Originally Published 2005-12-29 07:27:59 Published on Dec 29, 2005
The demand for India¿s active engagement with the Sri Lankan peace process has been building up for the past couple of years following the gradual erosion in the credibility of Norway as an impartial ¿facilitator¿. With the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is in New Delhi this week, this demand has gained momentum; more so because of the fast deterioration in Sri Lanka¿s internal peace.
Peace process wears no clothes
The demand for India's active engagement with the Sri Lankan peace process has been building up for the past couple of years following the gradual erosion in the credibility of Norway as an impartial 'facilitator'. With the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is in New Delhi this week, this demand has gained momentum; more so because of the fast deterioration in Sri Lanka's internal peace. The past week can be considered as the bloodiest in Sri Lanka since the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in February 2002. Rajapakse, who has won his presidency on an election campaign of denouncing Norway's partisan role and seeking India's active involvement in the peace process, no doubt wants India to positively respond to this demand and at least agree to become a donor co-chair with the US, EU, Japan and Norway. 

India may, however, not be in a position to accommodate the new president for various reasons. India's experience during the IPKF initiative with Sri Lanka's divisive politics is a strong deterrent. More, there has not been any real peace process in Sri Lanka. The LTTE walked out of the negotiating mechanism soon after the CFA and has never shown any inclination to engage in negotiations to resolve the ethnic issue. Its aim has just been to legitimise its control of the Northeast, through international support - overt or otherwise - and by Colombo's recognition of 'Interim Self Governance' based on its own proposals forwarded in November 2003. The constantly breached CFA has remained in vogue because neither side is capable of waging a decisive war to its advantage. India's active participation cannot revive this peace process, more so when the LTTE does not look towards such a participation with favour. This is notwithstanding India's politico-legal complication wherein the LTTE leader Prabhakaran is a proclaimed offender in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. 

The offer of a donor co-chair to India is inherently incompatible. India has not been a part of the donors' group that organised itself as peace maker following the Washington and Tokyo Conferences in 2003. An assistance package of $4.5bn worked out after these meetings to promote and monitor the peace process had no Indian contribution. The donor group also promised an assistance of nearly $2bn for tsunami relief if both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE could work together in the task of reconstruction and rehabilitation. India has channeled all its support for Sri Lanka, including the tsunami relief, bilaterally, and prefers to continue to do so. 

India, therefore, can neither display any initiative nor become effective by joining this group of donors. In fact, this donors' initiative has been a non-starter so far. The LTTE had rejected the outcome of the Tokyo Conference for its political conditions, though it has been willing to participate in tsunami relief. Some members of the donor group may want India to join their initiative in order to share the burden of failure but even they may be at their wits' end in making the peace process meaningful. President Rajapakse may want India to balance the other donors; a thought India may not be responsive to. 

The basic problem with Sri Lanka's peace process is the complete lack of consensus among Sinhala parties on how to address the Tamil issue. Chandrika Kumaratunga had struggled hard to get a bipartisan consensus around a federal framework for devolution of power to the Tamils but the intrinsic power rivalry of the UNP did not let her succeed. The extremist Sinhala groups like the JVP and the Hella Urumaya never endorsed the federal framework. Rajapakse's electoral strategy of aligning with these groups has not only vitiated the efforts of his predecessor and put the tsunami relief package in jeopardy, but also raised eyebrows in New Delhi. Until he liberates himself from the constraints of his allies, he cannot move in the direction of a broader national consensus on the ethnic issue. 

The LTTE has a point when it accuses the Sinhala parties of a lack of political will and sincerity. That, however, does not make the LTTE itself serious because it is neither prepared for a negotiated settlement nor for a democratic and plural framework of sharing political power. Having self designated itself as the sole representative of the Tamil people, the LTTE has refused to take along the other Tamil groups and has been systematically decimating their leadership. Therefore, in the absence of a consensus among the Tamils and the Sinhalese, no genuine and viable peace process can emerge. Why should, then, India join the so-called "peace process"? 

The UPA government under Manmohan Singh is particularly constrained from doing so because of its Tamil coalition partners. More so, as Tamil Nadu is going to face elections in few months' time. The UPA's Tamil allies view any active Indian participation in the Sri Lankan ethnic issue as an act of support for the Sri Lankan government against Sri Lankan Tamil interests. Some of the pro-LTTE Tamil politicians like Vaiko have even succeeded in stalling the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Defence Cooperation Agreement, the draft of which was finalised more than a year back. 

The fragile and precarious peace in Sri Lanka is a matter of deep concern to India. Over the past couple of years, India has followed a two-pronged approach towards Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. At one level, it has been persuading Colombo to evolve an inclusive and accommodative agenda for resolving the issue, broadly on the lines defined in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. At the second level, it has been signaling clearly and strongly to deter the LTTE from precipitating an armed conflict. The promise of effective military support to Sri Lanka, even without the Defence Cooperation Agreement, and periodic reiteration of India's commitment for its unity and territorial integrity point towards that. India has also actively involved itself in upgrading Sri Lanka's Palali air base in Jaffna and oil tank farm in Trincomalee. 

Indian assistance has been reached directly to the tsunami affected areas including those under the LTTE's domination. The LTTE knows deep inside its heart that India will not let it win a war of 'separate state' in Sri Lanka under any circumstances. 

The writer is Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU, New Delhi, and Honorary Director, Research, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: Indian Express, New Delhi, December 29, 2005.

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