Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

6 thoughts on “Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka”

  1. In the absence of any bold move on India’s part our clout in that country will wither soon. Ideally (if possible) India should just annex Sri Lanka and integrate the North-East with Tamil Nadu and create Sinhala Pradesh out of whatever remains, and add one more state to the union. I guess the Sri Lankan Tamils would overwhelmingly prefer such a solution because a LTTE-dominated independent Tamil Eelam will be as undesirable as their current arrangement with the Sinhalese majority.

    This may sound wishful thinking and preposterous, but India had a good chance until 1950 to integrate Ceylon or at least the Tamil areas with the Indian Union, but our leaders didn’t have the strategic foresight to grab the opportunity. Both Nehru and Shastri wilted under Sinhalese tactics. Unlike the Lankan Tamils who have blood, ethnic and religious ties with India through Tamil Nadu, the Sinhalese have no such ties with any part of India (which explains their contempt for India’s interests).

    You may already know that Rajapakshe is travelling to China this week to get arms because India is apparently not giving them all they would like from us. This is certainly going to cause bitterness among the Sinhalese. And by sticking to our rigid position against the Tigers we have already created resentment among the SL Tamils.

    I am also disappointed at the way we are dealing with China. Tibet is our best trump card to settle the border dispute. But we are bending over backwards to please the Chinese. And by screwing up the nuclear deal we have lost that card as well to manage our relations with China. If this is how we manage our foreign policy and responsibility as an emerging power we don’t really deserve the UNSC seat.

  2. Fair point.

    India has placed too much faith in the “tensile strength” of its cultural and historic relations with SL and it still licking its wounds after the IPKF affair, and these factors have led it to take a hands off approach to SL.

    India’s foreign policy continues to be passive reactive, which in these times is simply not good enough. No one is and should be calling for an aggressive and vitriolic foreign policy- let India not be North Korea and Iran, but safeguarding national interest and especially in South Asia should be top priority. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case.

  3. Looks like India’s role has not been as hands-off as is commonly believed:

    That is apparently an IANS article by M.R. Narayan Swamy. I don’t know why it didn’t get much coverage in the Indian press. May be the powers-that-be didn’t want that, or may be something else was getting more play when this came out. Whatever it was, nobody questioned GoI on this.

  4. India can offer much more to Sri Lanka than Pakistan in terms of a market. This can prevent Srilanka from ignoring Indian interests (a la South Korea and China). Moreover, this dependence will be highly asymmetrical. Unless, of course, there’s a powerful anti-India lobby.

  5. India could not have annexed the tamil areas in the 50s because the Sri Lankan tamils were extremely resistant to this idea. Dont know the reasons though. Today in retrospect, they may think that it would have been a good idea.

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