India’s problems with the Indian Ocean Emerald Isles
by Ramtanu Maitra on 15 Oct 2012 19 Comments

On India’s southern frontier, New Delhi’s failure to develop a strategic relationship with Sri Lanka, separated from India by the 33-50 mile wide Palk Strait, is most intriguing. What is to be noted is that unlike India’s relationship with Pakistan, which was orchestrated by the British Raj when it partitioned the Indian subcontinent in 1947 under the pretext of protecting the Muslim minority from the Hindu majority and successfully created a state of “permanent” hostility between the two large religious groups, New Delhi and Colombo had really no reason to be hostile toward each other.


Yet since the late 1970s, these two countries have blown hot and cold. The issue that brought about the present level of unease was the status of the Tamil ethnic group in Sri Lanka. The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka are of Indian origin, with their identities conveniently connected to fellow Tamils residing in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait.


Rajapaksa visit: Too many spoilers at work


The continuing role of the Tamil Nadu politicos in preventing a strategic and useful relationship between the two countries by handcuffing the weak political authorities now in-charge of New Delhi was again on display when the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India last month (Sept. 19-22).


The visit, which the Sri Lankan president diplomatically labeled as “successful”, was an opportunity to redress the decades-long misunderstandings that have taken a hold on the bilateral relations of these two countries. To begin with, last March when the UN's top human rights body, UNHCR, tabled a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to properly investigate alleged war crimes during its 26-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers, India went along with the anti-Colombo western nations and voted in favor of the resolution, raising quite a few hackles in Colombo.


Then, days before President Rajapaksa’s arrival, a minor event, ugly as it was, soured the situation. A few Christian pilgrims, who had come from Sri Lanka to visit a popular Catholic shrine, were attacked by a group of Tamil fanatics. Upon their return to Sri Lanka, one pilgrim said: “They (the Tamil attackers: ed) were carrying LTTE flags and pictures of the late LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.” The attack, and a series of earlier protests against the Catholic pilgrims, prompted the Sri Lankan High Commission to issue a travel advisory to its nationals wanting to visit the Indian state.


This was, however, a prelude to the spectacle that was dished out later by the anti-Sinhala Tamil fanatics when Rajapaksa arrived in India. All across the state of Tamil Nadu protests were organized by Tamil politicians, including members of the ostensibly non-religious Communist Party of India, led by T.N. Ramachandran, to express their solidarity with the ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka. They demanded immediate return of President Rajapaksa to Sri Lanka.


While MDMK, PMK and some other political parties carrying the “MK” initials in its suffix busied themselves burning Rajapaksa’s effigy, the ageless Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi launched a broadside asking New Delhi not to extend the hand of friendship to the Sri Lankan president. Why? Because the Rajapaksa government “has been taking steps to nourish its friendship with Pakistan and China, which have differences with India.”


But, it was not only these lunatics who have virtually taken over the driver’s position, pushing aside the politically weak Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi, to direct what the India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations should be; there are other mischief-makers who were lurking in the shadows. Indian High Commission on Sept. 27 dismissed reports that said India’s missiles targeted strategic Sri Lankan locations, as “completely baseless and fabricated”. “Speculation on such sensitive issues in a manner calculated to mislead, is out of tune with the spirit of the friendly and close relations India and Sri Lanka enjoy, including in the fields of defense and security”, the official Indian statement added.


Sinhala-version of Tamil fanatics at work


In reality, the India-Sri Lanka relations are on a chain getting yanked from two opposite sides, making the noose tighter and flexibility lesser. While the political activists in Tamil Nadu as the self-proclaimed preservers of fundamental interests of a section of Sri Lankan population, the other end of the chain is yanked by the “hardline” Buddhist temple-controlled organization, commonly known as the Sangha. These behind-the-scene religious operators have successfully pushed the Sinhala-dominated and British-educated Sri Lankan elite to hold out on a “fair deal” with the Tamils by using various legal ruses and endless deception. A section of the Tamils over the years adopted murderous terrorist means in response, even joining colonial powers to undermine and break up Sri Lanka.


The most lethal of these terrorist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), developed a network that wove through London, Paris, Ottawa, Oslo and Zurich and brought them cash and arms to set up an independent Tamil state, Tamil Eelam, within Sri Lanka. It is important to point out that the Sangha-driven Sinhala elite in Sri Lanka countered that Tamil terrorist violence with the help of state-sponsored violence that matched the terrorists’ bullet for bullet. Finally in 2009, Colombo succeeded in rooting out the LTTE menace.


The Indian failure to realize the importance of developing strategic relations with Sri Lanka, situated at the gateway to East Africa and the Middle East, was the dominating factor behind India’s direct involvement in this internal violent domestic crisis inside Sri Lanka and indirect involvement with the Tamil terrorists. As a result of the distinct involvement of Tamil Nadu politicians and some Christian missionaries based in the state in backing the Sri Lanka-based Tamil militants of all colors from the very outset of the conflict, New Delhi had always been less than clear-headed in its policy toward Sri Lanka. Although itself a victim of the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorists, who assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, India allegedly backed the Tamil terrorists for a while by training and arming them. But New Delhi never openly backed the LTTE the way some Western colonial nations did. But New Delhi always wanted Colombo to be more “generous” toward its ethnic Tamil population.


This Indian policy did not clear up matters with Colombo. The Sangha made clear that India could not succeed in imposing on Sri Lankan policymakers a policy that could be labeled “pro-Tamil” by the virulently anti-Tamil Sinhala working within the Sri Lankan political system.


The India-Sri Lanka relationship was further complicated when Sri Lanka turned toward the economically powerful China for financial help. India had tried unsuccessfully for years to secure control of the port of Trincomalee, arguably the best deepwater port in the region, and did not appreciate Colombo providing Beijing berthing facilities for its ships at Hambantota, a port town located on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka facing the vast expanses of water of the Indian Ocean lying to its east, south and west.


Who calls the shot? Not New Delhi


According to Gulbin Sultana (“The Tamil Nadu factor reappears in India-Sri Lanka Relations,” Sept. 12, IDSA Publications), M. Karunanidhi, the chief of the DMK party, now in opposition in the state and a coalition partner at the centre, has urged the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter and said that Sri Lanka could not be considered a friendly state when it was developing close strategic ties with China. He also reportedly added that Sri Lanka’s armed forces had set up bases in places such as Palaly, Karainagar, Vavuniya, Killinochi, Mannar, Thallady and Elephant Pass in the northern province with Chinese assistance and that Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie was visiting the country to discuss these issues with the Lankan government.


Tamil Nadu politicians have flexed their muscles and secured victory over New Delhi on related matters, as well. For instance, in July New Delhi was pressured by various political parties in Tamil Nadu to shift nine Sri Lankan Air Force officers who visited India for a nine-month training programme as part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries from Tambaram airbase in Tamil Nadu to Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru, Karnataka. The present Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa commented at the time that training Lankan forces in Tamil Nadu, was not only “inappropriate, but anti-Tamil” and that “the news of Sri Lanka Air Force personnel (coming) for nine months’ training at the Tambaram air force station (near here) is like piercing (our) heart with a spear” (Gulbin Sultana, as above).


In July a year ago, the Indian Government had to cancel a similar program to train 25 Sri Lankan soldiers at the Defense Service Staff College at Wellington following demonstrations by various groups in the state. There is no doubt that training Lankan soldiers is a sensitive issue in Tamil Nadu and no political party worth its name in the state can afford to ignore popular sentiment. Cutting across party lines, there is tremendous antipathy toward the Lankan government, especially over the issue of army excesses and human rights violations during the war against the LTTE. In fact, last year the state legislature moved a resolution to impose sanctions on Sri Lanka because it had committed war crimes (Gulbin Sultana, ibid).


While the Chinese presence in Hambantota and alleged Chinese assistance to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to set up military bases in the Tamil-majority northern province have been pointed to by some Indian strategists as a potential threat to India, the more invasive security threat that has continued to muddy up India-Sri Lanka relations has nothing to do with China. That threat has everything to do with the increasing fragmentation of India’s political process that has weakened New Delhi’s authority over almost all matters related to its states. For instance, at this point in time New Delhi does not possess the ability to rein in the section of Tamil Nadu politicians who by expressing their “sympathy” toward Tamils in Sri Lanka have virtually hijacked India’s policy toward Sri Lanka.


India’s inability to be decisive in keeping the strategic aspect of this relationship in focus stems from the fact that New Delhi is governed by a coalition government that depends heavily on state-level parties to stay in power. As a result, relentless compromises dominate New Delhi’s policymaking at every level. For instance, the UPA coalition government hankers for vote-bank support from time to time from such pro-Tamil and anti-Sinhala Tamil Nadu political parties as the DMK and PMK among others. As of now, there is no indication whatsoever that this political scene could change in the near future.


As a result, it is altogether a certainty that in the coming days the prevailing state-level politics of Tamil Nadu will continue to cast a determining shadow over India’s bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, preventing the development of strategic ties. With the Tamil Nadu politicians calling the shots in India, it is likely that Sri Lanka will continue to resist any strategic link with New Delhi, providing succor to the powerful anti-India elements within the country.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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