The India factor

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

Yashwant Sinha's visit to Colombo and the meeting between the Indian and Sri Lankan Prime Ministers, in quick succession, indicate the return of India as a major factor in the peace process.

"[The] solution [to Sri Lanka's conflict] should be such that it helps the entire population of Sri Lanka and it does not disturb the comfort level of the various segments of society in Sri Lanka."

- Yashwant Sinha, External Affairs Minister (in reply to a question in Colombo, October 15, 2003).

IN the ever-swinging bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka, October 2003 marked a new high. A visit by External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha to Colombo and a meeting between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in quick succession saw the India factor emerging yet again in the island's conflict resolution process.

In sharp contrast to the nadir of the 1980s, when the Sri Lankan polity stood united in wanting India out of the peace process, at present, each of the main players looks to New Delhi's position on how the conflict resolution process should unfold.

However, the similarity ends there as each of the three main players - the ruling United National Front (UNF), the Opposition People's Alliance (P.A.) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - holds strong views on the nuances behind any Indian statement. To that extent, any Indian engagement in Sri Lanka - either directly or indirectly - will continue to be under keen observation and constant critical evaluation by the island's main political players and opinion-makers.

It was, therefore, along predictable lines that Sri Lanka reacted to a joint statement issued in New Delhi after the Vajpayee-Wickremasinghe parleys. Although both the ministerial visit and the prime ministerial meetings covered a wide range of issues, the thrust of the reactions in Sri Lanka was on the views expressed on the peace process.

The timing of the meetings, just as the Sri Lankan government was awaiting the LTTE's counter proposals, also added a new dimension to it.

A six-page joint statement after the meetings of Prime Ministers said: "India expects that the response to the proposals made by the Sri Lankan government in July 2003 will be reasonable and comprehensive." India, it said, "supports the process of seeking a negotiated settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for individual rights. It believes that an enduring solution has to emerge purely through internal political processes."

In what was more than a reiteration of New Delhi's position on the conflict, the statement further said: "India will maintain an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka and remains committed to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. India would welcome a resolution of the current impasse in the peace process and an early resumption of negotiations. Any interim arrangement should be an integral part of the final settlement and should be in the framework of the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka."

The joint declaration at the highest political level was welcomed by the UNF, headed by Wickremasinghe, and the Opposition P.A., headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Predictably, each party had its share in the shaping of the Indian statement. The LTTE, for its part, maintained a loud silence, but sections of the media that supported the Tigers slammed Colombo for engaging in "military blackmail".

One factor that came as a shot in the arm for the island's two main political parties and raised the hackles of those supporting the LTTE - was the defence ingredient of the Vajpayee-Wickremasinghe meeting.

"The two Prime Ministers discussed the ongoing cooperation in training and the supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces and agreed that the two sides will commence discussion with a view to concluding a defence cooperation agreement at the earliest," the statement said.

DURING the decades of civil conflict, India had put the island on the negative list with respect to military supplies. After the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE last year, Sri Lanka was taken off this list, in January 2003. A direct implication is that India's defence industry was no longer constrained from selling to Sri Lanka. While the contours of the cooperation agreement are yet to emerge, the drawing of fresh contours in defence cooperation is in the offing.

According to indications, Colombo has shown interest in Indian assistance for a range of non-offensive military supplies, particularly in transportation. At present, India helps the Sri Lankan security forces by training personnel, sharing intelligence and supplying life-saving equipment such as flak jackets. Sri Lanka is mainly interested in military vehicles, such as trucks and jeeps, and tyres.

On the sensitive issue of sale of arms, no details were available. The External Affairs Minister told journalists in Colombo before the prime ministerial meetings: "Defence is one area that is shrouded in such mystery. I don't want to use a Churchillian expression, but there are not many things that can be shared."

Sri Lanka's reaction to India's positions on defence was also directed by domestic political and security concerns. The P.A., which raised the issue of vulnerability of the east, also brought in an Indian angle when it pointed out that the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, currently managed by Indian Oil Corporation, was in the port area. Asked about concerns raised by a section of the country's politicians on the threats to Indian installations, Yashwant Sinha, said: "There is no threat as of now to Indian installations. I believe they are secure and they will remain secure."

Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Minister Tyronne Fernando described his government's ties with New Delhi as "one of the cornerstones" of the island's foreign, economic and national security policies. The government, he said, "also considers India to be an integral part of our peace process".

Lakshman Kadirgamar, the former Foreign Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka and Senior Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, enunciated the Opposition's endorsement. At a public rally, Kadirgamar termed the joint statement as one that made "three very important pronouncements which they have never done before".

India, he said, made the point that it had "an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka. Secondly, they [India] said that the human rights of all individuals and pluralism and democracy must be preserved in the north and east of Sri Lanka. They have not said that so clearly before. They said that in the interim proposals that are coming from the LTTE there can be no interim administration unless it is an integral part of the final solution to our problem". These three points, he said, were those that "the SLFP has argued strongly for in these past years".

If the joint statement referred to New Delhi's position in two paragraphs, Sinha's interaction with Indian journalists reflected the seriousness with which the peace process is being viewed.

Asked how he saw the developing situation in Sri Lanka, Sinha said: "We remain committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and there will be no compromise on that. As for the peace process, we have repeatedly said we will support the peace process; at the same time we feel that the outcome of the process should be left to be determined by the people of Sri Lanka, represented by the government on the one hand and the others on the other hand. And the solution should be such that it helps the entire population of Sri Lanka and it does not disturb the comfort level of the various segments of society in Sri Lanka. Now within this overall approach if anything is worked out, we welcome it."

On India's position on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE agreeing to look at the federal option, Sinha's response was as clear as it was measured: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with a federal option... Federalism has many models and many features." Interim administration, he said "is also something which can be interpreted in various ways. So let's see what ultimately emerges out of it. But per se, India is not against a federal arrangement."

Asked if India was for a federal arrangement, Sinha's response was firm and reflected India's position: "This is something which they have to decide. When I say there are various models of federal arrangement before we pronounce on this, we will have to look at the model which is in mind here."

Placing equal emphasis on the importance of a "home-grown" solution and a "domestic consensus", Sinha said: "We are not sitting at the negotiating table because of the very firm belief that we have that this must be a home-grown settlement. It should not be imposed from outside... This is the advice we give to anyone, that facilitation is fine but as far as the negotiations themselves are concerned, they should be between the concerned parties and that third parties need not necessarily involve themselves in the negotiations."

What was expected, he said, "is a durable settlement and durability will depend on the acceptability of the settlement" and "on the consensus that will back the settlement. That consensus will have to be from within Sri Lanka".

The Minister was also frank in what India saw as the internationalisation of the peace process. When asked if he thought the negotiation process was "getting internationally crowded", Sinha said: "There are many people who think they are experts in conflict resolution around the world. There is no dearth of do-gooders, but as I said it is entirely up to the Government of Sri Lanka to decide how they want to deal with them."

Asked about the clamour from within India to get involved in a more direct way in the peace process, Sinha maintained New Delhi's consistent position that while India was for facilitation, it was not advisable for anyone to be directly involved. "Whoever cares to discuss this issue with us, this is the advice we offer to them. If they ask us, we say, let this be done between the parties in Sri Lanka. Facilitation, as I said, is fine, but direct involvement in the negotiations, influencing the negotiations, guiding the negotiation is something that is best avoided. We follow that policy ourselves, being the closest neighbour of Sri Lanka. I am aware of the fact that there are demands from various sections within Sri Lanka for a more direct involvement by India. But at this point of time, this is our stand."

The extradition of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, the prime accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, Sinha said, was being pursued through "legal and diplomatic channels".

The Minister declined to comment directly on Sir Lanka's cohabitation politics, but said the domestic consensus needed for the durability of any settlement should be one that "was cutting across party lines and clearly if such a consensus is not forthcoming, to that extent it will create uncertainty for the peace process." The joint statement and Sinha's interaction with Indian journalists together constituted the most elaborate enunciation of New Delhi's position on the Sri Lankan conflict in recent times.

In a clear sign of ill ease over the developments, supporters of the LTTE expressed their discomfort. The Tamil Guardian, an English language newspaper published by expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils, slammed Colombo for attempting to alter the existing balance of forces through "military blackmail". Pointing its finger more at the Wickremasinghe administration than India, the newspaper raised apprehensions that Colombo would thrust a solution on the Tamils.

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