Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

July 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 4)


Sri Lanka’s ‘War Within’ and India
By Padmaja Murthy *


Since the middle of April this year, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has resulted in intense political, military and diplomatic activity both at the regional and international plane. To begin with, the immediate concern was whether the government forces in Sri Lanka would be able to resist the fall of Jaffna into the hands of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However, as events unfolded it became clearly evident that the government forces could offer stiff resistance and hold their own against the Tigers. In this context, the article is an attempt to analyse the developments that have taken place over the last month and a half beginning from mid-April to end of May 2000. The events which took place during this specified period, indicate the manner in which domestic politics in both Sri Lanka and India have influenced their respective foreign policies. These domestic compulsions have also resulted in certain stresses and strains in the bilateral relations of these two countries. However, the environment of trust built especially over the past five years, has helped the two countries to face these multiple pressures amicably. An overview of India’s actions during this period clearly indicates that in order to swim through the contradictions arising from the need of honouring the domestic sentiments of Tamil Nadu on the one hand and the need to maintain its commitment to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka on the other, India’s response and co-operation worked at two levels–the overt and the covert. While the complete assistance rendered by India was not stated explicitly, and in that sense was not overt, the covert co-operation involving indirect assistance to the Sri Lankan Government appeared to have more strategic and military significance. This can be contrasted to the period in 1987-90, wherein military and strategic co-operation was significantly overt in its nature.

In this background, the paper is an attempt to examine the sequence of events in the specific period spelt out (mid April 2000–end May 2000). It examines the nature of responses originating from both New Delhi and Colombo and the reasons for the same. This period also witnessed quick developments in the battlefield wherein against the popularly held perceptions, the Sri Lankan forces recovered from the initial beating and were able to withstand the LTTE. On the other hand, the Indian navy and coast guard whilst safeguarding India’s security, prevented the flow of supplies to the LTTE through the seas. The events also highlighted the manner in which a small country provided with an effective leadership–politically, militarily and diplomatically–was managing its security concerns and safeguarding its territorial integrity.


The Battle for Jaffna

The battle for Jaffna has two important dimensions to it–the symbolic and psychological on the one hand, and the military on the other. Though both are related, the first possibly holds a special significance which is more important than the second.

When the PA (Peoples Alliance) government of Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in Sri Lanka, a large part of the northern peninsula was under the control of the LTTE. Through successful military operations the security forces re-established control over the LTTE held territory in 1995-96. 1 However since 1997, it has been evident that the government forces were slowly losing ground and crucial towns were being reclaimed by the LTTE. This became clear when the LTTE captured Killinochchi. Later with the Sri Lankan troops being forced out of their camps in the Vanni mainland towards the end of last year, many observers anticipated that the LTTE would make moves towards Jaffna. 2 The fall of the Elephant Pass 3 (generally acknowledged as the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula), on April 22 when the panic button was struck, therefore did not come as a complete surprise. 4

Regarding the fortunes on the war front, in the beginning, the popular perception was that LTTE was gaining advantage. Interestingly, LTTE even offered a temporary cease-fire and safe passage for the 25,000 troops in the Jaffna peninsula, which was rejected by the Sri Lankan government. 5 By the end of May however, it appeared that both sides seemed to be holding on to their positions. This was a clear indication that the Sri Lankan forces were rejuvenated and were giving a befitting reply to the LTTE, proving wrong the skeptics who felt that the war was becoming wholly one-sided.

Jaffna is the most important psychological symbol of the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. Capital of an independent medieval kingdom, it was an important outpost for successive colonial rulers. It was the second most important city of independent Sri Lanka after Colombo. It was from here that the LTTE established a de facto Eelam between 1990-1995. LTTE was virtually running a mini state, after hundreds of Sri Lankan troops were evacuated en masse from the Dutch built 17th century Jaffna fort in mid-1990 following a prolonged rebel seige. 6 The LTTE collected taxes, had an independent police force and judiciary and printed its own stamps and currency. The Sri Lankan government under Kumaratunga captured Jaffna in 1995-96 in three massive operations and given Jaffna’s importance it was symbolically significant too. 7 More significantly, it was a reflection of the successful leadership which President Kumaratunga had provided on the military front which was not so with the previous governments in Sri Lanka.

Given the symbolism attached to Jaffna, whichever side gains control over it is perceived to be in an advantageous position. In the present circumstances, if the LTTE gains control over Jaffna, it would be the first time that they would have wrested it from the government forces, and that would boost LTTE’s image at home and abroad. 8 While this would dampen the spirits of the government’s forces, their ability should not be underestimated. Doubts have been expressed over the ability of the government forces because of the reported 30,000 desertions in an army of 150,000. But it should not be forgotten that the Sri Lankan army has been constantly at war since 1983. Some believe that they are suffering from a lack of motivation, inadequate training and above all, an overpowering sense of fatigue. Since 1995, they have been on the ground fighting what has been termed as ‘war for peace’. 9 This is reflected in Sri Lanka’s defence expenditure which increased from Rs 10.20 billions in 1988 to Rs 47 billions in 1998. It peaked to Rs 53 billions in 1997 and constituted 5.95 per cent of the GDP. 10

Regarding the prospects of negotiations while the war was going on in 1995-96, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Kadirgamar said, “There is no use vaguely talking about some sort of negotiations. At the moment, the military campaign is on and is not over as yet. We have convinced the international community that this is a justified operation and it is a war for peace.” He also said that unlike in the past, the current war was not directed against the Tamil people and the armed forces had been extremely cautious in their approach to Jaffna. 11 All this was reflective of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s strategy to mould international opinion in support of her actions and also winning over the confidence of the Tamils within Sri Lanka.

The LTTE Chief, Prabhakaran on his part, had categorically stated in 1995 when his forces were losing against the government, that while the army might finally take Jaffna, there would be no peace talks without the LTTE getting control of Jaffna. In a speech made to mark the Hero’s day (Nov 27) in 1995 the LTTE chief said, “They may hoist the flag ( in Jaffna)....and light firecrackers but we want to express one thing, as long as the Sri Lankan armed forces occupy Jaffna, the door to peace talks will always remain tightly shut.” 12 Prabhakaran stated that though the government forces had control over Jaffna he would make it difficult for the army to hold on. He said, “It’s not hard to capture a land with a massive force. To stand firm in the captured land is the hard thing.” 13

It is important to note that even President Kumaratunga was clear that the hold over Jaffna in itself would not necessarily mean peace for the island nation. She clearly stated in 1995, when the Sri Lankan Government forces were successfully advancing towards Jaffna, that even if the LTTE was militarily defeated, the ethnic conflict would not finish, and the absence of war does not mean peace. She reiterated that the only way to establish peace was to find a political solution to the problems of the minorities and she found no better way for this than through a devolution package. 14

Given Jaffna’s importance it is obvious that the tone and tenor of any peace negotiations would be significantly influenced by which side controls it. Responding on the impact the likely fall of Jaffna could have on the peace process, President Kumaratunga in an interview given in the last week of May this year, while the conflict was still in progress, said that it would be, ‘very serious because LTTE would establish a de facto if not a de jure, separate state’. 15 Such a scenario would not be completely new because as already stated between 1990-1995 such a situation had actually existed. However, the impact of such an eventuality would be different this time around. Firstly because the LTTE would have wrested control by decisively defeating the Sri Lankan government forces. Secondly, more than the military costs, it is the political fallout that President Chandrika Kumaratunga may find hard to cope with, what with parliamentary elections approaching in a few months time. 16 Even in the middle of the present crisis, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said that despite the LTTE’s refusal to accept her earlier invitation for talks, her government remained open to a negotiated political settlement with the LTTE and the other political parties. 17 But in the event of the LTTE refusing to lay down arms and renouncing violence, the government would relentlessly pursue the military operations. 18 Thirdly, it would come at a time when Norway had agreed to facilitate talks between LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. It is believed that the capture of areas by LTTE would considerably enhance the bargaining power of the rebels to talk from a position of strength as the latest peace initiatives move forward. Since the LTTE too must be under pressure to negotiate, its aim is to gain as much leverage as possible by trying to capture Jaffna. While the Norway factor cannot be denied, it need not be overemphasised because capturing of Jaffna has been on the top of the LTTE agenda since it lost it to the government forces in 1995-96.

One viewpoint among the various possibilities that are being stated is that the fall of Jaffna, if it occurs, need not necessarily lead to the establishment of Eelam. 19 There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Eelam as it is perceived by the LTTE, encompasses the North and Eastern provinces. In that respect the hold over Jaffna peninsula covers only a small area. While the fall of Jaffna might lead to a de facto mini-state like the one prior to 1995, it is unlikely that Eelam will be declared. Since LTTE would want legitimacy and international recognition, it is unlikely to declare Eelam at the present juncture. Secondly, regarding international opinion, ethnic nationalism is globally recognised as the foremost international security threat. An independent state of Eelam at this juncture will not be welcomed.

Further, the LTTE is recognised as a terrorist organistaion. It uses human bombs and child soldiers, which are reprehensible methods. Since the 1990s the character of the LTTE has changed into one being involved in drug trafficking, narcotics trade and arms dealing. It is engaged in drug running and has contacts with other terrorist organisations in India and the world. The international community is not likely to view with favour the emergence of an independent Tamil Eelam through terrorism. 20

On the other hand, if the Sri Lankan government forces are able to maintain their hold over their positions it would symbolise the success of President Kumaratunga to provide both political and military leadership. Infact since President Kumaratunga came to power in 1994, she has been following a two pronged strategy. On the one hand, she has tried to militarily regain areas held by the LTTE, and on the other, has put forward a devolution package to meet the genuine interests of the Tamils. All the while she has kept the door for negotiations with the LTTE open and later co-opted Norway (which had played an important role in the Arab-Israeli crisis) to facilitate talks between the Government and the LTTE. Through all these steps, she has brought in a transparency in her approach and sincerity in her intentions to resolve the ethnic crisis. The international community has recognised and appreciated this break in policy from the earlier governments in Sri Lanka. The success of the government’s efforts was evident when in 1997, the USA banned LTTE. 21 India and Malaysia have also legally banned the LTTE, while Colombo wants to keep the door open for possible final negotiations with the LTTE for a durable settlement of the Tamil question. 22 The response of the international community during the present crisis amply demonstrates this basic confidence in the present Sri Lankan government.


Peace in the Island: Need for a Sinhala Consensus

The coming to power of Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 came with the hope that a breakthrough in the ethnic conflict will be achieved. It was for the first time that a Sri Lankan President had clearly admitted that the Tamils had a legitimate grievance. In fact, in the midst of the present crisis, while the President was harsh in her views on the LTTE, she categorically stated that the military operation was not against the Tamil people and the other minorities in the country. Even to the Sinhala extremist groups supporting her war efforts, she said that she would not endorse their anti-Tamil ‘communal politics’, in return for their support to her war effort. She stated that the more the reasonable demands of the Tamil people are opposed, the more the Tamil Diaspora will pour in dollars to the LTTE’s fund. 23 This positive environment as reflected in statements of the leadership at the highest level in Sri Lanka has to be recognised and needs to be clearly contrasted with what existed in the 1980s.

On coming to power, President Kumaratunga had presented to the nation, a constitutional reform package which would have resulted in greater devolution of powers to the Tamils. However, apart from other factors one major limitation on its implementation was the political incompatibility of the two main Sri Lankan Sinhala parties, the People’s Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP). Since two-thirds majority was required to pass the devolution package, in the absence of the support from UNP, the process was stalled.

President Kumaratunga had agreed to go beyond the scope of the present unitary constitution to achieve effective devolution and prepared a constitutional reforms package for the same. 24 She said that based upon a consensus in the South , the Tamil people and LTTE will be assured of the commitment of the mainstream political forces in the South and the government backed by the people for a solution enshrined in the constitution. According to her what would then be required would be suitable amendments to the constitution to accommodate the LTTE. But the latter had not responded to her peace overtures. 25 The UNP had stated in the run up to the Presidential elections that it would commence an immediate dialogue with the LTTE and not thrust a package on them. 26 The UNP was of the opinion that the past experience has shown that there could be no military solution and that there must be a political solution. Moreover, peace was also important because it had hit development efforts in the country. 27

Thus, it is recognised that unless there is consensus in the south among the Sinhala parties and the dominant views therein, the proposals cannot be put forward to the Tamils for negotiations. This is so because successive governments could renounce the policies of their predecessors thereby negating any peace which might have been achieved. No wonder then, that though the PA government got military success in 1995-96 , it could not translate it into peace. In this context it is vital to note that, there is need for a bipartisan approach as far as the resolution of the ethnic conflict is concerned. It was in recognition of this vital fact that the two main Sinhala political parties–People’s Alliance (PA) and United National Party (UNP)–had in 1997 reached a historic agreement with British mediation. The Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Liam Fox had mediated and therefore it came to be known as the Fox Initiative. According to this the leaders of the two political parties exchanged letters about a number of arrangements intended to develop a common, bi-partisan approach towards finding a solution to the ongoing northeast war which has claimed thousands of lives. Such an approach was considered to be an invaluable starting point for a new phase in the conflict resolution process. But events that have followed since then have shown that it could not go a long way. 28

The Sinhala parties cannot escape taking blame for the current crisis. The current military stalemate is partly an extension of the political stalemate in the island over the question of the Tamils. Unless the two Sinhala parties help themselves and their country, a definite forward movement to resolve the ethnic crisis is not possible. . Interestingly both the parties blame each other for taking political mileage from the recent military reversals. Initially when the government forces suffered a setback, the UNP said that the events of the battlefield in Jaffna show that the government’s strategy had been proved wrong. It said, “the war was exploited” by the present regime “as a short cut for their own advantage”. 29 The game of one upmanship is likely to continue because the parliamentary elections are scheduled for August 2000 and each party will find it difficult to look beyond the narrow agenda of victory in the elections.

The influential Buddhist clergy have opposed the devolution package terming it as a sellout to the Tamils. 30 The Buddhist clergy had also led a protest march to the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo in protest against the role they were to play to bring about a settlement to the ethnic conflict.


Sri Lanka Seeks External Help

It needs to be noted that the lack of consensus among the Sinhala parties and a clear realisation that a certain devolution is necessary on one hand and on the other the refusal of the LTTE to accept anything less than the fully sovereign Tamil Eelam have led to the continuation of the civil war in Sri Lanka over the past seventeen years. 37 While the present crisis has brought international focus on this issue once again, the sincerity of the PA’s government in resolving the ethnic crisis has brought to it the support of the international actors.

Following what initially appeared to be setbacks for the government forces in the Jaffna peninsula towards the middle of April this year, Sri Lanka sought ‘assistance’ from ‘friendly countries’ and pledged to continue its efforts at peace talks with the LTTE through a Norwegian initiative. By the first week of May, the much called for induction of foreign troops to ward off the LTTE’s advance was not considered necessary. 31

It was reported that defence officials had begun meeting representatives of arms manufacturers from “Russia, Britain, Pakistan, Iran, Czech Republic, Israel and Singapore”. Some opined that the debacle of the Elephant Pass was due to lack of equipment and that the LTTE had overpowered the army with artillery power. According to reports, following the call for assistance by the Sri Lankan government arms and ammunition have started arriving and this has made a material difference to Sri Lanka’s combat strength. Key players who are involved in the transfer of arms are Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea. 32 Israel has agreed to sell eight Kfir fighter planes for a total of $24 millions to Sri Lanka. 33 Interestingly the Chinese government has called for a cessation of ‘external intervention’ in the conflict in Sri Lanka. European Union’s (EU) stand on the issue has made the Sri Lankan government very buoyant. 34

Interestingly, following the government’s initial military reversals in the strategic Jaffna peninsula, the nationalistic groups in Sri Lanka who had opposed the presence of the Indian army during 1987-1990 in the country, were now calling for its return to help stop the LTTE’s advance. This included a call from hardline Buddhist monks for an Indian involvement in the crisis, including military assistance. This is to be seen in the context of the Buddhist clergy opposing the Norwegian initiative. They held that if any country should intervene in Sri Lanka, it should be India. 35 These calls do not reflect a perceptible change in their attitude towards India or their desire to resolve the ethnic conflict by devolution of powers to the Tamils. Their actions are motivated by the need of the hour, which is to prevent the fall of Jaffna into the LTTE’s hand. However, it is hoped that these events would help in bringing a realisation to this important section of the Sri Lankan society that the devolution package is a necessity for establishment of peace. The main opposition party, the UNP, has asked the Kumaratunga Government to seek foreign military assistance to stop the LTTE from taking over Jaffna. 36 All this should be seen against the background that on coming to power, the Kumaratunga government had maintained that the conflict was essentially ‘internal’ in nature. However, the left radical groups like Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have been maintaining that ‘interventions’ of any nature into Sri Lanka’s internal issues would be opposed.

As far as assistance from India is concerned, President Kumaratunga’s interview to an Indian Daily (The Hindu, May 24, 2000) indicates that Sri Lanka had asked for some urgent military assistance which India had refused.*

At this juncture it needs to be noted that India has militarily assisted Sri Lanka twice. First in April 1971, following the internal crisis when the extremist Sinhala radical group Jatiya Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) tried to capture power through an armed revolt. India along with other countries assisted in curbing the revolt upon being asked by the Sri Lankan government. India was approached for a specific task and on its completion withdrew its forces from the island. The second occasion arose when following the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was dispatched to Sri Lanka on the latter’s invitation. Later some differences arose between the two governments and Sri Lanka asked for the withdrawal of the IPKF. Accordingly in March 1990, the IPKF was withdrawn from the island. Thus, this fact that India had committed its troops to the island nation on two earlier occasions and withdrawn too on the completion of the mandate must be appreciated before commenting on its specific response in the present crisis. While Sri Lanka is reported to have asked for military assistance in terms of equipment and manpower, the exact mandate of such help and the long term implications of such assistance has not been discussed and spelt out clearly. It is also not clear whether there is a national consensus within Sri Lanka on such a vital issue. Also, while India may not have given its overt assistance like in the previous occasions, the covert help rendered in facilitating arms and ammunition and other intelligence help should be taken into consideration in assessing the assistance given by India. However, the question of whether the assistance given by India–covertly and overtly–is enough or not will always be a debatable issue.


India’s Response: Caution, Concern and Continuity

India’s policy towards Sri Lanka can be termed as one characterised by caution, concern and continuity.


India’s initial reaction to the military reversals faced by the Sri Lankan government in April was a firm ruling out of military intervention. Definitely, this stand followed from the bitter experience of the 1980s when Indian troops were on the ground in Sri Lanka. Such a policy decision was also dictated by the recognition of sensitivities of its own Tamil population of around 50 million. Before arriving at its decision the government at the Centre consulted important political parties from Tamil Nadu, the Chief Minister of the State and finally all the national parties. 39 Thus, it is clear that there was an attempt to build a national consensus on such an important foreign policy issue. In fact, the handling of the crisis by India brings out the influence of its regional parties on foreign policy formulation and more specifically their capacity to influence in times of coalition politics. A similar influence was clearly evident even in the 1980s when India under Mrs. Gandhi responded to the crisis in Sri Lanka. The Congress government was in majority then but still regional politics played an important role.

India’s cautious approach is reflected on two counts. Firstly, by refusing military intervention and secondly, by trying not to hurt the sentiments of the Tamil population. Later India stated that it would play the role of a mediator only if asked to do so by both the Kumaratunga government and the LTTE. Sri Lanka is reported to have been happy with the stand taken by India. Norway which is playing the key role of a facilitator between Sri Lankan government and LTTE has agreed to keep India and the USA informed of the negotiations between the two warring sides. 40 The US government is understood to have said that India would have to play the main role in any solution in Sri Lanka, because the creation of Eelam or its absence would have the strongest resonance in India. 41 There is a clear acknowledgement of the reality that India is the most critical external element in the resolution of the internal conflict in Sri Lanka and that the Indian offer of mediation and the Norwegian offer of facilitation need not be seen as contradictory. Some say that there could be some form of multilateral nature of intervention in Sri Lanka as India has been reluctant to be the sole player between the two sides. 42 It is stated that India should not exclude the possibility of having support from the international community so long as it is in consonance with the national interest of India and Sri Lanka and serves the genuine interests of Sri Lankan Tamils. 43 Thus, there are various viewpoints on the possible course of action to be taken. India would have to weigh the long term implications of a multilateral external intervention on the future crisis situation in the South Asian region as a whole and specifically, on India’s efforts to grapple with its own separatist elements.

While India decided not to intervene militarily, it took other important measures to safeguard its own security and also to meet any eventuality. Such steps were also intended to indirectly assist the Sri Lankan government. For instance, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard intensified their vigil in the coastal areas. Patrolling was stepped up to prevent the possible infiltration of Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups in the guise of refugees. A joint patrolling had also been planned to prevent smuggling of petroleum products, medicines and life saving drugs to Sri Lanka from the coastal villages of Ramanathapuram which would be of assistance to the LTTE. 44 These measures aimed at conveying the Indian operational readiness to the LTTE. Further, such steps were aimed to boost the morale of the Sri Lankan forces in the peninsula. Thus the aim was to have a positive psychological impact which would show on the battlefield in military terms. 45 In fact, it is also reported that India is also sharing intelligence reports from various sources with the Sri Lankan forces. The intensified surveillance by the Navy and Coast guard along the Tamil Nadu coast was carried out under ‘Operation Pasha’. 46 Interesting to note that Chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal A.Y.Tipnis, made a visit to Colombo in the first week of May. The Indian government denied that the visit had anything to do with the military situation and reversals in Sri Lanka. It was stated that the visit was planned much earlier and was primarily a goodwill mission. Its cancellation would have sent a different type of signal.


Though India ruled out military intervention, it stated that it was ready to render humanitarian assistance if and when sought. 47 On the nature of humanitarian assistance it was stated that India was already host to over 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees. The last round of organised repatriation took place in 1995 and the resumption of this process stands deferred since then because of the on-going hostilities. Humanitarian aid would also include supply of food, clothes and medicines if Colombo specifically asked for it. 48 According to some, this could be for the Sri Lankan Tamils in Jaffna Peninsula, for the refugees who might flee the island, or even for the troops if they do need emergency supplies. 49 It has been spelt out that assistance could take the form of equipment and intelligence and stop short of direct intervention. 50 On the possibility of evacuation of around 25,000 Sri Lankan troops stranded in the peninsula, India stated that they were not its responsibility and as the Sri Lankan government had not asked such a help , the question did not arise. Sri Lanka also stated that it had not made a request for India’s intervention but did not rule out making so in the future. 51

By using the term ‘humanitarian assistance’, the Indian government was definitely giving itself and the Sri Lankan government some space to react appropriately as the situation demanded without taking a rigid stand. For, in case urgency arose affecting its national interests, India will have to take appropriate steps to safeguard them. India will then have to make a realistic assessment and such a response could be termed as coming under humanitarian assistance.


Present official reactions of India clearly indicate that it is supportive of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to keep its unity intact and that it would not support LTTE’s efforts to destroy that integrity. India is committed to a sovereign, united and multi-ethnic Sri Lanka where all minorities, especially Tamils, could live with dignity and without fear. This is keeping in mind India’s own national interests too. The establishment of a separate Tamil Eelam would have a detrimental impact on India’s own fight against separatist elements who do not respect the territorial integrity of India. Thus any statement of support by any quarter in India will have to take into consideration this important aspect.

Prime Minister Vajpayee clarified that India was not for a separate Eelam and there was no question of recognising such a State. 52 There were, however, some members of the central coalition government who while agreeing to the centre’s policy of respecting the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, differed from the dominant official view. MDMK Chief Vaiko stated that Eelam–a separate homeland for the Sri Lankan Tamils, was inevitable and that fears in India of a repercussion in Tamil Nadu on its creation were unfounded. 53 Inspite of all these statements that resulted in certain stresses in the bilateral relations, the central government in India reiterated its unequivocal commitment to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

A commitment to unity and integrity of Sri Lanka; full protection of the island’s minorities; and the need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict within the framework of the Sri Lankan constitution are the important elements in India’s stand on the ensuing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Even during the crisis period of the 1980s in Sri Lanka, India had stated these very basic aspects.

If India’s reactions are seen in the backdrop of the policy adopted by it in the nineties, a clear continuity is perceptible. India’s policy comprises three main elements. First a conscious endeavour to adopt a non-intrusive approach towards the ethnic problem. India favours a negotiated political solution to the problem. Secondly, improving and strengthening bilateral relations in all fields of mutual interesst especially in the economic sector. Thirdly, in the multilateral context, increased co-operation with the government of Sri Lanka on a positive and pragmatic basis, with a thrust in economic areas. India has maintained that the devolution package announced by the Sri Lankan government forms a reasonable basis for negotiations towards achieving this settlement. This low key policy of India has been appreciated by many, including Sri Lanka. 54 Infact upon the coming to power of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, economic areas have been the focus of discussion between the two countries.

Given the background of the bitter suspicion which marked the bilateral relations in the 1980s, it was this specific non-intrusive policy enunciated in the nineties, which enabled to build the trust between the two countries. The Kumaratunga government on its part had maintained that the ethnic crisis was an internal matter of the nation. Her government did not fear threat from India. Infact when the Sri Lankan governments military initiative was being conducted against LTTE in 1995, its foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar opined that the silver lining in the present crisis was the close understanding and rapport between Sri Lanka and India. He said, “We are keeping them fully informed”. 55


Assessing India’s Response

There is a strong body of opinion that defines India’s response as overcautious. According to them, the misadventure of the IPKF is looming large and influencing India’s present policy of not giving any military assistance and equipment to the Sri Lankan government. It is felt that this overcautious approach will affect India’s larger geo-strategic interests in the long term. These apprehensions are based on the assumption that by not involving itself directly and responding when Sri Lanka asked for help, India is allowing other countries to involve themselves in an area which is of vital importance to its security. It is possible that troops of other countries can land in Sri Lanka to assist the government there which would be detrimental to India’s interests. Further, that the conclusion of agreements by Sri Lanka to import arms and equipment from other countries could also have implications for India’s security concerns.

However, seen objectively, it is unlikely that foreign troops will get militarily involved because any country which does so clearly knows that it is going to be a long drawn out affair. If the Indian experience of IPKF prevents India from taking an active military stance, it also serves as a warning to other countries wanting to assist the island nation, that the situation is indeed a complicated one. They might unofficially help the Sri Lankan government through some specific measures but are unlikely to commit their troops on the ground. Moreover, it would not be a mere question of regaining areas taken by the LTTE, but also holding on to them.

It is important to note that the Indian decision not to supply arms and equipment to Sri Lanka has not been specifically taken after the escalation of the present crisis but has been there since a few years. It appears that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu have through the years, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, differentiated the LTTE from the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. But they seem to have doubts on the sincerity of the Sri Lankan government to devolve power to the minority Tamils. This might have been aggravated by the inability of the Sinhala to come to a consensus on the devolution package. Thus, while most agree (with some notable exceptions) that the LTTE needs to be condemned, they do not approve of any kind of military assistance either of the ‘IPKF type’ or arms and equipment to the Sri Lanka government representing the majority Sinhala. Thus, those who advocate use of air power need to first resolve the position that officially Sri Lanka is in the negative list of the countries to which India does not export arms. Therefore an official use of Indian air power is possible only if there is a complete reversal of this policy.

In such a scenario, India has to accept the reality and appreciate the fact that in the absence of India giving any military help, the Sri Lanka government given its necessity to defend against the LTTE has to take external help. It is generally accepted in informed circles that unlike in the 1980s (following the 1983 July riots in Sri Lanka), whereby Sri Lanka’s import of arms and equipment had a definite anti-India tenor, this time around it is not so. India is sure to be kept informed of the countries from which arms are being imported.

According to some reports, India might be unofficially (covertly) even facilitating Sri Lanka to purchase the necessary arms and equipment. If this is so, then such a policy helps India to swim through the contradictions arising from the need to meeting the domestic sentiments of Tamil Nadu, and on the other hand maintain its commitment for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

It is important to note that the external help to Sri Lanka from India will be different from that of other countries. From other countries it would primarily be in the form of equipment and other military help to enhance the defences of the country and would be linked to the rapidly shifting immediate military setting rather than the larger end of reaching a political settlement. In that sense the agenda is narrow. From India, help would (should) take a different form. It will be involved in some form or the other in the political settlement of the ethnic conflict as India’s concerns both internal and external are linked to the manner in which the island nation resolves its ethnic conflict. The nature of the role India plays will be definitely different and this has been recognised by the other countries and Sri Lanka too.

There is also the question of the message that India’s response to the present crisis in Sri Lanka sends to its immediate neighbours. One viewpoint is that by not intervening in Sri Lanka, India has been absolved of the blame of playing the ‘big brother’. The other view is that, when the neighbouring country is asking for help, and India does not respond then assistance will be sought from other quarters to preserve their territorial integrity. It is felt that this may have long term implications regarding future new concerns which may arise regarding the other neighbouring countries and the extent to which they can depend and trust India for help when the need arises. Before expressing apprehensions on this count two factors need to be noted . First, that India’s past record speaks for itself that it has not shirked from any responsibility and has responded to requests for help. Thus passing a judgement on the future course of India’s action based on its present response would be unfair. Further, such apprehensions take into account only the overt nature of India’s assistance and not the indirect covert assistance being provided. Secondly, in assessing India’s policy response to Sri Lanka, the special circumstances arising out of domestic compulsions and the past involvement need to be taken into consideration.

An important question then arises. If this dual policy of India of overt and covert assistance reflects an inability on India’s part to resolve the pulls and pushes of domestic aspirations on one hand, and national security concerns on the other? It is difficult to answer this question in a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ manner. To some extent it definitely does, for both the factors are a reality. The true wisdom of India’s policy will be tested when if the need arises it can move away from one to the other while formulating responses to a situation which is so fluid. India could, however, have used the past five years, following the withdrawal of IPKF, in initiating a debate within India, and Tamil Nadu specifically, on suitable policy responses in various given scenarios. On this front there has been a clear neglect, because the escalation of the crisis as reflected since April has been in the making for some time and is in itself not a sudden happening. India seemed to be basking in its non-intrusive policy, which definitely had its critical contribution in improving bilateral relations in the short term. But India failed to realise that a certain rigidity is in-built into such a non-intrusive policy which in the long term would be detrimental to India in responding to a situation which is dynamic in its very nature and concerning her vital security interests.

Then, when should India cross this self imposed restraint? For, answering this question it would be helpful to recall the security concerns which arose in the 1980s and which prompted India to take an active role in Sri Lanka. There was the fear of secessionism in Sri Lanka negatively affecting the Indian state of Tamil Nadu which in the past had been one of the first to demand secession. Other concerns related to the presence of foreign military and intelligence personnel in Sri Lanka which would affect Indian security concerns; possibility of Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka being made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests; that facilities set up by foreign broadcasting organisations could be used for any military or intelligence purposes. This was regarding the establishment of a powerful Voice of America transmission facility, expected to be the largest of its kind outside USA. Indian fears arose from the possibility that the facility could serve as a high-tech outfit to monitor naval and land communications and movements in the region. This facility could also beam high frequency messages to US submarines deployed in the Indian Ocean region. 56 Underlining all this was the mistrust and suspicion, in Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relations which is not the case anymore. If any of the above security concerns were to arise again in some form or the other, surely India’s response would be different from what it is in the current situation.

At this juncture it is important to note that what is enabling India to have this policy of caution and concern is the fact that the present Sri Lankan government is not anti-India. This is reflected in the cordial bilateral relations that have existed between the two countries specifically since the Kumaratunga government came to power. Further, Sri Lanka under Chandrika Kumaratunga is conscious of India’s security concerns. One should emphasise that the cordial bilateral relations are based on the belief on Sri Lanka’s part that India unequivocally stands for the former’s territorial integrity and would under no circumstances support a separate state Eelam. Had this not been the case, there would have been an absence of trust and the policy of restraint by India might not have been there. Most importantly, there would have been grave security implications for India.

There are some that advocate that an independent Eelam would not pose any security threat to India or its unity by fomenting secessionism in Tamil Nadu. The issue however is not just the impact on Tamil Nadu but on other separatist groups in India. More significantly, India’s approval of such a move would hit at its own core values of unity in diversity wherein there is no concept of a separate nation on the basis of ethnic identity. The preservation of such values in the long term are of much more importance than the military threats, which if the need arises India can successfully combat. Those who fear detrimental consequences also speak of the impact the LTTE as a terrorist organisation would have on similar organisations in India and the linkages that could possibly develop.

On the other hand, the long term security concerns which India had since independence with regard to Sri Lanka, much before the ethnic crisis arose, will be applicable and in a sense also be transferred to an independent Eelam. India will then have to deal with these concerns not with one independent identity but with two, for the security concerns which India has with Sri Lanka will continue to remain. 57 When seen in this perspective, it will be clear that not only for maintaining the sanctity of the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, but also for its own larger security interests, India should not support Eelam.

An independent Eelam will, at the closest, be separated from India by 18 miles. Any power upon gaining a foothold there would be in a position to carry out activities detrimental to the security of India if it so desires. Since Sri Lanka is an island nation, dealing with security perceptions inevitably brings in the important issue of the place of the island nation in India’s naval defence perceptions. This would be true of an independent Eelam as well.

Geography plays a very important role in defining India’s security perceptions with regard to Sri Lanka. If this is understood, the type of concerns which could emanate from Eelam will also be clear. Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic location is highlighted by the fact that it is virtually in the centre of Asia and the sea lanes between the Far East and the African and Arab world. Thus its location gives the island a central position midway on the ancient maritime trade route between West and East Asia. 58 Ships passing from Yangon and Calcutta going west to the Suez or the Cape or those sailing from Bombay or the Gulf and eastward to Singapore still use Sri Lanka’s excellent harbours in Colombo and Trincomalee.

The island nation occupies an important place in the critical sea lanes of communication and much of the trade and naval activity in the Indian Ocean. Trincomalee has the capacity to serve as a major naval base , and an extra regional naval force could well dominate the sea routes in the area (including those of India) and disrupt Indian shipping. 59 Geography, therefore, has played a primary role in its security, as it occupies one of the most exposed central positions of any country in the world.

In fact, the British realised the strategic importance of the island nation and thus the concept of strategic unity of India and Sri Lanka emerged, whereby the possession of Sri Lanka came to be regarded as a pre-requisite for the defence and security of India.60 These concerns would now arise with respect to Eelam too if it were to become a reality. It would not be wrong to presume that the US concern on events in the island nation, apart from other factors, is to do with the island nation’s geo-strategic position.

Given the vital geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka, it is essential that internal stability be maintained. Some opinions have been expressed that the declaration of an Eelam could possibly result in disturbances in the Sinhala dominated areas in the south of the country. The role the army would then play and the place of civilian government would again give rise to new additional security concerns for India. The issue thus has to be seen in a broad perspective and it is not just a question of whether India could recognise Eelam or not.



Having stated that an independent Eelam would not be to its advantage, India should, through its actions and if possible through that of Tamil parties in Tamil Nadu, exert pressure on the LTTE to agree to a cessation of hostilities.

The aim at the moment should be that somehow both the parties (the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE) should sit together on the negotiating table. However, to make such negotiations meaningful India should use its good offices to influence the dominant Sinhala political parties to come to a consensus on the devolution package.

There should be a debate within India on all the essential aspects related to Sri Lanka–that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and also the larger security concerns of India with reference to the island nation’s geo-strategic position. Presently, there seems to be too much emphasis on the first, much to the detriment of the second Thus, the policy within India should not take into consideration just the next few days and months but the next few years. India should be conscious of the geo-strategic importance of the island nation and therefore, the stability of the island nation becomes very important.

The bandwith within which the various interested parties can move and manoeuver with regard to the resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is not very wide. The war ‘within’ Sri Lanka has been going on for the past seventeen years. The present crisis in a sense has, if anything, and to a great extent, cleared the expected roles and responsibilities of the various parties. The crisis will hopefully enforce pragmatism on the main Sinhala parties that they need to come to a consensus first on the nature of the devolution proposals respecting the legitimate rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

World opinion and reactions must have made it clear to the LTTE that it will not get the recognition that it desires from the international community. It may continue to have a de facto government in Jaffna like it did between 1990-95, but to have a proper legitimate existence it too will have to soften its stand and agree to work within the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It cannot take India’s cautious approach to the crisis as inaction since in many subtle ways, India has conveyed that it is ready to take on any responsibility.

India through its actions has tried to maintain a balance between being sensitive to the interests of its own Tamil population and that of the Sri Lankan government. However, presently, the true wisdom of India’s policy will be tested when if the need arises it can move away from the pulls of domestic compulsions to giving priority to larger geo-strategic interests while formulating responses to a situation which is dynamic in many aspects.

While the current focus is on the military front, whatever be the fate of Jaffna in the end, it is the political arena and the negotiations which will be more important.



Note *: Associate Fellow, IDSA.  Back.

Note 1: For details of the government forces advance to capture Jaffna, refer, Asian Recorder, December 1995, pp. 25276-235304.  Back.

Note 2: “India ignored early warnings on Sri Lanka”, The Hindu, May 15, 2000.  Back.

Note 3: “Battle on for Elephant Pass”, The Hindu, April 23, 2000. Also refer, “LTTE captures Elephant Pass, 1000 Lankan Troops killed”, The Hindustan Times, April, 23, 2000. “Troops pull out from Elephant Pass”, The Hindu , April, 24, 2000.  Back.

Note 4: “LTTE Sweep in Jaffna Peninsula”, The Hindu, March 30, 2000.  Back.

Note 5: “LTTE offer a psychological warfare”, The Hindu, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 6: Asian Recorder, December 10-16, 1995, pp. 25275  Back.

Note 7: For details of these operations, refer India Today, May 22, 2000.  Back.

Note 8: “Jaffna a symbol of Eelam war”, The Hindu , May 14, 2000.  Back.

Note 9: “Sri Lankan Army has no option but to fight back”, The Hindu, May 13, 2000. Also refer Asian Recorder, 1997, p. 26669.  Back.

Note 10: For details refer, Jasjit Singh, “Trends in Defence Expenditure”, Asian Strategic Review, 1998-99, pp. 118.  Back.

Note 11: Asian Recorder, December 10-16, 1995, pp. 25277  Back.

Note 12: Asian Recorder, December 24-31, pp. 25304  Back.

Note 13: Asian Recorder, December 24-31, 1995, pp25304.  Back.

Note 14: Asian Recorder, Nov 26-Dec 2, 1995, pp 25245. Also refer Asian Recorder, September 3-9, 1995, pp. 25053 for views of the Buddhist monks. Further refer Asian Recorder, October 29-November 4, 1995 where the symbolic importance of Jaffna can be gauged from the fact that during the 1995 Government offences on LTTE to capture Jaffna, the Buddhist clergy and even some senior ministers within Kumaratunga’s party have urged the government to defeat the Tamil Tigers before implementing a political package.  Back.

Note 15: The Hindu, May 24, 2000  Back.

Note 16: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” , The Hindustan Times, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 17: “Ready for talks with LTTE :Chandrika”, The Hindu, April 29, 2000.  Back.

Note 18: “Talk peace or face war, Chandrika tells LTTE”, The Hindustan Times, April 30, 2000. In 1995, Sri Lankan Government had ruled out peace talks with Tamil Tiger separatists, until they lay down their arms symbolically and renounced their calls for a separate state. Refer Asian Recorder Sept 17-23, 1995, pp25084. Also refer Asian Recorder , Sept 10-16, 1995, where the LTTE Organ’s Inside Report has been quoted as saying that LTTE reacted to the governments proposal by saying that laying down arms for an intangible proposal would not only be political suicide for LTTE but national suicide for Tamils also.  Back.

Note 19: “ Take global help for taming the Tamil Tigers”, The Economic Times, May 13, 2000.  Back.

Note 20: “It is no to Eelam , yes to autonomy for Tamils”, The Hindustan Times, May 10, 2000. Also refer for the possible effect an independent Jaffna would have on India , Prem Shankar Jha’s , “Dire Threat to India”, published in The Hindu, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 21: Asian Recorder, December 17-23, 1997, p. 26954, 26875.  Back.

Note 22: Asian Recorder, p. 26731.  Back.

Note 23: “LTTE won't be allowed to recapture Jaffna”, The Hindustan Times, May 9, 2000.  Back.

Note 24: President Kumaratunga in an interview to the Sunday Times, Colombo, December 19, 1999, (Internet Edition) in the run up to the presidential elections. She referred to the democratic steps she intended to make through a three stage referendum ( first in Trincomalee and Battocaloa districts and then in Ampara district–initially in the three Muslim majority electorates and then in Sinhala majority Ampara electorate ) through which voters of the Eastern province will be able to decide on whether they will remain as a separate Eastern province or join the Northern province or the adjoining Uva province together or separately. In this way she felt that the democratic rights of the citizens of the Eastern province will be fully respected and they alone will be able to decide their own future without a solution being forced on them.  Back.

Note 25: Ibid  Back.

Note 26: Ibid  Back.

Note 27: “Loss of Elephant Pass could be a setback: Ranil”, The Hindu , April 24, 2000.  Back.

Note 28: “Tug of War”, The Hindu, November 15, 1998 . For details on the Fox Initiative, refer, Asian Recorder, May 28-June3, 1997, pp. 26493-26494.  Back.

Note 29: “ UN Staff Withdrawn from Jaffna”, The Hindu, April 29, 2000.  Back.

Note 30: Refer Asian Recorder, pp 25178, Oct-Nov 1995, President Kumaratunga stated that the overall objective was to end the war and bring about a political settlement of the conflict. She was categorical that the war could not be won until Tamil people are guaranteed their rights as a community. To those people ( including some bhikshus- monks) , propagating a military solution to the ethnic problem, she asked if the country was prepared to mobilise a further 100,000 youths forces. This apart from the billions of dollars being spent on the war.  Back.

Note 31: “Chandrika vows to defend Jaffna”, The Hindu, May 4, 2000.  Back.

Note 32: “Arms arriving for Sri Lanka”, May 11, 2000.  Back.

Note 32: The Hindu, May 13, 2000  Back.

Note 33: “Start Dialogue, E.U. tells Colombo, LTTE”, The Hindu, May 17, 2000  Back.

Note 34: “Sri Lankan Buddhist monks call for Indian intervention”, The Hindu, May 2, 2000.  Back.

Note 35: “Sri Lankan Army seeks military hardware”, The Hindu, April 30, 2000.  Back.

Note 36: “It’s no to Eelam , yes to autonomy for Tamils”, The Economic Times, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 37: “Will not interfere, PM knows best says Karunanidhi”, Economic Times, May 6, 2000.The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr.Karunanidhi commented that , “ It is Government of India’s privilege to take any appropriate action in the interest of the nation. We do not want to interfere in that”.  Back.

Note 38: “Sri Lanka’s Hour of Reckoning”, The Hindu, May 4, 2000.  Back.

Note 39: The Economic Times, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 40: “Multilateral talks on Sri Lanka crisis begin here today”, The Economic Times, May 11, 2000.  Back.

Note 41: “Take global help for taming the Tamil Tigers”, The Economic Times, May 13, 2000.  Back.

Note 42: “Vigil intensified in T.N. coastal areas”, The Hindu, May 7, 2000.  Back.

Note 43: The Hindu, May 11, 2000  Back.

Note 44: The Hindu, May 13, 2000.  Back.

Note 45: Ibid.  Back.

Note 46: “PM calls all party meet on Lanka”, The Hindustan Times, May 7, 2000.  Back.

Note 47: “LTTE offer a psychological warfare”, The Hindu, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 48: “India reaffirms policy”, The Hindu, May4, 2000  Back.

Note 49: “India rules out military intervention”, The Hindu, May 4, 2000.  Back.

Note 50: “Indian Consensus on Sri Lanka”, The Hindu, May 10, 2000.  Back.

Note 51: “Eelam no threat to India: Vaiko”, The Hindustan Times, May 10, 2000. Mr.Vaiko said that unnecessary fears were being spread that such a step would lead to secessionism in Tamil Nadu. He said that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu enjoy full rights and freedom as proud citizens of India, whereas the Sri Lankan Tamils have been suffering under repression. Also refer to the report in The Hindu , May 11, 2000. According to this report the PMK founder Dr.S.Ramadoss reiterated his party’s stand that creation of Tamil Eelam was the only solution to the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. Refer also , The Hindustan Times, May 14, 2000, where Mr.Vaiko in a first person article, “Tamil Eelam has to be the final solution”, airs his views on Tamil Eelam.  Back.

Note 52: Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, Official internet site, <>  Back.

Note 53: He said , “ We are keeping them fully informed. New Delhi realises that our effort is only against LTTE and we are keen on a political solution of the Tamil people.. We understand there are differences of perceptions in Tamil Nadu, but our intentions are quite clear. We will be able to prove the point that we are for the Tamils and very keen on finding a solution to their problem. For details refer, Asian Recorder, December 10-16, 1995, pp. 25277  Back.

Note 54: S.D.Muni, Pangs of Proximity- India and Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Crisis (New Delhi : Sage, 1993) pp. 55  Back.

Note 55: For details on India’s security concerns regarding Sri Lanka since the time British withdrew from the sub-continent, refer Padmaja Murthy, “Indo-Sri Lanka Security Perceptions : Divergences and Convergences”, Strategic Analysis, vol. 24, no. 2, May 2000, pp 343-360.  Back.

Note 56: Ajay Behera, in P.R.Chari ed., Perspectives on National Security in South Asia: In Search of a New Paradigm,(New Delhi : Manohar Publishers, 1999) p. 342.  Back.

Note 57: Rahul Roy-Choudhury, Sea Power and Indian Security, (London: Brassey’s, 1995) pp. 135.  Back.

Note 58: Britain, the major sea power of this period considered the Trincomalee harbour facing the Bay of Bengal in the islands east coast of a strategic importance. It thus became an important bastion in the British defence network. Refer Shelton U.Kodikar, Foreign Policy of Sri Lanka,( Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1982) pp. 21.  Back.