India’s unequivocal stance and ‘political opportunity’       

There may have been decisive moments in the military thrust against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but last week saw a landmark event in the diplomatic offensive against the Tigers: India’s unequivocal rejection of active intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict.

This was articulated by Indian External Affairs minister Pranab
Mukherjee in the Indian legislature, the Lok Sabha, and led to turmoil there, forcing sittings to be temporarily suspended, for the Indian MPs seem to have instantly recognised the significance of what Mukherjee was saying.

As if that were not enough, Mukherjee was even more damning in his indictment of the LTTE. He blamed them for ‘damaging the interests of the Tamil community’ and urged the Tigers to lay down arms, and release all civilians the organisation had been holding as hostages. Mukherjee also noted that the group was still a proscribed outfit in India.

Explaining the Indian stance, the minister was to speak of a ‘political opportunity’ to restore peace to Sri Lanka’s war ravaged areas and spoke of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, as a means of devolving power to the regions - strong words indeed, and as unambiguous as it had ever been from our giant neighbour.

Judging from these comments, if the ground war against the Tigers has turned a corner, so has India in its attitude towards the LTTE terror machine, an organization which, it first nurtured, only to find it turning its guns against its former benefactors, leading to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The Gandhi killing was, undoubtedly, a miscalculation of gross proportions by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran - as his theoretician, Anton Balasingham, would, eventually, grudgingly concede - but even so, India had to factor in the sentiments of 66 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu, before it could act decisively against the LTTE.

This, it now seems to have done. As recently as mid-last year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was making recalcitrant noises about Sri Lanka’s military offensives against the Tigers, and calling for a less hostile level of engagement with the LTTE. For whatever reason, that Indian ambivalence seems to have perished now.

There could be many reasons for the change of heart across the Palk Straits. New Delhi may genuinely be convinced that Colombo is on the correct path, in dealing with the Tigers in a no-holds-barred offensive. Its attitude may be tempered by what happened in Mumbai. Then, it may be also realising that the LTTE faces imminent defeat.

The enormity of India’s endorsement of what Colombo is doing, lies not in the fact that it means New Delhi will not stand in the way of a military annihilation of the LTTE; it is because, it also effectively prevents any other superpower from dabbling too much in the Sri Lankan conflict.

In recent weeks, we have seen some such scenarios come to the fore. Britain made an ill-fated attempt to send a special envoy to Sri Lanka, the United States and Britain jointly called for restraint in the war, and even the various branch organisations of the United

Nations were making a din with their provocative statements.
Now, with India’s virtual endorsement of what Colombo is doing, these nations and organisations would have to think twice, before they commit themselves into the melee of public statements, special envoys and calls for a ceasefire. Already, that has been in evidence this week.
United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs & Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes, who had previously been branded a ‘terrorist’, for his sympathetic stance towards the LTTE, was in the country, and was suitably piqued by the Tigers’ refusal to release civilians trapped in the ever-shrinking conflict zone.

Holmes did call upon Government forces too to minimise civilian casualties in their military thrust, but significantly, there was no demand for a ceasefire, a prospect that has been anathema to the political and military hierarchy in Colombo, and a demand that has been dismissed as being ‘laughable’ by government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.

But Colombo cannot afford to be complacent. Firstly, the war is not over yet. And, as former LTTE strongman and now potential Sri Lanka Freedom Party member Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias ‘Karuna’, points out, when the conventional war ends, the Tigers will revert to guerrilla mode, in which it can operate for at least some time.

That is when the ‘political opportunity’ articulated by Mukherjee becomes vital. President Mahinda Rajapaksa should realise that the politicians in Colombo will want to cash in, for defeat is an orphan, while victory has many fathers. That is also when the nationalist bandwagon is likely to make strident calls for as little devolution as possible.

This is when the political leadership should step up and act, not in the manner of politicians, but in the mould of statesmen. The President, given his current popularity in the south, will be able to sell any package of meaningful autonomy to the minorities, to the southern electorate. And that is the ‘political opportunity’ that he should not forego.

Many leaders before him - Dudley Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunge - found it difficult to sell devolution to the Sinhalese. However, because of his military victories over the LTTE, the majority now trust President Rajapaksa. And it is a trust he should use wisely, not opportunistically.

For, it would be a tragedy indeed, if President Mahinda Rajapaksa wins the war, as no one before him has ever done, but loses the peace.