India's policy dilemma

Print edition : May 13, 2000
India has difficult choices ahead.

IN the first week of May, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) advancing towards Jaffna and the Sri Lankan government sending an SOS to New Delhi, India's foreign policy functionaries were caught in a dilemma. New Delhi's initial assessment w as that the fall of Jaffna was imminent and that the Sri Lanka Army was in retreat. The government's decision in early May was that it would not intervene in any way in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. At the same time, New Delhi made it clear that the re could be no solution outside the framework of a united Sri Lanka and that there should not be any third-party intervention.

The gloomy assessment in New Delhi about the military developments in the Jaffna Peninsula later gave way to cautious optimism with news coming in that the Sri Lankan troops had stabilised the situation on the war front. According to Indian government s ources, the late-1980s experience involving the Indian Peace Keeping Force was not the only restraining factor behind the cautious Indian response. The Indian government does not want a situation to arise in Jaffna that could precipitate a refugee influx into India or impact adversely on the political situation in Tamil Nadu.

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At the all-party meeting in New Delhi on May 8 called to discuss the Sri Lankan situation, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee seen with (from left) T.R. Baalu, P. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Pramod Mahajan, Jaswant Singh, L.K. Advani, M. Kannapan, B.S. Dhind sa and Yerran Naidu.

After a string of serious strategic military reverses suffered by the Sri Lankan military at the hands of the LTTE in recent weeks, Colombo has been on the lookout for urgent aid from outside. India was the first to be approached by the Chandrika Kumarat unga government. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was recuperating in New Delhi after a kidney transplant operation, met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in the first week of May. Kadirgamar is unde rstood to have informally requested New Delhi to help evacuate Sri Lankan troops from the Jaffna Peninsula, if the need arose. The LTTE had launched "Operation Unceasing Waves" in November 1999 with the objective of capturing Jaffna. By the second week o f December, the Tigers had captured the northeastern coastal belt of Vettikerni, which was the main supply base for the Sri Lankan forces based at Elephant Pass. Elephant Pass fell on April 21. The Palaly military base was the next to fall.

The Sea Tigers have prevented the Sri Lanka Navy from effectively intervening along the Jaffna Peninsula. There are an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Sri Lankan troops along with 500,000 civilians in Jaffna. If a frontal attack takes place, most observers ex pect a bloodbath. Both Colombo and Delhi want to avoid such a scenario.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh acknowledged in Parliament that India had received some requests from Sri Lanka and that it was according them urgent consideration. There were reports in the Sri Lankan media that the country's government was buyi ng arms from a host of countries in the wake of the defeat at Elephant Pass. At the top of the Sri Lankan shopping list were long-range guns and 130 mm artillery equipment. Indian officials say that Colombo has virtually become an arms bazaar and that am ong the major arms suppliers have been Pakistan and China.

The LTTE, according to Indian sources, is equipped with artillery guns with a range of 17 to 20 km. An entire field ordnance unit of the Sri Lanka Army fell into the LTTE's hands during the hasty retreat from Elephant Pass. This was being put to good use by the LTTE in its all-out offensive, according to information reaching Delhi.

Jaswant Singh told the media after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in the first week of May that there was no "formal" request by Colombo for assistance. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister had told reporters after his meeting with the I ndian Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister that his country might seek India's help to overcome the latest crisis.

Jaswant Singh said India was "ready to contribute to the return of peace to Sri Lanka". At the same time, he ruled out any "military intervention" by the Indian forces. The Indian government said that it would resort to "humanitarian measures" to mitigat e the hardship of civilians but the External Affairs Minister refused to elaborate on what exactly this meant.

In reply to a question, the Minister said that it was not India's responsibility to help Sri Lanka to evacuate its troops from the embattled Jaffna. Jaswant Singh said that the question of evacuation was a hypothetical one in any case. "Sri Lanka has no t asked for evacuation - the situation has not arisen," he said.

The Sri Lankan government said that it was planning a counter-attack against the LTTE. Officials insisted that the situation was not as hopeless as was being made out in the international media.

Jaswant Singh said that India "would be guided in its response to developments by its continued commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict within the framework of a united Sri Lanka where all communities can realise their aspirations."

On a six-day visit to Sri Lanka, India's Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, reviews a guard of honour at the Sri Lanka Air Force headquarters in Colombo on May 8.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE / AP

THE government's stand that it would provide humanitarian aid to the Sri Lankan government was evidently not to the liking of some of the allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) a nd the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). The DMK was angry that its senior representative in the Cabinet, Murasoli Maran, was not invited to the CCS meeting, which was attended by the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the External Affairs M inister, the Finance Minister, the Defence Minister and the three Service chiefs.

Jaswant Singh admitted that not inviting Maran was his "fault", but said that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had been specifically invited to come to Delhi to discuss the issue. Prime Minister Vajpayee had also spoken to Maran and to Vaiko, the most vociferous supporter of the Tigers in the ruling coalition at the Centre.

Karunanidhi had strenuously lobbied with the other constituents of the ruling alliance and successfully stymied the government's initial inclination to send arms and ammunition. In a bid to reassure his allies, Vajpayee was forced to reiterate that the g overnment had "ruled out the sending or selling of arms to Sri Lanka". The Opposition in Parliament led by the Congress(I) broadly supported the government on the issue. Pranab Mukherjee of the Congress(I) said in the Rajya Sabha that it expected the gov ernment to take the major Opposition parties into confidence on the issue.

Although the Indian government remains committed to the concept of a united Sri Lanka, certain pro-LTTE and chauvinistic parties, on whose support the government is dependent on, want a reversal of this policy. Vaiko, the MDMK leader, is an avowed LTTE s upporter. His speech at a recent pro-LTTE conference in Geneva had stirred a controversy. Vaiko had later denied that he made the remarks attributed to him. A combination of forces including such politicians and the Tamil Nadu government wants to preempt even humanitarian relief being sent to Sri Lanka.

Karunanidhi said after his meeting with the Prime Minister that it was not his intention to tie the Centre's hands, but at the same time the Chief Minister laid conditions that restricted the government's choices. At the outset of his meeting with Vajpay ee, Karunanidhi said that the government should not provide military assistance in any form to the Sri Lankan government, in view of what had happened in the past. "We should not tie the hands of the government, but we should not forget the past," the Ch ief Minister said. Karunanidhi was silent on the issue of humanitarian assistance.

SENIOR Indian officials acknowledge that the developments in Sri Lanka are "very serious" from the country's security perspective. There has been an in-depth review of the situation and Foreign Ministry officials say that there is complete support from the constituents of the coalition for the decisions the government has taken so far. "The government has to take into account the danger of a refugee exodus from the island to Tamil Nadu. Besides, the sentiments of a section of our people are involved," said an official. The official admitted that India was caught in a dilemma. He said that Colombo would have liked India to help Sri Lanka face the difficult situation it finds itself in, but its own experiences and the situation on the ground precluded I ndian intervention. The Indian government was also of the view that a military intervention at this juncture would not make much of a difference. The loss of Jaffna should only be considered as a battle lost in a continuing war. The best option is a ceas efire, otherwise a very large number of troops could be trapped in Jaffna _ this is the considered thinking in government circles in Delhi. The LTTE does not like to take prisoners, and in case prisoners are taken, they may be treated more as hostages.

New Delhi has sounded a few countries as part of its efforts to find a solution to the conflict. The response has been lukewarm, though some efforts are going on in London, Paris and Washington to bring the two warring sides to the negotiating table. The Norwegian peace initiative is already in place, but the LTTE has indicated to Oslo that it would only start talking seriously after the fall of Jaffna.

The Indian authorities seem to have discussed the crisis in Sri Lanka with the U.S. administration. Indian officials say that Washington is fully supportive of India's current hands-off policy. Washington is itself not in a mood to get involved in Sri La nka, said an Indian official.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who met Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh in New Delhi on May 3.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE / AP

But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth had said during his last visit to Colombo that the U.S. was willing to mediate a settlement if all the parties involved wanted it to do so. The joint Vision Statement issued during President Clinton's visit to India said that "in the new century, India and the U.S. will be partners in peace with a common interest in and a complementary responsibility for ensuring regional and international security". At the same time, India has told the Sri Lankan go vernment that outside forces will not be allowed into Sri Lanka. Colombo had appealed to countries as diverse as Israel and Pakistan for help. Sri Lankan officials, however, insist that they have only made a request for arms. According to Indian official s, the Sri Lankan government has requested Pakistan for tanks. Pakistan has responded cautiously. The other major source of weaponry is Israel. After India turned down the Sri Lankan plea for assistance, Colombo announced that it was restoring ties with Tel Aviv broken off more than 40 years ago. Israel has sold four K-fir fighters to Sri Lanka. According to Indian sources, only three of them are operational. Sri Lanka desperately needs fighter planes in order to stem the LTTE onslaught. According to In dian officials, Colombo has given an assurance that it would not invite forces from a third country. India has also made it known that it is opposed to the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force in the island. Both New Delhi and Washington have given thei r tacit support for Sir Lanka to channel the bulk of its emergency arms imports from Israel. Evidently, the resumption of diplomatic links between Colombo and Tel Aviv came as no surprise to New Delhi. The Indian government's overt position at this junct ure is almost one of neutrality. An official said that India stood for the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka but all sections of the people will have to be accommodated.

After taking over as the Defence Minister in 1998, George Fernandes had expressed his "personal opinion" on Sri Lanka.

"What is happening in Sri Lanka is a civil war and India should not have got involved... We should make all efforts to bring peace to Sri Lanka," Fernandes had said.

Indian officials concede that "Eelam" is not in the interests of India but said that a unilateral declaration of independence by the LTTE was not "imminent". New Delhi is hoping that the new devolution proposals being prepared by the Sri Lankan governmen t will find more acceptance among the Tamil groups. Most observers of the Sri Lankan scene are however of the opinion that the Tigers are unlikely to settle for anything less than a separate state at this juncture.

AS of now the Indian policy is one of non-intervention, but officials hasten to add that the situation in Sri Lanka is a fast evolving one. New Delhi claims that it has got assurances from all the major powers that Sri Lanka would not be allowed to be br oken up. But the fear remains that the LTTE would assume a Taliban-like status of a "state actor'' and destabilise the entire region with its brand of politics and terror.

Besides, there has been no articulation of India's strategic interests in Sri Lanka. After Pokhran-II, senior Indian government officials had spoken of India's security concerns "beyond our region". The Indian armed forces are understood to have advised the government against direct military intervention in Sri Lanka. No "stand-bd-by" orders have been issued to the armed forces. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, started a six-day visit to Sri Lanka on May 7. He may utilise his v isit to assess the situation and suggest a possible Indian response.

Prakash Karat, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau, is of the opinion that India should be naturally concerned about the military situation in Sri Lanka.

"We should play a role in finding a solution. Otherwise, other forces will intervene. We should respond to Sri Lanka's request to help find a peaceful solution."

The Congress(I) has said that it supports a peaceful settlement of the conflict within the framework of the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Congress(I) spokesman Ajit Jogi said that his party would like the government to take Parliament int o confidence before it initiates any major steps.

At an all-party meeting convened by the Government on May 8 in New Delhi, the participants endorsed the Government's stand against any military intervention. Speaking to mediapersons after the meeting, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee said: "We will continue to work for a peaceful, negotiated settlement within the framework of the Sri Lankan Constitution." India would be willing to mediate if it was asked to do so by the two sides in conflict. As of now, he said, neither side had asked for India's mediation .

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