Ever since the Tamil nationalist struggle for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka started, there have been apprehensions in New Delhi about the spreading of such a movement into its own province of Tamil Nadu. These apprehensions are well founded as nationalisms do not respect international borders and have a tendency to spread. Hence the Indian Government has supported all along a unitary Sri Lanka within the constitutional framework. However, during the 1980s emotions were running high in Tamil Nadu and it is a matter of fact that many LTTE camps were operating out of Tamil Nadu with the Eelam cause enjoying widespread support among the locals.
All that changed sharply in the 1990s with the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The LTTE was banned in India and local support dried up as the Tamils of India lost their trust and interest in the LTTE in particular and the Eelam in general. Also, the economic transformation of Tamil Nadu created a large group of upwardly mobile Tamils who were least interested in what was happening to their Sri Lankan cousins. Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, the LTTE made some significant territorial gains and in the early 2000s even tried to engage in peace talks aided by Norway. The coming to power in Colombo of Mahinda Rajapakse’s nationalist government altered the situation. Even for this, the LTTE has only itself to blame as it had suppressed Tamil voter turnout thereby aiding the victory of the hard-line Rajapakse. LTTE supreme Prabhakaran probably thought that his outfit could win the struggle through its firepower alone. It was a costly miscalculation. Rajapakse’s war against the LTTE is now in its final stage and it does appear that the LTTE would be destroyed.
Is this for India’s good? Some seem to think so, as they consider that the LTTE will die and along with it will also vanish the Tamil nationalist movement and any separatist tendency within India. Has this been the case? Tamil nationalist emotions are running high again, much like in the 1980s. Students, lawyers and others have come out in protest with every political party obliged to stage protests on the Sri Lankan issue. A significant number of people, though definitely not the majority, are openly supporting the LTTE again and their ranks are growing day by day. Many are angry with New Delhi for being a bystander. The tremendous civilian cost of the Sri Lankan government’s war has reignited the nationalist sentiments of the Tamils.
India could have done without these developments. However, one may ask what could India have done differently?. By allowing the Sri Lankan government a free hand, it is giving the impression to the people of Tamil Nadu that it is insensitive to their concerns. This is detrimental to India’s own internal cohesiveness. No responsible government can support the LTTE but India should have sought the preservation of the pre-war status quo in Sri Lanka and pushed for a solution to the crisis within the Sri Lankan constitution using its influence with Colombo. This should have been done two years ago when the Sri Lankan government was just starting its war against the LTTE. Instead, the Indian government aided the war efforts of Sri Lanka and it appears that it did not anticipate the ramifications of such a war on the Tamils of India.
All talk about non-interference in Sri Lankan affairs is fine as rhetoric but in international relations, if its interests are at stake, a country needs to engage. India needs to learn a lesson or two from countries like US and China. A state does not get to choose its neighbors or wish away their problems but has to deal with them the best it can. If not then it cannot prevent the flow of consequences into its own territory which is exactly what is happening now.
The time is still not past. Now that the LTTE is gone as a potent political force, India should actively pressurize the Sri Lankan government to devolve powers and give political autonomy to its Tamil population within a unitary Sri Lankan framework. Sri Lanka has a long history of denying political rights to its minority Tamil population and this time around with no Tamil counterweight like the LTTE to check it, it is unlikely that it will devolve powers on its own. India will do well to fill the void left by LTTE, else, someone else will. In a worst case scenario, the LTTE may even be replaced by another and worse terror group with a pan-Tamil ideology. Israel worked hard to get Arafat to fail and eventually got Hamas as the replacement. On the other hand, by playing a constructive and assertive role in the post-LTTE scenario, India can win back the hearts of many disillusioned Tamils.