Govt. urged to exercise caution in handling Sri Lankan crisis

CHENNAI, MAY 8. The External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, has thrown a clear hint of what is in store on the Sri Lanka front. After categorically rejecting military intervention, he has hinted that New Delhi is not averse to playing a mediator's role to break the impasse between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A Foreign Affairs specialist and author of the `Gujral doctrine', the former Prime Minister, Mr. I.K. Gujral, has, however, sounded a note of caution to the Vajpayee Government.

In its new-found role of launching a crusade against terrorism, India must weigh its options carefully before plunging headlong into resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Analysts, diplomats and academics do not want to hazard a guess on what India will do next. Nor do they want to be quoted on inherent problems in any Indian involvement. But they are clear when it comes to dealing with the LTTE - ``be doubly careful, both because of past experience and also because of India's clear stance on terrorism''.

Military sources and retired officers associated with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) are relieved that another misadventure in Sri Lanka has been ruled out. They advocate caution even in airdropping relief supplies or evacuation of soldiers from the Jaffna peninsula, when those options are considered necessary. ``Unless this is done with the implicit concurrence of the LTTE, we should not take the risk,'' argues a retired IAF pilot who flew innumerable sorties to Jaffna.

Diplomatic sources, both in Colombo and New Delhi, are wary of predicting the course of action that the two countries are now considering. But they are sure ``something is on the anvil''.

The LTTE has already made the offer of a temporary truce to allow evacuation of troops from Jaffna.

Diplomatic sources point out that the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre has a generous representation from Tamil Nadu. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) have live contacts with the LTTE.

But, analysts in Tamil Nadu argue, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) would like to be ``extremely cautious'' in dealing with the LTTE at this juncture, with the distinct possibility of a snap poll to the Assembly before year-end.

They contend that once a truce is called in Sri Lanka, India could become active on the diplomatic front. In the light of its past experience and expertise in dealing with the ethnic crisis, it could take on the mediator's role without becoming a signatory to any possible agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE, if ever one is reached.

The analysts caution the Centre against the pitfalls in donning this mantle now - (1) It is difficult to trust the LTTE or presume that it will keep its commitments to either India or Sri Lanka; (2) What will happen in the event of either party not standing by the agreement in spirit? (3) Will not India end up providing credibility, legitimacy and renewed as well as legitimate access for the LTTE to Tamil Nadu?

Diplomatic sources say it is quite likely that both Colombo and the LTTE will request New Delhi to play mediator in facilitating direct talks between them - in a third place. But they want to know what will happen to India's position on combating terrorism or its policy of non-intervention in the `internal affairs' of another country?

It is quite apparent that many constituents of the NDA, perhaps including the Bharatiya Janata Party, have a pro- LTTE line and may have been waiting for this kind of opportunity to intervene and play an active role in brokering peace on the island.

True, New Delhi has to keep in mind its regional security concerns and strategic interests in Sri Lanka. It cannot let any other country get too deeply involved in this regional crisis, which will have a spillover effect on India. But the NDA must also keep in mind the experiences in dealing with the LTTE, even if New Delhi is not going to walk the IPKF road again.

If a mediator's role becomes inevitable, the Government of India must draw a clear line and lay down norms, especially when it comes to Tamil Nadu. Without being led by the known supporters of the LTTE, the Centre must keep the Tigers out of this State.

Similarly, any influx of refugees of the kind witnessed in the 1980s or 1990s must be averted. If relief can be provided in the Jaffna peninsula under a ceasefire arrangement and the involvement of the ICRC and other international aid agencies, that must be the preferred option.

Whatever the Centre decides, in the overall interest of India and the sub-continent, it cannot afford to ignore the LTTE's track record. Similarly, the political parties in Tamil Nadu will do well to keep politics out of this issue and ensure that Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis does not become an issue when the State goes to the polls.