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Time to Cross the Adam's Bridge Again

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 18, 2007

    A recent survey by a Colombo-based agency on the peace process revealed that a majority of Sri Lankans prefers India as a peace facilitator rather than the Norwegians. According to the report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, over 52.5 per cent of Sinhalese and 82 per cent of upcountry Tamils voted for an Indian involvement in the peace process. In recent years, the mood has shifted across Sri Lanka with major parties to the conflict instilling a newfound faith on New Delhi as the ideal arbitrator for the peace process. For the first time since the IPKF debacle and Rajiv Gandhi assassination, all prominent actors, barring some hardliner groups, are in favour of a progressive Indian involvement. If this could be seen as appreciation of India's largely dormant and neutral involvement in the conflict after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, it could also be attributed to India's declared support for a federal solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

    At the other end, a vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils look towards India for succour when hostilities break out in the North and East. In recent years, a section of the Tamil population, especially in the South, had assimilated with the Sinhalese and distanced itself from the Eelam movement after years of economic deprivation. The split in the LTTE and the emergence of the Karuna faction has made dynamic transformations in the conflict with predictions of massive depletions in the LTTE force levels. Though India maintains a stoic aloofness from the LTTE, statements of repentance made by the LTTE leadership over Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and their attempts at rapprochement have created a new dimension to the conflict. While the Tigers are yet to make any formal proposal for reconciliation with New Delhi, it is amply clear that they would prefer India to have a proactive presence than allowing Western powers to get involved.

    Sustained clashes in the North and East, and the LTTE's retribution through suicide attacks in the South in recent months as a response to the military offensive have created a certain urgency for external interference to tackle possibilities of a major refugee exodus from the Northern areas. Though there seems to be a temporary lull in the fighting after talks between the government and the Tigers, and the death of LTTE ideologue, Anton Balasingham, a full-fledged war might break out any time. With the 2002 ceasefire agreement no longer in vogue and the war proclamation by LTTE leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the region should be prepared for a major humanitarian crisis as the Tigers prepare for a 'final war' and the Sri Lankan Army readies for a total military subjugation of the LTTE. In fact, the trumpet seems to have blown already. As late as January 2, 2007, there were reports of Sri Lankan military jets bombing LTTE bases in Mannar district. Also, the Army is reportedly attempting to push back the LTTE from Vaharai and Kadirweli, the last two LTTE strongholds in Batticaloa.

    The return to full-scale violence since July 2006 is marked by a realignment of forces - primarily the desertion by Karuna and his tactical tie-up with government forces, which has resulted in a serious setback to the LTTE on the Eastern frontier. In recent months, this alliance was strengthened after other splinter Tamil groups like EPDP, PLOTE (Siddarthan) and EPRLF (Perumal) joined hands with Karuna to help the military in constraining the LTTE's operational capabilities. Though Colombo denies giving support to these groups, media reports have pointed to military-level co-operation and co-ordination between these groups and the Army in the East, which forced the LTTE to withdraw from its Sampur campaign in early September 2006. Colombo has not only gone slow on its commitment to disarm the Eastern factions, but has actually allowed Karuna to augment his cadre strength and at the same time has provided his group greater operational space.

    Taking on this advantage, the Sri Lankan military now sparkles with belligerence and the confidence of subjugating the Tigers in their burrow. The Army's offensive in recent months in Batticaloa and LTTE territories in the North has forced the Tigers to open new attack points in the South, exemplified by the October suicide attacks in Galle and Habarana. The unprecedented surge by the Sri Lankan Army in the North in recent months displays a predilection of the government to attempt a military solution through a concerted victory over the LTTE. This new belligerence, embodied by the military campaign using Kfir fighter jets and helicopters to gain tactical advantage over the LTTE, has in turn further alienated the Northern Tamils from the Sinhala government. Though Colombo officially contends that its offensive is a response to Tiger aggression at various flashpoints, reports have quoted Army officials as affirming their aim as gaining maximum territorial advantage before the international community forces them to peace talks. On January 3, the Daily Mirror quoted the Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka as saying that the East would be totally rid of the LTTE in two or three months. Fonseka reportedly said that "After eradicating the Tigers from the East, full strength would be used to rescue the North."

    As this tit-for-tat game gradually defeats the internationally mediated peace process, the offensive against the LTTE and its international isolation would complicate the conflict and pave the way for greater involvement by external powers. Interestingly, for the first time since the IPKF debacle and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, barring some hardliner groups like the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), all prominent actors including the LTTE are in favour of a progressive Indian involvement. However, New Delhi continues to maintain a safe distance while undertaking occasional political parleys with the Sri Lankan government and some Tamil political groups. While sceptics in India reject the LTTE's recent reconciliation efforts as a deceptive gamble, they have ignored the transformed military dynamics in Sri Lanka, which is what has forced the Tigers to seek reconciliation with India. The Tigers have suffered serious setbacks - starting with Karuna's defection, the EU ban, increasing crackdown in places like Canada, and diminishing support in its traditional bases - forcing it to explore accommodation with its erstwhile Indian ally. The split caused by Karuna and recent offensives by the Lankan Army have led to massive depletions in its force levels. It is now becoming clear that the Tigers would consider a proactive political role by India as their safest bet.

    Though the UPA government maintains an emotional stigma on the LTTE, the political picture in Tamil Nadu is fast transforming with a subtle sympathy wave now emerging in favour of the LTTE. Vaiko and other pro-LTTE voices continue to make all the right noises for the LTTE in its extended political hinterland even as traditional foes like Jayalalitha have shown surprising restraint towards such crusades. The DMK has attempted to maintain a balancing act by raising an occasional clamour over air raids in Tamil-dominated provinces, while at the same time abstaining from upping the ante against the policy thinking in New Delhi. The LTTE's attempt to cosy up with Karunanidhi was evident during Balasingham's funeral in London, when the head of the LTTE political wing Tamilselvan thanked Karunanidhi for his support to the Sri Lankan Tamils. Through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, the LTTE has already approached the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to lobby with New Delhi for pressuring Colombo to stop the attacks in the North. With the Prime Minister too giving audience to the TNA MPs, hopes might have risen for the LTTE leadership of a major political involvement by New Delhi in the near future.

    It would not be long before a consensual voice emerges from Tamil Nadu demanding a review of India's relations with the LTTE. Such a political turnaround, if at all it happens, could be impelled by some peculiar factors. First, a subjugation or forced retreat of the LTTE from its strongholds might widen the trust-deficit between the Tamils and Sinhalese. Second, the LTTE has a pseudo-state character with formidable control over the Northern areas. Thus, its military defeat could lead to a major political and humanitarian crisis, which would force a greater Indian involvement to ensure the safety of upcountry Tamils.

    It is thus now time for New Delhi to put the past behind, reinstate its influence and revive possible channels of communication with all parties involved and help create stability in Sri Lanka. Considering that Pakistan and China have already initiated military co-operation with Colombo, India should start negating the ascendancy of new players in its Southern neighbourhood. At the same time, India should also abstain from any kind of military co-operation with Colombo, which could tilt the balance against the LTTE, considering the heavy political risks. Though there is now renewed talk of naval and military co-operation with Colombo, the emphasis should be on playing a political role and assuming charge as a credible facilitator of the peace process. The current peace process in Sri Lanka is in a flux as the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission grapples with new challenges. With the Norwegian initiative losing its sheen, the time is now ripe for India to appreciate the changed dynamics in Sri Lanka and assume leadership of the peace process. As a rising power, India can no longer remain mute to political crises in its neighbourhood. It has to tide over past emotional events and mature as an actor of prominence to engage all parties in regional conflicts and facilitate stability in the region.