It wasn't quite the ceasefire the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or its supporters were hoping for. On Monday, April 27, the Sri Lankan government announced it was ending its combat operations against the Tigers. Decoded, it meant the Lankan troops would not employ heavy-calibre guns and bombers as they circled in on the tiny patch of northern coast the LTTE cadres were bottled in. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's office clarified that the troops would now be engaged in rescuing and saving the 20,000-odd Tamil civilians living in the the LTTE-held territory, shrinking rapidly with every passing day and measuring just 6 sq km at the time of writing.
Scepticism about Rajapakse's commitment apart, few disagree that he made the announcement because of the mounting international pressure and neighbour India's direct intervention in the impending human crisis. Heavy weaponry in the final assault, it was pointed out, could lead to a veritable massacre—unacceptable to India, both because of the sheer inhumanity of it and, no doubt, considering the electoral implications. It prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to despatch, on April 24, national security advisor M.K. Narayanan and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon to hold talks with Rajapakse in Colombo. Sources privy to this meeting say the Indians made it amply clear to Rajapakse that rising civilian casualties were "totally not acceptable".
The April 27 announcement, thus, got Indian officials expressing some satisfaction. "We have managed to get more than a pause in the ongoing war," a senior Indian diplomat said. Officials say no strong-arm tactics were employed to persuade Rajapakse to end the combat operations. Instead, they pointed out to him that a delay of a few days in achieving complete victory over the LTTE could help save thousands. Basically, an unconscionable death toll would have lost Colombo the world's tacit approval for the war.
In Colombo, though, the meeting was perceived as yet another attempt by India to force a truce between the army and the Tigers. This sentiment was portrayed best in a weekend newspaper headline—'India Trips Lanka at Winning Post'. Rajapakse's brother and defence secretary Gotabaya dismissed such speculation with his usual bluster: "That (ceasefire) is a joke. What's the need for a ceasefire when they (LTTE) are running away?"
It has taken the Sri Lankan government months to accept the necessity of saving civilians. Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee had harped on this aspect on his visit to the island two months ago. An estimated 6,500 civilians have died since January, a figure perhaps on the lower side considering Colombo's refusal to allow most independent observers into the battle-ravaged zones.
So what then prompted a pricking of Colombo's conscience, particularly as Indian officials refrained from tough talk during parleys with the president? In diplomacy, it's said, what is left unsaid has as much significance as what is spelt out. Colombo realised a battlefield bloodbath could have a severe impact in Tamil Nadu, which goes to elections on May 13. To limit the damage to the UPA alliance, would Delhi become adventurous? Worrying signals had already started emanating from Tamil Nadu. Apart from chief minister M. Karunanidhi, who has never shied away from paying lip service to the Tamil Eelam cause, his bete noire, J. Jayalalitha, had in a remarkable turnaround became shrill in her opposition to the Lankan military operation.
The DMK's increasing restlessness saw Congress president Sonia Gandhi calling off an election campaign rally in Bihar's Samastipur and convening a brainstorming session of senior party leaders in Delhi on April 23. At the meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it was decided that a statement would be issued calling for all steps to ensure the safety of innocent Tamilians caught in the war zone in Sri Lanka; and also to send Narayanan and Menon to Colombo. "We have always told the Sri Lankan government that there's a certain threshold about the plight of the Tamil civilians that should never be crossed," says a senior foreign ministry official. He claims the fast-paced developments in the island were threatening to "cross that threshold".
Rajapakse meeting with foreign secretary Menon (left), NSA Narayanan on Apr 24
Both Menon and Narayanan, sources say, discussed with Rajapakse the war's impact in TN, and its significance for New Delhi. Pointing out that it would be difficult for the UPA government to maintain silence in the face of high civilian casualties, they advised Rajapakse not to use heavy weaponry which, apart from the negative imagery, could directly contribute to a high death toll. Since the Lankan army had already managed to create a breach in the LTTE positions (through which civilians had begun to escape), a lull in the war, the Indian officials pointed out, would only help expedite the exodus. "President Rajapakse saw the logic and agreed to halt the combat operations," says an Indian official.
To ease the pain, the Indian government has already announced Rs 100 crore as humanitarian relief assistance. Large quantities of food packets, shelter material and medicines have been rushed to areas where the internally displaced persons (IDP), as the fleeing Tamil civilians are being called, have been camped. India has already sent over 62 doctors and paramedical teams and is busy preparing emergency hospitals for the affected people.
But will all these measures assuage the feeling of hurt among the people of Tamil Nadu? "Better late than never," V. Suryanarayan of the Chennai-based Asia Center told Outlook, though he felt India could have moved in a little earlier. "If India had put the pressure on the Sri Lankan government one month back, perhaps the lives of many innocent civilians could have been saved."
Others accuse India of betraying the Tamil cause. "For a country aspiring to become a power centre, India should have done more," political commentator M.S.S. Pandian says. He rubbishes talk of India's limited influence over Colombo. "It could have taken the initiative of building pressure on Sri Lanka with the international community. Even if it had failed, people would have known that India had tried to do something." Pandian also feels Delhi was wrong to dub the protests against the army operations as pro-LTTE. "Many of those who have taken to the streets have strong reservations about the LTTE. Their protest is against the plight of innocent civilians in Sri Lanka...it shouldn't be equated with sentiments for the Tamil Tigers."
Delhi has always had a problem in distinguishing the Tigers from the innocent Tamil civilians. It's true that in pockets of Sri Lanka the two often merge; particularly so now as the civilians flee. "It's not a dinner party going on there," scoffs a senior Indian diplomat. Opinion in South Block has always been divided over the stand Delhi should take vis-a-vis the Lankan war against the Tigers. The leadership would be eager to see the demise of LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran, wanted in India for the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Simultaneously, though, it's aware of the wide support in the country for the legitimate rights of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Again, it wants to limit civilian casualties—and yet doesn't want to undermine the effort to destroy the LTTE.
These contradictory pulls on South Block have had New Delhi devising a four-step approach—provide time to those trapped in the war zone to escape, extend relief to the IDP, seek their rehabilitation, and then push for a political solution to decisively end the decades-long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka.
Worryingly, many feel Rajapakse is likely to resume combat operations sooner than later. "I doubt very much that the government will change tack and go for a pause right now, especially when the international calls have been limited to statements," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based think-tank, Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Outlook. He points out that Rajapakse would take his party's victory in an important provisional election over the last weekend "as validation of the government's policies". For the UPA, one big hope would be that no major disasters take place before the Lok Sabha elections end on May 13.
By Pranay Sharma with Amantha Perera in Colombo