February 19, 2020
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Remember 1987!

Whatever its compulsions, India has to tread very carefully

Remember 1987!

The panic signals emanating from Colombo after losing Elephant Pass to the LTTE are somewhat incomprehensible. It’s a causeway over the Jaffna lagoon along the Colombo-Vavuniya-Killinochi-Jaffna Road, a supply route the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has never been able to use as it was unable to wrest control of the 80-km stretch between Vavuniya and Killinochi. The 40,000-strong SLA force was inducted into the Jaffna peninsula four years ago by sea through Kankesanthurai port, 12 km north of the town, with smaller numbers airlifted to Jaffna airfield, 8 km north, and have been sustained by the same route. So, the outcry that SLA forces have been cut off from the mainland doesn’t make sense as they were never connected in the first place. The strength of SLA troops in Jaffna is three times more than what’s needed to defend the part under their control, then why the panic? Unless something’s been kept away from public knowledge, like the total collapse of the military’s morale and danger of its disintegration, or a justification to seek military involvement from outside the region which India’s always been wary of. If it’s the former, then the conflict’s reached a decisive stage and a far greater danger looms because instead of attacking and capturing Jaffna town, the LTTE may decide to just surround it and capture the airfield and Kankesanthurai port, both of which are directly approachable from Vadamarachi, 9 km east, incidentally Prabhakaran’s hometown. Such a move could result in total capitulation of the forces and large quantity of arms and equipment falling into LTTE’s hands.

Sri Lanka’s the intersection of India’s domestic, foreign and defence policies. Domestic policy compulsions require that the legitimate rights of Sri Lanka’s three million Tamils are safeguarded; they being ethnic Indians it’s also a moral responsibility. Our foreign policy dynamics demand we support Sri Lanka as we’re committed to its unity, integrity and sovereignty. The defence imperative is that Trincomalee, which has strategic implications for our sealanes and maritime trade routes, must not be controlled by any party inimical to India. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is at a "stage when the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka is threatened and it has asked for India’s assistance as a saarc member and close friend". It has a feel of deja vu. Previously when on the same basis India intervened in 1987, the IPKF fought an intensive campaign for a year to bring north and east Sri Lanka under control, supervised three successful elections and got a popularly-elected Tamil provincial government in place by October 1988. With this the IPKF had completed its mission; India had met its full obligations under the accord. The IPKF was then kept there for the next year-and-a-half waiting for the Lankan government to honour its part of the obligations: devolution of power. Not only did the government renege on its commitment and demanded IPKF’s recall, it also colluded with the LTTE, supplied it with arms which were used against Indian soldiers. Some 1,200 lives were lost and some 3,500 were wounded.

By 1988, the IPKF had completed its mission. It was the Lankan government that reneged on its commitments.

For the Indian government today, whose constituent parties in the 1989 general election had their manifestos opposing our involvement in Sri Lanka and called for IPKF withdrawal, the Lankan request is ‘political dynamite’. Military involvement is not an option; apart from the political embarrassment, sending the army back in again has a ‘credibility of policy’ implication. The decision to offer humanitarian assistance is the right response. In the event Sri Lanka’s unable to manage the situation and looks to the West for military intervention (which it’s been inclined to in the past) it would imply having a foreign military presence in our backyard with its own agenda. Our government has a difficult task ahead-it’s a tightrope walk between its domestic, foreign and defence compulsions.

(Lt Gen A.S. Kalkat commanded the IPKF in Sri Lanka.)

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