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India sidelined in Lankan war

By Sukumari Surpana in Colombo
September 18, 2008 13:59 IST
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The over two-year-old war between the Sri Lanka military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has by all accounts reached a decisive phase. It is crunch time for both sides though it would be hazardous to predict the next chapter. On the face of it the Sri Lankan military has an upper hand. The Tigers have been cornered like never before, the Indian Peace Keeping Force phase included, from within and without. With the military taking the battle right into the Tiger heartland in Wanni, the LTTE has little choice but to do or die.

Even after providing a liberal allowance for the tendency on the part of the Sri Lanka military to exaggerate its triumphs, the relentless military campaign by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has substantially weakened the LTTE's military capabilities. This is evident in the inability of the Tigers to strike back in the east where they no longer count as a conventional force, its failure to mount any spectacular guerrilla attacks in Colombo and other Sinhala dominated areas in the south and a slow but steady loss of territory in the north.

The military claims to have killed 11,000 LTTE cadres since July 2006 though the number of estimated strength of Tigers in mid-2006 was 10,000. The current guestimate of LTTE cadres is under 5,000 and they are being pursued with all the might by nearly 200,000 Sri Lanka forces. The hallmark is the ruthless demonstration of air power by Colombo. As opposed to seven aerial raids by the nascent air wing of the Tigers with little visible impact, the military admits to have launched over a 1,000 aerial bombardments of `identified Tiger targets'.

The unfolding scenario has a striking resemblance to situation prior to the Indian intervention in 1987. The economic blockade on north and east coupled with all out war against the LTTE with no regard to the plight of the civilians caught in the quagmire, pitch forked India into the centre stage of the island nation's ethnic conflict. The consequent Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, induction of IPKF to take on the unrelenting Tigers and subsequent withdrawal under humiliating circumstances is all history. With over 200,000 internally displaced in the Tiger dominated areas and hundreds of thousands of others cut off from the rest of the world, history is repeating itself. Alas, for a variety of reasons and changed geo-political realities of the globe, New Delhi is a staunch ally of the Rajapaksa regime in its war against LTTE/terrorism. The hands off Sri Lanka policy pursued by New Delhi, with a modicum of neutrality, since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 stands abandoned.

The Indian position in Sri Lanka is no different at least theoretically from that of Pakistan, the frontline state of the United States in its war against al Queda and terrorism in Afghanistan. India has little or no say in the conflict management related issues. The role of New Delhi is reduced to that of a supplier of weapons and provider of material and moral support. Its pleas for meaningful simultaneous political initiatives along with no holds barred fight against the Tigers for resolution of the ethnic conflict have fallen on deaf ears. With the verdict of the Sri Lanka Supreme Court in October 2006 de-merging the north and east and refusal of the government to make any move towards re-merger the fig leaf of Indian factor in the form of the 1987 Accord vanished into thin air. By holding election to the eastern province in May 2008 against the wishes of India, the Sri Lanka government consigned the accord to the dustbin of history. Forget about larger issues, the Sri Lanka government has defied polite Indian request to re-open the A-9 highway sealed off since second week of August 2006. The highway is the only link to the Jaffna peninsula, home to an estimated 6.5 lakh Tamils.

The loss of face in Sri Lanka for India is not just political. The geo-strategic interests of New Delhi, one of the key factors which drove the Indian Lanka policy, are at maximum stake since the island nation gained independence in 1948. China and Pakistan are developing constituencies in Sri Lanka at a pace which has left India dumb struck. Beijing with its deep pockets has set its eyes on some of the strategic projects in the island nation like the Hambantota harbour project. Islamabad is sticking to its traditional and time tested methods of appeal through religion targeting the 8 per cent Muslim population in the country though there is no evidence as yet of its strategy paying dividends.

India, which fancies itself as the United States of South Asia, quietly acquiesced when Colombo in March 2007 signed on dotted lines of the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement authored by Washington. ACSA allows US war and civilian's ships and planes re-fuelling facilities in the island nation. It is true that the US has similar pacts with 90 other countries and New Delhi itself is expected sooner than later to join the ACSA club. But the fact is India in the past had assiduously opposed such an agreement invoking its special geo-strategic interests in Sri Lanka.

It must be said to be credit of all-powerful Sri Lanka President that he and his government have mastered the art of pitting one world capital against the other. It is practiced with ease if not finesse with great rewards. When he wants attention of New Delhi, the President or his administration dials Beijing and Islamabad and vice-a-versa. The mighty super power is no exception. A highly publicised visit of Rajapaksa to Tehran early in 2008 instantly resulted in goodies from Washington. The CIA emerged as the chief campaign manager of Sri Lanka in painting LTTE as more dangerous than al Queda. The Rajapaksa's village logic has so far worked wonders. So petrified is New Delhi at the prospect of Beijing or Islamabad consolidating their grip in the island nation that in the last two years India has given in to every whim and fancy of the Rajapaksa government.

The two Indian technicians, who were injured in the latest aerial attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force Vavunia air base, best illustrate the point. The technicians, part of a team deployed by India to help Sri Lanka guard its skies from the newly acquired Tiger aerial nuisance value, are on deputation to service and maintain the radar gifted by India. Despite the gesture, the theme song of the Sri Lanka defense establishment since the Tiger air wing surfaced in March 2007 is that New Delhi is responsible for the Tiger aerial attacks as it has prevented the island nation from acquiring a superior 3-D radar system from China!

The knee-jerk responses of New Delhi to virtual encirclement of India by China and its allies amount to ridiculous to comic relief. It was best exemplified on June 1 when the Indian National Security Advisor, foreign secretary and defence secretary descended in Colombo on an unannounced visit and spent two days meeting all those who matter. Inquiries reveal that never in the history of post-independent India have the trio journeyed to a foreign country together. The ostensible reason for the high powered delegation visit was `security arrangements' for the prime minister at the SAARC Summit scheduled on August 1 and 2. It is not known since when the three highest policy making executives of India have been burdened with responsibility of nitty-gritty of PM's security drill.

The real reason for the mission became evident later when India took charge of air space of Sri Lanka and positioned two war ships in the Lankan territorial waters in the name of security during stay of Dr Manmohan Singh in Colombo. From which quarters in the island nation did New Delhi perceive threat to the life of the prime minister? Fingers were pointed at the LTTE. Yes, desperate Tigers could go to any length but could they afford to target the Indian prime minister particularly after they badly burnt their bridges with India post-Rajiv killing. Again apparently it is for the first time India had resorted to such an extraordinary measure of virtual take over a sovereign nation hosting a multilateral conference.

As per Indian diplomats there is an instance when New Delhi took over the security of Mozambique, at the request of the local government, to enable it hold an international meeting. The comedy in Colombo was compounded following intelligence at lower levels about Pakistan moving its own war ship. It proved to be a false alarm. It was a case of a Pakistani dredger from China sailing through the Sri Lankan international waters! The National Security Advisor lent his brand of comic touch to the SAARC Summit by jumping into a police vehicle without waiting for his assigned car after the inaugural ceremony, only to be stopped at four check points, in his quest to reach the hotel where Dr Singh was staying.

It is difficult to believe that India took over Sri Lanka albeit for over 60 hours to ward off threat from the LTTE. The move was directed more at Beijing and Islamabad. Perhaps it was an assertion of its natural right over Sri Lanka and a rather loud message to all concerned to tread cautiously in the Sri Lankan territory. No one is impressed with such bravado bordering on gun-boat diplomacy. Perhaps the Indian establishment do not subscribe to the thesis that un-exhibited power is more potent. N-powered India is clearly mistaken in its assumption that the threat to its geo-strategic interests would halt with such unbridled exhibition of muscle. Innovative diplomacy and statesmanship with no nonsense approach is the need of the hour.

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Sukumari Surpana in Colombo