India and the issue of independent Tamil Eelam
by R Hariharan on 21 Nov 2014 4 Comments

Ques: It is well known that the official position of the Government of India never advocated for the separation of Sri Lanka with Tamil Eelam but operations in the 1980’s were conducted via the External Intelligence Agency of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) to arm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) whose main goal was to form a separate state. How do you explain this in terms of contradiction of actions of the separate institutions of state?

Ans: I think there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about India’s involvement with Tamil militant groups which were operating in Sri Lanka before the two countries signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) in July 1987. The anti-Tamil pogrom carried out for political ends in July 1983 triggered a massive exodus of Tamils from Colombo mostly to Tamil Nadu.


This pogrom gave relevance to Tamil militancy because the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) formed by political parties to pursue the demand for an independent Tamil state peacefully in 1975 had failed to live up to the promise despite its thumping victory in the 1976 elections. Of course, the government made it difficult for the TULF to provide a face-saving political solution short of independence.  


New Delhi came under tremendous political pressure from Tamil Nadu after the 1983 pogrom to intervene in Sri Lanka to ensure equitable treatment of Tamil minority. India was also facing Cold War compulsions after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mrs. Indira Gandhi used the support to militant groups as one of the pressure points on Sri Lanka only after its efforts to bring a settlement failed either at the Thimpu or Bangalore meetings of Tamil and Sri Lanka leaders. In 1980, Mrs. Indira Gandhi or her successors never supported the creation of an independent Eelam.  

I quote “KP”s simple but relevant explanation in an interview on May 23, 2011 on why Mrs Gandhi supported Tamil militant groups: “During that time it was Mrs Gandhi’s idea that she may be able to escalate LTTE’s [it should be Tamil militants, not only LTTE] armed struggle to a certain level and use that as a negotiating leverage to settle the Tamil issue.”


Indian intelligence agencies were only working as per the orders of the Indian government; so it is absolutely wrong to say they supported Tamil militant groups with the aim of creating a Tamil Eelam. The rise of the LTTE too was driven by Prabhakaran’s ambition to be the sole arbiter of Tamil destiny and not because of Indian intelligence.


Ques: Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation and it would be in violation of the UN Charter to intrude on its sovereignty unless there is sanction by the Security Council or for the right to self-defence. Do you see any forces staging an intervention in Sri Lanka for the Tamils now or in the future in response to the doctrine of “remedial sovereignty” when grave war crimes are proven as NATO did in Kosovo? Would India allow such an intervention by foreign forces or consider joining with these forces close to its soil as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan?

Ans: I am not a legal pundit but strategic analyst who draws his assessments on holistic reading of the situation. These are not based on any confusing and often conflicting international law interpretations as International Court of Justice had done its Advisory Opinion on 22 July 2010, on Kosovo’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence of 17 February 2008 post facto the Western military intervention. But I realize my beliefs may be based on “old fashioned” but simple notions of sovereignty of nations and their united identity.  


I do not subscribe to the notion that a military alliance like the NATO can become arbiter of international justice to prove grave “war crimes” (as you say) to justify their own military intervention in any other UN member nation. It is for ICC or the UN Security Council and General Assembly to discuss the issue and take legal or collective action. But on many occasions they fail to do this because nations do not cooperate in wanting to achieve their own ends.


I do not go by ‘impressive’ 21st century coinages like “remedial sovereignty” that justify gross violation of UN Charter by powerful nations ganging up to carryout bombing on hapless citizens of beleaguered nations like autocratic government of Iraq or the elected government of Serbia for committing human right excesses while fighting against secession of Kosovo. In any case “remedial sovereignty” is not universally recognized and Kosovo’s UDI cannot be used as precedent for external military intervention. Even after supporting “remedial sovereignty” in Kosovo, the US State Department issued a statement on February 19, 2008 that any territorial conflict was unique and could not be resolved using the fact of unilateral declaration of autonomy by Kosovo.


Of course this was part of US gamesmanship because an internal conflict in Abkhazia in South Ossetia threatened to break up Georgia and Washington was worried about Russian intervention. This example shows the subjective validity of “remedial sovereignty.” In layman’s terms it shows what is good for the US goose is not good for either the Russian gander.  

There is no justification for external military intervention in Sri Lanka at present. Even the war crimes it is accused of are still within the realm of UN investigation. India as an important and responsible regional power has no justifiable reason to militarily intervene in Sri Lanka which is not at war with India. Even in 1987 Indian troops were sent to Sri Lanka at the request of the Sri Lanka President to aid the implementation of a bilateral agreement to end the Tamil conflict, disarm Tamil militants and to ensure the democratic aspirations of Tamil minority are fulfilled within a united Sri Lanka. Of course, the motive for President Jayewardene asking for Indian troops is believed to be to prevent any disgruntled Sri Lanka army element trying to stage a coup and throw him out of office as there was widespread objection within political and military circles for buckling under Indian pressure.


Ques: Recently, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) of Sri Lanka announced the possibility of an alliance. In addition, the UN Human Rights Council and government of India have been calling for a reduction in military in these provinces and the UNHRC has also called for abolishing the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of Sri Lanka which is the position of the Executive Presidency. Do you think that this combination can lead to a North-East Province as per the 1987 Indo-Lankan Accord?


Ans: The ending of executive presidency is a perennial issue in Sri Lanka politics. It was created by the UNP but the SLFP (notably President Rajapaksa) has also experienced the heady pleasures of centralizing power in the hands of the President. So though the issue crops up before every election, it vanishes from the list of political priorities. I do not expect the situation to change unless the President suffers a rout in the election with this as the core issue. But it seems there is not even a remote possibility of it happening at present. 


The coming together of TULF and SLMC is yet another seasonal phenomenon appearing on the horizon before SLMC finalises an alliance with either UNP or SLFP-led front. I doubt whether it would seriously alter the flawed equation between Tamils and Muslims based on the historical baggage the two communities carry. It is for the Sri Lankan people as primary stakeholders to decide the future of 18th Amendment (which is linked to the existence of Executive Presidency in the Constitution). The January 2015 elections provide an opportunity for them to do so. We should not overestimate the value of either UNHRC or India’s views on deciding its future. 

In my assessment, the moment for India to pressurize Sri Lanka to recreate of the Northeast Province as visualized in the ISLA has passed. India could have demanded President Rajapaksa to act immediately when the Sri Lanka Supreme Court set aside the creation of a united Northeastern Province on the basis of procedural error. But India did not. Of course, there were plenty of historical opportunities for V Prabhakaran to seek this out as part of peace bargain with Sri Lanka. But he wanted only independent Tamil Eelam and not peace at any other cost.  

Stationing of Sri Lankan military forces in Northern Province is a political issue that has to be solved by Sri Lanka government and the Northern Provincial Council government. But it is essential for long term ethnic amity. Unfortunately, the political process to achieve it is stalled for various reasons. India can only work with all the stakeholders to help the political process to start.  


Ques: If there is any group within Sri Lanka calling for a separate Tamil Nation, would the government of India support this through the appropriate channels as it did in the 1980’s during the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi?


Ans: I think I have answered this question in a number of times earlier. The whole question is speculative; in any case you cannot recreate the 1980-situation either in India or Sri Lanka. There is no group in Sri Lanka, not even TNA, which calls for a separate Tamil Nation. Right now it exists only at the “notional level” among sections of Tamil Diaspora and some fringe groups in Tamil Nadu. So what is the point in speculating about India’s support to a non-existent proposal?


Ques: Do you think that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which has become an Buddhist extremist organisation in Sri Lanka are possible to be classified as “terrorists” or to be proscribed on the “banned organisation” lists of India?


Ans: I doubt whether the Sri Lanka government or majority of the people consider the BBS an extremist organization. Even the police are wary of taking action against them because Sinhala Right Wing while not subscribing to BBS’ actions bordering on extremism probably find some common ground in their ideology. In my view BBS is a bunch of Buddhist fundamentalists who go round roughing up Muslims to make political capital because they are allowed to act with impunity. They are a law and order issue and need firm handling. For political reasons everyone in the ruling coalition and the government seem to be shy of bringing these self-styled saviours of Buddhism to book. So they seem to flourish. If we define “extremism” by BBS behaviour, most of the lumpen elements used by political parties in India and Sri Lanka should be called extremists.

You must be joking when you talk of India declaring BBS a “terrorist” organization. It is not someone in New Delhi cooking up the definition of terrorism to suit the organization. There is a due process in the Home Ministry to proscribe an organization which is validated periodically in a court of law where the organization is given an opportunity to defend itself. BBS is simply not relevant to India at the moment. No one, not even Indian Muslims have asked for their inclusion in the “rogue’s gallery” of proscribed terrorist organizations like the HUJI and the LeT.

Ques: If you do not think a referendum would be possible now, do you think that it would be possible after the merger of the North-East and reforms of the Constitution of Sri Lanka or ever for that matter?

Ans: Your question about referendum is a little confusing. Is it about Tamil Eelam or about the validation of the Northeast province? Who is seriously asking for a referendum in Sri Lanka except to use it as a political rhetoric? Even the TNA appears to have come to terms with more tangible ways of putting through its political demands. The merger of Northern and Eastern provinces can be legalized by an act of parliament even without a referendum to set right the procedural error. On the other hand if the constitution is amended anything is possible.  

Ques: Do you think international recognition of Tamil Eelam by influential nations will have any effect for this movement?


Ans: I find it difficult to answer this highly speculative “chicken and egg” question. International recognition does not exist in virtual reality. Tamil Eelam has to first become a territorial entity on the ground to gain international recognition. If there is international recognition I do not see any role for “this movement” (I presume you are referring to the Tamil secessionist movement) beyond governing the independent entity.  

Ques: Finally, do you have any words on the possibilities of how to create a separate Tamil Nation?  

Ans: I think the historical period for the creation of a separate Tamil Nation is over after the LTTE failed to sustain the global sympathy that existed for Tamil minority’s plight post-1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. LTTE’s mindless killings of all those who did not toe its line, including those who supported preservation of the Tamil identity and historical areas of habitation like Rajiv Gandhi, Amirthalingham, Neelan Thiruchelvan, and Padmanabha, virtually eclipsed the international opportunities.

I think it is high time Tamils everywhere came to terms with the real world as it exists now after the LTTE’s armed struggle for a separate Tamil Nation failed. They should introspect on why Prabhakaran failed to sit together to evolve a strategy to gain their aspirations within a united Sri Lanka. For achieving this, unity in their ranks is essential. I do not see this happening in the near future. I hope the new generation Tamils with greater appreciation of the global dynamics realize this and prove me wrong.

This is the text of an E-mail interview with Dr Parasaran Rangarajan, editor-in-chief of the International Law Journal of London, on November 16, 2014

Courtesy: International Law Journal of London, November 17, 2014

South Asia Analysis Group Paper No 5822 dated November 18, 2014

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