High hopes in Sri Lanka of India's assistance

COLOMBO, MAY 7. Ten years after Indian troops left Sri Lanka, resulting in the adoption of a hands-off policy by New Delhi, expectations have escalated in the island-nation of a possible Indian assistance to ward off the latest advances by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

Faced with successive rebel advances since December, the foreign policy line of the Sri Lankan Government, which had steadfastly maintained that the conflict was ``internal'' in nature, underwent subtle changes with the involvement of a Norwegian initiative to commence direct talks between the Government and the LTTE.

But, it was in April, when the Tigers overran the crucial Elephant Pass gateway garrison to the Jaffna Peninsula, that the overall mode changed - initially on internal perceptions and later on the external front.

When the Sri Lanka Army was on a victorious high, an overall mode of optimism prevailed that the LTTE could be contained and brought to the negotiating table. The `internal' nature of the conflict was accentuated by the Government, while the rebels, as well as other Tamil groups, missed no opportunity to `externalise' the conflict.

Elephant Pass and the subsequent military developments, however, have reversed the situation. Calls to ``friendly nations'' by the Sri Lankan Government contrasted with a stoic silence by the LTTE, for the moment, mark the approach to externalising the decades-long conflict during the past weeks.

Expectations of an external role though divided somewhat along ethnic lines, are linked to the rapidly-shifting immediate military setting rather than the larger end of reaching a political settlement between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, for which the precondition remains a coming together of the sharply- opposed political parties - the ruling People's Alliance (PA) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP).

Majority Sinhalese thinking is along the lines that the ``Tigers would have to be finished or else we are finished'', while minority Tamils see the LTTE advances as taking the challenge into the Sinhala polity.

In this context both Tamils and Sinhalese are watching on how India's policy on Sri Lanka would unfold in the days ahead. While the majoritarian expectation is that the Indian involvement, of whatever nature and degree, would help in containing the military advances of the LTTE, Tamils look to what India's response would be to the LTTE advance in the Peninsula when it ``watched the Sri Lanka Army push out the LTTE in 1995''.

Sinhalese and Tamils, who would prefer an active Indian involvement take solace in the fact that the previous handling of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) justified the present Indian stand. Those who press for such a role by India despite the past experience are also spread across the ethnic groups.

Sinhalese voicing such views are of the opinion that Tamil militancy sprouted with Indian blessings and hence had the `moral responsibility' to step in at the moment. Tamils who call for such a role argue that in the absence of an Indian involvement the LTTE-advance into Jaffna place those antagonistic to the rebels in danger. In addition, it could create a vacuum in which an external player would occupy, thereby forcing an Indian role which would complicate the setting if the new arrival was a state not favourably disposed to India.