Messing with Sri Lanka

It was the early 1980s when, as I recall, Anton Balasingham, “foreign minister” of the “Tamil Eelam” walked into my office, and vehemently protested a piece I had written warning of the dangers of being sucked into the Sri Lankan civil strife that was soon to morph into a full-fledged civil war with not little help from India. The Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres were trained by the Indian external intelligence agency, RAW, in guerrilla tactics, including demolitions, and in setting up a covert logistics chain. The Jaffna Tamils proved a highly motivated lot and clearly good pupils. Indeed, they attained proficiency so quickly that, in short order, this militant group emerged as the finest, most dreaded guerrilla force, and its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as possibly the most brilliant tactician, effective strategist, and ruthless contemporary exponent of guerilla warfare in recent times. He expeditiously despatched budding competition within the Tamil rebel ranks, managed overseas supply of arms and ammunition for his forces, drove the Sri Lankan army into the ground, and ran circles around the Indian Peace Keeping Force after it entered the fray in 1987.

Besides his battlefield acumen and exploits, Prabhakaran’s leadership and motivational skills were such that there was never any shortage of Jaffna youth willingly donning explosive jackets, sharing farewell meals with the Jefe Maximo (supreme leader), and embarking on suicide missions to create unimaginable mayhem in Sinhala strongholds. In fact, so remarkable was Prabhakaran’s hold on, and leadership of, the LTTE that it neutralised the Indian Army contingent sent on coercive “peace making” at the “invitation” of that old fox, Sri Lanka President J. R. Jayawardene. India was thus hoist with the contingent containment of LTTE, a force the Indian government with its usual strategic myopia, had empowered. In other words, Colombo tasked the Indian Dr. Frankenstein to slay the monster he had created.

Predictably, the IPKF failed despite deploying helicopter gunships and tanks to assist the 80,000-strong force comprising four army divisions. The Indian Army, that had barely got the handle on insurgencies in the northeast by then, was pitchforked into an alien milieu where friends were foes, and there was no consensus about what to do or how to do it.

It lost more men — some 1,200 in operations than in any other single conflict since Independence. One can understand why the Sri Lanka Army, facing so formidable an adversary, prosecuted its actions in the final phase with such extreme prejudice.

I elaborated for Balasingham the arguments I had made against an Indian role in stoking separatist sentiments and helping the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, or any other adjoining state — which case holds to this day. Politically, I said it was dangerous for India — itself a patch-work of different sub-nationalities, to encourage the fissiparous tendencies within neighbouring countries in a region of overlapping ethnicities and loyalties, because that would legitimate similar foreign attempts at balkanising India, and that such involvement would inevitably draw the Indian military into the actual fighting. Once that happened, I told him, it would be a disaster for the Indian armed forces because, as per historical experience, embroilment in civil strife usually bodes ill for the intervening foreign entity. Besides risking life and limb of Indian soldiers, it would, I ventured, tar the reputation of the Indian Army and, worse, end up seeding lasting ill-will in a previously friendly country. Unhappily, all these came to pass. Balasingham, however, remained unconvinced, maintaining that India could not “wash its hands” off the Eelam, or “disown its blood ties” with the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Indian armed intervention combining with the pro-consular attitude of the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo at the time, J.N. Dixit, moreover, left a deeply negative impress in Colombo, generating enduring resentment of India that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has mined to consolidate his rule in that country. It fuelled the Sri Lankan policy in the last decade of actively courting China which, beyond Humbantota, may soon fetch Beijing an oil tank farm and a naval presence in Trincomalee, a deep water port Nelson called the finest in the Indian Ocean.

Fortunately, the Indian government is now determined to go only so far in placating popular sentiments in Tamil Nadu, whence the half-hearted attempt in Geneva to introduce the word “genocide” into the UN Human Rights resolution targeting Sri Lanka but only after first alerting Colombo lest this move be perceived as other than a cursory bow to domestic politics. It was followed by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid rejecting outright the main planks of the resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly — moving a resolution in the UN for a referendum on the Eelam in Sri Lanka, treating that country as unfriendly, and imposing economic sanctions on it.

What is incomprehensible is not that the recent events reinforce the reality of Tamil Nadu state politics adversely impacting bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Colombo is familiar with New Delhi’s predicament on this score. Nor is it particularly surprising that the opposition DMK withdrew its support to the UPA coalition government headed by Manmohan Singh, and together with the ruling AIADMK and other Tamil parties is engaged in competitive pandering to the street sentiments. This has involved actions ranging from petty (disrupting sports ties) to vicious (not discouraging assaults on visiting Sri Lankan Buddhist monks) to foolish (demanding the arrest of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, Prasad Kariyawasam, for his factual statement that the Sinhalese too are ethnically of Orissa Indian stock). But that the calm, calculating, and sure-footed AIADMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, who has a better shot at the prime ministership if a Third Front materialises after the 2014 general elections than, say, the blustery Hindi-heartland hankerer for the job Mulayam Singh, has foreign policy-wise made a mistake. Sympathetic noises supportive of the Tamil community across the Palk Strait is one thing. Going the extra steps to reinforce fear in the minds of the Sri Lankan people can, however, become a liability for a prospective PM.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ April 5, 2013 at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Geopolitics, guerilla warfare, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Internal Security, South Asia, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Messing with Sri Lanka

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Well said and kudos for that. The sad fact of the Indian democratic system is that regional leaders, who have only a faint hope in hell to ever rise to the national scene in positions of accountability, have the power to muddy the external environment for petty regional gains. Everyone of them from the sure- footed Amma to the blustering Didi, the suave Sheikh scion to the rustic Badal and the magniloquent NaMo to the foot- in- the-mouth … many to wit, have indulged in regional brinkmanship, some time or the other, to the absolute exclusion of any foreign policy considerations. And they have become more the stronger for their efforts. To be sure, the folks at the national level have also blundered along on many a occasion, but then they were always answerable to the hindsight that benefitted retrospection. There’s little to be achieved by sermonising to these regional satraps, or to their blinkered following………they understand all too well, perhaps better, the limits of their appeal and the power of this limitation in all the glorious diversity of our country and the absurdity of our system, as it has unfortunately become. So what’s the way out…….or is there any? Surely, if a certain dim- witted megalomaniac of the serial- fasting variety can write books suggesting systemic changes, our academia can do better! Sir, is there a way around, or are we forever condemned, in the era of coalition dharma, regional can- do strongmen notwithstanding, to suffer the fate of the frog in the warming water?

  2. While I understand your intention of saying “Politically, I said it was dangerous for India itself a patch-work of different sub-nationalities” as a sarcastic way to highlight fissiparous tendencies within some groups. But I dont quite agree with your assertion that India is a patch-work of sub-nationalities. Such statements only play into the hands of people who want to create trouble. We are civilizationaly one people. In fact all the people of subcontinent are historically one civilization.

  3. No argument about the civilizational one-ness of South Asia.

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