July 16, 2020
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A Helpless Bystander

As the likely threats to Indian security from Sri Lanka continue, India drifts from one ad hoc response to another without any lucidity in strategic thinking and policy-making.

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A Helpless Bystander

Sri Lanka has been bleeding continuously ever since Mahinda Rajapakse took over as the President last November and immediately thereafter wriggled out of the commitment made to the Sri Lankan Tamils by his predecessors to find a solution to their political aspirations within a federal set-up.

He also allegedly closed his eyes to the covert use by the Army of the deserters from the LTTE headed by "Col" Karuna, a legendary commander from the Eastern Province, in order to weaken the LTTE in the Eastern Province .

Karuna and his men had raised the flag of revolt against Prabhakaran and the other members of the Northern leadership of the LTTE in March, 2004, after accusing them of discriminating against the Eastern Tamils. Even the dreaded efficiency and ruthlessness of the LTTE's intelligence set-up and its legendary covert action capabilities have not enabled it to neutralize so far the threat posed by Karuna.

Unable to counter effectively the depredations of Karuna's men, the LTTE has hit back repeatedly at the Sri Lankan Army and Navy through deniable actions as a reprisal for the acts of violence of Karuna's men. The recent attempt of the LTTE to have Lt.Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander, assassinated through a woman suicide bomber in Colombo and the retaliatory air strikes by the Sri Lankan Air Force on LTTE positions in the Eastern Province were a part of this unending chain of tit-for-tat attacks.

The resumed talks for strengthening the observance of the cease-fire by the two sides have reached a dead-end after the first round held at Geneva in February last under the sponsorship of Norway , the facilitator of the peace process. The second round, which should have been held in April, could not take place due to the failure of the two sides to reach an agreement on the LTTE's demand that its representatives in the Eastern Province should be allowed to travel to its headquarters in the Northern Province in its naval boat and not in a boat of the Sri Lankan Navy as suggested by the government. Various other alternatives proposed by the government and Norway have failed to break this deadlock.

As a result of the losses suffered by it due to the desertion of Karuna's men and the tsunami of December, 2004, the LTTE's capability for conventional military operations against the Sri Lankan Army has been weakened, but its covert action and naval capabilities remain as strong as ever and its intelligence set-up is as efficient as ever in its ability to collect intelligence about the government.

The ground situation in Sri Lanka is characterized by a state of de jure ceasefire and de facto fighting. Neither side wants to formally abrogate the ceasefire due to fears of adverse reaction from the international community. At the same time, neither side is prepared to observe the cease-fire strictly and refrain from violating it in order to hurt each other.

In addition to strengthening its maritime capability, the LTTE has reportedly acquired a capability for covert action from the air by acquiring one or more light aircraft from Europe and clandestinely transporting them to the area under its control in the Northern Province without being detected by the intelligence agencies of either India or Sri Lanka .

India gives the impression of being a helpless spectator of these events , with very little influence either on the Rajapakse government or the Tamils. Its failure to prevent Rajapakse from wriggling out of the commitments for a federal solution made by his predecessors with India 's blessing and encouragement has not gone well with the Tamils.

The divide between the Eastern and Northern Tamils gave India an opportunity to try to work towards a leadership change in the LTTE. India 's medium and long-term objective should be an LTTE without Prabhakaran and others involved in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. India failed to use the divide to its advantage.

The continuing strength of the LTTE Navy and its reported acquisition of a covert air action capability could bring to naught India 's efforts to make use of the oil storage tanks in Tricomallee hired by the Indian Oil Corporation for building a strategic reserve. India should never have allowed the LTTE to acquire a covert air action capability. The aircraft acquired by it should have been destroyed by intercepting the LTTE ship carrying them just as our Coast Guard had attacked a ship carrying arms and ammunition from Pakistan in 1993 in which Kittu was traveling.

Even under Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga one had seen how limited was India's ability to have its security concerns respected by the Sri Lankan government. This became evident when the Sri Lankan government approved the posting of a former Pakistani intelligence officer as Pakistan's High Commissioner in Colombo, without worrying about India's sensitivities.

The proposal for military co-operation between India and Sri Lanka might have strengthened India's influence with the Sri Lankan government and won the goodwill of the Sinhalese, but the implementation of the proposal has been held up due to opposition from the Tamil Nadu political parties supporting the Manmohan Singh government.

As the likely threats to Indian security from Sri Lanka continue, India drifts from one ad hoc response to another without any lucidity in strategic thinking and policy-making.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai.

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