THE repeated requests by the Sri Lanka government to India for joint patrolling of the seas by the navies of the two countries have both internal and external reasons. Colombo has tried to convince New Delhi about the importance of control of the seas in the fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, particularly in the face of the growing strength of the Sea Tigers, the rebel group's naval wing.
Colombo fears that the Sea Tigers pose as big a threat to the territorial unity and integrity of the island-nation as to regional stability. It is convinced that the threat is as much a challenge to India as to Sri Lanka in the medium and long term and as such necessitates joint action.
India seems to view the idea as nothing short of deployment of an Indian peace-keeping force in the seas. India's disinclination to associate itself with such an exercise can be traced to the bitter memories of the Indian military's involvement in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.
Aware of Indian sensitivities on the subject, Sri Lanka is cautious in its requests for joint patrolling. This was evident on the eve of the departure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to India on a five-day visit in November last year. At an informal interaction with Colombo-based correspondents working for the Indian media, Rajapaksa let it be known that joint patrolling of the seas would be one of the major issues he would raise in New Delhi. Having made the point, the President was in two minds as to whether the correspondents should report it, given the Indian apprehensions. It took him more than two minutes to overcome the dilemma. "Go ahead and report. After all, we are making a constructive suggestion with sound reasoning. I am sure the Indian leadership will appreciate the spirit behind our thinking," he said.
It is ironic that successive governments since 1948 hardly paid any attention to the creation of a strong naval force for the island-nation. Caught in a quagmire of internal conflicts, first in the south in the form of ultra-Left extremism and then in the north and east in the form of militant Tamil nationalism, the government focussed its attention on strengthening the army and the police. For a country with a population of 20 million, the estimated combined strength of the Sri Lanka Army and the police is 1,50,000, while that of the Navy is below 30,000. It was only in 2000 that for the first time the government decided to make the Navy the country's first line of defence. The decision came in the wake of the emergence of the Sea Tigers as a formidable force and the LTTE's domination of two-thirds of the Sri Lankan seas.
Experts believe that if the Interim Self-Government Authority was accepted, the LTTE could have claimed two-thirds of the seas. Since March 2003 the LTTE has been openly articulating such a demand. That the Sea Tigers have been growing in strength was evident from the findings of a study. It found that by 2004 the LTTE had destroyed 30 to 50 per cent of the Sri Lanka Navy craft.
The estimated strength of the Sea Tigers varies from 2,500 to 3,500. The LTTE has a large number of merchant ships (sailing under various flags), which are used for smuggling equipment. The dare devil operations of these ships became evident when the Sri Lankan and Indian authorities recently caught some of them with large quantities of arms and ammunition.
Against this background, the Sri Lanka Navy is faced with the enormous task of guarding the seas and vital ports, and conducting warfare with the Sea Tigers. Given its size and the resources at its command, the Sri Lanka Navy is simply not equipped to deal with the situation. Hence the desperation to rope in the Indian Navy. However, much more effort would be required on the part of Colombo to prevail upon New Delhi to join the endeavour.B. Muralidhar Reddy in Colombo