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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2613

How far can Indian intervention go in Sri Lanka?

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

Yesterday (Tuesday) the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee came to deliver the invitation for the next SAARC meting to be held in India in April, he saw President Mahinda Rajapakse and delivered the invitation personally and then he flew to Maldives to deliver the same invitation without meeting any other political party in Sri Lanka. Pranab Mukherjee handing the invitation to Mahinda RajapaksePranab Mukherjee handing the invitation to Mahinda Rajapakse

The official reason given was that he was running short of time. But diplomatically it would not have been prudent to meet the Tamil National Alliance MPs who are known to be the proxies acting on behalf of the Tamil Tigers.

The picture released to the media of Mukherjee handing the invitation to the Sri Lankan President is also significant. During President Rajapakse's recent visit to Delhi the panjandrums of the Indian Foreign office manipulated time schedules to prevent photo opportunities of President Rajapakse meeting the Indian political heads. In Colombo, the President's office released pictures of Mukherjee handing over the invitation officially to indicate partly that India, however big it is, has to come to its small neighbors in the region and partly to indicate the magnanimity of Sri Lanka to overlook the petty politics of the Indian Foreign office. The traditional Sri Lankan courtesy in treating official visitors was never lacking in the President welcoming the Indian Foreign Minister.

Sri Lanka was also signaling that it will not indulge in the sinister role that India played in boycotting the SAARC summit held in Colombo to snub Presdent Premadasa. India thought that it could sabotage the SAARC summit if it kept away but President Premadasa outmanoeuvered India by getting on the phone to all the other heads of state in the SAARC region and obtaining their consent to hold the summit without India. President Premadasa taught India a good lesson in dealing with its small neighbors. India may be big but India needs the goodwill of the small nations just as much the small nations need India to protect regional stability, each other's security and economic growth. The last thing India needs is a defiant Cuba just across the Palk Strait.

In deftly avoiding any meetings with the Tamil proxies Mukerjee would have been aware of the need to tone down Indian hectoring and hegemonism. Sri Lanka was offended by Dr. Manmohan Singh giving an audience to the TNA MPs knowing that they are the agents of the internationally banned terrorist organization. India was among the first to ban the Tamil Tigers after they assassinated their Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. To entertain the TNA proxies of the Tigers is the equivalent of Manmohan Singh having tea with the political allies of Naturam Vinayak Godse -- the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. Also, what would India's reaction be if President Rajapakse invites the Kashmiri separatists for tea whilst publicly professing to support India? There is no doubt that at their best the Indian intellectual elite is brilliant. At their worst, they can be as stupid as a decapitated donkey looking for his head.

India, of course, is under external and internal pressure to play a role in the Sri Lankan crisis. But the critical issue is: how far can India go in playing its role? It certainly cannot go as far as dropping parippu from air or sending its forces to intervene directly. India stepped in cockily with the belief that it has the military might, the diplomatic clout and the legal and constitutional brilliance to force its medicine down the throat of Sri Lanka. Indian intervention ended in utter humiliation winning neither the goodwill of the Sinhalese nor the Tamils. India is playing it cautiously now. It is giving a nudge-and-wink to food supplies shipped from Chennai. It is also chastened by its bitter experiences of their failed IPKF adventure. It is professing its commitment to territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka not because it is bent on protecting Sri Lanka but because it is more concerned about Indian territorial integrity and unity threatened by its own separatist groups.

But India also knows that it is in a bind. It can't come in, boots and all. Nor can it keep out. India it seems has now toned down its approach moving away from its early days of arrogant hegemonism. This is also reflected in the The Hindu report which said: "Asked about the Rajapaksa Government's decision to initiate measures for de-merger of northern and eastern provinces after the October Supreme Court verdict, Mr. Mukherjee said while they followed the apex court judgment, it was for the Government to respond to the issue.

"The temporary merger of north and east was a follow up to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord and it is up to the Government to decide on how to meet the situation arising out the Supreme Court judgment declaring the merger as null and void", Mr. Mukherjee said."
In other words, the Sri Lankan government has now to undo what India did in its hegemonistic days presided by Indira Gandhi. She gave birth to the terrorist monster in Sri Lanka. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 was her crude attempt to impose her will on Sri Lanka. Now Mukherjee says that "it is up to the Government to decide on how to meet the situation arising out the Supreme Court judgment declaring the merger as null and void".

The Government of Sri Lanka is sticking strictly to the letter of the law expressed both in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord and the Supreme Court ruling. It can't overrule the Supreme Court decision nor can it ignore Indo-Sri Lanka accord which states that the merger is conditional on the terrorists' disarming. It is also stated that the merger is temporary and the peoples' consent must be obtained to make it permanent.

India has to abide by the Supreme Court ruling and its own conditionalities laid down in the accord forced on Sri Lanka.

Mukherjee's statement that "it is up to the government to decide on how to meet the situation arising out the Supreme Court judgment declaring the merger as null and void" is realistic and within the law if he means it. Any other interpretation would be an act that goes against the law and the will of the people of Sri Lanka.

President Mahinda Rajapakse too is playing it prudently and cautiously. He has no obligation to go along with India overriding the will of the people or the Supreme Court. He has no mandate to do that. Besides, India and the President are bound by higher laws than just political expediency.

Indian strategists must take into account that the Sri Lankan political landscape has changed radically since the signing of the 1987 accord. Pandering to India's domestic interests is not going solve the problems of Sri Lanka. Nor will it solve India's long-term and short-term problems. This is the lesson that comes out of Indian intervention. As in the past excessive and unwanted Indian intervention can only worsen the crisis for both countries. India should not forget that it failed in intervening as the big brother who claimed to know the answers.

After going through the full circle of the various political permutations and combinations Sri Lanka has reached a point where it is engaged in working out its problems through home-grown remedies. Outsiders must let Sri Lanka to solve their problem their way. India must keep its hand off Sri Lanka and prove, in the coming SAARC summit, its capacity to play its role as a benign partner in the region and not as an unwanted, intolerable interventionist.

- Asian Tribune -

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