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Sri Lanka:Putting Indian Delegation's Visit in Perspective

The unpublicised two-day visit of a high power Indian delegation consisting of the National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, and the Defence Secretary Vijaya Singh to Colombo a few days back has touched off a wide range of speculations among Sri Lankan politicians and media.

The local establishment initially tried to play down the visit as a routine one, mainly to discuss issues connected with the forthcoming 15th SAARC summit meeting to be held in Colombo. But the composition of the delegation led by the National Security Advisor with the top bureaucrats of external affairs and defence as members clearly showed that the visit was far from a routine one.

As expected the delegation had discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the service chiefs, and senior members of bureaucracy. But more significantly the delegation also met Tamil political leaders across the spectrum that included Minister Douglas Devananda who also heads the Northern Advisory Council, the Ceylon Workers Congress leader Arumuga Thondaman, and the leader of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance grouping R. Sampanthan.

Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane later clarified that the Indian delegation did not instruct the government on conducting the war as alleged by the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). But he added, “”India did discuss the issues of restarting peace talks but India has always requested us to go back to peace talks. The President stated very clearly on Tuesday (June 24) that the LTTE should lay down arms before sitting down for peace talks. If they will do that the government is ready to approach them for a political solution.” He further added that the Indian delegation wanted to discuss the ethnic conflict in view of the general elections to be held soon in India, as the Tamil conflict was an issue of Indian concern. It is a bit difficult to accept the minister’s oversimplified reasoning that the whole Indian exercise was carried out as a political window dressing.

Three issues have been hardy perennials of India-Sri Lanka relations. These issues that invariably figure in any high level contact between the two countries are: strategic defence concerns, issues of international relations, and the problems of Sri Lanka Tamil minorities. Almost all other issues are in some way related to these three main strands. Nowadays issues like Indian assistance for development projects in Sri Lanka and furthering trade and commerce between the two nations have also gained prominence. But these issues are prioritized based upon the current developments in the regional and global environments.

Strategic issues of current interest include progress of Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE and its fall out, Sri Lanka’s procurement of military armament from China and Pakistan, sourcing and transporting of LTTE supplies from Tamil Nadu, and problems of Indian fishermen fishing in Palk Straits.

The war in Sri Lanka is clearly going in favour of the security forces. As the war progresses further, it is going to be more difficult for the LTTE to regain its original status of 2002, the minimum requirement to retain its “credibility” as the sole spokesman of Sri Lanka Tamils. And that might not take place at all. This is clear from the strong statements emanating from Colombo which repeatedly speak of the LTTE laying down arms as the precondition for talking peace with them. And the LTTE does not appear to have come to terms with the reality of its rapidly declining military fortunes. Its political head Nadesan is still talking of “the balance of power and the parity of status” as very crucial for any meaningful peace negotiations. In any case, Sri Lanka is right now not very keen to talk, parity or no parity. And probably that was what they told the Indian delegation.

In these circumstances, if past experience is any guide, Tamil expatriates would probably look to India to bale the LTTE out one more time. And the LTTE despite all its posturing would not be averse to the idea. But it is unlikely India would be as ‘benevolent’ as in the past to get the LTTE out of the logjam for two reasons. The LTTE stand on Indian intervention is not clear if its recent statements are anything to go by. KV Balakumaran, political advisor to the LTTE chief Prabhakaran does not expect India to make “any healthy, fruitful contribution” to resolving Sri Lanka’s conflict until it changes its mind on the LTTE struggle for the creation of an independent Tamil state. This a tall order for any nation, let alone India; in any case it goes against the very basis of India’s Sri Lanka policy.

Apparently this issue was probably mooted when R Sampanthan met the Indian delegation. From his negative comments after the meeting, it can be safely surmised that the Indian response to him had shown no deviation from the earlier stand on the subject. This is evident from the bland Indian statement which was a replay of sentiments vocalized many times earlier: ending the war, and starting negotiations to devolve powers to Tamil minority. There was not one word on the need to restore a feeling of security and trust among the Tamil population or about the mounting civilian casualties of war. On the flip side there was not one word of condemnation of the LTTE’s mindless violence against civilians either. Indian delegation also probably indicated India’s desire for status quo on Sri Lanka to the Sri Lankan hosts also. Given this setting Indian policy would probably continue as before, unless there was an effort for a secret breakthrough of sorts. There was no such indication. So much for Indian “interference” in the war alleged by the JVP and elements of Sinhala right!

However, Indians are reported to have invited the TNA leader to Delhi for a visit and that could give a glimmer of hope to the TNA constituency. A visit could provide a fig leaf for the waning credibility of TNA as an effective parliamentary body. An op-ed column in the pro-LTTE TamilNet titled “Time for Tamil Nadu to Act” does not sound hopeful on India’s interest in the Tamil issue. The LTTE probably does not have any expectations of progress in its favour as long as the Congress led coalition was in power. After lamenting “the repeated demonstration of the present Indian establishment of its inability or unwillingness to go beyond shadowy bureaucratic levels in dealing with the Sri Lankan crisis,” the article appealed to the Tamil Nadu political parties to use the next elections to get a mandate from the people on what foreign policy should be pursued by India regarding the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. Such expectations are beyond the realms of possibility at present.

The delegation would have definitely taken up the question of Sri Lanka’s arms procurement from China and Pakistan. This is a major issue that would probably figure in every meeting to underline India’s concern lest India’s silence is taken as consent by Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka has to have other options when India finds it politically and morally unable to comply with Sri Lanka’s demands for arms supply. In the context of Sri Lanka war, India has two ways to satisfy the Sri Lankans: to supply non-lethal weapons (do they exist?) to Sri Lanka on attractive terms, and to reassure them about the measures taken to crack down on supplies for the LTTE smuggled from Indian shores. (This has already been gingered up.) Probably both these aspects were discussed by the Indian team. Sri Lankans would have definitely taken up their growing concern over the huge number of Indian fishing boats crossing the Sri Lankan waters, entering the war zone where even Sri Lankan boats are not allowed. Unless, both countries decide to resolve this vexing question once and for all by constituting a joint Palk Bay fishing authority to control and authorize fishing, the problem would be taken advantage of by the LTTE and smugglers much to the despair of genuine fishermen.

As regards the question of devolution of powers, Sri Lanka is on a stronger wicket with India than ever before after conducting the Eastern Provincial Council elections and installing Chandirakanthan alias Pillaiyan as the chief minister. The much delayed Sri Lankan action as visualized in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 (despite the splitting of the northeast province into two) would be incomplete unless the EPC is empowered at least in terms of 13th amendment. This question would have definitely come up during the Indian delegation’s meetings. It is significant that the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) is said to be thinking of forwarding its proposals for police, land, educational and financial powers for the provinces to the All Party Representatives’ Committee (APRC).

As the Indian Prime Minister will be visiting Colombo for the SAARC meeting there could be political expectations in Tamil Nadu for some policy initiatives on Sri Lanka that would help the Tamil Nadu coalition partners in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The support he enjoys in Tamil Nadu is crucial now as the coalition government passing through difficult times thanks to the differences over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Prime Minister would like to probably tread carefully on the Sri Lanka Tamil issue lest it affects his support in Tamil Nadu. The visit of the delegation could be to get a real feel of the situation in Colombo before drawing up any such proposal for the Prime Minister. The delegation could also have sounded the Sri Lanka government on some of the vexing issues that could crop up while drafting such a proposal.

Of course, there are other issues of international relations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to attend the 15th SAARC conference in Colombo and some issues that come up could be exasperating for India. Satisfactory progress has not been made within SAARC on some of the useful initiatives because of India – Pakistan differences (i.e., South Asian Free Trade Area). Then there are issues of energy security with the price of petroleum galloping beyond $ 130 per barrel. India is meeting a large part of Sri Lanka’s energy requirements. Recently, when the Indian oil giant, Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), hiked up retail prices of diesel to Rs 130 per litre as against the price of Rs 110 by the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) it caused a lot of heartburn to the Sri Lanka government. This would have required some reassurances from both sides to take the heat off the issue.

Considering the whole gamut of complex bilateral and multilateral issues involved, Indian government could not have done better than to send a delegation of seasoned Sri Lanka hands of Indian bureaucracy. But bureaucrats can only advise, actions require political will and that had been the bane of India’s policy. If there is any fresh initiative from India, it should be out in the coming weeks as the SAARC foreign ministers meet bits the headlines. We will have to wait it out till then.

(The writer,Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:

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