Military Matters


 Beleaguered or brotherly?                  

India’s two-faced two-tongued policy of blowing hot and cold on its willingness to supply Sri Lanka’s military needs, while expressing displeasure at Sri Lanka going ‘elsewhere’ for same, is a political ill wind that blows nobody in the region any good, least of all for India

It was only in the first week of March that Sri Lanka’s Military establishment was all agog over Indian pledges of support to Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, to help defeat the LTTE. The Army Chief met Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, the three service chiefs and, of course, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan.

In the last week of March, Narayanan switched back to New Delhi’s old fears, claiming “We are living in a dangerous neighbourhood,” adding that, on the security of India, “National consensus is more elusive today than in the past.”
He took digs at Pakistan and China and at Sri Lanka for going to these very two countries for military purchases, including artillery and ammunition.

Midweek, Narayanan voiced displeasure over Sri Lanka’s procurement of arms from Pakistan and that this would “compromise” India’s pre-eminent position in the region.

“We have to ensure that India’s pre-eminent position in the region is not compromised by Sri Lanka seeking arms elsewhere,” said Narayanan, after Sri Lanka admitted almost a month back, that it was procuring arms from Pakistan, as India had politely turned down the request, even though it was approached first.

Narayanan, who said Pakistan’s military strategy was India-centric and that the ISI continued to “mentor terror groups,” expressed concern over China and Pakistan sharing military technologies in the “nuclear and missile areas”, and China augmenting its space capabilities and modernising its military.

“We need to evolve a national consensus on whether China is a threat or a neighbour. We confront challenges rather than threats from China, but the situation is reversed in Pakistan. Unfortunately, national consensus is more elusive today than in the past, even though we are living in a dangerous neighbourhood,” Narayanan added.

It was only in mid-March that this columnist pointed out that India appears to be maturing and turning out to be a true regional leader in South Asia, and preparing to take up a permanent seat in the United Nation’s National Security Council.

After a chill in relations with Russia, India went out of its way to patch up relations, as the support of permanent members of the Security Council was important to New Delhi. India also needed the support of China and the USA, with which it has been having growing relations.

Narayanan took the opportunity to castigate the Left parties, which are constituents of the UPA, for their opposition to the civilian nuclear deal with the US, saying the opposition was for other motives and not related to nuclear weapons proliferation.

He listed the need for national consensus on at least three main issues, namely, civilian nuclear deal with US, whether China is threat or neighbour and on how much military assistance to be given to Sri Lanka or whether pressure needs to be exerted for a political solution. He demanded that the minority Tamil community in Sri Lanka be treated with dignity.

“The absence of a consensus is a major handicap. We need a resolution to this earlier rather than later,” Narayanan said. In mid-March, this column pointed out how India was ready to bury the hatchet and look towards becoming the giant it is expected to become, while, of course, retaining its pre-eminent position in the region.

India received Sri Lanka’s army chief slap bang after an official visit by the Bangladeshi army chief. We went on to detail the positive relations India was having with China, including signing of several agreements during a landmark visit by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who also sought good relations with the newly elected leadership in Pakistan.

All these adulations and praises were neutralized and negated when Narayanan, midweek, directed jabs at all the regional players, during a lecture, significantly, given to the country’s top military brass in the National Security Assembly (NSA). He was delivering the 25th Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal memorial lecture, significantly, on National Security and Building a Consensus for the 21st Century.

To dismiss these statements, coming as it did, from the national security advisor to the prime minister, as not part of Indian policy, may be unwise. Unlike Sri Lanka, which perhaps looks at national security as a partisan issue, India considers it a national issue, irrespective of the party in office. There may not be consensus across the political spectrum, but certainly, national security is considered an important issue by one and all.

On the face of it, Narayanan appears to be putting a spanner in Sri Lanka’s military pursuits, and this appears to be the understanding among mid-career senior officers of the army. But, a senior official within the establishment, was not unduly disturbed by this statement.

“What they say is not policy, we must judge the country by what it does,” said the Defence official on condition of anonymity. In fact, the real motive of this statement may have been to justify the process of providing offensive weapons to Sri Lanka.

The Defence Official may, however, not be conversant with the latest political happenings across the Palk Strait. Also, he may be reminded that in 2003, India was all set to sign a Defence Pact with Sri Lanka and, in fact, mooted one and stated it very clearly during a joint statement between Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) leader and Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. But, the Defence Pact never materialized during the tenure of the BJP government nor in the UPA government that came to power the following year.

New Delhi, irrespective of who is in power, may not be supportive of the LTTE, but it is certainly for a political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and, as Narayanan pointed out that, the Tamil community must be treated with dignity.

This will be a lingering issue in New Delhi, as it knows that harsh treatment of Tamils has a spillover effect in Tamil Nadu in respect of refugees. The Centre has always wanted to keep the state of Tamil Nadu happy, and this is more so, when the ruling party there is a constituent party of the Centre.

Narayanan’s latest provocative statement on Sri Lanka, may be an attempt by the ruling Congress to appease some of its constituent parties, while the call for consensus on the civilian nuclear deal with US, may be to get the Marxist parties opposed to it, on board, while the jab on Pakistan may be to offset any advantage the Congress party’s rival could secure.

Since a clear majority by any single party is being already ruled out, the Congress party would like to keep its constituent parties on board, perhaps to contest as a group or form a coalition after the hustings. So far, the Congress party has not responded to the Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar’s proposal.

If we are to take Narayanan on face value, one possible explanation is that he may be responding to the recent political developments in India and the call by Union Minister Sharad Pawar for the ruling United Progressive Alliance, as a collective entity, to contest the Lok Sabha elections to be held possibly in the latter part of this year or the first quarter of next year.

Elections or no elections, Narayanan, in the not too distant past, after meeting Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and pledging support, attacked Sri Lanka’s military pursuits even before the sibling of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the commander in chief of the armed services could arrive in Sri Lanka.

Narayanan, after meeting Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, had said that India is a big power in the region, and Sri Lanka should not approach Pakistan and China for weapon purchases. He has also said that Sri Lanka can approach New Delhi for this requirement, but added that India will not equip Sri Lanka with “offensive capability.”

This statement evoked anti-Indian feelings among patriotic Sri Lankans, mainly, the Sinhala nationalists. But, this could very well be an attempt to appease the constituent parties, so that others may not capitalize on it.

But, this time, when Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Army Chief General Fonseka visited India, the treatment by Narayanan and others were different. Indian military chiefs expressed the view that New Delhi wanted the Sri Lankan Army to maintain the upper hand over the LTTE.

Narayanan, who also met Fonseka and later Minister Douglas Devananda, was quite categorical: “India would play a major role in Sri Lanka’s efforts to solve the problems it is up against.”

Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, too, announced that India helps Sri Lanka contain terrorism.
General Fonseka pledged to defeat the LTTE at the earliest, but rightly did not give deadlines for the annihilation of the Tigers. Only recently, he was forced to extend a previous deadline given by him.

First-hand infomation

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is politically quite savvy, knows his government’s clock is ticking and not just India, in Sri Lanka, too, there would be general elections. He has the choice to wait till the government’s full term ends and run the risk of losing the polls on account of the anti-incumbency factor.

He could dissolve Parliament and call for snap polls to gain a political advantage over military achievement so far. But, besides the east, the military has failed to deliver the goods in the Wanni and the north in terms of securing territory. But, the Army, Navy and Air Force have separately inflicted damage on the LTTE in their lair.

“It takes time for the effects of these operations to manifest on the LTTE organisation,” said a senior military officer.
In a couple of days, the first anniversary of President Rajapaksa’s audience with Pope Benedict XVI will come up. It was on the sidelines of this meeting that inquiry was made of the status of Madhu. The President has said at many for a, he wanted the security forces to wrest control of Madhu, so that he could enable the Catholic population in the South, as well as in the north for that matter, to visit the holy shrine without fear. But, that has not happened as yet, despite the operations commencing 14 months ago.

Unusual torrential rains lashed Madhu and the rest of Mannar, slowing down military advancement, despite the goal being so close and yet so far.

No change has been made across the 12 km northern Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil axis in terms of land control, despite attempts by both sides from August 2006, to capture territory. Rains saved the day for the Tigers in the north as well, even as the Mechanized Infantry Regiment was raring to go. The Tigers have dug trenches to stall the advancement of the vehicles.

The weather is no longer predictable- the Northeast and Southwest monsoons are irregular and operations are affected as a result.

But, all these explanations cannot be proffered at the polls, as the masses have given this government a mandate and expect it to deliver the goods. The cost of living has skyrocketed, but the people are ready to grin and bear with the hope that terrorism will be crushed. But, time is running out and what guarantee does President Rajapaksa have in the security forces wresting control of the Wanni, Weli Oya and northern fronts, to reach Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, before the end of this government’s term?

It was in this backdrop that President Rajapaksa summoned Friday’s National Security Council (NSC) meeting. In addition to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the three service chiefs, all the top commanders of all forces in the Northern and Wanni fronts, were asked to brief him on the operations so far and the hurdles they are up against. Previously, it was only the service chiefs who briefed the Commander in Chief of the armed services at the NSC.

Security Forces Commanders are actually Co-Commanders of the Army. SF Commander Jaffna, Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri was present while SF Commander Wanni was a notable absentee. Divisional Commanders, GOC 57 Division Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, GOC 58 Division Brig. Shavindra Silva and GOC 59 Division Brig. Nandana Uduwatte represented the army. The Navy was represented by Com North and Com East, Rear Admirals Samarasinghe and Peiris respectively.