When Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential elections in Sri Lanka in early 2015, followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe taking over as Prime Minister, New Delhi was delighted. The previous regime led by Mahinda Rajapakse had hurt India’s two core interests in the island — by refusing to politically address Tamil discontent, and inviting a greater Chinese role in the island.
Delhi encouraged elements of the Sri Lankan polity — both Sinhalese and Tamil — opposed to Rajapakse, to come together. It hopes that the ruling coalition in Colombo will deliver a political solution broadly acceptable to Tamils.
India’s current approach — of quiet involvement to nudge Sri Lanka towards a resolution of its ethnic dispute — has emerged out of decades of experience. Delhi has kept a hands-off policy. It has actively armed the rebels. It has pushed a peace accord. It has sent in the military to fight the rebels. It has disengaged. The past guides present policy, and also offers lessons for India’s engagement elsewhere in the region.
Why does India get involved in ethnic disputes in neighbouring states?
“Two factors are important. One, do these ethnic groups have roots elsewhere in India? And two, does the issue has a strategic fallout for India?” said SD Muni, JNU professor emeritus who has been given Sri Lanka’s highest civilian award.
In Sri Lanka, both issues were present. From the 40s to the 60s, the major issue was of the statelessness of Indian Tamils. But as the ethnic conflict grew, the Sri Lankan Tamils too leveraged their strong cross-border ethnic links. And there was a strong strategic component, as India wanted leverage over Colombo and was apprehensive over the role of third countries — especially US earlier, and China now.
Constantino Xavier of Carnegie India, a scholar on India’s role in neighbourhood crises, believes that a certain liberal democratic impulse has also guided Delhi. “India may have had to prioritise relationships with dictatorships in the short term, but it knows that there is no alternative to democratisation and inclusiveness in the long term.”
Arming rebels, keeping peace
There was a history of discrimination against Tamils. A Sinhala-only policy was introduced in 1956. Non Sinhalese-speakers suddenly found themselves as second class citizens, and Tamil recruitment in government fell.
The 1972 constitution entrenched the Sinhala-Buddhist character of the state. Tamil students found it difficult to get admissions in universities. When a Tamil party fighting on the plank of secession did well in the 1977 elections, inter-community relations dipped, military operations were launched, and serious anti-Tamil rioting broke out, the most serious in 1983.
All of this was creating ripples across the Palk Straits. Many Tamil rebels set up camps in Tamil Nadu. India now began arming Tamil radicals.
There was a shift under Rajiv Gandhi. As JN Dixit, India’s then high commissioner to Colombo, has written, Gandhi believed that India “must assume a more impartial stand between the Sinhalese and Tamils”. This was clearest in 1987.
When Colombo blockaded Jaffna, India unilaterally airdropped food supplies to Jaffna peninsula but in a manner that depicted hard power.
The air ops had the impact of moderating President JR Jayawardene who agreed to the Thirteenth Amendment (which would guarantee a degree of devolution to the North and the East). India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, and Delhi then sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce the accord. LTTE however resisted it.
The operation failed, IPKF had to beat a humiliating retreat, and commentators have drawn different lessons from it.
Getting engagement right
What went wrong? One view, articulated recently by diplomat Hardeep Puri in his book , ‘Perilous Interventions’, is that the IPKF was based on “too many assumptions”. Then Army chief K Sundarji told the PM that India could neutralise LTTE in two weeks; Research and Analysis Wing chief AK Verma’s broad sense about the Tigers was “these are our boys…and so they will listen to us.” In addition, India’s ability to underwrite the agreement needed cooperation from both sides, and this was missing.
The second view is the problem was in the nature of the accord. As V Suryanarayan notes in the Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy, “It would have been better if the agreement had been signed between Colombo and Tamil parties, with India guaranteeing its implementation. Consultations with Tamil parties were done in haste, with absolutely no guarantee of their compliance. In the end, the mediator became the key actor and the villain.” India had succeeded in uniting the arch rivals, Sinhalese regime and Tamils, in their opposition to IPKF.
The third view holds that India should not have sent boots on the ground but hard power should have been exercised. Carenegie’s Xavier says, “There is a spectrum of coercive instruments between disengagement and military intervention. This includes clear signalling, articulating red lines, sequencing threats, developing leverage with opposition groups.”
And then there is a fourth view. “Once we were in, we should have stayed the course till the amendment was implemented,” says Muni, admitting it is a minority opinion.
The Sri Lanka experiment scarred India. And the engagement cost Rajiv Gandhi his life, when LTTE decided to extract revenge for IPKF and prevent him from coming back to power. India — going through internal political changes, economic reforms, and the Kashmir crisis — dramatically disengaged in the 1990s. It has not got militarily involved in the neighbourhood since.
Sri Lanka had shown both that India would inevitably have to get engaged into a dispute across its borders, and the perils of that engagement. Today, Delhi’s policy seeks to avoid extremes, and is banking on the current Colombo coalition to deliver meaningful devolution. (Hindustan Times)