21 November 2006
The sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan Tamils is that India’s central government must intervene to arrest the catastrophe unfolding in the island's Northeast.
Sri Lanka’s military is launching an indiscriminate onslaught against the Tamils. Over 200,000 people, mainly Tamils, have been driven from their homes.
Refugee camps and teenagers’ schools have been shelled and bombed. Dozens of Tamils are being shot or ‘disappeared’ by the Sri Lankan military. Over a thousand Tamils have been killed this year alone.
The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement has become worthless as the government of Presdient Mahinda Rajapakse continues its military onslaught against the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by targeting the Tamil population.
And it is not the Tamils of Sri Lanka alone who are looking to Delhi for action.
Politicians from Tamil Nadu, where 16,000 Tamils from the island have fled to, have been urging the central government to break its silence and to prevail on the parties in Sri Lanka to find a lasting solution.
The call to intervene on behalf of the island’s Tamils comes from both allies and opponents of India’s ruling coalition.
Political and military analysts in India have also been increasingly arguing for action.
And right now that means arresting the military onslaught of the Sinhala-dominated government.
India’s reticence is understandable. Delhi has had bitter experiences from intervening in Sri Lanka.
But that was a function of the mode and form of intervention, not the principle itself.
Indeed, India’s initial steps in the early eighties helped blunt the Sri Lankan oppression of the Tamils.
After the 1983 pogrom, the Indian government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had no choice but to establish links with Sri Lankan Tamil leaders, both parliamentary and militant, in order to fully gauge what was going on in the island.
But even that was very late, even decades late.
Sri Lanka’s problem ethnic erupted soon after independence from Britain. London’s ill-fated and irresponsible decision to leave the Tamils – whose distinct homeland had been merged with the rest of the island - at the mercy of the Sinhalese resulted in the former being powerless to resist a series of discriminatory majoritarian measures.
Even before the 1980s, Sri Lanka’s Tamils had been squeezed out of the military, state employment, access to higher education and international developmental assistance.
And successive pro-Sinhala constitutions, increasingly oppressive to the Tamils, ended up with a unitary system of government with an executive president with centralized powers centralized, a Sinhala-dominated parliament, and a biased judiciary worked in favour of the Sinhala south and to the detriment of the Tamils.
Yet Indian leaders, whilst conscious of the crucial role their secular constitution played in holding the nation’s numerous communities in unity did not intervene to stop Sri Lanka’s drift towards majoritarian tyranny and thus into ethnic conflict.
Even the state sponsored pogroms of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1979 and 1981 in which thousand of Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs failed to draw concrete action from Delhi.
And India’s inaction suited Sinhala leaders perfectly.
Only when smouldering Tamil militancy began to erupt in the 1980s and the Sri Lankan government began to seek support from extra-regional powers did India begin to react to protect her own interests.
And after the 1983 pogrom which saw thousands of Tamils being slaughtered by Sinhala mobs and hundreds of thousands being made homeless, India acted quickly – not least because Tamil Nadu was in uproar.
But Indira Gandhi's government was unable to persuade the racist President Junius Jayawardene to end state violence against the Tamils or to roll back the unprecedented centralisation of power.
Delhi therefore started to provide military training to over a dozen militant groups resisting the Sri Lanka state.
It was an unfortunate tragedy for the Sri Lankan Tamils that Indira Gandhi's was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in1984.
Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became Prime Minister.
But he changed the strategy from a sophisticated covert one to a clumsy overt intervention by the Indian military.
The move which was skilfully exploited by President Jayawardene to inveigle the Indian military – originally sent to protect the Tamils from the Sinhala Army – into attacking the Tigers and the Tamil areas instead.
The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) era was a horrible and traumatic experience for India and the Tamils. Over a thousand Indian soldiers and many Tamil fighters died. So did 5,000 Tamil civilians.
The central Indian government lost international prestige and blackened its image in Tamil Nadu also.
Amid anguish and anger in the southern state, the new Indian prime minister V P Singh, in 1990 withdraw the IKPF from northeastern Sri Lanka.
In any case, with the Indian military having inflicted severe damage on the Tamil struggle, the new Sinhala President, R. Premadasa had demanded it be removed.
The assassination in 1991 of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber during his election rally near Chennai, in Tamil Nadu distanced the relations even further between India and the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Delhi blamed the LTTE for the assassination.
And for many years afterwards, successive Sinhala governments successfully dissauded India from intervening to protect Tamils by portraying Sri Lankan state violence as primarily aimed at destroying the LTTE, rather than the Tamils.
For over a decade, the governments that came to power in Delhi maintained a hands-off policy towards the Tamils in Sri Lanka, even at a time when tens of thousands of them perished in Sri Lankan military offensives and embargos on food and medicine.
India even helped the Sri Lankan military on occassion. Delhi’s navy intercepted LTTE vessels in the Indian Ocean and destroyed them, for example.
But the conflict escalated to engulf the entire Northeast and sometimes the capitol, Colombo. By 2001, Sri Lanka’s military was exhausted and the country’s economy in meltdown.
Whereupon the Norwegian peace process started.
Even then India was not prepared to get involved. An LTTE request for peace talks to be held in India was refused (Thailand offered and was accepted).
For the past four years India has closely observed the Norwegian effort, remaining intimately informed of the diplomatic and other developments, but not actively getting involved.
Despite repeated requests from the Co-Chairs – the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway – India has refused to become the 5th.
But India’s distant support for the Norwegian peace process has meant little influence over the actions of the protagonists, especially the Sri Lankan state – or the other Co-Chairs for that matter.
And now Sri Lanka is sliding rapidly heading back to a new war.
International support has rebuilt Sri Lanka’s military and economy. But instead of seeking a negotiated settlement that would ensure a lasting power-sharing arrangement with the Tamils, the government of President Rajapakse is pursuing a new military solution.
India is thus facing the same problem she did in the early 1980s.
Sri Lanka’s military is once again launching an indiscriminate onslaught against the island’s Tamils. Refugee camps and teenagers’ schools have been shelled and bombed.
Over 200,000 people, mainly Tamils have been driven from their homes. Dozens of Tamils are being shot or ‘disappeared’ by the Sri Lankan military.
As a consequence, just as in 1983, Tamil Nadu is in uproar.
Echoing widespread sentiment in the southern state, DMK leader wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arguing “the time has come for answering the question: how long India can tolerate this?”
All the other Tamil Nadu parties are agitating for Delhi to act. Many, like the DMK and its main rival, the AIDMK have in the past been hostile to the LTTE.
Even the BJP in Tamil Nadu has joined the chorus for something to be done about Sri Lanka, arguing it is Delhi’s “duty and right” to act.
In a welcome sign, Premier Singh has urged Tamil Nadu’s leaders and people to remain calm because his government would ensure what is required will be done.
But with a humanitarian crisis engineered by the Sri Lankan government breaking amongst the Tamils, India must move quickly if she is to avert a catastrophe.
Meanwhile, President Rajapakse has blatantly tried to copy the strategy of his predecessors to co-opt India into his efforts to crush Tamil aspirations.
First he tried to seduce India into joining his war effort. Soon after being elected in late 2005 he rushed to Delhi to seek support. That failed when Tamil Nadu leaders reacted angrily to his policies.
President Rajapakse reacted just as President Jayawardene had done, by swiftly turning to rivals of India, this time Pakistan and China for military assistance.
Subsequently, as the Sri Lanka military stepped up its paramilitary violence and later began direct offensive operations against the Tigers and the wider Tamil population, President Rajapske has been trying to ensure India remains inactive and moribund.
Despite the use of embargo and denial of humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of people, his government is striving to portray its onslaught against the Tamils as a military effort against the LTTE.
In the first instance, India should reject this duplicitous argument and intervene to thwart Sri Lanka’s ruthless strategy.
More generally, India should evaluate the longer term benefits of the Tamils of Sri Lanka achieving a substantive measure of self-rule.
Unlike successive Sinhala governments have done, no Tamil political leaders have acted against India’s strategic interests.
When Sri Lanka moved to turn Trincomalee harbour over to extra-regional powers, the small Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) fought determinedly against the move.
Even the traumatic IPKF war was sought by neither India nor the LTTE – only Sri Lanka’s then government, which promptly ejected the Indian troops once they had sufficiently weakened the Tigers.
The oft-raised claim of Tamil separatism ‘spreading’ to India from the island is a phantom intended to raise anxieties.
It neither follows logically nor has any concrete basis. Tamil Nadu’s people and leaders see their future dependent on sharing power in the centre and not in breaking away.
India’s Tamils are enthusiastic Indian citizens. The constitution allows them to enjoy both identities at the same time without needing to compromise.
Self-rule for the Tamils in Sri Lanka thus has no drawback for India. On the contrary it has direct benefits.
It will provide lasting protection for the Tamils from Sinhala aggression, removing the issue from India’s domestic politics.
To support Tamil self-rule is not a question of supporting the LTTE.
The Tigers are the vanguard of the contemporary Tamil struggle for self rule, but a self-governing Tamil entity will be a permanent fixture of the region’s political landscape.
And, as every Tamil leader – both in the island and in India – has attested, it will be an indispensable ally of India.
On urgent humanitarian grounds, in the wider interests of regional stability and in the longer term interests of her geopolitical interests, India must act to protect the Tamils from renewed Sinhala aggression.