Long view from new Delhi

However earnest her intention to end the 17-year-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga´s strategy of "war for peace" has backfired. Armed with a huge mandate for peace, she devised a political-military strategy designed at the very least to break the military stalemate and offer the LTTE a credible and promising package. Two things went wrong. Her choice of delegates for peace talks—all of them Sinhalese—and the inordinate delay in presenting the devolution package to the LTTE. The result was that the LTTE broke off the talks and started the "third Eelam war".

The cornerstone of the military strategy up till then had been effective command over the Eastern Province including Trincomalee and selective control in the northern peninsula, where the LTTE held Jaffna town while the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) occupied military bases around the Palaly airport, Kankesanthuri and Point Pedro harbours, as well as maintained offshore island garrisons. Neither side contested the unspoken demarcation of territory, and it was a live-and-let-live situation.

The government´s response to the declaration of war by the LTTE was the "war for peace" strategy: altering the balance of power in the north by capturing Jaffna in December 1995 and extending government control over the whole peninsula for the first time since the Indian Peace-Keeping Force left in 1990. In other words, the LTTE were banished from their heartland. While the SLA kept capturing more ground in the north (and losing some in the east), it got overstretched and ran out of steam. In late 1999, after four years of regrouping in the jungles, a revitalised LTTE struck back with vengeance. In six days it captured the central Wanni sector, territory the SLA had taken 18 months to occupy. By now, the LTTE was no longer the ragtag guerrilla group of the past but a seasoned conventional army equipped for the first time with tanks, artillery, and a naval force of Sea Tigers, which has become the scourge of the government´s navy. And of course, the Tigers have their human bomber force.

In sharp contrast to the energetic LTTE, the SLA was demoralised and wracked by desertions, mutinies and collapse of command and leadership. The government ignored the military debacles until the inevitable happened last month: Elephant Pass was captured and the 17,000 strong garrison forced to withdraw to Jaffna. The wily Tigers had been nibbling at this fortress since last December, and this was their first gold medal in the war. This was also the single biggest military catastrophe for the government, for the fall of Elephant Pass opened the floodgates to Jaffna.

Tamil tsunami
It is a mystery why neither the Indian media nor the New Delhi government took serious notice of these "Unceasing Waves" (the LTTE code name for the war), which had the potential of engulfing India´s own southern flanks with its tsumani. The stormy events south of the Palk Straits found India wanting in anticipating and shaping its response to avert a crisis that was soon by its quayside. This sluggishness was obviously the result of the "hands-off Sri Lanka" policy, the about-turn by New Delhi after it burnt its fingers with the IPKF. Even the debate that did follow the LTTE´s juggernaut missed the woods for the trees. Revival of the debate that had swirled around the IPKF a decade ago clouded considerations of India´s national interest. Security of the state was subordinated to the security of the government at the Centre, dictated by partisan political compulsions.

With the LTTE—a banned "terrorist" organisation in Sri Lanka, India, the United States and Malaysia—marching inexorably towards Jaffna, some Tamil allies of the BJP government openly supported secession, creation of an independent Eelam, and military help for LTTE. Quite unmindful were they of what this would do to India´s brave stand on secessionist tendencies and terrorism used for that purpose.

As for Colombo, when the war between 1995 and 1998 was going well for it, India´s noninterference was loftily lauded. But now, with the serious reverses, it has rushed to New Delhi for help. India´s official response to this most serious politico-military crisis was forced when the convalescing Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, after meeting the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on 3 May, blurted out to the waiting media that he had made a request for Indian help, which was under consideration. It is widely thought this request pertained to military (read ´humanitarian´) assistance in the contingency the SLA had to be evacuated from Jaffna.

In 1971, 1984, 1987 and at least once in the 1990s, Sri Lanka sought and was given military assistance (except in 1994). Foreign Minister Kadirgamar committed the first mistake by going public about this most recent request, and this seriously curtailed India´s flexibility of response and made it incumbent on New Delhi to explain how far it was prepared to go. In both his initial statements to the press and in Parliament, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh avoided specifics but confirmed Sri Lanka had made some requests, which were being given urgent consideration. Singh made no reference to Eelam. Singh said that Norwegian mediation was not workable, and his only positive offer to Sri Lanka was regarding humanitarian assistance, details of which remained undisclosed.

The sum and substance of policy statements and utterances from New Delhi could therefore be clubbed under four Nos:

  • No military intervention.
  • No military assistance.
  • No mediation unless both sides request(and the LTTE never would).
  • No Eelam.

India´s silence on the need for an immediate start of negotiations and end to the fighting is both uncharacteristic and surprising. As the battle for Jaffna rages, refugees have started pouring into Tamil Nadu. LTTE cadres have infiltrated Jaffna town and the peninsula will soon be bristling with them, and there is bound to be spillover northward across the straits. This twin threat—refugees and LTTE—has the potential of reviving the mayhem seen in the 1980s and 1990s in Tamil Nadu, no matter how faint the pro-LTTE factor after Rajiv Gandhi´s assassination.

There is hardly anyone (except Sri Lanka) who wants India to revisit the IPKF route. But all this for the wrong reason: they believe- that the IPKF blundered and the intervention (which, remember, was at the invitation of Sri Lanka) failed. Truth be told, the IPKF was not permitted to complete its task because India´s coercive diplomacy proved ineffectual. At the time, there were strong geo-strategic reasons, which do not obtain now, for India to follow a proactive policy.

But short of sending Indian soldiers, ruling out military assistance as a policy option was unwise given the LTTE´s blitzkrieg in the last six months and India having zero leverage over it.

From official pronouncements and loud thinking, one can cull two unarticulated strategies on the part of New Delhi. First, is the need for restoring a military situation that is amenable for the two sides to move to the negotiating table. But what one can gather is that there is a belief that the fall of Jaffna town will not break up Sri Lanka—the town was after all with the LTTE in 1995. What this mindset forgets is the fact that today, it would be Jaffna plus Elephant Pass and other key bases in the hands of the LTTE.

The second strategy, and more dangerous, is that the idea of Eelam may not be so bad, and it may not trigger off a greater Eelam roping in Southern India. There is no doubt that this kind of ´Brahmanical´ assessment emanates from Tamil leaders at the state and the Centre. To begin with, this kind of thinking overlooks completely the effect Eelam had on the integrity and unity of Sri Lanka. The biggest imponderable here, of course, is the limits to the military and geographical ambitions of the LTTE and its leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. It is vitally important not only for Sri Lanka, but for India, that Eelam be written off here and now as both unachievable and unsustainable.

Lankan Dien Bien Phu
That having been said, India cannot shy away from its responsibility in reconciling Sri Lanka´s unity with the just aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. New Delhi sometimes gets carried away with the argument that the ethnic conflict is an internal affair of Sri Lanka, which is where the contradiction surfaces between national and political interests.

LTTE is the world´s premier terrorist force, now organised like a conventional army. It is known to be assisting various no-holds-barred terrorist groups in the Subcontinent, and even to this day maintains an elaborate network of agents in Tamil Nadu. Within Sri Lanka, the Tigers have wiped out all their Tamil opponents in the quest to being the sole representative of the Tamils there. India cannot be seen to be associated with an internationally banned group.

As of this writing, Jaffna remains a powder keg. The question is: what after Jaffna´s inevitable fall? Will Prabhakaran accept the ceasefire offered by Kumaratunga? Or will he go for Palaly air base and the two harbours? It would seem that the LTTE will try to take the airport and the harbours as these constitute the infrastructural ingredients for Eelam. But does the LTTE have the military capacity to take on 30,000 soldiers holed up in fortress defences? The answers to these questions will be available only when the events reveal themselves on the ground. The key to understanding the impasse is the correct assessment of the military capabilities of the two sides.

After Kadirgamar made the first mistake by going public over his plea for help, Kumaratunga may have made the second by rejecting the LTTE offer of a ceasefire, safe passage and talks just before the battle for Jaffna was joined. She may have been able to cut her losses and negotiate a more honourable ceasefire, but she chose to take a gamble despite the fact her army´s spirit was broken. A fresh consignment of military hardware may not be enough to shore up the morale of the SLA regulars.

The last ditch battle in the Third Eelam War will be fought around Palaly, already under artillery attack. Unless the Tigers call it a day at Jaffna, which is unlikely, Palaly could turn out to be Sri Lanka´s Dien Bien Phu, the historic 1954 battle which ended French colonial rule in Vietnam. If that happens, some Sinhalese are talking about a scorched earth policy and doing a Chechnya or a Kosovo on Jaffna. Which would only mean the ethnic war would go on for another 20 years.

There is possibly one way out of the disaster: for Kumaratunga to give Jaffna to the LTTE in return for ceasefire and talks. The equation will change if Jaffna is lost to the LTTE. This is the most acceptable ground situation to restore a balance of power favourable to the LTTE (and yet not dishonourable for the SLA), from where it can proceed for talks from a position of relative strength. The inevitable hitch in the heat of battle will be bringing sanity to the LTTE and its inexorable focus on a zero-sum outcome.

This is where India would come in, requiring not just its Tamil and RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) connections to get the LTTE to come sit across the table, but using its effort to bring all the weight of international diplomatic pressure to be also brought on the Tigers. The outlines of a strong and sincere devolution package will be a prerequisite for this process. Unfortunately, New Delhi seems unwilling to dip into the quagmire, and so this way to a solution too is still-born.

The last hope for rescuing Sri Lanka from harakiri must lie with Lord Kadirgamar, who is worshipped both by Tamils and Sinhalese.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian