On June 1, 2007 the National Security Adviser M K Narayanan while on Tamil soil in Chennai made some remarks on aspects related to Sri Lanka in a tone and manner that would have made any red-blooded Tamilian feel that our Sri Lanka policy is in very safe hands. The NSA was asked what the government would do if Sri Lankans were to turn to Pakistan or China for certain types of arms in case New Delhi declined to supply them.
It was a tricky question but Mr Narayanan fielded it with an authority that belied the ground reality. He declared: “We are the big power in this region. Let us make it very clear.We strongly believe that whatever requirements the Sri Lankan government has, they should come to us. And we will give them what we think is necessary.
We do not favour their going to China or Pakistan or any other country.” Then he threw in a caveat: “We will not provide the Sri Lankan government with offensive capability. That is the standard position…
radar is seen as a defensive capability.” Then he added a throwaway line: India’s relations with the Sri Lankan government were “good enough” for Sri Lanka to follow the line that India wanted it to follow.
Then the reporters threw the NSA a question on fishermen going across to Sri Lankan waters to catch fish, much like the people of Chennai going across to Pondicherry to stock up on liquor. He declared in the manner of a thanedar: “We have told the Sri Lankan Navy that they should not fire at the Indian fishermen. The Sri Lankan Navy has told us that they will not … I myself have talked to the authorities in Sri Lanka that there should be no firing on our fishermen.
They have promised us that. Preventing our fishermen from going across might be asking too much from our fishermen.” In other words, he was asserting the rights of our fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters whenever they wanted, ignoring the sea boundary and other such niceties. Not even the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi has gone to this extent in public.
Now look at what Karunanidhi has gone and done. First he submitted on Monday a complaint at, oddly enough, the National Integration Council, in New Delhi: “In spite of assurances, attacks on fishermen from Tamil Nadu are on the increase. This has become a cause for anguish and agitation.” What he really wants is for the Sri Lankan authorities to stop militarily harassing Prabhakaran and his band of merry men.
If he had drawn a distinction he would have said he didn’t mind Prabhakaran being taken out in the action but why indulge in needless collateral damage? But he drew no such distinction. To get back to the NSA, why are the Sri Lankans not listening to him? There are three possibilities. One, they don’t understand the language our NSA speaks; two, they don’t give a damn even if our NSA goes blue in the face telling them what to do; three, the NSA is not telling us what is really going on in Sri Lanka with respect to our policy, after all most of what he handles is on a need to know basis and there are things he thinks we do not need to know.
Consider this. This is what Pranab Mukherjee said on May 8, 2006, on the defence pact with Sri Lanka that we haven’t signed only because it would have hurt certain sentiments (including, incidentally, that of the LTTE): “You know, instead of calling it a (defence) pact, we have defence cooperation in multifarious areas including the supply of equipment, training. For example, Lankan officers are the highest users (from any country) of all the technical opportunities we have in our defence institutions.
Secondly, in respect of equipment, we are also providing as and when (there are) requests. There’s constant interaction between the service officers.” It may be noted here that about 1,000 Sri Lankan service personnel undergo some kind of training in India every year. The then naval chief Arun Prakash told the press during a September 4 visit to Sri Lanka that when India was not supplying lethal weapons to the island nation, it was procuring them from elsewhere. The situation had changed from October 3, he added, rather pointedly. Another top official told this reporter: “We started a military relationship. Previously there was not a single piece of Indian equipment.
Now we are very much there.” Till about well into 2006 New Delhi’s policy on Sri Lanka was, as summed up to this reporter by a senior Foreign Office bureaucrat, as follows: “New Delhi is sensitive to the fact that minus the LTTE the Sinhalas will walk all over the place, and any support to the Tigers will result in declaration of Eelam.
The best strategy, till such time as the players in Sri Lanka are able to arrive at a home-grown solution, is to keep a lid on things. Complete victory of one side is not in our interests.” Therefore, New Delhi has devoted itself to bolstering Colombo’s efforts to take on the LTTE but without annihilating it. This became possible once Sri Lanka was taken off the negative list in October 2003 (prior to that the ‘hands off ’ policy on Sri Lanka was in operation, resulting from the assassination of one Mr Rajiv Gandhi, yes, and on Tamil soil). On the premise that Lankan forces lacked a capacity to fight the Tigers and crippled financially, India crafted a policy the main planks of which were: to push for plurality among the Sri Lankan Tamils thereby helping erode the notion that the LTTE was the sole representative of Tamils; help Sri Lankan forces to curb the Tigers in various ways such as helping build the war infrastructure — providing vehicles, upgrading airfields, refitting naval vessels, providing radars and technical help, underwriting the costs and providing soft loans. And by helping robustly monitor Lanka’s eastern sea board, and pass on intelligence leading to degrading of the LTTE’s military capabilities and assets.
There was another final plank to the policy as well, the weakest link as it turned out, weaker even than the efforts to bring about the elusive Tamil plurality. This was to wheedle Sri Lanka’s ruling class to evolve a consensus on devolution of power. This last aspect has been in terminal decline and has now reached an advanced stage of atrophy.
Now with the de-merger of the north and east, the last vestiges of Indian foreign policy stamp have all but disappeared. Parallelly, Sri Lanka has also diversified and deepened its arms sources and procurements to such an extent that other players will gladly fill any further gaps India leaves, rendering New Delhi further irrelevant to Sri Lanka’s own priorities. It’s a whole new battle for the hearts and minds out there. The notion that we are masters of our neighbourhood is now completely, stupidly romantic.
That’s the plain and inconvenient truth.
Somebody should have told our NSA this.
Maybe the Lankans already have. Who knows maybe even our fishermen !