Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka?

Or should it just set up refugee camps?

Or should it just set up refugee camps?

Expect the Indian government to maintain its silence on the deepening crisis in Sri Lanka until the Tamil Nadu state assembly elections are over. If those elections throw up a government that needs to rely on the support of politicians sympathetic to the LTTE cause, then the Indian government will find itself in a closer bind than it is in currently. Indeed, it is hard to rule out the possibility that the LTTE may have factored in the TN assembly elections while choosing the timing of its latest offensive. Retaliation by Sri Lankan security forces against the LTTE, and the inevitable collateral damage, will result in sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. It is entirely possible that the LTTE is counting on this factor to work in favour of pro-Tiger politicians contesting TN elections.

Cut-out tasks

Unless Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa returns to power with a solid majority (as only PublicGyan currently predicts), India will find it difficult to take a tough line against the LTTE after the forthcoming elections. Like Nepal, the reason why India finds itself facing extremely hard choices is because it failed to make them when they were less so. It also follows that the longer India sits on the fence, the worse its choices will become.

Fickle friends, fast enemies

Sinhalese politicians and the Sri Lankan government are now calling for Indian assistance, rejecting their requests will throw them into the arms of other outside powers. The influx of Tamil refugees is now a trickle, but can turn into a deluge if the Sri Lankan armed forces renew battle with foreign military assistance. And despite all the sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils, the LTTE is a ruthless terrorist organisation, with irredentist aims and a fascist leadership model. A state of Eelam controlled by the LTTE is neither good for India, nor indeed, for the Sri Lankan Tamils themselves. Therefore, the disposition of the next Tamil Nadu state government notwithstanding, it is time for the Indian government to outline a new policy towards its war-torn southern neighbour.

Not many remember that it was the Sinhalese leadership under Prime Minister and President Ranasinghe Premadasa and his colleagues like Lalith Athulathamudali that began undermining the previous Indian intervention from the very time of its inception. The prevailing winds today blow in favour of Indian intervention. But politics is fickle, and the Sinhalese version is no exception.

Besides, the LTTE has grown in strength over the last decade and a half. The Indian Army could have decimated it the early 1990s if the Indian political leadership and media had shown more resolve. Today the LTTE has vastly improved its organisation, equipment, strategy and tactics.

An option for every stomach?

India’s options (apart from inactivity that can by no means be termed masterly) range from going on a diplomatic offensive against LTTE’s foreign sources of funding and arms, extending passive military assistance to the Sri Lankan armed forces, and through to a military intervention. The military intervention itself could form part of the role of an armed ceasefire monitor (‘IPKF-2’) or anti-LTTE operations in conducted jointly with the Sri Lankan armed forces. Here’s the tough bit. The only option that has not been tried before is the last, and the most expensive one — a military offensive to finish off the LTTE.

Sending the Indian armed forces to defeat the LTTE on its home turf against deep misgivings among segments of India’s own population is costly in every sense of the word. Assuming that the probability of its success are high, are the benefits worth it? Firstly, India will be in a position to determine the contours of a settlement of the festering dispute in Sri Lanka, whether this results in a federal solution or an independent Eelam. Second, the current and future threat that the LTTE poses to India will be neutralised. Third, stability in Sri Lanka will help promote the cause of development. A refugee crisis will be avoided. Fourth, by projecting its power, India’s diplomatic hand will be strengthened vis-a-vis its role to promote the stability of the region.

Failure on the other hand would mean a long-drawn insurgency followed by an ignominous retreat.

Pinch yourself, hard

Much depends therefore, on the Defence Ministry’s assessments of India’s military capabilities and the Joint Intelligence Committee’s reading of the situation. If the assessment is that this is a war India can win, then it is a war worth fighting. The weak-kneed UPA government, though, does not have the stomach for it. It may not even have the political imagination to convince the people of Tamil Nadu that as far as the Sri Lankan Tamils are concerned, the LTTE is as bad a problem as the oppression it claims to be fighting against. Besides, refugee camps sit nicely with the paradigm of vote bank politics.

9 thoughts on “Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka?”

  1. Nitin

    I do not think that only decimating LTTE will achieve the stability.
    Although I am on thin grounds here, I have the impression that Sri Lankan polity is hostage to right wing Singhalese who define Sri Lanka in terms of Singhalese identity and consider Tamils as foreigners.

    Unless extremism from both Tamil and Singhalese population is curtailed, stability is a distant dream.

    I will favour a long term strategy with a mixture of economic pressure, stopping arms supply to LTTE, change in leadership of LTTE (through wet jobs if needed) and ensuring a federal constitution. But it needed to be started yesterday.

    However considering the ground reality of Tamil Nadu politics, I think it is next to impossible to do anything except nothing 😐


  2. “Interfering in other peoples affairs typically end up being a very slippery slope” – Yes Prime Minister (in some mangled form). The indian govt interfered quite a bit and the slope is indeed slippery.

    India shouldn’t be fighting Srilanka’s war. IPKF was a typical Rajiv Gandhi size blunder, it achieved nothing except divert attention off Bofors for some days. It was made worse with various Indian agencies working at cross purposes, and Rajiv Gandhi’s/Prabhakaran’s sense of revenge with each other. It wasn’t just Indian agencies playing the double game quite a few others were also (ex: Israel) were also playing double games in Sri Lanka. One Mossad tell it all describes how Israelis were training LTTE and Sri Lankan army at the same time in the same area without each other knowing. Apparently Israeli’s didn’t care whether the “monkeys” killed each other.

    Any overt Indian option is extremely limited – India cannot send its army out there, it is not India’s fight. It needs to provide arms to Lankan government other wise they will risk sending them in paki arms. India will need to be ready for refugees – you can’t expect Norway to take them in can you? If India goes and divides the Island it will have two unfriendly neighbours to deal with rather than one. Unlike before, India does not even have too much leverage, LTTE seems to be operating fine with out much of (known) Indian help. Finally, what exactly is the political settlement, and then the PVNR question – is the problem ripe for a solution?

    Then there are the other strategic (and tactical) questions, can India deal with problems at both ends? Say one in Nepal and one in Sri Lanka. What happens if Nepal erupts in few months time just as the time Lanka erupts out. You could have refugee crisis in the north and the south both of which might require some form of intervention. Also what are India’s strategic objectives? Does India want a Tamil Ealam or a united Sri Lanka or does it want a federal embrace of Sri Lanka i.e free trade easy borders and few indian navy bases and a hope that improved economy will solve the Lankan problem. As usual indian strategists seem pretty quite and the “UPA Government” cannot think beyond their next cupt of tea.

  3. First thing to ask is: does India have a dog in this fight? Yes, Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus, and have some sort of kinship with Indian Tamils, but is that reason enough to get involved? In fact, the LTTE terrorizes more Tamils then the Sinhalese do.

    But for argument sake, India does get involved militarily, it should be with goal of destroying the LTTE. India should accept nothing less.

  4. IMHO, its always safer to ignore your neighbours than attempting to play the role of a big brother… Political conflicts are more of a “He Said…She Said…” variety with both sides having said enough lies…

    Organizations such as LTTE are far more dangerous as smaller “Terrorist Groups” targetting the public than as a large guerrilla groups using terrorist tactics…

    Getting ourselves involved in Sri Lanka (in favour of the govt.) is simply inviting more terrorists threat on domestic ground… We already have enough groups doing that within India, so why bring in more… Hunting for Terrorists (a group that rarely wears Name-Tag)among a billion people is much harder than searching for a needle in a hay stack…

    What the public usually sees after a terrorist attack are loss of innocent human lifes… Something they don’t realize is the negative impact it has on the domestic economy… From driving away potential investors and to scaring consumers from visiting crowded areas…

    The Question Indian Politicians must ask themselves is what is more important “Economy” or “Political Domination within Asia”… But these are questions that our politicians rarely ask… They are more interested in staying in power or coming to power… And that depends on how the main stream media sells it to the popular culture… Its easy to sell this as “Tamils = Hindus” on a national level or “Tamils in Sri Lanka = Tamils in Tamil Nadu”



  5. Why are we ruling out the option of going to war with a fascist LTTE? perhaps it is necessary after all. i think we can take out a leaf from the american experience during the world wars. they had large communities of German and irish americans who were dead opposed to going to war but that didn’t stop them from going to war against hitler or the kaiser before him.

    My point is make a dispassionate analysis and dxo what is in the national interest and the fascist LTTE is defintely not.

    we can thereafter use the “diplomatic” methods to pressure the srilankans to giving up their bigotry against ethnic minorities.

    so simple yet we make it seem like a uphill mountain.

    like nitin said we find ourselves making extremely hard choices because we did not make them when they were less hard. our government failed to pick up some loose geopolitical change.

  6. Isn’t it an easy case to make that Rajiv Gandhi’s killers will not be given a second thought especially by Congress I lead government with Sonia Gandhi as its leader. If arming Sri Lankans is not an easy decision for GOI, I am not sure what is.

  7. >> Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka? Or should it just set up refugee camps?

    Hmm … it’s not necessarily a choice between war or the refugee camps.
    If the war escalates in Sri Lanka (whether supported or opposed by India), the refugees are going to pour (or paddle?) in! – which is not in India’s best interests.
    So … wouldn’t it be in India’s best interest to push for a de-escalation of the war instead? By roping in Norway and other mediators, if necessary?

    Just wondering …

  8. The LTTE is a vile organisation that, outside of political parties playing the Tamil nationalistic angle, hardly anyone is sympathetic to. It is hardly a secret that the LTTE has murdered and maimed as many, if not more, Tamils as Sri Lankan military personnel/civilians. LTTE has also shown that it has little love for India when push comes to shove. They should be dealt with ruthlessly. Only that can bring peace to Sri Lanka. They have not helped the cause of the common Tamil people in the island in anyway, so I’m not sure why there should be heartburn in Tamil Nadu if India decides to take them on.

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