In the last 15 years of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been prisoners of their militarised, brutalised and violence-driven pursuit for a separate homeland. But the LTTE has no less effectively trapped the governments of Sri Lanka and India, with both being hard put to either tame the Tigers or bring them to the negotiating table on their terms. As the situation unfolds on the ground in the Jaffna peninsula, there is no wishing away the fact that the Colombo government will have to sue for peace. There are compulsions for Chandrika Kumaratunga to create conditions that enable her government to resume the process of talks towards a negotiated settlement. In all this, India´s role as facilitator´s facilitator will be critical.
Internationally, Colombo is coming under increasing pressure to settle with the Tamils and recognise their right to an autonomous homeland within the framework of a Sri Lanka where they and their language have equal and non-discriminatory rights. From the United States to the European Union and from NATO to New Delhi, there is now a conviction that this is an unwinnable war which must be ended through negotiations. It was an expression of this growing worldwide concern that British minister Liam Fox brokered an accord between Chandrika´s People´s Alliance and the opposition United National Party of Ranil Wickremesinghe on a bipartisan approach for ending the ethnic war.
Although that accord collapsed, there have been other international efforts with both New Delhi and Washington persisting in pressing for revival of the peace process. France gave up after a peripheral attempt at mediation, and it took some time before the Norwegians decided to take up the challenge at the behest of the US. Not only is Norway an important member of NATO and a dependable US ally, it wears an internationally acceptable pacifist face and has a track record of brokering peace accords, the latest and most notable one being in West Asia. The arrival of Norway as facilitator, with political changes at home not in any way affecting the direction of the initiative, marks a major departure.
Norway´s facilitation is acceptable to New Delhi because it expects to be kept informed of developments at every stage. Norway is also acceptable to both Colombo and the Tigers. While it is one with the world community in accepting the designation of the LTTE as a “terrorist organisation”, Norway has proved hospitable to Sri Lankan Tamils, including refugees, and has built an excellent rapport with Tamils some of whom have trusted lines of communication to the LTTE.
New Delhi is without doubt the most important “international” point of reference on the Sri Lankan crisis, and if Norway and others have been enabled to proceed thus far it is because of the Indian government´s acquiescence. There is no need for South Block to point out that anything unacceptable to it can and will be torpedoed—this is understood and accepted in Colombo and other capitals.
Though it may be politically incorrect to say so, Sri Lanka does fall within India´s sphere of influence and any rapprochement process not sensitive to New Delhi´s concerns has little chance of success. While India´s stance on the crisis may evolve as developments unfold, one constant is that South Block´s sensibilities cannot be trifled with if Colombo wants a lasting solution.
One surprise development preceding Colombo´s SOS to New Delhi and other capitals was the radical Buddhist clergy meeting the Indian high commissioner in Colombo and seeking Indian military and other assistance to end the conflict. Such a request implied that Indian intervention would of necessity have to be on the side of the Sri Lankan and Buddhist establishment to crush the Tamil rebels. This was the same Buddhist clergy that had uncompromisingly opposed Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and some of whose monks had threatened self-immolation against Indian presence on the island.
As far as the Sri Lankan approach to Pakistan for support is concerned, used cynically to motivate New Delhi to involve itself more deeply, there was no way Islamabad would have got sucked into the mire. In fact, Pakistan is not in any position to come to Colombo´s assistance, given its economic situation and the over-stretching of its men, resources, materials and weapons from Afghanistan to the borders of Jammu and Kashmir.
Fortunately, use of the Pakistan card did not push New Delhi any further than it intended to go, or was pragmatic for it to go. Given the experience of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, obviously India could not even afford to even think in terms of sending troops. Supply of arms also had to be officially ruled out because it would go to the Sri Lankan army for use against Tamils, which would have been something explosive in Tamil Nadu. Besides, any overt action in favour of Colombo would have led to a revival and strengthening of political links between Tamil groups and Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
New Delhi is of course aware that it alone can lean on both the Kumaratunga government and the Tamil Tigers to proceed to negotiations—one way towards a solution is to keep pushing for talks and de-emphasising the military aspect of the confrontation. The Indian government can enable and facilitate third country “intervention” or “mediation” without actually getting sucked into the conflict itself. It has indeed managed to work itself into such a position, and this is well reflected in the stated position of New Delhi: the Indian army will keep out; attempts for a peaceful resolution of the conflict must be pursued; the unity, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka must be maintained; the welfare of Tamils and their demand for Eelam must be kept “in mind”; and that all minority interests have to be safeguarded. All this is also being scrupulously mindful of sentiments of regional parties in Tamil Nadu, which are prone to fly off the handle at the slightest excuse.
Thus far, the Indian government has handled itself well in the evolving crisis in Sri Lanka—in terms of tackling the overzealousness of Tamil Nadu allies; activating Washington and letting Colombo to develop a new equation with an Israel which is willing to assist the Kumaratunga government; working quietly behind the scene for international facilitation; allowing the Norwegians to feel that they have a free hand as facilitators; and making both allies and the opposition in Delhi feel that they have been brought into the picture. As matters unfold, New Delhi should should remain the facilitator of facilitators, combining diplomatic activism with political dexterity, where its power and influence are felt and seen, but not exercised in a way that would claim more costs than were paid during the misadventure of 1987-90.