Columns -Thoughts from London

India must act with circumspection not like a bully

By Neville de Silva

Since the frenzied attempts this month by Tamil Nadu politicians to whip up anti-Sri Lankan sentiments in the southern Indian state and demand that New Delhi pressure Colombo for a ‘course correction’, much has been written about the state of Indo-Lanka relations.

Most commentaries have looked at how seriously the Manmohan Singh government would take the threats from Tamil Nadu chief minister M.Karunanidhi and whether the Indian demarche will be followed up with concrete action to satisfy him and his party faithfuls. We will know pretty soon when President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s special delegation led by his brother Basil holds discussions with Indian leaders this week. While Karunanidhi’s political blackmail- a clear case of the Tamil Nadu tail determined to wag the New Delhi dog- threatens the survival of the Manmohan Singh government, one thing that the central government cannot afford to do is to take any action that is seen as supportive of the LTTE. It cannot ignore the fact that Tamil Nadu is not India and that vast swathe of Indian opinion is opposed to appeasing the LTTE. India cannot forget- and should not be made to forget- that the last time it rescued the LTTE when it was cornered in the Jaffna peninsula after the decisive Vadamarachchi battle victories by the Sri Lankan armed forces, it led to Indian peace keeping troops leaving with their tail between their legs and the subsequent assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Any action now that seeks to achieve the same end though that may not be the intention of the Indian administration would be viewed as such in Sri Lanka. It would be perceived as supporting an organization that India herself has banned as terrorist and would seriously undermine India’s claim to fight terrorism in all its manifestations as pledged at the SAARC summit in Colombo in August.

Though previous Indian governments have not been free of charges of hypocrisy, the Manmohan Singh government would be seen as particularly seeped in it if any precipitous action serves to rescue the LTTE from its present difficulties while at the same time pointing its finger at its western neighbour for instigating or actually carrying out terrorist acts against India or Indian assets. India which makes claims to Security Council status following possible reforms to the United Nations, has to act with moral responsibility and not like the neighbourhood bully, if it is to be accepted into that charmed circle.
In that regard India’s record of good neighbourliness has certainly not been as clean as a lily white dhoti. Since its independence over 60 years ago, it has had disputes, territorial and political, with all its neighbours. Some of them have led to war and not all of the disputes have been solved. India has imposed its will on those who could hardly raise their voice against the giant neighbour, Sikkim being a good example of Indian ambitions and aggrandizement. Though Indian apologists have tried to make out that India was the victim of Chinese aggression in 1961-62, studies have shown that it was the Indian leadership that brought on the war.

From ancient times Sri Lanka, or Lanka as it was called then, faced several invasions from south India-from the Cholas, Pallavas and others who decided to stay behind and rule over parts of this country.
India also must take into account its own despicable role in exacerbating the Tamil problem by nurturing the Tamil militant groups to destabilize the Sri Lanka government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was largely responsible for the policy decisions that led to the arming, training and funding of Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, on Indian soil. Tamil Nadu governments were equally responsible for funding and providing the facilities for training the LTTE which finally turned round and bit the hand that fed them. These treacherous policies of the Indian central and state governments are well, documents by Indian sources themselves and if the people of Sri Lanka have fears about India’s real intentions and not the publicly declared ones, it is with very good reason.

“From the beginning of India’s involvement with militant Sri Lankan Tamil groups in 1981 until late 1993, 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,” wrote commentator Manvendra Singh in The Indian Express. Note that he says 1981. This is important as India and its apologists have tried to suggest that Indian help for the militants started after the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 which the JR Jayewardene government did little or nothing to defuse for the first couple of days.

It might be recalled that Prabhakaran and Uma Maheswaran shot it out in wild west style in Pondy Bazaar in 1982 and after their arrest, efforts by the Sri Lanka government to extradite them for crimes in this country were thwarted by the Congress government under pressure from the Karunanidhi DMK which was then, like today, a constituent party of the central government. Former Indian High Commissioner Jotyndra Nath Dixit who was in Colombo during the critical period of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, says in his book Assignment Colombo that there were numerous contacts between Indian Government agencies and the LTTE even after the IPKF started operating in Sri Lanka. He states quite explicitly that no Indian agency, apart from the armed forces, conducted itself with honour and integrity during the entire involvement with the Tamil question.

That surely is a terrible indictment on Indian policy and the Indian establishment by an Indian who rose to be India’s national security advisor after his retirement as foreign secretary. Dixit’s characterization of India’s conduct is corroborated by a serving officer of the Indian establishment who is quoted by Mavendra Singh as saying: “As a result, what we had in Sri Lanka was a mess and Delhi was neck-deep in what it had created. So we didn’t even know whether, first, information about the IPKF was being passed on to the LTTE, and secondly, how much help is given to them after all that happened.”
RAW, India’s spook agency, that was deeply involved in this mess was accused by military officers of passing on information to the LTTE of IPKF troop movements that led to the ambush of Indian soldiers resulting in deaths and casualties. If India’s vaulting ambition and rivalry among Indian agencies could lead to such duplicity and betrayal resulting in the death of Indian soldiers who were not sure why they were in Sri Lanka fighting other’s battles, how little it would take India to betray its neighbours with whom it publicly claims to have friendly relations.

Speaking at the first India Global Forum organized by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in New Delhi in April this year, MK Narayanan, India’s National Security Adviser said: “India has no wish to intervene anywhere, but there were numerous potential challenges to stability around its periphery-for example in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka- and India was helping wherever possible and appropriate to preserve national integrity and foster democracy.” How far this reflects genuine Indian regional policy or mere rhetoric to placate the world of India’s good intentions ever since it sacrificed the moral voice and authority it enjoyed decades ago, we will see in the coming days and months.
If agitation on behalf of the Sri Lanka Tamils has erupted in Tamil Nadu (which I believe means the country of the Tamils) and concerns have mounted in sections of the international community, part of the blame must rest with Sri Lanka.

On a number of long standing and current policy actions we have been at a loss to explain convincingly to the world that the oft over blown criticisms are not justified. Constraints on space do not allow me to expatiate but it should be said that the lack of a coherent communications strategy is at the root of the troubles. It is partly the failure of our diplomacy, the absence of a sustained approach to countering criticisms in a reasoned and well-documented manner rather than abrasive dismissal. It is partly the failure of a quick response communication strategy that eschews daily propaganda that defeats Sri Lanka’s own purpose.

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