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India deeply worried over Sri Lanka situation

A full-scale war in the island nation is bound to cause political, economic, diplomatic as well as strategic problems for India.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2006 10:43 IST

With Sri Lanka sliding towards war, India is studying various scenarios even as it has its fingers tightly crossed. But there is broad unanimity on one issue: There will be no Indian military intervention.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also been engaged in some of the strategy exercises, knowing well that India will be the one country most affected by any outbreak of hostilities in the neighbouring island nation.

A full-scale war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is bound to cause political, economic, diplomatic as well as strategic problems for India, more so if fighting drags on.

Amid signs that the European Union may wash its hands off the peace process if the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorates further, peace broker Norway is showing signs of frustration.

Unhappy with both Colombo and the LTTE, Oslo has asked the two sides to give in writing if they still stand by the 2002 ceasefire pact or not.

India will be pleased if the peace process is resurrected. If Norway gives up, it is likely no other international player will want to touch a problem that has lingered on for a quarter century.

A security official told IANS: "The situation in Sri Lanka is very serious. If war breaks out, Norway's image will take a beating. For us it will be much more than that".

New Delhi is resolutely opposed to any military intervention by India.

The disastrous experience of 1987-90 - when not only 1,200 Indian soldiers died fighting the LTTE but the remaining troops were callously ordered by Colombo to get out of the island - remains deeply embedded in memory.

At the same time, there will also be no contacts with the LTTE, which is outlawed in India, despite subdued suggestions for "indirect contacts" with the Tigers.

The dominant view in the strategic community here is nothing will come out of such "indirect contacts" because India cannot influence the LTTE's mindset while the group may end up benefiting from the connections.

Although India will not say it publicly, there is disappointment over Colombo's persistent failure to come out with a genuine devolution package, one that would counter the LTTE's goal of separation.

Already, unending killings and counter-killings in Sri Lanka's northeast has sparked a rush to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu by Tamils, mainly from Trincomalee.

Information here is that hundreds, if not thousands, of Tamils are waiting to cross over from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu, where LTTE supporters are trying their best to whip up ethnic passions.

India's dilemma is it can neither openly assist Colombo, particularly in the event of large-scale deaths and destruction in Tamil areas, nor can it afford to see Sri Lanka break up.

Although most experts feel the LTTE cannot bring the whole of the northeast - the war zone - under its control, the Tigers may try to seize Jaffna, returning to the 1990-95 era when it controlled the northern peninsula and when LTTE territory was barely 48 km away from the Indian coast.

Although no country is likely to recognise a Tamil Tiger state, it might simply get entrenched, bringing about a near permanent divide in Sri Lanka.

One of the senior military officers who visited Sri Lanka in recent times told IANS that he found the country "like Gujarat" -- comparing it with a state where religious divide, like the island's ethnic divide, is sharp.

The question facing India is: if a Sri Lanka war erupts and drags on, if refugees keep pouring into Tamil Nadu, at what stage will New Delhi say 'enough' and probably get involved, and if so in what manner. What can succeed in Sri Lanka if an internationally backed peace process cannot?