May 4, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka?

Or should it just set up refugee camps?

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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 LTTEs 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.

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