It would be a mistake on India’s part to get involved in Sri Lanka’s internal strife, though the government’s domestic political compulsions for demonstrating some action are strong. Ethnic sympathies in Tamil Nadu run in favour of those fighting for a Tamil ‘homeland’ across the Palk Straits, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has seized the opportunity to try and win some brownie points by mounting pressure on the Centre to intervene. Since the DMK and its partners in the state are the most important allies of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance, the government can ill afford to ignore the threat of en masse resignations by the DMK’s MPs—though that should in fact be interpreted as a typical case of brinkmanship, with the threat being a substitute for real action. Whatever the case, the two heads of government have been in touch over the telephone, India has expressed its concerns about the fate of civilians in the conflict area, and now the external affairs minister is due to visit Colombo. It must be hoped that this amounts to little more than diplomatic posturing in order to satisfy the DMK, because it is far from clear that New Delhi is in a position to do anything substantive. It certainly would not want to intervene in the military fighting, or to extend a helping hand to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and is a banned organisation in India. Nor would the government want to repeat the history of the 1980s, when bands of Tamil militant groups found refuge and more in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu, indulging in drugs and armaments trade without let or hindrance. That being the case, all that can be offered is some advice to the Sri Lankan government to not let innocent Tamil civilians suffer in the conflict, and to offer humanitarian aid if needed.
What New Delhi would want, above all else, is a negotiated settlement of the problem in Sri Lanka. But after the unhappy experience with the Rajiv-Jayewardene accord, which offered the best deal that the island’s Tamils could have got but which was scuttled first by the LTTE’s Velupillai Prabhakaran and then buried by Mr Premadasa, India has been understandably unwilling to meddle any further in the island’s affairs. European interlocutors have tried more recently, but failed largely because of intransigence on the part of Mr Prabhakaran, who has used every cease-fire to prepare for a fresh round of conflict, and sued for truce every time he sensed the danger of losing out in the fighting. Sinhala opinion has hardened as a result. This time, too, as the Sri Lankan army has closed in on the LTTE’s base, the cry has gone out for saving the Tamil cause. While it is legitimate to argue that what has been an oppressed minority in Sri Lanka needs some degree of autonomous self-rule in the Tamil-dominated areas, New Delhi should primarily be concerned with making sure that desperate Tiger cadres do not cross the Palk Straits and set up base in India yet again, because that would suck this country back into a long-running conflict. Indeed, it is arguable that a negotiated settlement can work only if Mr Prabhakaran is no longer in control of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ destiny
6 months ago