You are here

Uncertainty in Sri Lanka and

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • December 12, 2006

    The conflict in Sri Lanka is escalating everyday as the government forces and the Tamil Tigers take on each other with renewed determination. The peace process has all but collapsed and the violent encounters are leading to large-scale influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka into the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This fresh wave of refugees has brought a perceptible change in the perception of the people in Tamil Nadu in particular and India in general towards the ethnic conflict in Sri lanka. There is also a growing perception in India these days that India has to play a more active role in the ongoing Lankan crisis.

    The result of the recent survey by a New Delhi based TV news channel on Sri Lankan issue is indicative of this change. According to the NDTV findings, about 74 percent of Indians now say that the situation in Sri Lanka will 'explode' and interestingly, a majority of them are in favour of India's active involvement in the crisis. This survey is significant especially in the backdrop of visible changes that are taking place on the Sri Lankan issue in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu since April 2006.

    Although there may not be direct popular support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Tamil Nadu, the sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils and their cause is on the rise. Perhaps, for the first time since the assassination of the Rajiv Gandhi, people are taking to the streets to protest the Sri Lankan air raids in north and eastern Sri Lanka. The spontaneous reactions by the people of Tamil Nadu to the air attack at Sencholai orphanage centre in Vallipunam on 14 August 2006 and the school that sheltered Internally Displaced People (IDPs) at Vaharai on 8 November 2006 is indication that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is coming back as an important determinant of internal politics in Tamil Nadu.

    Describing the Sri Lankan aerial raid on the Sencholai orphanage centre as "barbaric, uncivilized and inhuman", the Tamil Nadu State Assembly observed two minutes' silence in honour of the victims. Earlier, through a unanimously adopted resolution on 17 August 2006, the assembly had also condemned indiscriminate attacks on Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. When Colombo criticised the resolution, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. K. Karunanidi, retorted that "if Tamils condemning the killing of their Tamil brethren was dubbed a mistake, then they (Tamil Nadu assembly) would continue to commit it." He also stated that there was a need for 'rethinking' India's policy towards Sri Lanka. While responding to Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko's statement that his government was not doing enough, Karunanidhi said "we should not be fighting between ourselves at a time when we should be battling Sinhalese chauvinists and their dominance on the Tamils in Sri Lanka". These remarks of Karunanidhi, (who has not been sympathetic to the LTTE since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991) signal the present mood in Tamil Nadu.

    At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-Eelam groups like MDMK, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and Tamizh Desiya Munnani (Tamil National Movement) are active in highlighting the atrocities of the Sri Lankan government and the suffering of Tamils through regular protests and demonstrations in the State. They have even lodged their protest with the central government in New Delhi. The Tamil Nadu branches of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and the Congress have also minced no words while condemning the Sri Lankan government actions. Even anti-LTTE voices like Jayalalitha have shown surprising restraint towards pro-Eelam groups like MDMK, which suggests that there is a certain change in the air. Apart from the political parties, the protests staged by various students' bodies and Chennai branch of the All India Bar Association demanding India's intervention in support of Tamils shows the widening bases of support for Sri Lankan Tamils among all sections of the populace in Tamil Nadu.

    The increasing use of air strikes by the Sri Lankan government with the aim of countering the LTTE, has affected the civilian population in the LTTE dominated areas in the north. The closure of the A9 highway between Colombo and Jaffna has also escalated the humanitarian crisis. According to conservative estimates, Tamils are leaving Sri Lanka in thousands. The growing influx of refugees with their harrowing tales of woe has been instrumental in shifting the political sensibility of the people in Tamil Nadu. Although India maintains a policy of non-intervention on the Sri Lankan issue, the change of political dynamics in Tamil Nadu in favour of the Tamils cause in Sri Lanka, is very likely to impact the policy of the central government towards Sri Lanka.

    The LTTE is also gaining enormously in the bargain. In fact, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE had lost its constituency among the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and had tried its best to make the public opinion in Tamil Nadu favourable again towards its struggle for Eelam. The LTTE had even indirectly admitted to its role in Rajiv assassination and expressed its regrets for the incident - which its spokesperson, Anton Balasingham had called 'a great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy' in June 2006. However, India had rejected that statement and the response from Tamil Nadu was not that significant. However, the government actions in recent months have revived a fresh wave of sympathy for the Tamils of Sri Lanka and for the LTTE by default. The popular antipathy towards LTTE in Tamil Nadu is slowly melting away, especially after the Vallipunam incident. The LTTE are in fact trying hard to get India into the peace process. An India advocating a federal solution and appreciative of Tamil interests is certainly an attractive proposition for the LTTE. Getting India involved in the peace process is obviously a strategic goal for the LTTE.

    While popular support for LTTE may not have shored up appreciably at the moment in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India, a few more incidents like Vallipunam and a continuation of the Sri Lankan government's military offensive in the Tamil areas may push public opinion in Tamil Nadu favourably towards LTTE. The situation in Sri Lanka now resembles the 1980s, when India was forced by circumstances to play the role of a facilitator and then a peace keeper. There is a view that the building up of the present humanitarian crisis in Jaffna is part of LTTE strategy to drag India into the process. While the Tigers are yet to make any formal proposal for reconciliation with New Delhi, they would be quite happy with attracting India's attention through creating a situation where it would be impossible for India not to involve itself more actively. There is also a counter-view that at this juncture LTTE would rather battle it alone, than get India involved in the conflict.

    While the Indian government has followed a policy of 'non-intervention' in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka since the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the continuous demand for India's involvement by both Tamils and Sinhalese, the agreement between two major Sinhala parties about a possible Indian role, the pressure from Tamil Nadu on the central government in New Delhi to help the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and the increasing role of Pakistan and China in recent years may necessitate a more active (if not pro-active) role for India in the days ahead.

    Besides, India's role in improving the situation in Sri Lanka is well recognised by the international community as well. Though pros and cons of an active Sri Lanka policy are being actively debated, the biggest factor determining Indian approach towards the ethnic situation in Sri Lanka would be the approach of Tamil Nadu political parties on this issue, especially when some of them are important constituents of the ruling coalition in New Delhi. While the Indian government is well aware of the change in political perceptions on the issue in Tamil Nadu, it remains to be seen how it is going to address the emerging domestic pressure in the coming days. For India, the best available alternative is to use its diplomacy to impress upon the Sri Lankan government to take appropriate measures to arrest the descent into full scale civil war. And at another level through the Norwegian facilitators, it can salvage the already battered peace process.