Text of an interview through e-mail given by me to a Russian journal
(a) Sri Lanka is less developed than India because even though the percentage of literacy in Sri Lanka is high, it does not as yet have educational institutions of excellence like the Institutes of Technology in India. India has better human and material resources than Sri Lanka. The Indian economy is highly diversified. The Sri Lankan economy is still a three-item economy--tea, rubber and tourism.
(b) Its economy is dependent on tea, rubber and tourism. The main tea and rubber growing areas are in the South where the Sinhalese are in a majority and not in the North and the East where the Tamils are in a majority. The insurgency has, therefore, not badly affected these three items. Iran, Pakistan and China are funding its arms purchases. Teheran has been supplying oil at concessional prices and giving it cheap credit to enable it to pay for the arms purchases. Pakistan and China sell arms at concessional rates and provide low-interest credit to enable Sri Lanka to pay for them.
(c) India's interest in the island is partly emotional and partly strategic. The emotional interest arises from the fact that India has a large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu, a southern province, who have ethnically and linguistically much in common with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Any policies of the Government of Sri Lanka, which affect the Sri Lankan Tamils, have an echo in Tamil Nadu. Hence, the close Indian interest in the problems and the well-being of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Strategically, the Sri Lankan Government has been cultivating China and Pakistan to keep India in check. It has good political and economic relations with China. It has invited China to construct a modern port in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. It has invited the Chinese to help it in gas exploration in areas which are close to India. Similarly, there is a growing military-military relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which worries India.
(d) Indian aid is partly economic and partly military. The economic aid is in the form of cheap credit to enable Sri Lanka to import from India what it needs. India has been helping in gas exploration and has taken on lease the large number of oil storage tanks in Trincomallee in the Eastern Province, which were constructed by the British during the Second World War.India is hoping to play an important role in the economic development of the Tamil areas in the North and the East when the LTTE is defeated by the Sri Lankan Army. The military aid is in the form of supply of defensive equipment such as radars at concessional prices and training to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Police in India.
(e) The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa comes from a party (the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is left of centre and has been traditionally friendly to India. He has been warm to India and claims to be attentive to India's strategic interests. At the same time, he has been determined to crush the LTTE not only as a terrorist organisation, but also as a Tamil political movement with assistance from India, if possible, and from China and Pakistan, if necessary. Sensitivities of Tamil public opinion in Tamil Nadu have put limits on the kind of military assistance that India can give to Sri Lanka. He has tried to make up for this by seeking assistance from China and Pakistan and credit from Iran. Thus, the strategic space for India in Sri Lanka is slowly getting reduced due to the increasing presence of not only China, Pakistan and Iran, but also the US. In the past, India was concerned over the US presence in Sri Lanka. It is no longer so since Dr.Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister in 2004. He does not share the traditional concerns of India over the impact of the US presence in the Indian neighbourhood on the regional influence of India. As a result of the victories of the Sri Lankan Army, there has been an increase in Sinhalese pride and chauvinism. Just now, Rajapaksa has been asssuring India that once he crushes the LTTE, he would give to the Tamils a federal set-up which will satisfy their political aspirations. It is doubtful whether he would keep his word
In view of the increased influence of Sinhalese extremism on policy-making, he is likely to go back on his word and give the Tamils something less than what he had promised. It would have been in India's interest to help him in destroying the LTTE's capability for insurgency and terrorism, while at the same time preserving its potential and strength as a political movement which would safeguard the interests of the Tamils.
Of all the Tamil organisations in Sri Lanka, the LTTE was the most motivated. Many of its young cadres, who fought ferociously against the SL Army, joined it long after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. They had no role in his assassination. India should have made a distinction between those who had a role in his assassination and those who did not and tried to wean away the latter to India's side. It did not do so. It was a very short-sighted policy. Rajapaksa has skilfully and cunningly used Indian support and ambivalence to destroy not only the capability of the LTTE for terrorism , but also its potential and usefulness to India in future as a political strategic asset. Indian political class never understands the importance of identifying and preserving our strategic assets in the neighbourhood. Jawaharlal Nehru let go our strategic assets in Tibet. I.K.Gujral, who was the Prime Minister in 1997, unwisely and in a moment of misplaced generosity let go our strategic assets in Pakistan. Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, has let go our strategic assets in Nepal and Sri Lanka. It could be a great tragedy.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.