Indian Army back in medical garb, but is Delhi losing grip on Lanka?

By Gen. Ashok Mehta

Precisely 20 years to the month after the Indian Peace Keeping Force left Sri Lanka, Indian soldiers from a military field hospital reentered the country last week, low profile in civilian clothes.

It has sparked a minor controversy, some Lankans depicting it as an invasion. Just how fragile is India's neighbourhood diplomacy and diminishing clout, especially in the last five years, chasing the chimera of big power status, is evident from Delhi's futile attempt in the last two years to end the war and humanitarian tragedy in the North East of Sri Lanka.

None of the neighbours listens to India. In the Maldives where India's Special Forces preempted a coup d'etat in 1988, the government there has been more amenable to China and the West than to Delhi. We've been at war with Pakistan since 1947, unable to stop cross border terrorism despite a decisive military victory in 1971. Delhi has invested billions in Nepal, introduced democracy twice and helped Maoists to join the political mainstream and win elections.

IPKF officers leaving Sri Lanka 20 years ago

Yet anti-India feelings are the highest ever and the Maoist government most hostile, in words and deeds. As for relations with Bangladesh where 300 soldiers were martyred during the Liberation war, the less said the better, though there is now a glimmer of hope with the new Sheikh Hasina government. For preserving Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity, 1300 IPKF soldiers sacrificed their lives. Yet IPKF was unceremoniously evicted and two decades later, while India is still committed to safeguarding Sri Lanka's well being, Colombo has not moved an inch to meet Tamil political grievances. Instead it has de-merged the North East and created a situation where majority of Tamils are now housed outside the North East or in camps in the North East.

When Eelam War IV picked up after the liberation of the East by security forces in 2007, the story goes that Tamils in Jaffna would look up into the sky for Indian help reminiscent of Operation Poomaalai, the bread-bombing in 1987 which ended the war and led to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Unfortunately IPKF was withdrawn before the implementation of the 13th Amendment-enabled devolution. When the last ship carrying IPKF left Trincomalee Harbour, the then Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne called up Commanderin-Chief President R Premadasa to report that the last foreign soldier had left Sri Lankan soil.

What followed was a long period of India's sulk diplomacy. In 2000 when the Tamil Tigers all but defeated the security forces after the fall of Elephant Pass, Sri Lanka requested for India's help in evacuating the Jaffna garrison. This would have meant another expeditionary force interposed between the warring factions. Delhi offered financial assistance but declined any military involvement. A tested friend Pakistan came to Sri Lanka's rescue by supplying crucial Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers which helped to hold back the Tigers. Indian leaders at the time remarked, heavens will not fall if the LTTE reoccupies Jaffna.

India-Sri Lanka relations are characterized by different IPKF placards carried by Buddhist monks in Colombo. In 1987 it was "IPKF Get Out". In 2000, "IPKF Come Back" and in 2008: "IPKF Keep Out". Therefore, the description of the Army Medical Team at Pulmoddai, North of Trincomalee Harbour as 'invasion' accompanied by protests by doctors. Each placard is representative of the perceived military balance with the LTTE and the political equation with India.

All through 2007, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was embarked on a military solution to crush the Tigers and eliminate the menace of terrorism with military assistance from China and Pakistan, financial aid from Saudi Arabia and Iran and moral and material help from the West, periodically India, under pressure from Tamil Nadu would urge Colombo to end the war with homilies like 'no military solution' and 'only a negotiated settlement will bear fruit' etc. These prescriptions were water off a duck's back especially after a military solution appeared within grasp.

More unsolicited advice followed: military victories offer a political opportunity to restore normalcy. But Rajapaksa would allow no intervention in the war which his ministers said India was supporting. The LTTE had been confined into a box, shrunk in size from 16,000 sq km to less than 30 sq km today.
Just as Sri Lanka shifted the spotlight from an ethnic war to one against terrorism, towards end 2008 /early 2009 India and the international community were able to shift focus to the humanitarian disaster stemming from the war. The plight of Tamils trapped in the war took centre-stage. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee created a furore in Parliament by his statement that LTTE had killed fleeing Tamil civilians and done much damage to the Tamil community. The humanitarian situation was reviewed periodically with the Sri Lankan government and safe zone created to minimize effects of the conflict on Tamils civilians.

Despite the mounting unrest in Tamil Nadu, charges of genocide against Colombo and sustained calls for ceasefire by Tamil Nadu politicians, at no time did India expressly ask for a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause in the fighting. Mukherjee said: "Government has no instrumentality under which it can force a sovereign government to take a particular action". Yet, slipped into President Pratibha Patil's address to Parliament was a call for a ceasefire and talks with LTTE. Home Minister P Chidambaram, from Tamil Nadu said LTTE "must announce they're willing to lay down arms and are prepared for talks. Simultaneously Sri Lanka should suspend military operations. Then we can arrange talks". All that Rajapaksa did was to order a 48-hour safe passage without any ceasefire and said he would talk to LTTE only if they laid down arms. Rajapaksa has not been pressed on the political rights for Tamils or any deadline on devolution.

With general elections round the corner, Delhi has done a tight-rope walk, balancing Tamil sentiments in Tamil Nadu with Sri Lankan sensitivity to Indian interference in conduct of war which unknown to many it has backed with crucial intelligence, operational and moral support. Credit for the military victory though is rightly claimed by Sri Lankan forces with Chinese and Pakistani military assistance. India's help is taken for granted even as Colombo ignored National Security Advisor MK Narayanan's demarche of not seeking military hardware from China and Pakistan. The collective urgings of the President, Foreign Minister and home Minister of India and leaders of Tamil Nadu for a ceasefire to end the tragic plight of Tamils went unheeded. Rajapaksa's government had promised India zero tolerance of civilian casualties, According to a UN report, 40 civilians are being killed in the war zone every day.

Last week, a UN report by Human Rights High Commissioner cited 2800 people being killed and 7000 injured since 20 January in the war zone and described some actions by the Army and Tigers as constituting war crimes. Charges of genocide and calls for ceasefire have echoed in the Canadian Parliament as also R2P (Right To Protect). Former US Deputy Assistant Attorney Bruce Fein has called for genocide charges to be slapped against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and security forces officials. The US Senate Foreign Relations hearings last month noted that Sri Lanka's war on terror had a connection with the ethnic conflict and Tamil grievances. The most scathing criticism of Sri Lanka has come from Human Rights Watch, an NGO. It says the media and human rights organizations have been prevented from covering the war replete with LTTE excesses and government abuses. A culture of impunity prevails even as a humanitarian disaster - which ICRC has forecast as a humanitarian catastrophe - on an unprecedented scale is in the making and the international community is quiet.

The government denies any problem exists though at least 150,000 civilians are caught in the crossfire. Last month Sri Lanka's Donor Co Chair - the US, Norway, Japan and the EU - evolved a US-led humanitarian intervention operation by three Marine Evacuation Brigades to extricate civilians trapped in the war. In this plan there was much more than humanitarian concern for the US which has always sought a strategic foothold in the North East of Sri Lanka, close to the crown jewel, Trincomalee harbour. A Washington-Colombo-Delhi dialogue on the launch of Operation rescue was apparently rejected by India and which Sri Lanka also did not favour. Instead, Delhi has managed to locate a 52-man medical mission as a beach head for any contingency project to end the war. This is a concession made by Sri Lanka to India for letting Colombo have its way in the fight to finish the Tigers regardless of the humanitarian costs.

By allowing Rajapaksa a free hand in defeating the Tigers without any move on the political solution, Delhi has further shrunk its political and strategic space in Sri Lanka. Colombo like Kathmandu wants to look beyond Delhi.

(The writer served as an IPKF officer in Sri Lanka)

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