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Indian proscriptions and Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis: a policy of failure

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The intemperate attacks against the Tamil Diaspora that accompanied India’s predictable decision to re-proscribe the LTTE earlier this month reflects more than anything the dismal failure of India’s attempts to shape a political solution to the island’s ongoing and escalating ethnic conflict.

Indian approaches to the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka have long been driven by the belief that the LTTE and particularly its senior leadership remained the singular obstacles to an equitable political solution to the conflict. To this end the Indian political and military establishment provided unqualified support for Sri Lanka’s military efforts to crush the Tamil struggle.

However, three years after the end of the war and the military destruction of the LTTE, amidst Sri Lanka’s horrifying slaughter of Tamil civilians, the prospects of a political solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict are by all accounts remote.

Indeed, freed from the constraints of the LTTE’s military force, the Sinhala leadership in Colombo has publicly told their erstwhile allies and patrons in Delhi, in more or less polite and explicit terms, to mind their own business.

Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s intensified efforts to violently establish Sinhala hegemony over the Tamil people and Tamil territory is palpably fuelling Tamil resistance and insistence on political independence – both in the homeland and Diaspora.

Faced with a recalcitrant and determined Sinhala leadership and the growing resentment and resistance of the Tamil population, Delhi has decided to (in the words of Jayalalitha) cower like a mouse in front of the aggressor whilst lashing out and blaming the latter.

Not exactly a response befitting a regional power and aspirant global power!

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Indian calculations presumed that in exchange for supporting Sri Lanka’s military onslaught in the Tamil speaking regions, a grateful Sinhala leadership would implement Indian proposals on political reform, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the north-east and also sign up to an expanded free trade agreement.

These steps would have produced greater self government for the Tamil speaking areas, the rapid normalisation of social and economic life in the former war zones and thereby a waning of support for political independence. At the same time it was expected that expanded Indo – Lanka trade and the rapid implementation of infrastructure projects in the north-east would have led to a revival of the economy there as well as greater social and economic integration with India.

Of course none of this has come to pass.

While rejecting a political solution based on the Indian sponsored thirteenth amendment to the constitution, Sri Lanka’s has also resisted efforts to increase trade between the two countries. The infrastructure projects for the north-east are either moving slowly or at a standstill, like for example the attempts to rebuild the Palaly airport as a commercial hub.

Meanwhile Indian humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, such as Indian efforts to build 50, 000 houses, far from meeting Tamil needs are actually being used by Colombo for its own purposes. Having taken control of Indian assistance, Colombo has diverted this towards its paramilitary operatives who use the resources to build patronage networks amongst the needy population.

So, ironically Indian aid is effectively providing material assistance for Colombo’s project of establishing Sinhala hegemony.

India’s decision to re-proscribe the LTTE and attack Tamil demands for self rule is largely unsurprising and more or less in keeping with India’s past policies. It is in effect a rather ham – fisted attempt to assert and maintain a stake as well as a position of leverage in Sri Lanka’s politics.

However, as long as Delhi remains unable or unwilling to check Colombo’s determination to violently pursue Sinhala utopia, India will remain either a willing accomplice or become an ineffectual bystander to the island’s intensifying ethnic polarisation.

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