The current events in Sri Lanka mark the end of a sorry chapter of a story that began, for India, in 1983 when we decided to use the militants as an instrumentality to intervene in the Sri Lankan civil conflict. We lost 1200 soldiers in the process. For the Sri Lankans, both Sinhala and Tamil the saga has been sorrier. They have lost thousands killed and missing, the whole texture of their society has coarsened. The isle of Serendip has been washed in blood and tears several times over. And there is every indication that the tear-shedding will not end with the destruction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In the quarter century since, India has grown from adolescence to maturity as a regional power. We began our intervention as friends of the Tamils who had been progressively marginalised by rampant Sinhala nationalism. We have ended it as the firmest supporters of the Sri Lankan government. In between has been a long journey that led us to a partial confrontation with the United States, a failed attempt to emerge as an honest broker between the Sinhalas and Tamils, and a tough jungle war with the LTTE.
When we naively set out to intervene in Sri Lankan affairs we were in a sense trying to insulate Tamil Nadu from the separatist virus. Despite the best efforts, at various times, of Vaiko, S. Ramadoss and other Tamil fire-eaters, Tamil Nadu did not get infected by the Eelam bug. We were also acting on the belief that the US was interested in leasing Trincomalee as a base. That was the time we believed in autarky for both our economic and foreign policy.
In 1984, the parameters of the Indian intervention began to change. This was because Indira Gandhi, with her history of bad blood with the US, was no more. Her son and successor as Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, did not carry any ideological baggage. He was wooed by Washington which began to encourage India to play a larger regional role. Time magazine even carried a cover story on the rise of India as a superpower.
New Delhi was flattered and along with a shift in Indo-US relations, came a changed Sri Lankan policy. Prompted by Washington, India now became an honest broker between Colombo and Jaffna, where the LTTE was now established.
When the Sri Lankans demurred, and launched what appeared to be a successful military offensive in 1987, New Delhi showed the mailed fist by sending transport aircraft to drop relief supplies in Jaffna peninsula, escorted by Mirage 2000 fighters. The Sri Lankans, with nothing more than Siai Marchetti piston-engined trainers, threw in the towel. The result was the India- Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) of 1987 through which Colombo agreed to end its military offensive,order its troops back to their barracks, devolve power to a merged Northern and Eastern Province. In return India would oversee the disarming of the LTTE through a division-strong Indian Peace Keeping Force.
India was riding high at this point. But the Bofors scandal had just broken when when the IPKF mandate was transformed into a peace-enforcement mission. The Indians were not prepared, but their generals felt they could make short work of the scrawny guerrillas who wore lungis and chappals.
It soon became apparent in the first week of October 1987 that India had a fight in its hands. Far from folding up, the LTTE skillfully contested every inch of the ground in Jaffna. Finally when they were cleared from the peninsula, they took to the Wanni jungles. But not only did they hold their own against the mighty Indian army, that became a four division force by 1988, but managed to best Indian diplomacy thereafter.
Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 elections even as the LTTE forged an unlikely alliance with its bitterest foe— the Sri Lankan government—now headed by Ranasinghe Premdasa. Binding them was a visceral hatred for India. Premdasa demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF, the new government of V.P. Singh tamely complied. Prabhakaran slipped out of the IPKF noose in Wanni and the whole structure of a Tamil-majority north-eastern state that India had constructed came apart. Premdasa, Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, who had double-crossed India, were separately murdered on Prabhakaran’s orders.
This was one of the shoddiest episodes in Indian history. When the IPKF returned, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the same M. Karunanidhi refused to participate in the ceremony to welcome them back. Instead, the state became a logistical and operational base for the LTTE. This was used effectively to carry out the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.
India turned its back on Sri Lanka. As the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government went through successive phases of negotiation and war, India stayed away. It did so even when both parties begged India at various times to broker the peace process. And we have stayed away even as the Sri Lankan army, equipped with Chinese, Pakistani and Israeli weapons have finally crushed the LTTE.
With the defeat of the LTTE, India should take up where it left of in 1991. Not in the form of a military intervention but a return to an active political posture. Sinhala chauvinists have been enormously strengthened by the defeat of the LTTE-led Tamil separatist movement. But military defeat of the Tamil separatists does not mean that the basic issue of the discrimination of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, that gave rise to the LTTE, has gone away.
War inevitably rips the social fabric of the society where it takes place. The Tamil-majority areas have been ravaged by the war, but the Sinhala dominated areas have also been affected, but in a different way. A subtle and deadly wave of repression has been unleashed against all forces of moderation and reconciliation. The first target has been the media which has seen several editors, reporters and correspondents assassinated by hit-squads linked to the government. The defeat of the LTTE could be used by Sinhala chauvinists to consolidate their hold.
Sri Lanka cannot, and should not, be allowed to treat its Tamils as second class citizens. Having stood by as the LTTE was being defeated, we should now remind Colombo that the ISLA remains in force and needs to be implemented. The Sri Lankans must begin the process of political conciliation of its Tamil minority.
The Sri Lanka affair has many lessons for India. Many, especially the need for integrated policy making and effective intelligence coordination are yet to be learnt. But more importantly, New Delhi needs to overcome the trauma that the intervention brought to policy-making.
Though we went there on Sri Lanka’s invitation, and left when they asked us to go, the episode persuaded some of our politicians that military intervention itself is bad. But no power can afford to limit itself that way, and neither should India.
This appeared first in Mail Today April 24, 2009