India’s ‘Rotten Diplomacy’ in Sri Lanka Breeds Loathing
As a rule, living in Sri Lanka means encountering some of the friendliest people on earth. But since the civil war ended in 2009, it must be said, there is a startlingly consistent loathing for India, and a doubled such loathing for Tamils from India. This manifests all in the abstract, for the most part, but it is there nonetheless.
Among other reasons, the Sinhalese are angry with India for funding and training the Tamil Tigers in their infancy, helping them become the monsters they became, and it is difficult to argue this point. The Tamils are angry with India for not intervening more decisively in the waning weeks of the war, to help stop the civilian carnage that occurred – and it is difficult to argue this point also.
Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils now consider the various political parties of Tamil Nadu to be goading Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife from a safe distance so that they may milk it for electoral capital; this, too, is ineluctable. I met all these contentions in various forms, time and time again, and I learned that a tone of apology was the best and most honest response.
I was, in a sense, a victim of my country’s rotten diplomacy. It might be possible to argue – although this isn’t the place for it – that India’s foreign policy toward Sri Lanka has been the most disastrous such sustained policy it has ever run. Admittedly, these were, and are, deep and complicated waters. But India repeatedly made the cynical mistake of presuming that it could have it all. It resembled the gambler who backs every single horse in the race, and while that may minimize harm at the Kentucky Derby, it doesn’t quite work the same way in geopolitics.
When, in the 1980s, a clutch of Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka were beginning to roughhouse among themselves for supremacy, Indian intelligence agencies covertly trained members of several of these groups in locations across north India. (In black irony, one of the Tiger cadre who came to Nainital for a stint was a woman with the nom de guerre of Dhanu, who would, a few years later, strap on a suicide vest and blow up Rajiv Gandhi.) At the same time, trying to preserve hearty bilateral relations with Colombo, India hosted and trained soldiers from Sri Lanka’s army. Later that decade, India would airdrop food and medicine parcels into besieged areas of Jaffna, until it agreed, under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, to stop aiding the insurgents and send in a peacekeeping force.
The true history of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s operations in Sri Lanka is still waiting to be written, but its human rights record has been frequently called into question. In seeking now to root out the Tiger insurgency, the Indian Peace Keeping Force has been accused of killing civilians; it certainly goaded the remaining splinters of rival Tamil outfits to inform on the Tigers. (I have heard several people from Jaffna tell me that they saw, firsthand, summary executions by the Indian Peace Keeping Force. “I was standing at a bus stop, and the troops came around, asking for one guy. They found him in a shop behind the bus stop. They dragged him out, shot him there, and asked the bystanders to dispose of the body,” one man said.) But it also alienated the rest of Sri Lanka to such an extent that, in a bizarre rearrangement of fealties, the Sri Lankan government is rumored to have armed and funded the Tigers for a brief spell, to fight the Indian Peace Keeping Force more effectively.
It was perhaps only with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi that India’s formal stance became unequivocal, but even then, the central government had to contend with a sort of informal foreign policy being run out of Tamil Nadu. Tamil parties still invoked the ties of blood that bound their constituents to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and as they began to play stronger roles in coalition government at the center, they were able to undermine official foreign policy. Money continued to flow out of Tamil Nadu and into the pockets of the Tigers. The war ended in curious fashion, with India implicitly (and, some say, materially) encouraging the army’s drive to extinguish the Tigers, even as Tamil Nadu politicians assured the Tigers of their fullest support. Until the very end, the cake had to be both possessed and eaten.
The coda to this story lies perhaps in an acknowledgement of India’s sole singular act of diplomacy through this entire grisly process: the pressure to include, in Sri Lanka’s Constitution in 1987, a 13th amendment, which called for the devolution of some administrative powers to provinces and for recognizing Tamil as an official language. The spirit of that amendment is now in some danger of being crushed by the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but its essence of limited federalism still represents a wise middle path for Sri Lanka.
Samanth Subramanian, the India correspondent for The National, is writing a book about the Sri Lankan civil war.