Unlike 1987, Colombo does not perceive the Indian offer of assistance as an attempt to micro-manage Sri Lankas affairs.
AT 11.30 p.m. on June 2, 1987, relations between India and Sri Lanka reached their nadir. The Indian government led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the unprecedented step of despatching humanitarian assistance to the neighbouring country without its consent. The action was prompted by the decision of the Sri Lankan government under J.R. Jayawardene to impose an economic blockade on the Jaffna peninsula and launch an all-out war against the separatist groups, particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Nineteen Indian fishing boats loaded with 40 tonnes of relief material under the aegis of the Indian Red Cross were intercepted by armed boats of the Sri Lanka Navy and ordered to return to India. New Delhi, 24 hours later, decided to airdrop the same supplies. At 4 p.m. on June 4, five AN-32 aircraft of the Indian Air Force, escorted by four Mirage fighters, airdropped 25 metric tonnes of food and medicines over the peninsula. A stunned Jayawardene government was informed through diplomatic channels that India was left with no choice but to undertake the extraordinary mission in the face of Colombos obstinacy. Luckily, the Sri Lanka forces did not resist the mission and the Jayawardene government reconciled to the inevitable after lodging strong diplomatic protest.
The airdrop, popularly referred to in Sri Lanka as parippu drop, fortunately did not worsen bilateral relations. Ironically, it even paved the way for the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, plunging New Delhi deep into the ethnic conflict. The induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to create a conducive atmosphere for the implementation of the agreement, the two and a half years of war between the IPKF and the LTTE, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Indian troops under controversial circumstances are all a matter of history.
And in 2008, the wheel has turned full circle. At 9 a.m. on October 15, an Indian ship carrying 1,680 tonnes of relief material for distribution to civilians affected by the conflict in northern Sri Lanka arrived at the Colombo harbour. It was such a quiet affair that even the media got wind of it only 36 hours later. The contrast between the missions of 1987 and 2008 brought into sharp focus the sea change in bilateral relations. Colombo no longer perceives the Indian offer of assistance as an attempt to micro-manage its affairs; in fact, it sees New Delhi as its ally in its twin objectives of meeting the military challenges posed by the LTTE and alleviating the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the war zone.
There is a change in the Indian attitude too. Barring fringe elements in Tamil Nadu, the LTTE has no sympathisers in India. It squandered all the goodwill it enjoyed in India in the 1980s, following its masterminding of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and its bitter war with the IPKF from September 1987 to March 1990.
It is true people and parties in Tamil Nadu, cutting across ideologies, have empathy for the victims of the war. This was evident from the two all-party meetings presided over by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on October 16 and November 25 to impress upon New Delhi the need to persuade Colombo to halt the ongoing military operations and explore other options.
The efforts by the parties in Tamil Nadu to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka have clearly been stymied by the LTTE factor. Barring two or three small parties, no political entity in Tamil Nadu is willing to be seen as supporters of the cause of the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi. The militant outfit has also derailed all efforts by New Delhi to bring about an amicable settlement of the ethnic conflict. Even the LTTE realises that convincing New Delhi to act in its favour is difficult.
This is best illustrated in a commentary in the pro-LTTE web portal TamilNet on the discussions between a delegation led by Karunanidhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on November 25. After the meeting, Karunanidhi had made it known that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would soon undertake a visit to Colombo for a first-hand assessment of the situation.
The wry comment of TamilNet on the announcement was that the meeting failed to achieve its basic objective of convincing the Indian government to take a stand against Colombos war on Tamils. The silent listening of the Indian establishment may have several meanings. Perhaps Dr. Manmohan Singh is not the authority to respond on this particular matter. But the message to Eezham Tamils is clear: either they ought to fight back the war thrust upon them, or face genocide, and probably they knew it long back.
The relative calm with which the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the people of Sri Lanka looked at the arrival of relief material is remarkable, particularly in the face of repeated demands from a section of the political class in Tamil Nadu for a halt to the war against the LTTE.
The gift certificate of the relief material was formally handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at its warehouse on the outskirts of Colombo by the Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad. The consignment that consisted of food, clothing, and items of personal hygiene were packed individually in 80,000 family packs to facilitate easy distribution and to ensure that they reach the intended recipients directly.
Alok Prasad said the consignment consisted of material collected by the Government of India and donations received from the people of Tamil Nadu. I want to thank the Government of Sri Lanka for having so readily facilitated the arrival and despatch of these relief items and I want to thank particularly the ICRC, in keeping with their humanitarian role and tradition, for agreeing to undertake the distribution of these relief items, he remarked.
Though the Rajapaksa government did not make an issue of the matter, some elements in the administration tried to rake up a controversy. S.B. Divaratne, Commissioner-General of Essential Services, who was also present at the function, insisted that the relief would be distributed through government agents under the supervision of the ICRC in the LTTE-occupied areas.
In response to questions from the media, he maintained that the government had the machinery to ensure fair distribution among the displaced in the war zone. The ICRC would be involved in a supervisory capacity while the actual distribution would be done by the government agents, he said.
Technically, the Sri Lankan administration is in place in the LTTE-occupied areas through the offices of the government agents. But the government admits that it has no effective control over these areas. Some government functionaries confide that 70 per cent of government aid pumped into the Wanni region is garnered by the Tigers.
Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana even raised doubts about the estimated number of displaced in the Wanni region. There are no authentic estimates as census has not been conducted in the island-nation since 1981.
We believe the figure of 2,30,000 to 3,00,000 given by various agencies is grossly exaggerated. The governments own assessment is that the figure could be around 1,00,000. The government is doing its best to reach out to the displaced but the LTTE is holding them as human shield, Kohana asserted.
But United Nations agencies estimate that there are 2,30,000 internally displaced people on the basis of information provided by governments agents in the Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts.
Paul Castella, who heads the ICRC in Sri Lanka, asserted that the relief material donated by India would be distributed directly by the ICRC teams working in the Wanni. This is the first time that, through the ICRC, the Government of India has assisted the conflict-affected population of Sri Lanka and I would like to underline how much we appreciate the trust the Indian authorities have shown in us and their recognition of the ICRCs work in Sri Lanka to date, he said. As a neutral intermediary enjoying the trust of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, the ICRC is currently engaged in facilitating talks to find suitable arrangements for a crossing point between the territories controlled by them.