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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2676

India’s interventionist policies in its neighbourhood

By Asif Haroon Raja

‘Sri Lanka’s ethnic war was like a dragon with its tail in northeastern Sri Lanka, with its heart in Tamil Nadu and its head in New Delhi’. – Prof Sir Richard Clutterbuk

The Brahman Hindus in India have always suffered from megalomania; they wish to re-establish the fancied grandeur of the old order. They stubbornly cling to self created myths and legends and perceive that India in its old form extended from Iran and Afghanistan to Indonesia. They wish to reunite all lost territories and re-emerge as great Mahabharata. It is in the backdrop of these mythical beliefs that they eye all their neighbours with disdain.

From the time of its independence India has constantly endeavoured to browbeat them into submission and schemed to undermine them either through covert means or coercion or use of physical force. Goa and Sikkim have been absorbed into Indian Union while Pakistan has been cut to size. Truncated Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Burma, Tibet are victims of Indian intrigues.

None is able to do much because of India’s huge military, nuclear and missile power and its strategic partnership with the sole super power both having commonality of interests. I have already dwelt upon Indian perverse role in dismembering Pakistan in 1971. I will confine this write up to Sri Lanka only which is suffering under the weight of Indian oppressive hegemony. Its ethnic conflict in the northeast has been transformed into a cruel war which has no end in sight.

Tamil terrorism and quest for separatism is rooted in strained Sinhalese-Tamil relations since 12th century. Tamils claim Tamil Eelam as their traditional homeland in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese claim to the rights of settlement in the entire island as their traditional right. Both maintain their distinct language, culture, religion and social customs. While Sinhalese have their roots in Indo-Aryans, Tamils trace their history to Dravidian civilisation of South India. Sizeable number of Indian origin Tamils are settled in the upcountry region of Sri Lanka. Tamil nationalism has its basis in demand for equating Tamil language with Sinhalese and decentralisation of political power; Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike however insisted on one language. Denial of these rights turned political issue into national crisis and gave rise to Tamil militancy in 1970s.

The north-eastern island is contiguous to India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu which also entertains separatist tendencies since long. After DMK led by M. Karunanidhi came to power in 1967 in Tamil Nadu, smugglers in Jaffna as well as extremist elements established contacts with smugglers and extremists in Tamil Nadu and over a period of time ethnic kinship and political considerations drew them as well as other politicians closer. The three Tamil parties in Sri Lanka joined hands in May 1972 and formed an alliance under the banner of Tamil United Front (TUF) to press for their demands. In October, a resistance movement was launched and Tamil flag hoisted. The Tamil Student Federation formed a militant wing called Tamil New Tigers which was renamed as LTTE in 1975. On May 14, 1976, a resolution was passed calling for a separate state for Tamils and TUF was renamed as TULF. The flow of arms and detonators to Jaffna increased from Tamil Nadu.

In July 1977 elections in Sri Lanka, Jayewardene defeated Mrs. Bandaranaike and after taking over as PM, he introduced liberal economic policies. TULF with 17 seats emerged as the most powerful opposition party. In the following year Jayewardene became president and Premadasa took over as PM. In 1981, communal politicians began to encourage the youth to join Tamil militant groups while militant activities from Tamil Nadu into Sri Lanka continued unabated. Tens of militant groups numbering 37 like LTTE led by V. Prabhakaran, PLOTE, EROS, EPRLF, TELA, TELO cropped up in the north-eastern Tamil dominated regions. Each had links with leftist political parties and separatist groups in India. These groups began to function as private armies to destabilise northeastern region in pursuit of their objective of gaining independence. They established close ties with DMK’s Karunanidhi. Indian leaders somehow got obsessed with an unwanted fear that its south had become vulnerable because of strategic port of Trincomalee falling into the hands of forces inimical to its interests and hence must be protected. It was feared that creation of a separate Tamil State could have serious ramifications for India since ethnic affinity between the Tamils living on both sides of the border in Sri Lanka’s northeast and India’s south could lead to establishment of greater Tamil Nadu (Dravida Desam).

For about a year TULF colluded with the government which estranged their relations with the militants. But after the ethnic riots in July 1983 the political leaders of TULF shifted to Tamil Nadu since they refused to take oath on 6th Amendment in the constitution that they will not support separatism. Tens of thousands of Tamils also moved to India as refugees. From August 1983 onwards, intelligence agencies of India waged a secret war in Sri Lanka. They began to covertly recruit Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, trained them in intelligence gathering and directed them to spy on foreign naval movements in the Trincomalee harbour and security forces installations in north-eastern Sri Lanka. Chandrahasan, a son of Late S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and a lawyer, based in Madras (Chennai) who had maintained active contacts with all the militant groups was taken on board to serve RAW’s purposes.

Indira Gandhi miffed by Colombo’s hobnobbing with USA, Britain and other countries and wanted to keep Sri Lankan leadership under her thumb. She entrusted RAW to strengthen Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups and prevent Sri Lankan security forces from achieving a military victory. She gave a green signal to R.N. Kao to repeat the success of Bangladesh operation in Sri Lanka, who played a key role in this gory drama. Indian instructors began to impart training in various fields to all the six militant groups in real earnest. They established 30 training centres in Madras and ten other districts of Tamil Nadu, Dehra Dun, New Delhi and Bombay. Having smelt the rat, Sri Lanka launched an official protest stating that India was involved in arming and training Sri Lankan Tamils which India denied. Jayewardene began to seek equipment and training assistance from elsewhere to fight the menace of terrorism.

Jayewardene became an eyesore for hawkish Indira, because of personality clash, his hobnobbing with other powers particularly arch rival Pakistan, and his refusal to acknowledge India as the leading regional power. Indira took exception to Colombo’s contacts with other counties and receiving military assistance from China, Israel and Pakistan and viewed it as a security threat to India. Establishment of VoA radio station, use of oil tank farm by foreign ships and harbour facilities at Trincomalee to warships irritated Indira. In August 1984, India moved its forces from Agra to Trivandrum, but better sense prevailed and the planned invasion of Sri Lanka was shelved in September. While playing the role of a mediator, India kept supporting the militants covertly to create chaos and weaken its neighbour. As a consequence, the LTTE grew stronger and established worldwide network in all the geographic regions to collect funds for the Eelam war.

When Rajiv Gandhi took over after the assassination of his mother in October 1984, RAW was made the intermediary between the heads of state of India and Sri Lanka in 1985. Like his mother, Rajiv also leaned heavily on RAW and allowed it to strengthen LTTE to be able to withstand military pressure from Sri Lankan security forces. By 1986, the number of Indian trained, armed and financed militants exceeded 20,000. The LTTE members were given training in host of fields including use of explosives, RDX and use of surface to air missiles.

In Tamil Nadu, 21 political parties and groups formed an alliance and pledged solidarity with LTTE. Using Tamil Nadu as a safe sanctuary, the LTTE used hit and run guerrilla tactics and with military support from RAW, the militants not only checkmated the Sri Lankan security forces but also shifted the theatre of war nearer to Colombo by carrying out massacres in border villages and exploding bombs in the capital city. India succeeded in systematically destabilising Sri Lanka. It used the militant factor as a means to pressure Colombo to change its foreign policy of becoming a pawn into the hands of outside powers. By early 1987, 2000 LTTE cadres, 8000 PLOTE cadres, 1500 EPRLF cadres, 1250 ERO cadres, 1500 TLO cadres and several other cadres had been trained in north and south India.

When Colombo launched a powerful offensive supported by air force and navy against the rebels in Jaffna in mid 1987, India notified Colombo that it would not allow Jaffna to be captured by its military. Indian air force violated Sri Lankan air space and started to provide relief supplies to the entrapped people of Jaffna through air drops. Subsequently, after signing of controversial Indo-Lanka Accord in July 1987, Indians began to move in its troops as Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and pumped in over 100,000 troops including tanks, naval vessels and aircraft.

Having created the monster, the LTTE which by then had become a formidable force as a sequel to large-scale Indian military assistance, the spill over effects of insurgency had begun to be felt in Tamil Nadu. A peace accord was signed wherein the LTTE was to surrender arms in return for general amnesty, release of prisoners and set up of Administrative Councils to meet the demands of LTTE. The latter handed over small part of their weapons and hid the rest and its relations with IPKF remained frosty. Anti-accord forces in the south led by JVP under Rohana Wijayaweera got activated. On 18 August 1987, Jayewardene and Premadasa survived a grenade attack by JVP militants in the Parliament. As a sequel to several clashes and LTTE attacking Indian forces deployed in Sri Lanka, Indian military declared war against the LTTE on 11 October. Its efforts to capture Prabhakaran failed.

It then launched a full-fledged operation codenamed Operation Pawan against the Tamils in Jaffna and estimated to capture it within 72 hours. It took them 45 days to clear it, but after having used all its available firepower in most ruthless manner. Mortar and artillery shells rained for weeks without a stop, killing mostly innocent men, women and children. Hundreds of Tamil women were raped and most put to death after satisfying their sexual lust. Most grotesque was the cold blooded killing of sick and wounded in the Jaffna General Hospital. While the LTTE losses were very low, the Indians suffered grievous losses and had to announce a ceasefire on 21 November unilaterally. When the LTTE demanded withdrawal of Indian troops as a pre condition for talks, the war resumed. LTTE continued to receive supplies from Tamil Nadu and the state government of AIADMK led by the matinee idol M.G.Ramachandran sought withdrawal of IPKF. After the demise of Ramachandran on December 1987, his wife Janaki succeeded as Chief Minister and her government lasted only for 24 days and by the end of January 1988, presidential rule was imposed in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lanka President Ranatunga Premadasa who succeeded J.R.Jayawardene, proved to be another tough nut to crack. He invited the LTTE and JVP for unconditional talks in April 1989 and then requested Indian forces to halt military operations against the LTTE. In July Premadasa requested the Indian for to leave Sri Lanka by the close of the same month or else it would be declared as an occupation army. In August, RAW created another shadowy organisation called Tamil National Army (TNA) that would help fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Indian army. RAW was provided Rs. 10 crore to recruit the youth. By September India suspended operations and agreed to withdraw by April 1990 in phases. The LTTE was secretly supplied arms and explosives by government channels to fight the TNA. The former succeeded in wiping out TNA elements from the northeast except strategic port of Trincomalee.

The price of military misadventure into Sri Lankan domestic affairs was heavy for India. Till April 1990, India had lost 1555 soldiers including 55 officers, 2987 wounded and incurred an expenditure of Rs. 1000 crore. With its departure, LTTE moved into Trincomalee and by June the LTTE struck back attacking nine police stations and killing 600 policemen. With that Eelam War II broke out. Subsequently, the LTTE eliminated the leadership of all the militant groups and merged them within its organisation to ensure its monopoly. In May 1991, on the eve of general elections in India, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE female suicide bomber Dhanu wearing a belt bomb, which shook India. Indian Tamils were also behind the incident.

Consequent to RAW’s perverse role in East Pakistan and then in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives, all its neighbours have become wary and suspicious of India. Sri Lanka burdened with an externally initiated enemy continues to fight a merciless and lethal war and the conflict seems to have no end in sight. Sri Lankan forces have performed admirably well in the face of Indian machinations and have not only retrieved whole of Eastern Province but also more than half the districts in Northern Province of Jaffna Peninsula as well. The army is close to retaking the crucial town of Kilinochchi and the LTTE has its back against the wall militarily. The balance has tilted decisively in favour of government forces and the LTTE is on the run.

Alarmed by the debacle faced by the LTTE, the DMK gave a frantic call given for an all party conference to discuss the security situation in Sri Lanka. The response was poor and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK and several other parties kept away from the conference. Only the DMK, the PMK, Communist Party of India and the Tamil Nadu wings of the Congress attended. The meeting demanded that the UPA government should ensure a ceasefire in North Sri Lanka within two weeks, or their MPs would consider resignation en masse from the Lok Sabha. This was a usual gimmick to blackmail the government but it boomeranged. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi could at best give a lukewarm warning to the Lok Sabha for he knew that after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi had shown little interest in the affairs of ethnic war in Sri Lanka. It has realised the folly of dancing with the wolves and had reaped what it had sown.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went through the motions and has responded to the Tamil MPs’ call by stating that civil wars of the sort that Sri Lanka has suffered since 1983 are not ended by military victory alone, but through negotiated settlement. He however expressed concern about the human cost being borne by the 220,000 people displaced by the fighting. There is marked change in Delhi’s attitude and it seems that it does not intend to question Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to end terrorism on its territory; nor should it. It is hoped that this change is reflected in case of other neighbors including Pakistan which is presently suffering at the hands of RAW inspired militancy in Baluchistan and FATA.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has immediately assured that the current developments in northern Sri Lanka, including the escalation in the fighting against LTTE, was a "temporary phase" and that it should not be construed as an offensive against ethnic Tamil civilians. The fight is against terrorist and not at all against the Tamil people. He said that Sri Lanka wants a political solution to the problem and that he was confident this would be best addressed after defeating the terrorists militarily. He pointed out that there were not many casualties amongst the civilians who were caught in the fighting between the LTTE and security forces in northern Sri Lanka. In the past, the Tigers have called for ceasefires to help them regroup and re-arm; it is understandable that that the Sri Lankan military is chary about granting them more.

Asif Haroon Raja is Rawalpindi based defence and political analyst and writer of several books. He also writes exclusively to Asian Tribune.

- Asian Tribune -

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