Clipping the LTTE’s wings

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.

14 thoughts on “Clipping the LTTE’s wings”

  1. The common ethnicity not unique to this issue, and is common across various issues determining India’s foreign policy, but then I doubt if the magnitude and nature of the common ethnicity in determining support for a cause is equal or similar across all issues. In this case, LTTE enjoys widespread support, not amongst the common people rather the tamil nationalists. It also enjoyed enough support to enable it to carry out the attack on Rajiv Gandhi (this could not have been done without Indian support, especially in respect to safe houses and arms movement). This segment of the tamil political scene are dangerous largely because economic liberalisation has made their ideology redundant, and they have lost relevance. An attack on LTTE gives them the right fodder to drum up and revive their movement. On this bandwagon, there will be a few willing politicians in TN, like Ramdoss, Thol Thirumavalavan, Vaiko etc who will jump onto the bandwagon, largely because they need to do so to retain their relevance. Right now they are retaining their relevance over issues like the Kannagi Selai and Kushboo issue, LTTE a much larger issue than this and is right up their alley.

    As you have rightly pointed out, in the non ideological politics of TN, this would not be an issue as long as there is a strong counter balance to such characters, that is at present the pragmatic MK. In the post MK era (which is the likely time when there will be action) neither Stalin nor Maran are strong enough to counter these forces, and secondly, there will be a scramble to become the principle opposition to JJ. JJ has been mum/neutral on the issue of tamil nationalism/culture, it’s the DMK/PMK/DPI’s pet issue. The easiest route to attain that status in TN, is through Tamil Culture/Nationalism, and the LTTE issue is right up their doorstep. These tamil nationalists, who wish to increase their presence, will no doubt try to form a collective voice consisting of various parties like PMK/DPI/DK etc, and maybe even the DMK, under that situation, a unified voice can create an impression of widespread support for the LTTE. And depending on economic policies, they can link this upto the issue of Delhi being insensitive to Tamils and demand more devolution of power. Win an election using LTTE issue, get Delhi to stop action, throw opponents into jail and build a strong cadre would be the policy followed by anyone winning election using the LTTE.

    The point is not whether there is universal support for LTTE, rather will the tamil nationalists be able to turn it into an electoral issue. The answer is yes, especially in the post MK scenario. The electorate are indifferent towards issues and will vote depending on what catches their fancy, and don’t have any strong beliefs/issues, under this scenario, the Tamil nationalists could successfully turn the LTTE issue into an electoral issue or create a perception of popular support and sympathy. It’s the support on ground, rather how saleable the issue is electorally. It is a hugely saleable electoral issue, and can act as a catalyst to revive the dormant tamil nationalist movement. In the post MK era, that saleability is considerably increased because there is no strong counter balance to the tamil nationalists. Any action against the LTTE would depend on MK deciding to counter balance the tamil nationalists (and his support is unreliable, he will jump ship if it suits him, which would be disastrous for Delhi)

    As of now, politicians in TN are content using the LTTE as an excuse to throw one another into jail, largely because there is no big crises there involving India. It still is weird that JJ jailed Vaiko because at that point of time, when he was jailed he was a non entity, jailing Vaiko just increased the visibility he got and support he had, it virtually revived his vote base in and around Madurai. In 2006 this did not become a serious issue because Vaiko jumped sides and MK decided to keep mum, and finally India decided to keep quiet.

    Before any action against the LTTE is taken, the intention of the SL govt should be clear, the IPKF came close to defeating the LTTE (who were holed up in the jungles of north sri lanka), and an implicit understanding between Jayawardene and Prabakaran lead to the unravelling of the accord. Without knowing the intentions of the SL govt, India should not act. Moveover, before acting, India should neutralise the tamil nationalists back home, which currently seems difficult (considering MK’s weakened position as the leader of the Tamil Nationalists). Rather than that, it is better that India acts as a mediator between the two parties because it is in the best position to do so. A team consisting of both tamil leaders and Delhi babus would be in an ideal position to solve the issue, and also establish a strong Indian presence on the island. Merely turning a blind eye to the conflict as being currently followed is disastrous to Indian foreign policy, as you have earlier pointed out that it leads to the Chinese and Americans being able to encircle India.

  2. Assuming that acquiring aircrafts is just a matter of ordering them through eBay.

    Uncomfortable Questions:

    1. How was it possible for LTTE cadre to acquire the necessary training for flying those aircrafts? Where in the world did they get this training?

    2. The location of LTTE’s airstrip is not a secret. Why hasn’t the SLAF been able to destroy it yet?

    3. How and Where did the LTTE get its cadre trained for maintaining these aircrafts?

    4. The news that LTTE was creating an air wing has been on the airwaves for a long time. How did it so happen that no credible efforts were made to stop it? And if they were made, how did they fail so magnificently?

    5. Why was the 3-D (Chinese) Radar coverage removed from Colombo soon after the current SL President took over? Why was it replaced with an inferior (Indian provided, but possibly Israeli made) 2-D Radar?

  3. Currently, the pro ellam parties in tn, namely MDMK, PMK, DMDK, and Nedumaran have remained silent on the issue because Mk has told them to remain so, it is because of MK’s ability to control and contain them. It is doubtful if MK will be able to have this kind of authority even if India decides to militarily help SL Army, much more than it currently does. Secondly, in the Post Mk scenario, neither Stalin nor Maran can contain these voices which will grow in strength. They can successfully turn it into an issue of ‘Manila Suyatchi’ and that could prove disastrous for Delhi.

  4. Vatsan,

    On the political angle, suffice it to say that there is a lack of imagination and leadership on part of those whose job it is to develop and sell the policy to the public. That’s a bigger reason why India finds itself resigned to accept events rather than shape them.

    On the bit about mediation and the composition of the negotiating team—well, sure, that is perhaps how it should be. But it is unlikely that the LTTE will be any more amenable to Indian mediation than to the Norwegian, if it believes that India is not ready to use force. We can expect some shenanigans from the Colombo side too, but things are very different under Kumaratunga, Rajapakse or Wickramasinghe than it was under Premadasa/Athulathamudali.

  5. Nitin, on the mediation, if the Prabakaran has to deal with those who have been providing him logistical since the inception of his organisation, he will be more amenable. If he does break an accord signed, through negotiations with Nedumaran, Prabakaran risks the possibility of loosing his logistical support base in the form of people like Nedumaran. This means his ability to wage future wars is compromised. Secondly, the tamil negotiators, being sympathisers of the Ellam cause will lead to some security within LTTE that they will not sell out while negotiating with the govt.

    Here the hurdle is not so much Prabakaran sticking to his commitments, rather convincing the government of Sri Lanka that its in its best interest to use people like Nedumaran as mediators. The Sri Lankan government would rightly be insecure about their role considering they have openly supported the Ellam Cause.

    PS: ELlam Cause does not mean support for LTTE, the LTTE can convert support for Ellam into support for itself only if there is a strong Indian involvement, otherwise it will fail to do so. LIke in the 2006 elections, when violence in SL had little impact on the elections,though the regional press portrayed it as the govt violating the agreement with LTTE.

  6. The ethnicity link:

    The distinction between SL Tamilians and the LTTE is not so clear cut in my experience. Have a few friends who express a lot of sympathy for SL tamils and believe that the LTTE is fighting for them -ie. they believe that but for the LTTE the SL Tamils would have been a lot worse off than they are in now. I feel this sentiment is more widespread than we think and weakened only because of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; but for that there would have been a lot more open support.

    Its fun to watch them differentiate this conflict from Kashmir where they take entirely the opposite view.


  7. Referring to the letter written by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reply to it, Mukherjee said, “So far as India’s role is concerned, we have stated our position very clearly. A solution should be found within the 1)territorial integrity of Sri Lanka
    2)and within the framework of its Constitution,
    3) by addressing the legitimate aspirations of the ethnic group, especially the Tamils,” he added.

    1) Tamils want a “federal set up with increased power + non-discriminating constitution”. Presently,the constitution accords legally more power/preference to the sinhala buddhists – which is the major grudge.

    2) This “outright POWER for the sinhala buddhists” was obtained by dissolving the older constitution in 1972.

    Article 29 of the OLD constitution gave a semblance of rights to the non-buddhist/non-sinhalese. When this was dissolved and newer constitution was formed – “article 29 or its equivalent” was NOT introduced – effectively making the non-buddhist Tamils “SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS” !

    3) The sinhalese are NOT willing to CHANGE the constitution which could pacify the Tamils at the same time, they are NOT willing to let go of the “territorial integrity”.

    4) Basically, they are NOT willing to negotiate on both issues i.e more power devolution within present SL + lesser discrimination” or “partition”

  8. For any “talk” to be made “LEGAL” – it should NOT be in violation of the existing constitution of that country.

    Even if the “talk” gives more “rights” to the Tamils, it will be “violating” the SL constitution which is against equality.

    Hence, for any meaningful solution, either the constitution must be changed or there has to eelam.

    For the constitution to change, the “sinhala majority” parliament must take action – it cant be done by the LTTE or the SL Tamils.

  9. It is stupid to compare the kashmir issue with what is happening in Eelam since the kashmiris have citizenship of India + no legal discrimination + rights as “minorities”.

    In SL, 1 million Tamils were stripped of citizenship – no voting rights/ration card etc.

    Tamils do NOT have any constitutional protection to follow their language/religion since the sinhala buddhists have dissolved the older constitution to favour them.

    There are other issues like:
    Discrimination in job/education.
    Burning down Jaffna library which housed around 90,000+ rare Tamil books/manuscripts
    Removing citizenship for the Tamils
    Continuous genocide since 1956.
    Altering the constitution in 1972 leading to more power for the sinhalese/buddhists.
    Banning any kinda cultural interactions between the Tamils in TN and Eelam Tamils who are separated by just 20 miles of shallow sea at the shortest point etc are grudges that existed and still exists.

    FYI, SL govt supplied weapons to the LTTE to fight against the IPKF when it wanted to throw it away from SL ‘coz of the compulsions of hardline sinhala parties like JVP.

    NO country supports the LTTE – they are mainly funded by the diaspora Tamils unlike pak funding kashmir terrorism.

    It is politically naive to compare two different issues – apples and oranges !

  10. Vijay

    (Regarding your comment in #10)

    You are right. There is no comparison between Kashmiri people (even if people of Gilgit, Baltistan and even “Azad” Kashmir, lack political rights in Pakistan) and the Sri Lankan Tamils. And none are made in this post.

    The point is about common ethnicity—that there are people of the same ethnic group in India, and this is a factor in India’s relations with the other country.

  11. NItin, while common ethnicity does affect India’s foreign relations, is the nature of the common ethnicity and the bond it creates between the two sides similar in all cases? Even if there is common ethnicity, the foreign relationship will be determined more by the latter than the former. I dont think it is safe to assume that is uniform across the board.

    Secondly, I notice that you constantly consider that the LTTE can launch into another attack on India, and that because intentions change overnight, it is possible since the LTTE now has the capability. That in principle is correct, the LTTE does have the capability of attacking India, therefore if intentions change it can. But I notice that you have missed the costs of such an action, which if carried out without the support of Tamil Nationalists Movement leaders like Nedumaran, or even MK/Ramdoss can lead to a huge dent in LTTE’s logistical support base, especially for its operatives and its gun running. Would the LTTE risk attacking India and loosing the support of its long time allies who are sympathetic towards the Ellam cause? I dont think they would unless India provides them with a strong enough reason, which could be another IPKF.

    Rajiv Gandhi assassination was not carried out by the LTTE alone, it clearly must have had the blessing of the Tamil nationalists, without their support the LTTE would not risk such a move. I dont think the TNM movement would give LTTE the permission to carry out another such attack without a strong enough reason.

    While India monitoring the LTTE is essential because it is a terrorist organisation, but the threat posed by the LTTE is not as high as you have mentioned in your blog. A serious cost-benefit analysis of an attack on India from the perspective of the LTTE would show that the LTTE is unlikely to attack India.

    The Tigers are clearly averse to attacking India and pissing their TNM friends.

  12. Vatsan

    Here’s what I wrote:
    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.

    The point is about the threat of attack, rather than attack itself. Sea and air strike capacity makes the LTTE’s threat credible, even if the threat itself is implicit (ie unstated) for now. Once they have a credible threat, the LTTE can use it to compel or deter India as the case may be.

    So (a) India has to neutralise the LTTE’s threat and (b) make its own threats credible.

  13. Credible threat from LTTE?

    The LTTE is smart enough to know that any kind of action in Indian soil whether overt or covert would be suicide, that’s the reason why they have laid low here after 1991. Don’t see the situation changing in the near future

    As for the capacity, they do have a bunch of planes that seem to fly, they have a bunch of amateur pilots, does that mean they can take on a major nuclear power in the near future? A full fledged confrontation with the IAF would be a pea-shooter versus cannon battle

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