Columns -Thoughts from London

India’s hand in Sri Lankan conflict

By Neville de Silva

The sudden visit recently of a high-powered Indian delegation to Colombo headed by New Delhi’s national security adviser, has naturally raised much public and media speculation. The official explanation, at least from Colombo, is that it had to do with next month’s SAARC summit in Colombo. If that was so, it is difficult to explain convincingly why the delegation met with some Tamil leaders both within the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and outside it, especially the leader of the Tamil National Alliance R.Sampanthan. I doubt it was to ask Sampanthan to tell the LTTE leadership to ensure an incident-free summit.

No, there is much more to that visit than has been officially said. It would be plausible to assume that with pressure from political sections in Tamil Nadu for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not to attend the Colombo summit, India is trying to persuade the Rajapaksa administration to halt its military endeavour and hold out even more power to the provinces than is provided for by the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment, as will be recalled, was the constitutional change brought about by the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord which was virtually imposed on Sri Lanka by the Indian Government.

It would now appear that India wants something more than that, an extra pound of flesh, as it were. Admittedly it will not support an independent state of Eelam. In fact it is unlikely to support any political adjustments that would exceed the powers granted to the individual Indian states under its constitution. Yet New Delhi now appears to find that what they first imposed on Sri Lanka is not enough of a sop to satisfy Tamil demands for autonomy. It appears to be seeking more concessions on the back of its constant refrain that there is no military solution to the conflict.Interestingly, shortly before the Narayanan-led delegation arrived in Colombo, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was quoted in one Indian media outlet as saying that India should stop interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. This was vigorously denied by the foreign minister. What the Indian media said he said, but which Bogollagama said he did not say, is what many Sri Lankans and others believe is absolutely true. The separatist conflict and the terrorism that grew out of it might have been eliminated in its embryonic days or certainly sharply minimised, had it not been for the interference and the direct involvement of India in arming, training and funding the several Tamil militant groups including the LTTE on Indian soil.

When news first trickled in about India’s involvement in arming and training the militants New Delhi and its officials vehemently denied any such activity. But bits and pieces about training camps in India and military exercises began appearing in the Indian media. The first detailed and extensive report appeared, if I remember correctly, in India Today, the monthly news magazine. It was an authoritative piece which even Indian diplomats found difficult to contradict.

The double-faced activities of New Delhi- threatening to fight terrorism on its own soil by Sikh militants and others while encouraging materially and morally terrorism against Sri Lanka- began in the early 1980s even before the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots that saw Tamil refugees flock to southern India. Today Indian duplicity in the separatist war while professing friendship with Sri Lanka is too well established in writings and official reports to need elaboration or even reiteration.

The principal culprit in India’s Sri Lanka policy of the late 1970s and early 80s was the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi whose imperiousness would not countenance any criticism of India by the JR Jayewardene government that came into power in 1977, its foreign policy tilt towards the West, especially the US and its departure from the traditional non-aligned policy of her friend and fellow prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike. It is true that in the early 1970s Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and her virtual foreign minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike consciously shifted Sri Lankan policy closer to China and Pakistan- the traditional enemies of India- largely because of India’s intransigence over the people of Indian origin, one million of them living in Sri Lanka and to a lesser degree the territorial dispute over the islet of Kachchativu lying between the two countries and claimed by both.

This burgeoning relationship forged as a counter to the shadow of India’s overpowering presence hovering above Sri Lanka led Mrs Bandaranaike to allow Pakistani aircraft to refuel in Colombo on their way to its former east-wing during the Bangladesh war of liberation which culminated in the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. That policy in a sense paid off with the then Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri reaching agreement on the Indian indentured labour here and Mrs Gandhi eventually negotiating another agreement on the residual population not covered in the Sirima-Shastri agreement and also abandoning claims to Kachchativu.

The problems between JR Jayewardene (who personally knew Indian leaders of the pre-independence era including Indira Gandhi’s father Pandit Nehru) and Mrs Gandhi began even before ‘JR’ came into power. On pre-election platforms in 1976-77 the UNP compared Mrs Bandaranaike’s rule, mostly under emergency, to that of Indira Gandhi and claimed that what happened to the Indian leader would happen to her Sri Lankan friend.

Both JR and Ranasinghe Premadasa somewhat tangentially compared Sirima Bandaranaike and son Anura to the “cow and calf” symbol of the Congress Party. Mrs Gandhi never really forgave the insults hurled at her by the UNP when she returned to power in New Delhi shortly after JR assumed office in Sri Lanka. The personal insults as perceived by Indira Gandhi were compounded by a typically UNP foreign policy shift that leant precipitously to the West, particularly the US. This, despite efforts by such foreign policy advisers as Esmond Wickremesinghe, the father of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had signalled a stronger relationship with China in the UNP election manifesto.

JR’s flirtations with the West and later with Israel raised Mrs Gandhi’s hackles. The July 1983 riots helped settle Mrs Gandhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka. Four months after those riots the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in New Delhi. President Jayewardene attended it at a time when Sri Lanka’s image had hit rock bottom. Minister of State Anandatissa de Alwis asked me to cover the event for Rupavahini. A detailed recounting of some of the incidents in New Delhi must await another occasion. But for my present purpose it is worth recalling some of JR’s words at the summit. He said that Sri Lanka’s 15 million people would rather die than be invaded and subjugated by another nation. Who else could it be but India which was already entertaining the Tamil militants on Indian soil? Not just that, he also praised past Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru but not a word about Indira Gandhi. The Indian prime minister took this as a personal affront. By praising her father, JR was saying that she was not living up to the principles of Nehru.

An Indian commentator Manvendra Singh writing in the Indian Express some years back said : “From the beginning of India’s involvement with militant Sri Lanka Tamil groups in 1981 until late 1983, its intelligence agencies were actively involved with, and in the promotion of, the LTTE; and for most of this period, the Congress was the ruling party.” The LTTE however bit the hand that fed it by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. The group that Indira Gandhi nurtured and aided killed her son.

India’s current dilemma is that as the military conflict escalates it has to be seen to be doing something if not for moral reasons, certainly for political reasons to maintain political support for the Congress especially in Tamil Nadu. But how far is it prepared to go to convince, if not compel, Colombo to take another route to solve the conflict.

As long as Sri Lanka is not dependent on New Delhi for its weapons it does not have all that leverage over Colombo, for the Rajapaksa government has other sources of supply such as China and Pakistan, an issue that is already offending India. The more political pressure it applies publicly on Colombo the more the Rajapaksa administration gains popular support locally because the Sri Lanka people have had enough of Indian chicanery of the past. What we have is the regional superpower in a political bind, uncertain about what to do and unsteady about playing the hand it has been dealt or dealt itself.

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