The Sri Lankan Crisis and India's Dilemma

Print edition : May 13, 2000

THERE can be little doubt that the military and political crisis in Sri Lanka has entered a critical stage. With the string of victories it has won in an intricately planned 'encircle and enfeeble' campaign around the Elephant Pass since December 1999, i ts major strategic gains over the past three weeks, its capture of a huge quantity of arms - including 152 mm field guns, tanks and armoured vehicles - and ammunition from a disoriented and demoralised Sri Lanka Army, its formidably enhanced firepower, i ts new capability to wage set-piece battles and positional warfare, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appears stronger in its separatist and extremist project than ever before in two decades of armed struggle. The Sri Lankan state faces a crisi s of credibility, with its control over its whole northern territory - both the mainland North and the densely populated Jaffna Peninsula, which it took from the LTTE in 1995 - in grave jeopardy.

There have been a few indications recently of a stiffening of spine in the Sri Lanka Army, which has a major force advantage over the LTTE in the Peninsula. However, it is handicapped by the inadequacy of air support and the inability of the Navy to cont rol the seas around the Peninsula. The question is whether the Army in this decisive and crucial stage can be competently generalled, stay together as a fighting formation, mount an active defence, prevent the LTTE from advancing to place Palaly within, say, a devastating 20 km gun range, and raise troop morale before counter-attacking to thwart the adversary's plans. The key human question, of course, is how, in the event of major fighting in a densely populated region, civilian casualties will be avoi ded and a major influx of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to Tamil Nadu in India prevented.

The spectre that faces the small island nation, then, is the entrapment of over 25,000 troops in the Peninsula, with no way of escape by land, air or sea (in the event of the LTTE damaging or seizing the Palaly air base and the Kankesanthurai and Point P edro ports), and humiliating surrender by the Sri Lankan state to an extremist organisation that is determined to break up Sri Lanka in the name of 'national liberation'. Entrapment, surrender and an unprecedented political debacle for the Sri Lankan sta te may be the worst case scenario, but there is nothing inevitable about this. The Sri Lankan government has maintained that, despite serious setbacks, the fight in the North is by no means over and that it is not considering evacuation of its troops fro m the Peninsula. On the other side, the LTTE has stepped up psychological pressure by announcing that it is "prepared to declare a temporary ceasefire... to facilitate the beleaguered government troops to be evacuated safely from the Jaffna Peninsula" an d warning that the Sri Lankan government "will bear total responsibility for the disastrous consequences of heavy military casualties if it rejects our proposal for de-escalation and continues the war effort." Along with the threat, it has held out a car rot: "A positive response, we are confident, will create cordial conditions for a permanent ceasefire, peace talks and negotiated political settlement for the Tamil national question." It does not require much political astuteness to realise that accepti ng the LTTE's offer of a ceasefire to "facilitate" abandonment of the Jaffna Peninsula is likely to prove suicidal for the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which therefore has speedily rejected the proposal.

In order to appreciate what is at stake, it is necessary to step back and view objectively what this government has attempted to accomplish, politically, over the past half decade or more. If the ethnic conflict can be recognised as Sri Lanka's principal national question, then much of its independent history can be described as a story of two traps - the 'Sinhala Only' trap and, in reaction to and retaliation against this, the 'Eelam' trap. Both traps represent chauvinist or extremist responses to seri ous issues of ethnicity, democracy, socio-economic and political development, and justice. Cumulative entrapment in these two causes and modes of socio-political existence has taken an appalling toll of human life, entitlements, and welfare. To recognise this is in no way to take away from Sri Lanka's otherwise impressive and indeed enviable human development and social record, especially in comparison with its South Asian neighbours.

The cruelty and hopelessness of double entrapment of a whole country and people can be expressed in another formulation whose truth has become increasingly obvious over the past decade or more. The struggle for 'Tamil Eelam', led uncompromisingly and wit h Pol Potist concern for human life and well-being by V. Prabakaran's LTTE, is a pipe-dream. For one thing, it will not be tolerated geopolitically - it can be seen to be profoundly inimical to India's national and democratic interests (notwithstanding t he attempt of chauvinist elements like Tamil Nadu's MDMK and PMK and pro-LTTE fringe groups to argue otherwise). On the other hand, the attempt to suppress the armed struggle for 'Eelam' by military force is incapable of success even in the medium term.

Against such an unrelenting background, the devolution-along-federal-lines component of the constitutional package the Kumaratunga administration has tried to put in place as an enduring solution to the ethnic conflict must, from an enlightened Sri Lank an Tamil standpoint, be recognised as the best on offer for over half a century. It represents a genuine break with Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism that landed the island state in the 'Sinhala Only' trap. It builds on the conceptual advance made in the faile d Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of the late-1950s and, more importantly, on the paradigm shift brought by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, which could not achieve its objective. President Kumaratunga's constitutional and political package for the Tamils can be improved upon, but it has the potential to overcome the burden of a benighted history if it is given a fair chance. Unfortunately, non-cooperation and obstruction by the main Opposition party, the United National Party, combining with unrel enting extremism by the LTTE have denied it that chance.

From democratic India's standpoint, it is clear that any political solution to the Tamil question must come within a framework that preserves Sri Lanka's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Sri Lankan government has, legitimately and unsurp risingly, sought India's material assistance to protect the island state's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. But thus far, the LTTE under Prabakaran has shown absolutely no inclination to talk seriously about, let alone accept, any solution s hort of 'Tamil Eelam'. The organisation, which was banned as a terrorist entity in India following its assassination of Rajiv Gandhi under orders from Prabakaran who is wanted in India as Accused No. 1 in the assassination case, has shown a great deal of resourcefulness in using ceasefires, lulls and swings in the military balance to raise false hopes, generate illusions and take governments for a ride. Far too often, misreading the character of the LTTE, or its moves, and trusting it to act as though i t were a democratic player has turned out to be fatal.

THE worsening of the situation in Sri Lanka has confronted India with a strategic dilemma. Past experience does not provide adequate guidance to meet the challenge. It was relatively easy for External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to declare in Parliame nt that the present government does not propose to "go down the IPKF road". That is as it should be and Jaswant Singh went on to outline a sound-enough framework for India's Sri Lanka policy: "the Government of India will be guided by its continued commi tment to a negotiated peaceful resolution of the conflict, within the framework of Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity; a united Sri Lanka where all communities can realise their aspirations" and "it is India's hope that peace will soon return to Sri Lanka, a country which is a close and friendly neighbour." However, under pressure from the Tamil Nadu political parties within the ruling National Democratic Alliance, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has back-tracked from the implications of hi s External Affairs Minister's statement and ruled out, not just military intervention but any supply or sale of arms to the Sri Lankan government regardless of the situation. However, with Chief Minister Karunanidhi graciously allowing him a "free hand", the Prime Minister has announced that "humanitarian assistance" may be provided if a request comes from the Sri Lankan government. (Even this is to the distaste of chauvinist allies like the PMK who want the LTTE to be supported and the legitimacy of th e 'Eelam' struggle recognised officially.) Lest this should sound like a 'hands-off' policy, Jaswant Singh announced, in an interview to a television channel, that India would consider playing the role of a mediator if approached by the Sri Lankan govern ment and the LTTE. How it proposed to have mediatory dealings with an organisation designated under Indian law as terrorist was not explained.

All this does not amount to much of a Sri Lanka policy and it is clear that the Vajpayee Government has failed to do the detailed homework demanded by a tough and rapidly evolving situation that it cannot escape from. If the military and political situat ion deteriorates further in Sri Lanka, there will be no soft options left for India. There will be the real prospect of the involvement of external forces and this will clearly be to the detriment of non-aligned and democratic India's interests in the re gion. It will be pointless for the Indian government to wake up to the implications of the crisis at that stage and come up with a 'hands-on', 'pro-active' policy. The right course for the Vajpayee Government to take is to follow up Jaswant Singh's state ment by expressing unwavering political and moral support to the Sri Lankan government in the project of keeping Sri Lanka one and united, consider its requests for assistance on a friendly and practical basis, make clear that India will not countenance the establishment of 'Eelam', and throw its weight on the side of a genuine attempt under new circumstances to negotiate a just and enduring solution, along federal lines, to the longstanding ethnic conflict.

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