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Monday, November 18, 2019


Once bitten twice shy


Given the IPKF’s sad saga, what are India’s options? Afterall, Pakistan and China also want an increasing role to play in Sri Lanka. Ranjit Bhushan finds out.
TSI | Issue Dated: July 15, 2007
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Once bitten twice shy With the growing pressure of Tamil politicians like Vaiko and others on the Manmohan Singh government to act decisively in the troubled island state, Indian diplomats clearly see themselves as having two roles to play in Sri Lanka. The first is as a catalyst to promote a political solution to the problems and grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims, in a manner which would give the Tamils and Muslims full political rights without weakening the unity of Sri Lanka.

The second is to ensure that terrorism does not pay and that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) does not become a role model for terrorist organisations elsewhere in the world, including India. The LTTE is acquiring for itself all the defining characteristics of a State actor such as a conventional army, navy and air force and is hoping that if it keeps fighting, the international community will ultimately reconcile itself to its passage from the status of a non-state actor to that of a state actor by recognising its objective of an independent Tamil Eelam.

Tamil politicians who have been regularly visiting the PMO in the last few weeks have told the foreign office that India has an international obligation under various international conventions relating to counter-terrorism and particularly under the UN Security Resolution No.1373, which was passed after the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US. India still regards LTTE as a terrorist organization, first for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and second, their links with Pakistan-based terrorist organizations.

The war launched by the LTTE has had serious repercussions in the country, particularly its North, where the ordinary Tamil is caught in the crossfire between security forces using torture tactics on innocents suspected to have LTTE sympathies and Tamil terrorists killing them if they are seen to be cooperating with the police. Cases of human right excesses abound and several right groups have severely condemned the role of security forces.

These factors oblige India to extend to Sri Lanka two kinds of assistance-namely, intelligence-sharing and action against the LTTE’s logistics support sanctuaries in Indian territory. India has already been extending such assistance. While intelligence-sharing cannot be public knowledge, the details of the recent actions by the Coast Guard and the Tamil Nadu Police against the LTTE’s procurement activities are evidence of the Indian co-operation. But the more critical aspect is the question of Colombo buying arms. Like any sovereign republic, it has been exercising its right to procure arms and ammunition and equipment required for its counter-terrorism operations from countries such as the US, Pakistan and China. Since India says it is not in a position to supply offensive equipment, Sri Lanka has been already getting them from Pakistan and it is now trying to acquire them from China. There is always a quid pro quo for such supply relationship. Taking advantage of India’s reluctance to supply offensive weapons and equipment, Pakistan - for the last three years- and China now have come forward to supply them at favourable prices in return for Sri Lanka allowing them to increase their intelligence and military presence in Sri Lankan territory. Pakistan and China are acting separately-not yet in tandem- to strengthen their strategic presence and influence in Sri Lanka. Pakistan has last week issued a clarion call ‘‘for all outsiders not to interfere in affairs of Sri Lanka,’’ in a none-too-oblique swipe at India. Once bitten twice shy National Security advisor, M.K. Narayanan, recently told politicians in Chennai that Colombo buying arms from elsewhere is unwarranted. ‘‘This poses legitimate security concerns to India and has caused an impression in New Delhi that the Government of Mahinda Rajapakse in Colombo has not been responsive to India’s security concerns.’’ The remark has lead to some unfavourable comment in Colombo. Some Indian officials say that Mahinda Rajapakse has been less than helpful to the Indian cause, which India finds difficult to digest.

India’s stand amounts to this: We will help you to protect yourself from attacks by the LTTE, but we will not help you in neutralising the terrorism capabilities of the LTTE for which proactive operations might be required. The prevailing confusion in our policy is because of New Delhi’s failure to work out a policy mix, also keeping in view the disaster that occurred the last time Indian intervened militarily in Sri Lanka.

Says former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, N.N.Jha, ‘‘any policy mix has to meet the strategic requirements of India as a major power by keeping its influence strong and benign in Sri Lanka while keeping out those of Pakistan and China and the tactical requirements of meeting public sensitivities in Tamil Nadu provoked by the humanitarian situation in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.’’

India has vital strategic interests in Sri Lanka. It still has friends in all communities in Sri Lanka, who understand India’s interests. Unfortunately, our approach to the situation in Sri Lanka has been tactical and erratic. We are letting ourselves be buffeted along without leadership and initiative in policy-making. We have to do more to help Sri Lanka in its counter-terrorism operations. But that doing more has to be as a quid pro quo to its reverting to its policy of a federal solution. We should help the Sri Lankan Government not only in protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks, but also in neutralising the capabilities of the LTTE’s Air Force and Navy. Once bitten twice shy ‘‘India is a great friend. It has an important role to play in Lanka’’

Hussain Bhaila is the Deputy Foreign Minister in Colombo’s foreign office. Optimistic as he is about the outcome of getting the LTTE on the discussion table, he is also a great proponent of India playing a positive role in the island. He shares his views with the TSI in an exclusive interview.

What is the role that India can play in these troubled times in the Lankan island?

India is a great friend of Sri Lanka. It has cooperated with us at all times. Even now, it has an important role to play. India must use its good offices to get the LTTE at the negotiating table.

Do you agree that India is not intervening as pro-actively as it should in Lanka?

I do not agree. India is an old friend of Lanka and it a role to play, which it is doing well. There is no question of India not playing a positive role, as our Prime Minister, Mahinder Rajapakshe, has repeatedly emphasized. Our talks with India and relations between the two foreign offices remains very cordial and functions very well.

Do you think you can get the LTTE on the negotiating table?

I am confident of that. Now that the situation in the eastern part of the country is clear, we will be able to get the LTTE on the table. They will talk. And I think it will happen very soon. Sooner than what people expect.

What is this threat from the newly-set up LTTE Air Force? Do you visualize a strategic threat from them?

It is a laugh. Two outdated fighter planes can hardly be described as an Air Force. There is no threat from this so-called Air Force. It will crumble like a pack of cards.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017