Originally Published 2004-04-21 06:22:31 Published on Apr 21, 2004
Sri Lanka¿s new Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, has indicated the importance, and relevance of India to the Sri Lankan context, by visiting New Delhi within days of his being sworn in. His visit to India even before the conclusion of the Indian electoral exercise was testimony to the mood in Colombo for increasing New Delhi¿s role and involvement in the Sri Lanka peace process.
India and the Sri Lankan Peace Process
indicated the importance, and relevance of India to the Sri Lankancontext, by visiting New Delhi  within days of his being swornin. His visit to India even before the conclusion of the Indianelectoral exercise was testimony to the mood in Colombo  forincreasing New Delhi's role and involvement in the Sri Lankapeace  process. It may also be recalled that former PrimeMinister of Sri Lanka, Ranil  Wickremasinghe had made hismaiden visit to New Delhi immediately after his swearing  inboth in 2001 and earlier in 1993. 

Even during the earlier People's Alliance government in 2000,Kadirgamar had held out hopes for an "official intimation" from theIndian government  on a possible Indian role in resolving theethnic conflict. His call then came as Sri Lankan soldiers werebattling the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula.  Speaking at thattime Kadirgaramar said "Indian policy on such a sensitive issue asthe current situation in Sri Lanka would also have to take intoaccount  the complex issues of domestic and internationalconcern to India and her interests regarding its role in SriLanka."

The statement still holds true for India, as New Delhi has got totake into account the increased international involvement, in theSouth Asian neighbourhood, including the Indian Ocean Region, thechanged equations post September 11, and the global war onterrorism before defining or accepting greater  role inresolving the ethnic issue of its island-neighbour.

During his latest visit, Kadirgamar called for India to play a"direct role". In an interview during the recent visit, he said,"India also feels that they cannot stand any longer as a bystander.That's the sense I get." 

This time around, there was one significant difference orimprovement, to Colombo's continued desire to keep India involvedin the peace process. The request for Indian involvement has sincecome from all sections of the Sinhala mainstream parties like theSLFP, UNP apart from the once anti-India parties the  JanathaVimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which is now openly championing India'scause while opposing Norway's role. The new party of Buddhistmonks, the Jathika  Hela Urumaya (JHU), has also called forIndian involvement.

The Indian response to Kadirgamar's visit was warm. Then ExternalAffairs Minister Yashwant Sinha who, while not negating theinvitation for an Indian role in the Sri Lankan peace process,called for a proper definition of such a role. Kadirgamar'sstatement that a unilateral invitation to India without properdefinition of its role was definitely ruled out must be taken noteof. 

The Indian stand that New Delhi, wanted a solution for the ethnicstrife within the framework of a unified Sri Lanka, and that such asolution should come from "forces" within the country and as aresult of the internal processes was reiterated during Kadirgamar'svisit. 

The Indian approach has been cautious but optimistic and has shownsigns of opening up. The new political equations at New Delhi neednot be seen as an obstacle. Rather, it could be a new impetus. Thenew government would have to take into consideration the concernsof Tamil Nadu and other southern states in proximity to Sri Lankagiven the inherent security implications arising from the LTTEpresence, particularly its naval wing, the Sea Tigers.

The LTTE too has been making cautious noises of friendship withIndia. Calls for Indian involvement have come from LTTE'sLondon-based theoretician,  Anton Balasingham. However, theyhave to be weighed against the strong language of the pro - LTTETamil media in Sri Lanka. There have been editorials castigating against the Indian High Commissioner for Sri Lanka,Nirupam Sen for his perceived moves towards increasing the scope ofIndian involvement in Sri Lanka. One such editorial described suchmoves as 'impetuous'. 

Anton Balasingham has not elaborated on his remark that the "LTTEfavours India promoting the peace process". He made these remarksafter talks with Norway's Norway's Foreign Minister Jan Petersen atLTTE Headquarters, in Killinochi. The key word is 'promote'.Clearly the LTTE does not  favour direct Indian involvement ofany sort even while continuing with gestures like reconstructionaid and making suggestions to both the Sri Lankan  governmentand Norwegian facilitators on the peace talks.

The LTTE, has thus far maintained a studied silence on the outcomeof the Indian polls. In the past, the LTTE had tried to warm up tothe NDA government. BJP affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), isamong the few groups that LTTE has allowed to operate in areasunder its control.

There have been reactions to the Indian poll outcome however frompro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance MP's and pro LTTE Tamil media, whohave welcomed the electoral outcome and prospects of Sonia Gandhileading the Government. 

The pro-LTTE Tamil media in Sri Lanka, also welcomed the defeat ofthe ruling AIADMK party in Tamil Nadu. Party Chief Minister JJayalalilthaa is seen being against Sri Lankan Tamils and also avehement opponent of the LTTE. 

A prominent pro-LTTE Tamil newspaper based in Jaffna, in aneditorial, said that, "…such a historic verdict in India andTamil Nadu meant that an environment has been created where SriLankan Tamils (including LTTE) can set foot in Tamil Nadu onceagain." The editorial credited the opinion to  Balasingham. Itended on a note of caution that if former Indian High Commissionerto Sri Lanka, J N Dixit were to return in any capacity especiallyas  National Security Advisor, it could be detrimental to therelationship between Tamil people of Sri Lanka and India.

The LTTE has been wary of any increased involvement by India and asargued earlier, it has really been speaking in 'two voices' asdifferent from the voice speaking in Tamil from English, aboutIndian involvement as it has been about other issues pertaining tothe ethnic conflict. It is the voice speaking in Tamil that seemsto give a truer picture of the LTTE's intentions.

India's importance to the Sri Lankan situation cannot be overstated and has been acknowledged by all major international powersincluding the US,  Norway and Japan. The current 'withdrawalmode' came in the aftermath of the 'IPKF fiasco' and Rajiv Gandhiassassination. At present, the four co-chairs  for donor aidto Sri Lanka, namely the US, Japan, Norway and the European Unionare the significant players especially given their aid pledge of $4.5 billion. On the fringes are other nations whose interest stemsfrom the presence of a substantial number of Sri Lankan Tamils intheir countries. This  includes Canada, Belgium andSwitzerland, which recently expressed an interest in mediating thepeace process in Sri Lanka.

Against this background, a sudden increase in the level of Indianinvolvement from that of a "close monitoring" of the Sri Lankansituation, could elicit mixed and confusing reactions at best.Norway's continued role is desirable, as Kadirgamar had pointedout, "they are indispensable". However, the stress seems to be onredefining their role. Balasingham's positive reference to Indiaafter talks with the Norwegian Foreign Minister needs to be read inthis context.

The UPFA government has indulged in a parley of semantics over theLTTE demand for recognition as the 'sole representative of Tamils'and as recognised the LTTE as the 'principal negotiating partner'.There is nothing new in this, even as pre-electoral rhetoric aboutthe peace process being made 'inclusive' has already taken abackseat. The LTTE has been named and recognised as the 'principalnegotiating partner', which has always been the case. 

All previous attempts at peace or negotiations have always beenbetween the Sri Lankan government of the day and LTTE except forthe Thimpu talks, where India was the broker.

India should be prepared for a bigger role not in Sri Lanka, notjust in promoting the peace process but also relating to otheraspects of bilateral relations such as trade, which can helpincrease Indian influence in Sri Lanka. The new government in NewDelhi should be prepared to discuss the definition of the 'role'India could and should play when Colombo comes back with itsperception of such a role.

India's role in Sri Lanka has to be increased gradually. Moves tohelp in the reconstruction in the North and the East of Sri Lankawill further increase Indian importance and involvement withoutfeeding local fears and anxieties. 

India could take care to cater to the needs of both the up countryplantations, especially in the context of large number of people ofIndian origin working in the plantations, It has a similar role ofhelping in the development of the Sinhala-dominated southernprovinces of Sri Lanka, which still remain under-developed. Thiscould show India as being impartial to both sections of Sinhalasociety, Tamils and Sinhalese.

The coincidence of electoral verdicts in Sri Lanka and then India,where the centre - left has assumed a decisive role should be readwith care and caution. In a way they should be read as independentbut near similar mandates against the mindless economic packages ofthe western world and their financial institutions. 

India should take forward the idea of "shared prosperity" as putforward by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasighe on his visit toIndia in 2003, by adopting a holistic approach towards Sri Lankaand not treating the peace process in isolation as a matter offoreign policy. India should look at the peace process as part of alarger picture towards achieving the objective of stability andsecurity in the region.(21-05-2004)

(Joseph Pradeep R Raj is a Research Assistant with ORF's Chennaichapter and focuses on studying developments in Sri Lanka. E-mailaddress: [email protected])

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author anddo not necessarily reflect those of Observer ResearchFoundation.
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