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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

India goes back to flexing its muscle in the neighborhood

Neville de Silva - Diplomatic Editor Asian Tribune

London, 07 June, (Asiantribune.com): There are three events in recent Indo-Sri Lanka relations that remain indelibly in their history. The anniversaries of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the Indian violation of Sri Lankan air space in June 1987, an act of gross intimidation, have already passed. The third, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, will be remembered next month more in sorrow than as a gesture of good neighborly relations.

Almost 20 years ago India, using its diplomatic and military muscle, forced a bilateral agreement on Sri Lanka that seriously circumscribed the island nation’s freedom to act as a sovereign nation.

It was the truculent affirmation of what had come to be known some years earlier as India’s “Indira Doctrine” which broadly speaking asserted New Delhi’s regional overlordship which South Asia neighbors were expected to accept without demur.

If today Sri Lankans feels a sense of déjà vu as New Delhi reiterates that Indian doctrine ignoring the security concerns of smaller regional neighbours like Sri Lanka, it is also a timely reminder to other Indian Ocean nations.

The hegemonic ambitions of a nuclear India more confident than ever and aspiring to a global role might not be limited to its immediate neighbourhood.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 was preceded that June by a violation of Sri Lanka’s air space by the Indian air force with Mirage jet fighter cover, dropping food to people in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna.

India called it “humanitarian aid” in support of minority Tamils in the beleaguered peninsula.

While the food drop was more cosmetic than stomach filling, what it achieved was to rescue the militant Tamil groups, particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been cornered in their own lair by the Sri Lankan military and were desperately trying to escape.

That singular act of Indian intervention, not unknown to India’s several neighbors, not only saved the LTTE leadership from years of revamping and recovery if not possible decimation, but substantially contributed to prolonging any solution to one of Asia’s oldest conflicts that has so far claimed some 70.000 lives.

Even worse from the Indian standpoint, the Tamil Tigers bit the hand that fed them. The nurturing of the LTTE, along with other armed Tamil militant groups all of which were not committed to the LTTE’s goal of a separate Tamil state, goes back to the beginning of the 1980s when then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s government armed, trained, funded and allowed them to conduct violent armed operations against a neighboring state.

Gandhi was helped in this by the government of the Tamil Nadu state where about 35 training camps were run, according to Indian writers.

Under the July 1987 agreement an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived in northern Sri Lanka to keep the peace and disarm the Tamil militants including LTTE.

Instead, the Tigers fought the IPKF which during its three-year stay lost 1200 soldiers even more wounded. India’s clandestine involvement with and help to, the LTTE even when its troops were fighting it, is explicitly stated by India’s then envoy in Colombo J.N.Dixit.

In “Assignment Colombo” Dixit says that no Indian agency, apart from the armed forces, conducted itself with honor and integrity during the entire involvement with the Tamil question.

The nadir of their worsening relations was the assassination in May 1991 of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tiger suicide bomber on Indian soil.

Despite India banning the LTTE in 1992 as a terrorist organization and New Delhi vowing to fight terrorism, it still refuses to support Sri Lanka in its efforts to combat terrorism.

Sri Lankans find India’s ambivalence even more puzzling in the light of Indian media reports that the LTTE has been training Indian Maoist rebels in northern Bihar into suicide squads and Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s remarks last month in the Indian parliament that the Tigers are working closely with Indian Naxalite terrorist groups.

India’s National Security Advisor MK Narayanan told the media in Tamil Nadu this month that Sri Lanka should not purchase arms from China and Pakistan.

“We are a big power in the region. Whatever maybe its requirements, the Sri Lanka Government should come to us.”

But then follows Narayanan’s coup de grace. “India will not provide weapons with offensive capabilities.”

China has been an arms supplier to Colombo for nearly 50 years. Pakistan is a much more recent supplier, Colombo having turned to Islamabad when India refused to meet Colombo’s military requirements to meet threats to its security.

While India has and continues to take the offensive against what it perceives as terrorist groups that threaten Indian security and territorial integrity, it wants Sri Lanka to act only defensively against arguably the most sophisticated and ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.

In doing so not only does India reiterate the theory of limited sovereignty for neighbouring states but also jettisons one of the previously held tenets of the Indira Doctrine.

That doctrine postulated that South Asian nations should not look outside the region to manage its security concerns. If they do have concerns then India should be the first port of call for assistance.

More importantly it said that no outside powers should be inducted into the region.
This was particularly aimed at the United States during the Cold War years when India had close relations with the then Soviet Union and the Indian Ocean was an arena of big power conflict with China, India’s enemy, also entering the picture.

But today New Delhi -Washington relations are much cosier with growing military cooperation between them including naval exercises. There is a regular dialogue between them and though there is some disagreement on nuclear matters, their rapprochement is one of the significant developments in the post-Cold War era.

Would India’s growing assertiveness as manifest in Narayanan’s veiled warning to Sri Lanka likely to spill over to other parts of the Indian Ocean as India and China compete for power and influence? India needs to ensure energy supplies to power its burgeoning economy and is already looking far afield for them.

India wants the Tamil people and the world to believe that its interest in Sri Lanka is to see justice for the Tamil people who doubtless need reassuring that their rights as Sri Lankan citizens would not be violated.

But its strategic interest is the ‘Findlandization’ of its neighbor, to keep Sri Lanka off balance and unstable and so under Indian suzerainty.

It is Sri Lanka today. Who will it be next as India’s hegemonic ambitions grow?

- Asian Tribune -

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