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Why India must act in Lanka

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November 01, 2006 17:35 IST
Despite appeals from both the government in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers, the Indian government has shown a distinct disinclination to take an active part in the resolution of the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.

The Indian reluctance stems from the severe indictment of Rajiv Gandhi-J R Jayewardane accord by various armchair analysts as hasty and imperfect. But if India is to emerge as a major regional power, it cannot just sit back and watch as its neighbourhood is engulfed in anarchy, it has to fulfil its obligations towards its neighbours who look up to it to maintain peace and order in this part of the world.

The time has therefore come to reassess the Rajiv-Jayawardene accord in an objective and dispassionate manner.

A masterpiece of Indian diplomacy, the July 1987 accord  was a stepping stone to establishing India as a regional power. It not only acknowledged India's pre-eminence in the region but also established its credentials as a military power. India's capacity to maintain such a large force overseas for such a long period was favourably commented upon by the world community.

The operations in Sri Lanka, followed by the operations in Maldives in November 1988, firmly established India as a credible regional power. It also prevented extra-regional powers from establishing their presence in Sri Lanka or from seeking bases there.

The fact is that the Sri Lankan government did not come to India to sign this accord of its own free will, but due to the successful coercive diplomacy by India. The act of dropping food and other essential supplies for the beleaguered population of Jaffna by IAF transport planes accompanied by Mirage 2000s transgressing Sri Lankan airspace sent out a powerful signal to the then Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lanka had tried to get assistance from all other countries including the US, China, Israel and even Pakistan to counter the LTTE, but soon realised that all of them were either incapable of solving its problems or were simply not interested. It was only after this realisation dawned that the government in Colombo came around to accepting Indian mediation.

The subsequent accord met Tamil aspirations to the maximum extent within a unified Sri Lanka, and was undoubtedly the best possible solution to resolve the island nation's problems. It also recognised Indian stakes in Sri Lanka and gave India a say in the happenings in Sri Lanka as far as Tamil interests were concerned.

Most of the criticism of the accord has been on account of lives lost in the initial days of the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations, but it must be understood that the IPKF had gone to Sri Lanka to ensure that the two sides stick to their commitments under the accord, and was therefore prepared for a policing role.

Whatever little opposition it expected was from government troops and pro-government militias, and it had the wherewithal to deal with any conventional threat. It perceived itself to be a protector of Tamil interests, and never expected that it would end up fighting them.

But the LTTE's refusal to comply with the terms of the accord led the IPKF to use force against it, and since it was not mentally or logistically prepared to fight them, it did suffer heavy casualties initially. It also exposed them to the barbaric and inhuman attitude of the LTTE.

However, after the initial setback, the IPKF reorganised itself to take on the LTTE and soon cleared it from all inhabited areas. It then facilitated the conduct of Sri Lankan Presidential and Parliamentary elections, which had been put off due to the fragile security environment.

Once the IPKF demonstrated that this could be done by conducting the elections in the North and East, the Sri Lankan government followed suit by holding the national elections. By the time the IPKF was withdrawn, it was in firm control of the entire North and East and it was probably the only time since Tamil insurgency started when the government's writ ran through the entire length and breadth of the country.

The IPKF casualty rates towards the end were closer to its peacetime figures. The North and East had been integrated for the first time, and a democratic government had been set up in Trincomalee.

But internal developments in the two countries soon undermined these major successes.

In Sri Lanka, a new leader, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was rising from his plebeian background to stake his claims for the leadership of a party that had been traditionally dominated by the Catholic elite, wanted to shore up his position among Sinhala voters. As a result he not only adopted the hawkish position that the IPKF should be withdrawn, he ended up collaborating with LTTE.

On the other hand in India a change of government resulted in the ultimate withdrawal of the IPKF, thereby negating the significant gains that had been achieved after sacrificing over 1,200 Indian lives.

Most of the gains of the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene accord were nullified when teh IPKF was withdrawn. But the fact that the accord was never abrogated and had been passed by the parliaments of the two countries, as well as the fact that it was placed in the UN General Assembly and commented favourably, has given India a say in this important matter.

It must be realised that the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene accord was a masterpiece negotiated by two visionaries who not only staked their reputations but also their lives to usher peace in this turbulent region.

The author is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst.

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