What the Tigers Mean for India
What the Tigers mean for India
This article was published on Le Monde diplomatique in May 2009
India and Sri Lanka have both been holding elections. Although India is touted as the world’s largest democracy and Sri Lanka praised for peaceful handovers of power since independence in 1948, elections in both countries have potential for violence, and their politics are intertwined. The Sri Lanka government believes it is close to securing a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who have been engaged in a bloody struggle since 1983 to achieve a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
As the Indian state of Tamil Nadu goes to the polls on 13 May, its chief minister M Karunanidhi and opposition leader Jeyaram Jayalalitha are trying to outdo each other in support for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Jayalalitha has vowed that if she becomes Tamil Nadu’s chief minister again she will use her influence to send Indian troops into Sri Lanka to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
Although the Sinhalese are the majority in Sri Lanka, they have a minority complex: Tamil may be the language of just 11% of the population (of 20 million), but there are more than 62 million Tamil speakers just across the Palk Straits in India.
Meanwhile Tamil Nadu itself has long been fractious, and the Sri Lankan situation has a destabilising effect on its polity: many Indians in Tamil Nadu support the Sri Lankan separatist militants. Continuing civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka have led to violent protests in Tamil Nadu, and immolations and hunger strikes. Chief Minister Karunanidhi himself went on a brief hunger strike (described as a fast from breakfast to lunch rather than a fast unto death).
Over the years, India has not just played a passive role in Sri Lankan affairs. Its intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), trained Sri Lankan Tamil militants at a RAW base in Uttar Pradesh in 1983. Arms deliveries to various Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups began in 1984.
In 1982, exiled LTTE leader V Prabakharan had been arrested in Madras, when he was captured by a mob after a shootout with a rival militant. The Sri Lankan authorities were overjoyed that the man they had hunted for seven years for the murder of the mayor of Jaffna was now in custody.
Tamil Nadu’s chief minister was then the former film star MG Ramachandran. He and (current chief minister) Karunanidhi, another graduate of the film industry, were old rivals who saw the Eelam campaign in terms of their own electoral advantage. They used their influence to ensure that Prabakharan was not extradited to Sri Lanka and that the Indian government continued to support the separatist militants.
However, the Indian government discovered that the Sri Lankan militants it harboured were not easy to control. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her son Rajiv followed different advice and tried to mediate. Initially the atmosphere between the two nations improved and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987, which led to the Indian army operating in northern Sri Lanka. India then expected the LTTE to hand over its arms, but the LTTE resisted efforts by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm them: the LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese. The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but, with unexpected resistance from the LTTE, the number increased to 100,000. The LTTE took control of Jaffna and set about eliminating their Tamil rivals.
The Indian intervention was unpopular with the Sinhalese. As well as fighting Tamil rebels in the north, the government was simultaneously dealing with an uprising by Marxist Sinhalese nationalists in the south.
The LTTE refused to accept Rajiv Gandhi’s framework for an honourable peace. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he became president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased and Premadasa continued to press for the withdrawal of the IPKF. This was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indiansoldiers had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded; the financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25bn.
Indira Gandhi had been the architect of India’s interventionist policy but her son Rajiv paid the ultimate price: on 21 May 1991 he was killed by a female Tiger. India’s Supreme Court ruled that the killing was carried out on Prabakharan’s orders. Four conspirators were sentenced to death (in absentia); Prabakharan is still wanted by India.
The interim report of the Jain Commission recommended that Karunanidhi, as chief minister, and his DMK party be held responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. But the final report contained no such allegations. And, in a fine irony, the current leader of the Congress Party is Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, nd the Congress government now has Karunanidhi as an ally.
India has recently been supporting the Sri Lankan government and supplied it with radar equipment (cynical Sri Lankans say it wasn’t good enough to stop the Tigers’ air raids). India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators. India has supplied 120,000 family packs and 1,680 tonnes of food products to displaced civilians.
It has also sent a 62-member medical team, with medicines and equipment, to cater to the urgent medical requirement of injured and sick civilians being evacuated out of the conflict zone through the sea route. The team has eight doctors plus paramedical staff, and the Indian hospital there has treated over 2,500 serious cases so far, most of them surgical cases. The Indian government has promised its help in the reconstruction and reconciliation process when the war is over and will soon send de-mining teams to Sri Lanka to help civilians return to their homes. But there are fears that the LTTE will now regroup in Tamil Nadu causing continuing discord there and posing another threat to India’s security – coming on top of the activities of militant groups throughout the country and cross-border terrorism in the northwest complicated by the uneasy relationship with Pakistan.