India has allowed itself to be convinced that it cannot take on the Tamil Tigers. It can, and it should.
When it comes to India’s policy towards Sri Lanka, two claims are passed of as articles of faith: that common ethnicity between Indian Tamils and their Sri Lankan counterparts makes the situation unique, and that the LTTE is so popular in Tamil Nadu state to rule out India taking sides against the terrorist organisation. These claims are then used to justify a policy of inactivity by the central government and a tacit material support for the Tigers at the state level. The LTTE, the argument goes, is only fighting the Sri Lankan government, and India should refrain from antagonising a deadly, unforgiving organisation that can create all sorts of problems in the South, not least by stirring up secessionist tendencies among Indian Tamils.
Myths of the paralysing kind
It’s a compelling narrative. But also one that is based on unfounded claims. There’s nothing unique about common ethnicity being a major factor in India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. Common ethnicities in Jammu & Kashmir, and to an extent in Punjab, are a factor in India’s relations with Pakistan. Common ethnicity is a factor in India’s relations with Bhutan and Nepal, for instance, in the refugee and the Madhesi issues. Common ethnicity is a big factor in India-Bangladesh relations, where there is both a Bengali and Assamese element. Muslim sentiment is a factor in India’s relations with the countries of the Middle East. But a common ethnicity or religion does not mean that India’s foreign policy is hostage to this factor. The principle challenge in foreign affairs for a diverse, federal country as India is evolving a policy that takes into account these factors while ensuring that the overall national interest is not compromised. Also, bonds of common ethnicity and religion can be a source of strength, for instance, by providing India special channels of communication to foreign governments.
The second claim—that the popular support the LTTE enjoys in Tamil Nadu makes it impossible for India to take a hostile stance against the Tigers—is similarly untenable. This view conflates sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils with support for the Tamil Tigers. The latter is by no means universal—even among Sri Lankan Tamils themselves. If the LTTE is the sole voice of the Sri Lankan Tamils today, it is because of its systematic elimination of its competition (which in turn, is partially the result of Indian inaction). While the LTTE does enjoy support among a section of the Tamil Nadu politicians, if not the population itself, this cannot be construed to mean that the whole state supports the LTTE. For instance, if one politician openly champions the Tigers’ cause, another could put him behind bars for doing so. The “we can’t touch the LTTE” myth has proved convenient to the UPA government which could do nothing about the Naxalites, the Nepalese Maoists, the Bangladeshi jihadis and the home-grown foot soldiers of the Pakistani jihadi establishment either. In the non-ideological politics of Tamil Nadu state, the leading parties are realists. They will support—tacitly or otherwise—a determined effort by the central government as long as they have a convincing explanation for the electorate.
Indian peace making force
So if India is not constrained as it is made out to be, should it intervene in the conflict? The Acorn has argued that it should. Intervention should be informed by two considerations: that Indian interests call for a stable Sri Lanka that does not play host to hostile or outside interests; and second, that the Sri Lankan Tamils enjoy the rights and freedoms on equal terms as their Sinhala counterparts. The first calls for India to engage the Sri Lankan government if only to prevent it from looking elsewhere for support. The second calls for India to help arrive at a political compromise that can end the state of perpetual war. The LTTE could have been a possible interlocutor if it had shown signs of being prepared for a negotiated settlement. But its actions leave no room for doubt that it seeks to achieve its maximalist agenda—independence—by force, even if this results in more violence and human tragedy. Owing to its own determined refusal to become part of the solution, the LTTE has ended up as part of the problem.
The weaker the better
The fact that the LTTE is harming the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils is a necessary but not sufficient reason for India to prevent it from becoming any stronger militarily. The point is that allowing a terrorist outfit which has carried out attacks against Indians in Indian territory to develop greater capability is inimical to India’s own security. As this blog has pointed out before, capabilities take time to develop. Intentions, on the other hand, can change overnight. Advanced, if unconventional, naval and air strike capabilities already allow the LTTE to implicitly threaten India. That threat can become explicit at some future date. The fact remains that whatever India may make of the Sri Lankan conflict, it is not in India’s interests to allow the Tigers to possess capabilities that they can use to threaten India. One may argue that this should apply to the Sri Lankan government too. Well it does. But states have greater responsibilities than unconventional forces and terrorists and have strong incentives to avoid war.
Should India’s armed forces fight the LTTE again? Not before it tries a number of military and diplomatic options to coerce the Sri Lankan antagonists into a settlement. But unless India demonstrates the will and readiness to fight another war in Sri Lanka, it’s unlikely that any option short of the use of military force will be successful. In any case, a readiness to use force is a better guarantee of the LTTE’s professed good intentions towards India than a reliance on Prabhakaran to keep his word.