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The Tamil Question and India’s Sri Lankan Dilemma

Ravi S. Jha / 28 October 2008

India doesn’t know how to intercede without ado, and stop the ‘genocide’ of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. If it does act upon immediately it would mean having overwrought diplomatic relations with the country that is fighting a continuing war with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ever since the Lankan Tamils asked for ‘freedom with dignity’ in a struggle for a separate Tamil ‘homeland’.

For India, a regional superpower, an immediate decision to directly intervene in Sri Lanka may not be the right thing to do for the Manmohan Singh government. Yet its resolution urging Sri Lankans to start a process towards a ‘negotiated settlement’ with Tamils has made New Delhi a lot tetchy.

There is a rapid swell of ‘public opinion’ in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu on the plight of the Lankan Tamils. While this may be seen as a desperate attempt to bail out a besieged LTTE, the federal government in New Delhi is in two minds - whether to go with Sri Lanka in its fight against the ‘rebels’ or sing together with Tamils, who have been bearing the brunt of the Sinhalese onslaught for long.

Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, supports Prime Minister Singh’s multiparty government.

The DMK lawmakers having a crucial 19 seats in the ruling coalition have threatened to quit if the government does not persuade Sri Lanka to declare a truce by October 29. While it isn’t surprising to see the Indian pressure building on Sri Lankans, whether it would help find a resolution is anybody’s guess.

One thing is sure though. The Tamils cannot co-exist with Sinhalese within a unitary Sri Lanka, and they are somewhat sure of carving out their own homeland. India that has been playing cupid for long surely seems to have run out of options this time. The United States, India’s new political and military ally, too has come out in total support of what they call are the ‘legitimate’ demands, and aspirations of the Tamil people.

Nonetheless, this latest move of putting pressure on Sri Lanka to ‘revive the political process’ is, incongruously, the most move by New Delhi since the current phase of hostilities between the Tamils and the Sri Lankans began in 2006. The Indian government’s strong words are dolefully short in substance. It has left everyone to presume on the actual nature of their concerns and, most importantly, what India has in mind when it talks of reviving the political process.

This time, however, the Indian establishment has bordered itself into a zero-sum game running out of options of playing cupid. India has little choice but to call the bluff of the Tamil nationalists, even in the implausible circumstances of threatening the very survival of the coalition government that is only few months away from parliamentary elections.

The question is whether New Delhi can afford to endorse the demands for imposition of its writ on an independent sovereign democratic third country like Sri Lanka.

The answer is a definite ‘no’; certainly not without serious consequences for India in particular and Sri Lanka in general in the given situation, with about 200,000 Tamil civilians caught in the conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE militants.

The Sri Lankan government for long has kept the Sinhalese, and the international community under illusion, by promoting slogans and terming the issue of conflict as ‘terrorism’.

India has refused to accept that every Tamil in Sri Lanka is a ‘terror’ suspect. Yet it doesn’t fail to recall when in 1987, four years into the civil war, an Indian peacekeeping force was sent to Sri Lanka to face a disastrous consequence. It was strongly resented by the Sinhalese majority, and backfired so much so that the Tigers assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Tigers were outlawed by India, but as representatives of a minority suffering discrimination, they still enjoy support in Tamil Nadu.

For Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is the emergent need to preserve their Tamil ‘homeland’ as the only facet of their freedom struggle. India is aware that their freedom of speech, freedom of language, and freedom of employment are among the most affirmed affair for which the Tamils have waged war in Sri Lanka. New Delhi expects Sri Lanka to work for a ‘negotiated settlement’ in order to find an enduring solution to the conflict.

New Delhi knows that it would be a folly to separate Tamil demand for a ‘homeland’ from the freedom struggle. India has a belief that Sri Lanka must invest in a peace agenda for a real deal. Sri Lanka’s northeast must get a massive inoculation of investment, industries and infrastructure with all the necessary wherewithal to make ethnic Tamils stand on their own.

India expressing its unhappiness, even though under pressure from Tamil Nadu, points to the misfortune in Sri Lanka, where the government has been attempting to rewrite the history of the nation by claiming that there was never a Tamil ‘homeland’ in existence.

The current situation clearly supports the fact that the Tamils and Sinhalese communities in Sri Lanka cannot co-exist and work in peace and harmony within the unitary government any more.

The denial of Tamils’ cultural rights; refusal to allow them to run their affairs, attacks on civilians and their property is something India wants Sri Lanka to stop immediately.

If Sri Lanka is to escape an imminent disintegration, the only way out is seek India’s assistance and intervention. Whether it would be justified for India to do the same is something New Delhi has to determine.

Ravi S. Jha is Chief Correspondent of Khaleej Times in New Delhi. He can be reached at ravi@khaleejtimes.com

 
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