Waiting for a Bounce Back?
In the absence of someone as charismatic as Velupillai Prabhakaran to lead another LTTE, there are slim chances of the group’s re-emergence.
Reemergence of the LTTE could be a distant possibility.
Narendra Modi’s accession to power in India has the potential of some serious tectonic changes in the geopolitics of South Asia. While it is popularly stated that India may never be the same again – with both positive and negative connotations – India’s policy in the neighborhood may also see a significant shift. Modi’s statecraft will include some lingering geopolitical interests and concerns that are likely to impact his economic agenda at home. Overtly though, he will need relative peace around India without signs of venturing to resolve any of its geographical or security issues by the use of force.
Perpetuation of a military conflict will countervail his primary intended course of encouraging economic growth which is dependent on domestic and foreign investment. However, the appointment of Ajit Doval as the national security advisor, and V K Singh, a former army chief, as the minister in-charge for matters in the north-east, will mean a more militaristic approach at the second tier of engagement in foreign policy. Modi’s alma mater is the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which believes in the ideological domination of India and the region and holds a worldview that it would expect its protégé, Modi, to fulfill. That will need India to be assertive though it may go against the grain of development and regional stability, which remain intrinsically interdependent.
There are then likely to be two faces of India’s disposition under Modi: one, that will feed off tier-one engagement for peace and stability built around economic contacts with India’s neighbors; and the second that will use the combined expertise of Doval and Singh at the sub-diplomatic level, seeking furtherance of its geopolitical agenda through imposing covert force and exploiting existing vulnerabilities in target nations. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, to some extent, stand out as the main contenders who will suffer from India’s covert designs to foster geopolitical dividends.
There is one more factor, again domestic, that will determine Modi’s likely policy towards India’s neighbors. It has to do with Modi’s capacity to garner sufficient parliamentary strength that can enable him to enact economic and fiscal reforms where laws will need to change to enable restructuring. Modi’s economic plans are targeted on growth. He has the corporate sector on his side to provide the necessary stimulus to such growth that may then propel the overall economic outlook regenerating a stalled economy.
However, mere domestic investment may not be enough when the target area across India is hugely wide. Foreign investment too will be needed, as will be an environment for such investment, inclusive of assured inputs like a steady supply of electricity, oil and gas. To make these changes, Modi will need two-thirds majority in the parliament to go for the necessary reforms and restructuring to initiate the process of India’s economic recovery. This is when domestic dependence might just begin to drive some of his foreign agenda.
Enter Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalitha, with her party’s hefty presence in the parliament and hence her relevance to Modi’s endeavor to seek a law-making majority. Enter, also, Sri Lanka, a neighbor that will become relevant with Jayalalitha’s induction into the coalition, pulled into the vortex of what dynamics drive India’s internal policy.
Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state of some 63 million Tamils, has a historical ethnic affinity with the northern stretches of Sri Lanka which too are populated with the same ethnic stock with a similarity of language, culture and religion for most on either side. Sri Lanka’s trade and other links are mostly confined to India’s southern states across the narrow strait that divides both countries. Historical and religious fables connect the two with a shared cultural and religious history. At its narrowest, this strait, navigable only by small boats and fishing ships, is hardly twelve miles. That is the kind of proximity that pervades Sri Lankan apprehensions and India’s sense of entitlement.
What became subsequently the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was initially a reactionary response to the Sinhalization of Sri Lankan socio-cultural ethos. When the British occupied Ceylon, they brought along a large number of Tamils from the south of India to be used as plantation laborers
in their tea estates. These Tamils are called Indian Tamils while those who belong to the northern and the northeastern regions of Sri Lanka are native Tamils.
When in 1970, the movement to reassert Sinhala supremacy began it unleashed minority apprehensions in the Tamils and the Muslims of Sri Lanka. The Tamil response gradually became more organized and took on a militant hue. The LTTE, as a separately recognizable group with a militaristic approach to regaining Tamil rights in Sri Lanka, was recognized in 1983 with Velupillai Prabhakaran as its leader. That is also when it began an insurgency against the Sri Lankan state to carve out a separate Tamil Eelam consisting of the northern and north-eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
The movement was supported politically, financially and materially by an 80 million strong Tamil Diaspora, including the 63 million from Tamil Nadu in India. The premier intelligence agency of India, RAW, trained, equipped and supported LTTE operations against the Sri Lankan state. In an ironic twist, when India chose to physically intervene in the Tamil struggle, it introduced its forces under the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF) banner.
Except that, soon the IPKF was also fighting the LTTE because it would not fall in line with Indian aspirations. The IPKF was forced to withdraw after a rather bad experience, but did conclude an agreement that was incorporated as the 13th Amendment in the Sri Lankan Constitution that sought equal rights for Tamils. Internationally, European nations which carried sizeable Tamil populations and Canada which too had Tamils in reasonable numbers initiated a peace process that seemed skewed in favor of the Tamils in the eyes of most Sri Lankans. As a result, numerous rounds did not deliver peace. While the IPKF fought the Tamils, there were reports that RAW continued to support the LTTE. Among the many contradictions of this war, this was perhaps the most glaring.
What sustained the LTTE then in all its years of existence: a sense of alienation and deprivation? The sentiment still persists based on support from a wide Diaspora and still remains viable. Tamil Nadu’s religious and cultural affinity remains vibrant and India’s apprehension of a growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, a reality. In fact, little can be done about it as Sri Lanka is on its way to recovery from the war years.
What is different? The absence of someone as charismatic as Prabhakaran to lead another LTTE. The likely reliance of India on a tier-two engagement will dwell on increased covert influence under a changed security team of militant minds. Internal dynamics will force India to be more aggressive in Sri Lanka as it asserts its supremacy in what it considers its own backyard.
Will the LTTE reemerge? Perhaps not, simply because neither it has the leadership nor is there the time for it to develop an organization as efficient as it once was. What might ensue will be an Indian assertiveness under Modi that will exploit the guile of its covert forces as they attempt at neutralizing China’s presence in Sri Lanka. The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its Deputy Chief of Staff.