India Seeks Clarification about Ongoing War in Sri Lanka
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Bible relates the tale of how three wise men of the east travelled more than two thousand years ago to Bethlehem and paid homage to the infant Jesus with gifts such as gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In a replay with a twist “three wise men “ of India boarded an Indian Air Force plane in New Delhi and paid a 36 hour visit to Sri Lanka.
The Indian wise men who arrived in Colombo were not seers or sages but experienced , senior bureaucrats from the upper echelons of Indian officialdom.
The Indian trio comprised M.K. Narayanan, the National Security Adviser, P. Shiv Shankar Menon, the Foreign Secretary and R. Vijay Singh, the Defence Secretary.
Narayanan led the delegation, as in terms of protocol the National Security Adviser position is of cabinet rank.
Moreover, Narayanan has in recent times become the chief architect of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka. It is learnt that the mission itself was undertaken on the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.
[R. Vijay Singh]
The composition of the special high-level delegation assumed greater significance by the inclusion of Indian Defence Secretary R. Vijay Singh.
Thus, three important spheres – namely defence, foreign policy and national security, etc. – were interlocked on a mutually integrated mission.
The visit by itself was consultative in nature. The objective was to ascertain the exact position of Sri Lanka towards some issues that directly affect India.
[P. Shiv Shankar Menon]
Through a frank exchange of views with different players, New Delhi hoped to obtain an incisive insight into the direction that Sri Lanka was heading.
In the process of consultative discussions, India once again emphasised through polite discourse some well-intentioned ‘advice’ on relevant issues of mutual concern.
The Indian trinity conducted a series of discussions with several people, including President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the service chiefs, senior bureaucrats, Tamil political leaders like R. Sampanthan, Arumugam Thondaman, Douglas Devananda, D. Siddharthan and Mano Ganesan, etc.
The important ones, however, were the two meetings with President Rajapaksa, the meeting with the Defence Secretary, the meeting with the TNA Leader R. Sampanthan and the candid discussions with the heads of the armed forces.
Contrary to speculation in sections of the media or assertions made by politicians like Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne the Indian “trinity” did not reprimand or order Sri Lanka to do anything.
Gung ho diplomacy vis - a - vis Sri Lanka as in the days of the Jyothindra Nath Dixit variety are long gone.
The Gujral doctrine of Asymmetrical reciprocity is also of the past
While little Lanka continues to remain in the sphere of Indian influence the new style and approach seems to be that of “ working around things” quietly rather than resorting to the “iron hand in velvet glove” approach or megaphone diplomacy.
The sudden visit was basically of a fact – finding nature where the Indian trio through a process of inter- active consultations at first hand sought clarification on a number of important issues of mutual concern.
Chief among these concerns was the security situation in Sri Lanka and whether the climate was conducive for holding the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) in Colombo from July 29th – August 3rd this year.
Of particular importance from an Indian perspective was the safety and security of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There were also political concerns about the violence and its possible impact on Tamil Nadu.
It appears that New Delhi is trying to explore ways and means of encouraging an undeclared de – escalation of hostilities that could bring about a comparative “lull” in the violence before, during and after the SAARC summit.
This columnist has referred to these issues in greater detail in an article published in our sister paper “The Bottom Line” of June 25th 2008.
Apart from the SAARC summit and ramifications the Indian trio did try and ascertain at first hand the exact situation about the war and related violence.
Needless to say there have been torrents of details in sections of the media about the progress of the war. However in an environment where the free media is muzzled through many ways greater insight is required from the “mouths of horses”.
Thus to the Indian trio the series of meetings were avenues to gain clarification and where necessary, amplification of issues.
It was also an opportunity to “caution and advise” Colombo about relevant issues in a spirit of benign friendliness.
The Indians were well aware of Sri Lankan sensitivities and avoided treading on toes.
Still they did raise a number of pertinent queries providing much food for thought in the corridors of power in Colombo.
If taken in the correct spirit and adhered to the Indian “advice” could alter the current course of war even if an “end” is out of the question at this juncture.
Moreover Colombo could move away from its “obsession” about relying on military means alone to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and adopt a political project to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people.
Top priority was given in the discussions about the real situation regarding the war as opposed to the “jayawewa” news items in the media.
The vivid presentations made by the service chiefs and the candid disclosures made by the frank and forthright defence secretary shed much light on actualities rather than optics.
Clarification was also sought on a number of related issues concerning the war.
Some of these hinged around issues of arms procurement necessary for prosecuting the war further. India is already unhappy about Sri Lanka turning to Countries like China and Pakistan.
With the war escalating and expanding, where were the additional armaments coming from and more importantly how was Sri Lanka going to pay for them?
These are questions that would strike responsive chords in all patriotic Sri Lankans who love their country. The pseudo – patriots however would be miffed.
Several news stories and articles in the media suggest that Colombo is getting ready for a final push towards the Wanni citadel of LTTE supreme Velupillai Prabakharan.
This however entails heavy logistical input. Does Sri Lanka possess the military assets and resources necessary for such a broad undertaking?
If not, how does it hope to close this deficit?
It must be remembered that a major area of concern for India about Sri Lanka during the JR Jayawardena regime was its pronounced tilt towards the west.
India then feared the intrusion of forces hostile to India “intruding” into the South Asian neighbourhood under the pretext of helping Sri Lanka combat “terrorism”.
Some of the players have changed since then and India herself has shifted policy to the extent of being engaged in strategic partnerships with some nations perceived as the “enemy” then.
Concerns however remain and now other perceived threats are there.
So it is a legitimate exercise for New Delhi to seek “enlightenment” from its Southern neighbour.
A mighty military push would also bring about in its wake a trail of death, destruction and displacement. The inevitable fall – out could be an influx of refugees to India.
In such a situation does the Sri Lankan government have contingency plans to deal with the inevitable humanitarian crisis that would surely follow military advancement?
The “conquest of the east” demonstrated a lamentable lack of concern for the humanitarian dimension. Thousands of Internally displaced persons (IDP’s) languish in makeshift camps still.
Against that backdrop the Colombo government must realise that it is responsible for the well – being of its Tamil citizens and act carefully and cautiously in pushing its military agenda.
Who better than India to stimulate such thinking?
There is also an issue of paramount importance that is being ignored in the single – minded pursuit of a military victory.
Let us assume that the LTTE is vanquished and Prabakharan is killed but where does that leave the Tamil national question?
The LTTE and Prabakharan are only virulent by – products of the long – festering Tamil problem.
A military solution cannot resolve the “Tamil” problem. Only a just political settlement could.
Does the Mahinda Rajapakse government have a constructive political solution where the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils are accommodated and their long – standing grievances redressed?
It is in this respect that Colombo needs to think “beyond or outside the military option” and also approach the problem politically.
It is here that the newly set – up Eastern Provincial Council comes in.
India is of the view that the EPC should be allowed to function effectively as a “genuine” unit of devolution.
The Rajapakse regime has a unique opportunity of demonstrating to the world at large that it has weaned Tamils away from separatism by making a showpiece of the eastern province.
Being multi – ethnic it can also prove and show the world that all communities in the Island can live in amity, harmony and equality.
This however requires a visionary, statesmanlike approach. The nation at large must come out of the claustrophobic confines of “Mahinda Chinthana”.
Enhanced devolution must be provided via statutes and generous financial allocations to the EPC must be made.
India will be only too happy to assist and aid the Sri Lankan government to help make the Eastern provincial council work.
If these were some of the salient issues transpiring at the high – level discussions there was also a ray of hope during the visit for the Tamil people.
In the discussions with Tamil National Alliance leader and Trincomalee district MP Rajavarothayam Sambandan the question of North - East merger was raised.
Mr. MK. Narayanan assured Mr. Sambandan that it was still not an invalid option and reiterated that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often gone on record about the importance of a “Tamil Linguistic Region”.
The TNA has also been invited to visit New Delhi for further discussions.
While the focus last week has been on the Indian trio’s visit there was also another important development that has gone largely unnoticed.
A two – day Indo – Lanka bi – national seminar was organised by the India Centre for South Asian studies based in Chennai on June 18th and 19th.
The Convenor was Prof. V. Suryanarayanan former head of the South and South East Asia studies dept at the Madras University.
The seminar was on the topic “Deepening Political Crisis of Sri Lanka” and held at Hotel Savera with around 60 – 75 participants.
The Sri Lankan contingent included academics, politicians, peace activists, trade unionists and also representatives from two “Hindu” organisations namely the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayam Seva Sangh (RSS).
Both the VHP and RSS are aligned to the Hindu right – wing Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) and referred to as being part of the “Sangh parivar”.
It appears that the seminar was a BJP related effort to delve deep into the deepening Sri Lankan crisis and formulate policy.
Among Indian participants were former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Narendra Nath Jha. NN Jha is currently in charge of BJP policy formulation regarding foreign affairs.
Among other distinguished Indian participants were Dr. Chandrashekharan, Dr, Swaminathan and Col (retired) Hariharan.
Chandrashekharan and Swaminathan were the two senior Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officials who handled the Tamil militant groups in India during the eighties and nineties of the previous century.
Hariharan was in charge of military intelligence in Jaffna during the time of the Indian Peace keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 – 1990.
All three are keen observers of Sri Lankan politico – military developments and often write informative papers about contemporary issues concerning Sri Lanka.
Among other participants were Ila. Ganeshan the BJP’s Tamil Nadu state leader and Sugumaran Nambiar the BJP’s national treasurer.
Sugumaran is the son of well known film actor M. N. Nambiar who acted as “villain on screen” to yesteryear stars like MGR, Sivaji and Gemini Ganesan.
The genial Sugumaran Nambiar was the “host” to Lankan participants at the seminar.
The seminar was also remarkable that the usual “Sri Lanka experts” of India both left – leaning and liberal were absent. Many participating academics subscribed to the “Hindutva” ideology.
Given the decline of the ruling Congress and ascendancy of the BJP in some recent state – wise elections there is much optimism that the BJP would form the next government in New Delhi.
The BJP’s Ila. Ganesan summed up the mood and also illuminated delegates when he asserted that the BJP was going to form the next government and that this seminar would help formulate policy on Sri Lanka.
After intense confabulations there was consensus that no formal resolutions be passed but at least two participants told this writer about the general opinion.
There was no military solution for Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis and only a political solution. Such a settlement could not be between the Govt and LTTE alone but should embrace all stake – holders.
At the same time no solution is possible without the LTTE and if the LTTE was to be excluded. A durable solution is only possible where all stakeholders including the LTTE is included.
During discussions another point of view which found wide approval was that the LTTE should not be totally defeated or destroyed if a solution is to be reached.
It was pointed out that the LTTE was both a “terrorist” and “national liberation” movement.
If the tigers were to be done away on account of the terrorist dimension then the other dimension would suffer it was argued.
It is therefore clear that the Sri Lankan issue would continue to be of interest and importance in India with the BJP showing greater attention.
If indeed there is regime change in New Delhi when elections occur it appears that the abiding concern for Sri Lanka could take fresh forms.
This however does not diminish the role of the Indian bureaucracy which continues to kep a “benign eye” on Sri Lanka regardless of whether overt policy is “hands on” or “hands off”.
The Indian trio’s visit demonstrates that very clearly.
Let me conclude with relevant extracts from my earlier article in “The Bottom Line”.
“A wise, humanitarian and statesmanlike approach towards the issue could be that of ushering in a climate of relative peace and violence free atmosphere before, during and after the SAARC summit.
Given the commitment of the Rajapaksa government to wage relentless war against LTTE “terrorism” and the ferocious determination of the Tigers in resisting it, there is practically no hope at this juncture of the war being called off.
What seems feasible is to bring about a gradual de-escalation of hostilities by both sides. Again there is little chance of such a ‘de-escalation of hostilities’ being a formal one. It has to be a de facto and not a de jure agreement.
What is in the realm of the possible is that both sides scale down their offensive operations on a staggered basis. If the levels of violence are brought down gradually, the SAARC Summit could take place in a period of lull without mishap.
While the Rajapaksa government would be reluctant to go in for an ‘official’ temporary ceasefire or de-escalation of hostilities, the prospect of an undeclared, unacknowledged scaling down of violence leading to a lull could be something it can live with.
Besides, there is the added incentive of being in the good books of New Delhi and deriving support in withstanding Western pressures.
More importantly, Colombo could stage a summit without any hitch with the Indian Premier attending. It is imperative for President Rajapaksa to don the SAARC leadership mantle smoothly.
If the government is indeed amenable to such a course of action, there is also the need to obtain LTTE consent to adhere to related parameters. Again, only India is capable of prevailing upon the LTTE to agree. India has cracked down really hard in the recent past in more ways than one. A relaxation by India could be a welcome respite if not a reprieve for the LTTE.
Having banned the Tigers, New Delhi cannot deal directly with the LTTE at this point of time. But other connections and back channels are always available.
Firstly, there is Norway, the India-approved facilitator. Secondly, there are Tamil Nadu politicians close to the LTTE and acceptable to Manmohan Singh like Vaiko. Thirdly, there the unorthodox contact personnel handled by Intelligence agencies like a flamboyant Hindu ‘God man.’ Fourthly, there are also the more senior members of the Tamil National Alliance like Rajavarothayam Sambandan and others.
The meeting with Sampanthan alone in Colombo and the invitation extended for a TNA delegation to visit New Delhi are by themselves significant developments.
If India is able to persuade the warring parties to agree temporarily to an ‘unofficial de-escalation of hostilities,’ and if both sides implement it sincerely, a comparative lull in violence could prevail. This, in turn, could pave the way for the successful staging of the SAARC Summit in Colombo.
While it would be premature to speculate now, such a lull could also be the first step on the long road to peace. There is no doubt that the coming days would pose an immense challenge to the diplomatic prowess of Kautilya’s land.
A Sri Lankan peace process that has India’s backing has the greatest chance of success.
Whatever the ultimate result of the Indian trio’s visit, one thing has emerged through the mission very clearly: India will no longer adopt a laidback stance regarding a durable peace in Sri Lanka. While it may not be a visible ‘hands on’ approach, it would not be ‘hands off’ either.
This, then, is a harbinger of good news for all those yearning for a just and durable peace in Sri Lanka.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at: email@example.com