status with the US under the World Trade Organisation.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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