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Manmohan's dharma in Sri Lanka

Keeping Sri Lanka 'on the boil' suits India, writes our surfer from Colombo.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2006 19:32 IST
Lalith de Silva
Lalith de Silva

The Sri Lankan government's push to take Sampur to neutralise the terrorist threat to Trincomalee's naval base has succeeded. As a result, the balance of power that prevailed between the government and the LTTE at the signing of the CFA in 2002 has tilted in favour of the government.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that whenever the Sri Lankan army looks as if it is succeeding against the Tigers, their overt and covert sympathizers work overtime to blunt that edge. Surprisingly, India too appeared to be getting ready last week to replay its role of spoiler as in 1987 when it halted the Sri Lankan government's highly successful operation against the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula.

On August 30, MDMK leader, Vaiko met with Indian premier Manmohan Singh and extracted three significant assurances. First, Manmohan assured Vaiko that India would not provide the Sri Lankan government with any military assistance. Second, he undertook to meet the 18-Tiger sponsored Tamil National Alliance members of the Sri Lankan parliament. Thirdly, he promised to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict.

We should ask why, when even Congress's coalition partner, M Karunanidhi of the DMK has studiously looked the other way, the Indian PM has time to discuss the Sri Lankan situation with a political discard like Vaiko.

Vaiko has no support in Tamil Nadu because the LTTE cause has been thoroughly discredited there. Recently when Anton Balasingham tendered the apology that was not, for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the Tamil Nadu press and general public reacted with such outrage that Congress was forced to state that there would be no question of pardoning the LTTE.

Left to itself Congress may well have softened its stance towards the terror outfit. Recall that Sonia Gandhi did not hesitate to align herself with the apologists of her husband's murderers, the DMK, to advance her family's political interests. She has also made saintly sacrifice a clever political device. First the premiership before President Abdul

Kalam was forced to publicly refuse it to her, and then her seat in the Lok Sabha which she won back three months later. Forgiving the LTTE for her husband's assassination may have gilded her synthetic halo. The fact that she did not was entirely due to the virulent anti-LTTE sentiment in Tamil Nadu where only minor parties representing the lowest castes such as the MDMK and PMK dare espouse the Sri Lankan Tamils' separatist cause.

Karunanidhi's muted response to the recent events in Sri Lanka shows that he knows that his electorate, which includes the large middle and upper rungs of Tamilian society, will not tolerate a return to the bad old days when the LTTE had a free run of the state, crime was rampant and investment and business frightened away. If Tamil Nadu's economy is growing at 15 per cent per annum today and claiming the lion's share of foreign investment in India, then it is entirely because Jayalalithaa ruthlessly cleaned the state of all terror elements, along with the LTTE and its Indian cells.

So if the Tamil Nadu electorate could not care less about what goes on in Sri Lanka, why did Manmohan Singh give those assurances to Vaiko, unless he too wants to blunt the Sri Lankan government's push against the LTTE?

It is quite clear that India does not want a separate state in Sri Lanka run by the Tigers. That would in time pose a tremendous security threat for India, especially given the LTTE's links with terror groups operating in India. Some of these outfits, such as those in Meghalaya, have bases in Bangladesh. With time others may acquire bases in Tamil

Eelam. So it suits India to have the Sri Lankan government fight the "monster" India created and have Sri Lankans die for the cause.

While this goes on, the Indian government can, along with Western countries, urge the Sri Lankan government to come up with a solution like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It can do so sanctimoniously and hypocritically. India's own badly-designed solution, forced down our throats in 1987, would not have worked in a million years and in hindsight, India knows it. That the forced merger has pushed eastern Muslims to militancy must be a cause for anxiety and regret.

Indians also know that their own fight against secession, let alone secessionist terrorism, is conducted in quite a different way.

Terrorism was stamped out in the Punjab not through peace negotiations but with KPS Gill's jackboot.

But while India clearly does not want an independent Tamil Eelam south of its borders, it does not want the Sri Lankan government to become strong in relation to the LTTE either. If Colombo is only just managing to keep the Tigers at bay, it remains vulnerable to pressure. But if the Tigers are on the run, then Colombo is better able to drive a hard bargain with other actors on other issues. If the problem that India cooked in the 1980s keeps boiling, Manmohan Singh and his advisors can arm-twist the Sri Lankan government to grant it important economic concessions. Title to all or at least a part of the off shore oil reserves that Sri Lanka owns, amounting to one per cent of total global oil reserves, would be very useful for energy-starved India.

After all, India's payoff for not opposing Burma's repressive military regime was pretty good: it acquired 30 per cent of Burma's natural gas reserves.

This then is Manmohan Singh's dharma. It need not surprise us.

Lalith de Silva is based in Colombo and can be reached

All views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the surfers and do not necessarily represent those of

First Published: Sep 30, 2006 19:32 IST