“Nearly 13,000 refugees landed in Rameswaram this year ... That too only those who had Rs.30,000 or more to pay for their perilous trip... Leaving their families, houses, properties and relatives.It is a humanitarian crisis which is similar to Darfur ... It is a sad sight when our brethren who are living so close to us are having such a plight ... What we all hope for is a peaceful resolution of the conflict ...I am not supporting the LTTE or other separatist organizations ...But the plight of these Sri Lankan refugees who are now shifted to Coimbatore as the Mandabam camp in Rameswaram is over-crowded ... need not be overlooked. They too speak the same language as we do ... follow the same social customs, the only difference is we were lucky enough to be born on the other side of the palk strait ...
“(Views expressed in an Orkut discussion by user “neo”)
Ever since the influx of Tamil refugees from Srilanka has reached sizable proportions over the last few months, the media has become actively involved and so have the Indian citizens more particularly people of Tamilnadu. There are varied views as to what exactly must India do. The views vary from supporting LTTE’s armed struggle to crushing the armed struggle by assisting the Govt of Srilanka. These are just two extreme views and there are a million responses, which lie between these two extremes. I will attempt to present my views on the issue and what possibly must India do. Right now India is doing nothing and it will do so at it’s own peril.Disclaimer:
There may be factual gaps and inaccuracies in my narration, do mention that in your comments.If you need to form your own independent views on the issue “Island of Blood” by Anita Pratap and “Inside an Elusive Mind” by Narayana Swamy are two good books. The views that have been expressed here are largely an understanding of those two books. Other good book that I have heard of but haven’t read is “Tigers of Lanka” by Narayana Swamy published in 1994.
Where are the roots of this ethnic conflict?
If we have to get to the actual roots of this conflict we may have to go back a very long time in History. Let’s for the sake of meaningful understanding take a look at the History of events from Srilankan Independence. I am bad with Dates and names, so if you are looking for accurate chronology of events or for names of political leaders involved you have to google it.
Srilanka is a country of Singhalese Majority. Approximately 75-80% of the population is Singhalese and the rest Tamilians.The minority population is concentrated in the northern and northeastern parts of Srilanka. After Srilanka got Independence from British rule, the first president of Srilanka visited the northern part and announced that there will be no discrimination against Tamils and they need not worry about being a linguistic minority in Srilanka. What went wrong then? Politicians being politicians smelled a big opportunity to score a few brownie points. Immediately there was furore in Srilankan Parliament by Opposition parties about how Singhalese interests are being compromised and how the government is selling out to minorities. For all the bold declarations, the political heat was too much for the incumbent government to stand up to and it went back on all promises and started to discriminate against Tamils. Thus a vicious cycle was set where in Political parties try to project themselves as Singhalese warriors and Srilankan politics was essentially reduced to Singhalese Chauvinism.
There were political parties in Northern part of Srilanka and prominent well-respected Tamil political leaders. Their political and peaceful means to stand up to discrimination were always crushed ruthlessly. Srilankan political history is replete with events of how peaceful civilian movements were crushed with brute force. Just a few examples to show discrimination- compulsory Singhalese number plates for vehicles, Preference to Singhalese citizens in higher education and government jobs etc. Apart from the state policies, government also turned a blind eye to violence against Tamilians. There was a literal state sponsored genocide in Srilanka.
In response to all these atrocities, various armed groups emerged in the northern regions, but most of them were quiet unfocussed and didn’t have any strategic or tactical power for a military combat. LTTE emerged as the most ruthless and powerful force from among these groups to make the Srilankan government and indeed the entire world up sit up and notice and bring them to the negotiating table.
Just how the hell did the LTTE become so powerful?
India under Indira Gandhi’s rule in the 1980s played a significant role in LTTE’s emergence as a powerful guerilla group.
Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief was born in Srilanka in 1954.His childhood was witness to mass atrocities against his family members and his people and that probably instilled a sense of anger and Hatred firmly in his head. He became prominent in the public eye after the murder of the Mayor of Velvityur, his hometown. He is believed to have received armed training in Palestine. He was, right from his beginning as a rebel, been very clear about the idea that a Separate country for Tamils is the only way to ensure their peaceful existence and to this day he hasn’t budged from that.
July 1983 was witness to the most unfortunate event in Lankan History, the “Black July” pogrom against Tamils. In a skirmish between LTTE and Srilankan Army LTTE attacked an Army post at Velvettiyur and killed four Army men brutally, this was done as a retaliation for the death one of their prominent members. This event sparked off mass violence against Tamils. In her book “Island of Blood” Anita Pratap says that during that period the Tamil newspapers carried no news, they had only obituaries and travel agency ads to arrange for escape from Srilanka.Thanks to the efforts of Indian Journalists like her, the incident got the attention of Indians and there was an huge outpour of sympathy towards Srilankan Tamils.
Meanwhile quiet a few armed groups had emerged in the Northern part of Srilanka and there was a power struggle between them (I do not remember all of them but TELOS was prominent armed group at that time). I do not know or rather don’t remember the exact reasons but Prabhakaran stayed in India, in chennai during this period. He was living like a normal guy and nobody would have believed that he was a “wanted” by Srilankan government. It so happened that an unexpected Gunfight broke out between him and another armed group leader at Pondybazar in Chennai. The police caught him. Prabhakaran didn’t come out with his true identity. The other guy who was caught told the truth about them. The circumstances turned fortunate for Prabhakaran. The General sympathy that had been built up in India towards Srilankan Tamils coupled with Indira Gandhi’s enthusiasm for another Bangladesh like adventure ensured that he wasn’t sent back to Srilanka, as he should have been. All Lankan armed groups were given Arms and Training under the guidance of RAW (training given in Dehradun in forest warfare and huge forest areas cleared in TN to provide training).
The IPKF Fiasco
This bonhomie between LTTE and India continued for quiet some time. Tamil Political parties were falling head over heels in love with LTTE and there was an active competition to provide assistance to them.
All this continued till Rajiv Gandhi did a sudden U turn on this issue. He insisted that all armed groups should act as one group and that Srilanka and LTTE should agree upon a peace deal that did not insist on formation of a separate Tamil nation. India wanted LTTE to surrender their arms and sent the IPKF to monitor the “peace” process. (This later broke into pieces and a badly bruised nose for India)
His sudden insistence on giving up of arms by LTTE and hastiness to broker a peace deal really upset Prabhakaran. He was also upset by treating his group equivalent to other groups as he firmly believed the idea of separate Tamil nation and did not trust the sincerity of other groups this the cause (or at least this is what the LTTE sympathizers tell)
While there's no clear cut reason for Rajiv Gandhi’s sudden change of policy w.r.t LTTE , there are indications that it was an attempt to divert the Bofors issue which was burning his pants then(some RG supporters were living in the dream of him getting a Nobel peace prize for resolving Lankan issue, talk about being naïve )
The IPKF had failure written all over it even before it began. For starters the troops that landed there didn’t have much of a clue about political ground realities.(some army men landed their with supplies for just two day’s stay) The LTTE was already against this move and was plotting IPKF’s downfall. There were noises from Srilankan opposition that the landing of foreign troops in Srilanka was against their national interests and national pride. LTTE and Sri Lankan Army both played an active role in turning the IPKF against Tamilians. The LTTE would attack Indian forces posted there and would vanish within the local population. Lack of local intelligence resulted in innocent civilians being attacked by IPKF for LTTE’s attack on them. Thus a scenario developed where both the LTTE and Srilankan government wanted to get rid of the IPKF and so did the Tamil civilians who were suffering at their hands. In a cruel irony, SLA army provided Arms to LTTE for battle against IPKF.LTTE waged a successful Guerilla war and Indian troops were forced to withdraw after a long, fruitless battle.
The withdrawal of IPKF was a huge boost to LTTE, it proved that they could take on a mighty army and defeat it. LTTE was also successful in elimination all other armed groups by force or by coercion i.e. they either become part of LTTE or get killed. This act is justified on the premise that other groups were traitors that were not sincere about the cause of Ealam – The separate homeland for Srilankan Tamils.
What is the Justification provided for Rajiv Gandhi’s Murder by LTTE’s sympathizers and what is it’s aftermath?
Well, the oft-repeated argument is that he was a traitor against Tamils and it was a revenge for sending IPKF and unleashing atrocities against Tamils. My actual understanding is that the decision to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi was based on two factors
1) Lok sabha elections were due in India and LTTE was sensing that if Rajiv comes back to power, he would do something to erase the bad memories of IPKF that may not be in LTTE’s interest.
2) Assassination of a prominent politician of a large democratic country would project LTTE, as a powerful organization that can strike at will.
Whatever the basis of the action, it remains the biggest political blunder by LTTE. It ensured that no self respecting Indian can ever support the LTTE, even if he is a staunch supporter of the Srilankan Tamils. The LTTE’s original demand for separate Tamil land stood seriously diluted because of this act and subsequent assassinations that it carried out. The world saw no difference between LTTE and other terrorist organization with separatist ideologies.
Why do peace talks between LTTE and Srilanka continuously fail?
For the same simple reason that all peace talks fail- rigidity. The sad truth is none of the successive Lankan govts have any proof that they are serious about treating Tamils with equality. The LTTE in turn refuses to budge from its position of Separate Ealam. Whatever alternative voices emerge, they are suppressed. The LTTE ensures that no voice apart from it’s own is heard to outside world, people with political view different from LTTE are not tolerated. Similarly the chauvinistic agenda of successive Srilankan governments has ensured that Singhalese citizens are either apathetic to the plight of Tamilians or a fanatical few of them encourage the discrimination against Tamils.
There have attempts by social groups to increase interaction between Singhalese and Tamil people especially youngsters. This is to erase the hatred that has developed between the two communities over the last few generations. These are just small efforts that can at best act as supporting structure in a larger peace process.
What have been India’s responses to this crisis post the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and what should it be?
India’s response can be described as an Ostrich syndrome. It fails to see the problem in the hope that ignoring it would make the problem disappear. There has been no clear stand on this issue(that there has been no clear stand on any external affair issue requires another blog). What are the options India has in this situation?
1) Continue to act like an Ostrich, bury your head in sand and hope that the problem will go away. Result – Obviously the problem is going nowhere, we’ll only end up with more refugee influx and more hardening of radical Tamil groups within India
2) Support LTTE in its cause for Separate Ealam.Result - India will end up with another Bangladesh like scenario. We’ll create an authoritarian regime that is right now controlled by Prabhakaran but has no succession plans. The possibilities of proxy war by Srilanka will exist. We’ll end up opening another front to create headache for India. The reason why India will never take this stance is because of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
3) Support GoSL in its attempts to curb LTTE. The Gosl will curb LTTE and get back to it’s old ways of discrimination and this in turn again runs the danger of raising radical voices in TN
4) The best option in my opinion is to bring diplomatic pressure on Srilankan Government. Set time frames for implementation of policies that conveys sincerity in treating Tamils as equal in Srilanka. Help in setting up a federal structure as we have in India After all when EU countries are involved in working out a solution, it is only fair that we must do our two pence to our neighbor.
I think we must look at the sufferings of Sri Lankan Tamils as a humanitarian issue rather than get emotional about "Thamizh inam"(tamil unity to put it simply). After all when the govt condemned the attacks on Lebanon and sent Aid package to them, I really see no reason for us to remain mute to issue that is taking place next door.
Another question that gets raised is Will formation of separate Tamil Ealam fuel separatist tendencies within Tamilnadu?
I doubt that very much as there is no serious alienation of Tamilians from the Indian mainstream. More importantly political parties will not lend much voice to such a stand, simply because the power and money that can get as a politician in a well developed state of India is far greater than what they will get being part of separate nation.