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India: Neighbourhood bully or regional peacemaker?

Much as India would like to believe that it is a peace loving country, with no ambition of dominating its neighbours or manipulating any neighbouring country's internal policy, other nations of the region do not tend to share this view.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2003 01:19 IST

Much as India would like to believe that it is a peace loving country, with no ambition of dominating its neighbours, other countries of the region tend not to share this view. As a matter of fact, most countries of South Asia accuse India of wanting to play "big brother'' in the region, and of trying to patronize its neighbours.

While the views of our neighbours may not be entirely unfounded, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that India has tried to suo moto meddle in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries. Pakistan might never forgive India for its role in the creation of Bangladesh, but the fact remains that India stepped in as a response to the genocide and humanitarian crisis created by the Pakistan army in what was then called East Pakistan.

Since then, the Indian army has been involved in two peacekeeping operations in the region: in Sri Lanka from 1987- 1990; and in the Maldives in 1988.

It went to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the government of that country, and it intervened in Maldives for a very short span of time to restore democracy in that country. Both the instances show that India is not averse to biting the bullet when it has to make a tough choice. It also illustrates that we are quite capable of safeguarding the interests of our friends in the sub-continent.

No doubt, both these expeditions were prompted by a desire to keep its influence in that region intact, but at the same time in neither case did India try to push its own agenda.

Sri Lanka & IPKF: Roots of the conflict

The main combatants in the conflict are the Sri Lankan army and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. India got involved into the conflict due to the pro-Tamil sentiments in Tamil Nadu and the government's covert aid to and training of Tamil militants between 1977 and 1987 (Prabhakaran was incidentally trained in India).

Since the early 1970s, ethnic conflict has pitted Sri Lanka's Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority over issues of power sharing, citizenship, local autonomy, language of imparting education. The problem was further compounded by the hawkish stand taken by the Sri Lankan government, and the Sinhalese Maoist Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) on these issues.

What happened in Sri Lanka?
Early 1970's - Running battle between Sri Lanka's Tamil minorities concentrated on the Jaffna peninsula on issues like citizenship, language and autonomy 
July 29, 1987- Indo-Sri Lankan Accord is signed. India commits 60,000 troops (IPKF)
December 1988 - Both the parties fighting the Presidential election express their reservations about the continuance of the IPKF
July 1989 - India began a phased withdrawal of the IPKF after Ranasinghe Premadasa, the Sri Lankan President asked the forces to leave 
March 1990 - withdrawals are completed
1995 - The Indian Army at the request of the Sri Lankan government establishes a quarantine zone around Jaffna
2002-03 - India is appraised the negotiations facilitated by Norway between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government

The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord signed on July 29, 1987, committed New Delhi to deploying a peacekeeping force on the island. Nearly 60,000 Indian troops were in Sri Lanka as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1987 and 1990.



The IPKF soon transformed from a peacekeeping force to a partisan force fighting the Tamils. As soon as this happened, IPKF was fighting someone else's battle.

Despite the considerable experience that Indian troops had gained in fighting insurgencies in India's northeast, the IPKF was at a marked disadvantage in Sri Lanka. This was mainly due to the fact that the fight was taking place in unfamiliar territory, lack of proper intelligence, lack of concrete political will among the Indian government and a grudging Sri Lankan support.

IPKF was unable to control either Sinhalese or Tamil extremist actions and it steadily lost the support of both sides in the conflict.

The contending parties were certain to mobilise this discontent to garner easy victory since the mood was brazenly against this 1987 accord. Upon Ranasinghe Premadasa's re-election, he declared an end to the five-and-a-half-year state of emergency and asked India to withdraw the IPKF. In July 1989, the IPKF started a phased withdrawal of its remaining 45,000 troops, a process that took until March 1990 to complete.

In July 1989, the IPKF started a phased withdrawal of its remaining 45,000 troops, a process that took until March 1990 to complete.

What lessons did we learn?

During the three-year involvement, some 1,500 Indian troops were killed and more than 4,500 were wounded during this operation. Another casualty resulting from the Sri Lanka mission was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil militant in 1991.

Important lessons were learnt from the Sri Lankan imbroglio; one was that there has to be firm political backing before any such mission is to be undertaken and two; it is very important to have an entry and an exit strategy beforehand.

First Published: Nov 12, 2003 01:19 IST