February 20, 2020
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It's Somebody Else's War

Should New Delhi antagonise the Tamil parties, needle the LTTE and risk another IPKF?

It's Somebody Else's War

It’s a grave dilemma, amplified by an strong sense of deja vu, for Indian policymakers. The dramatic military gains made by the LTTE this month have forced Colombo to seek India’s intervention in its battle with the Tigers. New Delhi is now caught between its own desire to play the regional superpower and the painful memories of the heavy price it paid when its intervention on two earlier occasions went horribly wrong.

Also, the feedback is, should India intervene it would rub the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu-some of whom are in alliance with the BJP at the Centre-the wrong way. Then there is the spectre of the LTTE-the likelihood of it retaliating by spreading terror in Indian cities can’t be wished away. Besides, the IPKF fiasco of 1987 is still fresh in the minds of military strategists. Balking at these prospects, as of now, New Delhi has said there will be no direct intervention.

Obviously, there’s more to India’s hands-off stance than meets the eye. It stems from the fact that the LTTE won’t take kindly to any bid to subvert its victory. Its triple strategy of attacking military establishments, extending its terror to civilian areas and the ruthlessness with which it eliminates its enemies are well known. Ever since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the LTTE has been lying low in Tamil Nadu. The fear is, any provocation might lead to a bloody spillover in the southern state.

A senior state intelligence officer, who has monitored LTTE activities for two decades, says India would be importing terrorism if it exports its army to Sri Lanka. "The Tigers will never forgive India. Like they are bombing civilian centres in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka, they can unleash terror here. New Delhi must bear in mind that the Tamil territory of Sri Lanka is just 22 km away from India," he observes.

Then, the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK-all allies of the BJP-are strongly against Indian intervention in any form. "I’m convinced India must refrain from sending its army to Sri Lanka and from extending arms, ammunition and logistical support," says Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who feels sending forces to Sri Lanka is bound to harm Tamil Nadu. "In the past, we were badly hit by the same act," he contends. The composition of the NDA government is such that it can’t afford to antagonise the Dravidian parties.

Tamil Nadu parties have also cautioned the external affairs ministry against fishing in the troubled waters of Sri Lanka. "Some have argued that if India stays hands-off, that would pave the way for intervention by countries like Pakistan and China. Those countries might be a part of some move against the Tamils of Sri Lanka but India cannot and should not be responsible for any anti-Tamil action," says Karunanidhi.

More than this, it’s the LTTE’s track record of acting against all detractors that has weighed heavily on India’s thinking. The LTTE has so far managed to eliminate almost all it regarded as "traitors". Starting from TULF leaders Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran, the political figures it has assassinated include president Premadasa; UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake; defence minister Ranjan Wijeratne; and Rajiv Gandhi.

The killings, often executed by suicide squads, weren’t restricted to Sri Lanka-they extended to Tamil Nadu and even Europe. It has refrained from violent acts in India of late due to the backlash it suffered after the Rajiv killing. But LTTE sources say if India intervenes again, none can expect restraint from the Tigers. If it engages in a vigorous, targeted terror campaign in India, it would draw the Indian army across the breadth of the subcontinent, rendering our borders all the more vulnerable.

In fact, Indian intervention in Sri Lanka has never helped New Delhi. In 1971, India sent its military to counter the insurrection led by Rohana Wijeweera and his Sinhalese extremist organisation, Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP). It was with India’s help that Sri Lanka managed to avert the crisis. Despite this, during the Bangladesh war Sri Lanka did not back the Indian initiative.

Much before the 1983 ethnic carnage in Sri Lanka-which was the final spur for retaliatory Tamil extremism-India decided to "keep a check" on Colombo. It was in 1981 that New Delhi decided to help Tamil militants by providing them arms and training. By 1982, India was training five different armed groups, including the LTTE.

This support changed political equations in Sri Lanka forever. The moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), then the principal opposition party in Sri Lanka, lost its clout both at home and in India. Jayawardene’s UNP stripped the membership of MPs of TULF by enacting the Sixth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. In a sense, India’s role robbed Sri Lanka’s chances to settle its internal conflict through dialogue and within the parliamentary system.

In 1985, with Rajiv in power, India shifted gears from covert to overt involvement. The support for Tamil militancy reached new heights in Tamil Nadu. India’s geopolitical objectives were cleverly camouflaged under the "Tamil Nadu" factor. On May 14, 1985, the LTTE gunned down 146 Sinhalese civilians at Anuradhapura, a Buddhist site, forcing Colombo to take India’s political help.

The India-led tripartite meet at Thimpu failed to resolve the crisis but signalled the switch in India’s stance. For the first time, it was backing Colombo. It deported three leading Tamil negotiators, including LTTE’s political advisor Anton Balasingam, from India. For the first time, Tamil groups started suspecting New Delhi’s motives. The chain of events finally led to the Rajiv killing.

The biggest embarrassment came after the July 29, 1987, accord between Rajiv and J.R. Jayawardene. As a part of it, the Indian army was sent in as "peacekeepers" with the aim of disarming the LTTE. But it was sucked into the longest-drawn conflict post-Independence (October 1987 to March 1990). An officer who was part of the IPKF puts it in perspective: "We lost nearly 1,500 soldiers; we lost Rs 3,500 crore and we were forced into a humiliating withdrawal by Sri Lanka. Twice we fought their war. Now our northern borders need full attention. We can’t afford to fight somebody else’s war once again".

The feedback from the army is that forces shouldn’t be pushed into another misadventure. A senior officer says if the task of capturing Jaffna was entrusted to the army, it’d carry it out. But policing Jaffna and the northern jungles needs sustained presence in a terrain soldiers aren’t familiar with, among people who won’t take kindly to it.

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