A bitter pill

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The uniformly hostile reactions in the country, especially in Tamil Nadu, to the LTTE's request that India allow Anton Balasingham to relocate to Chennai and also that it host peace talks involving the organisation, point to the wholesale erosion of sympathy for its path.

THE cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have demonstrated on numerous occasions that they are prepared to embrace death by biting the potassium cyanide capsules hung around their necks when confronted by the danger of being captured. However, the vehemently hostile reaction in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, towards the requests made by the LTTE to the Indian government is proving to be a bitter pill for the battle-hardened Tigers to swallow.

On January 4, the LTTE informed a delegation led by Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen that it desired India to extend its good offices to help resolve the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict by acceding to its two requests (Frontline, February 1). First, it wanted India to allow LTTE chief negotiator and political adviser Anton Balasingham and his wife Adele Anne to relocate to Chennai temporarily. Second, the LTTE wanted talks to be hosted by India in a southern Indian city - Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram or Bangalore. The second request was predicated on receiving a favourable response to the first.

The Norwegian peace delegation that visited Britain on January 22 informed the Tigers that the two requests were forwarded through appropriate channels to the Government of India for consideration. The delegation said that the details of the requests were conveyed to the Indian government through the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and also formally communicated by letter from Oslo to New Delhi. The Norwegian team, comprising Special Adviser to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Erik Solheim, and Foreign Ministry official Kjirste Tromsdal, informed Anton Balasingham of action taken so far when it held a three-hour meeting at the latter's London home.

The Norwegians were discharging their duty in "postman-like" fashion as facilitators acceptable to both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, and entrusted with the task of ushering in a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the island nation. The LTTE's requests were communicated to New Delhi in that capacity without any recommendation by Oslo. The Sri Lankan government was non-committal with regard to the requests and took the stance that discussing modalities governing discussions, such as the venue, was "premature" at this point of time. However, Colombo had neither approved nor rejected the choice of a southern Indian city as venue for talks.

When the particulars of the LTTE requests were revealed in the media on January 8, New Delhi maintained a studied silence on the grounds that no such request had been officially communicated to it. The position was factually correct as the Norwegians visited only Colombo on January 10. However, reports in the Indian media stated that "informed discussions between the Ministries of External affairs and Home on the subject were held" and that "the dominant view was to keep the LTTE at bay from the southern States". Apparently, the Home Ministry felt that it was a "closed chapter". However, there was a possibility that "the decision could be reconsidered at the highest level in the government" (The Hindu, January 20).

Norway, with the concurrence of both parties, is focussing on the goal of bringing about a ceasefire as its immediate priority. Once that hurdle is cleared, it will address issues such as formulating modalities for negotiations. It is only at that point of time that questions like venue will become important. If and when such a situation dawns, India may be constrained to respond officially to the LTTE requests.

A Norwegian delegation headed by Vidar Helgesen is scheduled to meet with Balasingham again and later visit Colombo. A subsequent trip to New Delhi to acquaint India officially of related developments has also been planned, though not finalised. It is likely that some discussions will centre on the LTTE requests if the trip to India materialises. New Delhi's final decision will be determined by a number of factors while giving paramount consideration to the "enlightened self-interests" of the country.

Even as some forward movement is being registered in Norway's facilitatory efforts, the LTTE continues to press its viewpoint that India should accede to its twin requests. Security concerns, convenience and proximity to 'homeland' are projected as the reasons behind the LTTE's requests. In an interview given to a newspaper in Sri Lanka, Balasingham said that India should treat the requests on a "humanitarian" basis. When Colombo newspapers speculated that Kathmandu was a possible choice as venue, Balasingham dismissed it. He told a Tamil website that Nepal as a venue was out of the question for logistical reasons.

LTTE circles are quite agitated over the hostile reaction in India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular to its requests. Tamil Guardian, a weekly published from London, noted in its editorial: "The Liberation Tigers' request to India to provide a venue for future negotiations between them and the Sri Lankan government created controversy on an unexpected scale." The journal, known to reflect the LTTE point of view, observed that "the matter of a venue will prove a key consideration before any talks". Urging India to respond positively, it added that "geopolitical obligations must supersede domestic hysteria" and that "New Delhi should seize the chance despite the short-sighted domestic cacophony".

Despite the characterisation of opposition to the LTTE plea as 'cacophony', there is no denying that the dominant overtones amid the polyphony of voices that reacted negatively to the proposals were somewhat uniform in content. Be it the spectrum of national and regional newspapers and magazines, or the various political parties that opposed the LTTE requests, there was a harmonious quality amounting to a symphony in rejecting the LTTE's request. The only exceptions were the parties and organisations in Tamil Nadu regarded as being sympathetic to the LTTE.

Such a reaction, particularly in Tamil Nadu, has no doubt caused dismay to the LTTE. The Tigers may have expected the southern State to extend full support to the proposals as they were "limited" in nature at least at this point. Moreover, the LTTE was not demanding a repeal of the proscription imposed on it in India. The ban came into force in May 1992 and was extended bi-annually thereafter. From the LTTE perspective, it had only requested "humanitarian assistance of a logistical nature". India had committed itself to supporting the peace process in Sri Lanka and the LTTE's requests had provided an opportunity for New Delhi to go beyond verbal assurances. Moreover, it also gave India a pivotal role in the island neighbour's peace process without compromising on its established positions.

The strong political reaction has demonstrated that Indian public opinion is neither prepared nor willing to forget the events of the recent past. In particular, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi continues to dominate feelings and perceptions. The legal culpability of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran as the chief conspirator remains a major obstacle at this juncture to any hopes of a rapprochement. In such a context, the LTTE proposals are viewed in the Indian media as "audacious". The rationale for both requests is that Balasingham and the negotiating team are required to shuttle back and forth to brief, confer and obtain instructions from Prabakaran. At present, such an eventuality can only be galling to the Indian psyche.

Added to this are the earlier experiences in getting actively involved in Sri Lankan affairs. The experience of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the North and East of the island lingers in memory. There is also acute suspicion about the LTTE's motives. In fact, the requests are not perceived at face value and are scrutinised for signs of a hidden agenda. It is feared that relenting at this point can pave the way for the LTTE getting a firm foothold in the country. Moreover, the case for reviewing and possibly repealing the ban on the Tigers will be strengthened. Conceding the LTTE's request can also send the wrong signals in the context of New Delhi's approach to tackling "global terrorism" in the post-September 11 situation. Another factor is the adverse demonstration effect the move can have for fissiparous and anti-systemic elements in the country.

The countervailing factor to this can be the national interests of New Delhi prevailing over domestic pressures. The LTTE emphasises this and rests its hopes on such a possibility. But for the LTTE this itself is bitterly ironic. It would have been natural to expect Tamil Nadu, on account of shared ethnicity, to agitate and put pressure on the Centre to heed the LTTE requests. However, the opposite has happened. It is Tamil Nadu that is spearheading the opposition to such a move and virtually warning the Central government not to let the Tigers in. The fact that the LTTE is constrained to appeal to the Centre to override the pressure from the State indicates an abysmal failure of its supportive sections in Tamil Nadu.

Recent years have seen various personalities in Tamil Nadu going abroad and addressing Tamil expatriate audiences. A recurring theme in their messages has been an assurance to LTTE supporters and sympathisers that there was substantial support for the Tigers in the State. Further, the Indian mainstream media were accused of distorting the reality for ulterior motives. Media outlets controlled by such sections also projected such a viewpoint. There was a tendency in LTTE circles to believe this self-serving propaganda and those who held a different opinion were labelled "traitors" and "stooges".

The bubble has now burst. Events in the aftermath of the LTTE requests have shown that there is no grassroots or subterranean support for the Tigers in Tamil Nadu. The pro-LTTE sections are articulate but practically marginalised. There are no signs of any groundswell of support for the LTTE. Instead of facing pro-LTTE demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, the Central government will face protests fuelled by strong anti-LTTE sentiment if it agrees to the LTTE proposals. The Tigers stand isolated and exposed in the State.

The Central government also faces a dilemma in the matter of rejecting the Tiger requests, for it may be perceived as not wanting to contribute constructively to the Sri Lankan peace process. This in turn could create disillusionment among the majority of peace-loving people in the island who regard India with esteem and affection. It may also affect India's future role in issues concerning Sri Lanka in both global and regional contexts.

On the other hand, there may be domestic turmoil if the LTTE plea is accepted. Whatever decision is ultimately taken by New Delhi, there is no disputing the fact that India will continue to maintain its legitimate interest in the island's affairs and keep itself fully informed of the Oslo-facilitated peace process, though it desires no active role in it at present.

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