THE despatch of Basil Rajapaksa to New Delhi on October 26, as a special envoy of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was aimed at reassuring the Indian government about the well-being of the Tamil minority on the island. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, under pressure from its coalition partners and others in Tamil Nadu, expressed concerns about the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka following the stepped-up army assaults on the territory held by the Tamil Tigers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requested President Rajapaksa to end the conflict through a negotiated settlement.
On several occasions in recent weeks, Manmohan Singh emphasised that there could be no military solution to the conflict. In a recent statement, he said that the rights and welfare of the Tamil community should not get enmeshed in the ongoing hostilities against the LTTE. In the third week of October, Indias National Security Adviser and the Foreign Secretary summoned Sri Lankas Deputy High Commissioner to India to register Indias concern over the growing number of refugees from the island nation. In a diplomatic snub, Manmohan Singh even declined to meet President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in late September. The Prime Minister did, however, hold a telephonic conversation with him in the third week of October as the fighting escalated. He reiterated the official position that any solution to the conflict should be within the framework of the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.
Basil Rajapaksa told the media after his meeting with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and senior officials that the outcome of his visit was very positive. He said he had given India every assurance that the needs of the Tamil minority would be met. He briefed the Indian government about the efforts his government was making to ensure the welfare of the civilian population in the North. It was only after New Delhi began mounting pressure on Colombo that Sri Lanka acknowledged the scale of the human tragedy.
A joint press statement issued after Basil Rajapaksas visit said that the Indian government deeply appreciated the initiative of the Sri Lankan President to send his special envoy. The two sides discussed the need to move towards a peacefully negotiated political settlement while agreeing that terrorism should be countered with resolve. The Indian side called on Sri Lanka to speed up the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which seeks to devolve more powers to the provinces. Basil Rajapaksa, on his part, assured his Indian hosts that his government was committed to a political process that would lead to a sustainable solution to the conflict. India announced that 800 tonnes of relief material would be despatched to the displaced civilian populace in the North.
Observers of the Sri Lankan scene note that India has not yet made a categorical demand on an end to the military campaign in the North. In fact, Basil Rajapaksa told a Colombo newspaper in the second week of October that the country got maximum support from India to crush the LTTE. India continues to supply non-lethal and defensive equipment to the Sri Lankan military, provides training and helps intelligence sharing. The non-lethal equipment supplied to the Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) includes new radar systems and anti-aircraft guns.
Around 800 Sri Lankan military officials are trained in India every year, many of them in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare. According to a statement by the External Affairs Ministry, in February 2007 a major part of the training of Sri Lankan Armed Forces is carried out in India.
According to reports, the Indian military provides state-of-the-art military knowledge to the SLAF. Naval intelligence sharing has helped the Sri Lanka Navy intercept and destroy many LTTE ships and boats smuggling arms and supplies. Every six months, the officers of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard meet their Sri Lankan counterparts to discuss strategies and other related matters.
The two governments were on the verge of signing a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA). Former Army chief Gen. N.C. Vij, during a visit to Sri Lanka in 2003, spoke in support of the DCA. The Sri Lankan side is also keen to sign the DCA as it would further legitimise the fight to root out the LTTE from its last remaining stronghold. But the UPA government, keeping the exigencies of coalition politics in mind, has second thoughts about formalising the military relationship with Colombo. Further, New Delhi does not want Colombo to continue to rely on China and Pakistan for arms supply. From all indications, New Delhi will continue its dual policy approach, demanding a political solution to the conflict while ensuring that the Sri Lankan military continues to have an upper hand over the LTTE, which the Indian state still views as a threat to its national security.John Cherian