February 16, 2020
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Peril From Sri Lanka

LTTE's victory will lend it more appeal in Tamil Nadu, where it will spark off a separatist anti-Indian movement.

Peril From Sri Lanka

The government’s public response to the crisis in Sri Lanka is precisely the correct one to have made. Not only would it have been sheer folly for India to send troops once more to Sri Lanka, even had there been an explicit request from Colombo, but such an action would in all probability have backfired on Mrs Kumaratunga’s government by recreating the nexus that had existed between extreme Sinhala nationalists of the jvp and the ltte. That does not, of course, mean that the government cannot offer Colombo other kinds of help.

The key question that New Delhi faces is "what kind of help"? In public, the government has committed itself unstintingly to humanitarian help. In private briefings to selected journalists, Jaswant Singh has made it clear that Delhi will consider requests for arms and ammunition and logistical support. Unsourced reports from army headquarters suggest that India might consider supplying helicopter gunships, mortars and artillery.

The fact that the chief of air staff has flown to Colombo suggests that New Delhi may be willing to do even more.

The grim truth is that even this level of help may not prove sufficient to stem the ltte tide. If India is serious about doing so, then it may well have to take one long additional step. That is to strafe the ltte in order to disperse its forces, slow down its advance, possibly destroy some of the new heavy weapons that it has acquired from bankrupt east European countries, and above all, boost the morale of the 25,000 to 35,000 Sri Lankan soldiers now trapped north of Elephant Pass.

For let no one be in any doubt whatever that without some dramatic show of strength in their favour, the Sri Lankan army in the north will not be able to stem the ltte wave. These soldiers have been sitting inside static defensive perimeters for years never knowing when the next ltte attack will come, where they will be ambushed, or when their jeep, armoured personnel carrier or tank will be blown up by an improvised explosive device.

When the attack has finally come, they have found themselves facing terrifying new weapons for which they have no answer. So they have broken and run towards Jaffna. But the further they run, the deeper they find themselves inside a trap. If the ltte is not halted soon, demoralisation will turn into panic.

In proposing aerial intervention, I am not suggesting that India should get permanently involved in the war, even if only from the air. The bombing must be of limited duration and have a single specific objective - to raise the morale of the Sri Lankan soldiers and give Colombo time to bring new battalions, aircraft, and other weapons to bear on the war in Jaffna. Once that is achieved, India’s direct intervention should end.

Many readers, and not a few international relations pundits, will be horrified by my hawkish posture. And not a few will condemn my callous advocacy of the snuffing out of a freedom movement among Tamils who had been reduced earlier by the Sinhalas to second class status. Others might warn me that attacking the ltte could spark separatist sentiments among some sections in Tamil Nadu. Hasn’t mdmk’s Vaiko made precisely this veiled threat?

I would be the first person to concede that even limited aerial intervention is not without risk. But this risk is far, far outweighed by those of sitting idly by. I first learned what those could be in March 1991, and my mentor was none other than the Sri Lankan plantation Tamil leader, the late Thondaman. "Eelam is inevitable," he told me. "It can’t be stopped." I thought he was referring to Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, but he soon disabused me. "Eelam will consist of a single nation made up of the north and northeast of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu".

Thondaman, who was no lover of the ltte, was equally explicit about how it would happen. In his view, the ltte could not be defeated. A war-weary government in Colombo would, therefore, decide one day that it was cheaper to cut its losses than to carry on fighting. The victory would create a desperately poor state with absolutely no resources and therefore no option but to look north towards resource-rich Tamil Nadu.

IN Tamil Nadu, the victory would create a halo around the ltte and release a volcano of Tamil nationalist sentiment, especially among the impressionable youth of the state. These would become the ltte’s soldiers in the war of liberation against India. The long parallel coastlines of north-western Sri Lanka and south-eastern Tamil Nadu will make it easy to use Jaffna as a sanctuary for operating against the security forces in Tamil Nadu. And the ltte will put the methods of terror and extortion it has perfected for raising foreign exchange from rich Sri Lankan Tamils and force all Tamils abroad to contribute to the cause of Eelam. It will be Kosovo and the ethnic Albanian diaspora all over again.

Thondaman was not to know in 1991 how liberalisation would shrink the growth of employment opportunities, widen income gaps and swell the ranks of the unemployed, educated youth. Nor did he live long enough to see the birth in Tamil Nadu of the Tamil National Renewal Army, which is linked closely to the ltte. But he was fully aware of the other elements that could be galvanised in the cause of Eelam. The old separatist Dravida Kazhagam is dormant but not quite dead. And given their origins within the DK, both the dmk and aiadmk would be reluctant to support the Centre in putting down Tamil separatism. Tamil Nadu could easily become another Punjab. What a heaven-sent opportunity that would create for the isi and for Pakistan!

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