Originally Published 2010-07-07 00:00:00 Published on Jul 07, 2010
Nowhere else is the confusion and contradiction in Sri Lanka's foreign relations more palpable than in Sri Lanka's 'India policy'. The Government of the day has no problem acknowledging the silent but significant Indian support for 'Eelam War IV' despite domestic developments and international pressures on New Delhi.
India as the gateway to the world?
Nowhere else is the confusion and contradiction in Sri Lanka's foreign relations more palpable than in Sri Lanka's 'India policy'. The Government of the day has no problem acknowledging the silent but significant Indian support for 'Eelam War IV' despite domestic developments and international pressures on New Delhi.

Yet, a section of the Sri Lankan intellectual class and strategic community still chooses to live in the past. Rather than following the Indian example, Colombo often ends up giving the impression that it would rather allow itself to be guided and controlled by similar elements nearer home. This causes avoidable eyebrow-raising in New Delhi, which anyway does not seem to be Sri Lanka's intention, to begin with.

Often times, complaints against India in Sri Lanka are rooted in New Delhi training and arming Sri Lankan Tamil militants in the mid-Eighties. Some would say that the Indian policy owed to Sri Lanka moving closer to the West in the Cold War era. Others would draw on the 'Bangladesh War' of 1971, and argue that India wanted to divide Sri Lanka, too.

Both claims are far from the truth. India did not conceive the political divide that engulfed the undivided Pakistan at the time. Nor was it behind the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. India faltered and got embroiled in Bangladesh at birth as it did not gauge the massive influx of East Pakistani refugees, who numbered over 10 millions. When they were already on Indian soil, the Central Government and the West Bengal State dispensation were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task in an era of paucity, if not penury for India.

It took time for the Governments in Kolkatta, then Calcutta, and New Delhi to evaluate political options for getting the refugees back to their homes. War became a possibility and  a reality when Islamabad fired the first salvo in the first week of December 1971, when Pakistan Air Force targeted Indian cities, including the capital, New Delhi.

It was in this background that India needed to make the Tamil refugees, numbering 250,000 at its peak, feel self-confident and physically secure, for them to return home early on. When political persuasion failed to convince Colombo that it had to do justice by the suffering population, New Delhi's choice was made. The rest is history, but then various Tamil militant leaders did go on record that India did not give them the kind of weapons that they required to fight the Sri Lankan security forces.

Translated, it meant that India intended giving them self-confidence and a sense of security, once they were back in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, the idea possibly was to 'encourage' the Sri Lankan Government of the day to see reason and address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamils.

In context, 'Operation Poomalai' from air was again an attempt in that direction. It was a Sri Lankan decision to stop the war when it discovered that the global community distinguished between fighting terrorism, pre-9/11 and stalling humanitarian aid – then as now.

The air-drop followed Sri Lanka stalling aid ships from India as a mark of protecting the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The alternative would have been for India to be ready to accept more Tamil refugees than already – many of them having to face the Sri Lankan Navy, en route, unlike on earlier occasions.

Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka were at it long before India entered the scene. Through much of the Seventies, they were onto bank-robberies and attacks on police stations in the North and the East. Alfred Duraiappah fell to Prabhakaran's bullets in 1975. The LTTE had ended the controversial career of police officer, Bastian Pillai in cold blood, years before India knew what was happening.

It is also no secret that the Tamil militants had gone to Palestine for arms training and procurement in that period. It owed mostly to the Sri Lankan Government seeking and obtaining military help from Israel. Long before the India-Sri Lanka Accord, the IPKF and the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the LTTE was not India's favourite for arms supplies. It became Premadasa's favourite. The IPKF saga was a case in point. If the LTTE became a superior group, it eliminated rival Tamil militants on Sri Lanka soil. The disbandment of the 'Karuna faction' too has stories to tell.

The India-Sri Lanka Accord had provided for the Colombo Government to invite Indian military help to face off the LTTE. It promptly did so, even before the ink on the document had dried.

If India was seriously concerned about Sri Lanka in strategic terms, the IPKF could have looked the other way, when the Sri Lankan armed forces were tackling the 'Second JVP insurgency' in the South. The instructions for the IPKF were clear – and their men died fighting the LTTE and for preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

When relationship between New Delhi and Colombo soured and the latter asked the IPKF to quit, India did not protest.The Government of India was clear about the sovereign powers of the host Government.

In the post-IPKF era, India drew up a three-track approach to the 'ethnic issue'. One, the LTTE terror had to be fought. Two, a political solution should and could be found to the ethnic issue sans the LTTE. Three, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka should be preserved. The three composite strains thus developed by India also became the guiding force for the global community in the subsequent years.

If however the India-Sri Lanka Accord was accompanied by Colombo offering the Trincomalee oil tanks farm to India, New Delhi has never been accused since of using it to non-commercial purposes.

The Lanka-IOC may not have developed the capacity to put all the oil tanks to good use, but that is saying nothing in terms of sub-serving India's strategic interests.

So were the Indian concerns about Sri Lanka of the Eighties considering strategic facilities for the West. The concerns flowed from the past, again the 'Bangladesh War'. Despite having a full-fledged military base in Diego Garcia, not far away from the Indian coast, the US found its delayed efforts at massive naval intervention timed out by the early conclusion of the 'Bangladesh War'.

Sri Lanka was closer to India than Diego Garcia. The Palk Strait brought Trincomallee closer to the Tamil Nadu coast in southern India than Baring Strait did to the US and the Soviet Union. The question of Indian intervention would not have happened if Sri Lanka had not let Pogrom-83 go on for days, or had at least applied correctives, subsequently.

India-baiters in Sri Lanka only need to recall the 'Kachchativu Agreement' of 1974 to prove for themselves that New Delhi did not have any historic animus to its southern neighbour. The 'Kachchativu Accord' came two-plus years after the 'Bangladesh War', in which Sri Lanka had nominally helped India's Pakistani adversary in a material and sustainable way. In turn, this came about just six months after New Delhi had rushed military help for Sri Lanka to neutralise the 'First JVP Insurgency'.

To the extent a section of the strategic community in India felt cheesed off by the 'Sri Lankan behaviour' during the 'Bangladesh War', one could not have expected New Delhi to sign the 'Kachchativu Accord' . New Delhi still went ahead with the Accord, and its reservations pertained to issues of historicity and the rights of Indian fishermen.

IPKF thus was not the first instance of India extending military the 'First JVP Insurgency',instead, was. It's on record that  India rushed its Air Force, without any second thought. The strategic security of the two nations was/is tied down to each other, and there was absolute realisation of the same in New Delhi, then as now.

Today, when post-war Sri Lanka is picking up the threads on the India front, there are internal dissensions and criticisms, which have no bearing on ground realities on either side.

In the case of India, the constitutional scheme and the political system provide for constant consultations between Centre and the State Governments on issues of common concern.

As the post-war Sri Lanka is looking at a globalised world which it had missed out during the years of war, economists nearer home concur that India is the gateway to that world. Yet, there are those who talk in terms of 'economic colonisation' of Sri Lanka by India. For a good measure the Rajapaksa Government has proposed internal discussions, which however has been late in coming.

The Indian example is only one in Sri Lanka's post-war foreign policy. It is also the most important one and needs some repair. If Sri Lankans do not want to understand it and/or accept it in a case where they think they have all the facts on the table, it is anybody's guess how they would be able assess the mood and methods of nations that are far removed from their scheme in terms of information and perception.

Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Colombo

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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