Wednesday, February 4, 2009



( Text of an interview through E-mail given by me to a Russian journal )

(a). Sri Lanka is less developed than India because even though thepercentage of literacy in Sri Lanka is high, it does not as yet haveeducational institutions of excellence like the Institutes of Technology inIndia. India has better human and material resources than Sri Lanka. TheIndian economy is highly diversified. The Sri Lankan economy is still athree-item economy---tea, rubber and tourism.

(b).Its economy is dependent on tea, rubber and tourism. The main tea andrubber growing areas are in the South where the Sinhalese are in a majorityand not in the North and the East where the Tamils are in a majority. Theinsurgency has, therefore, not badly affected these three items. Iran,Pakistan and China are funding its arms purchases. Teheran has been supplying oil at concessional prices and giving it cheap credit to enable itto pay for the arms purchases. Pakistan and China sell arms at concessional rates and provide low-interest credit to enable Sri Lanka to pay for them.

(c).India's interest in the island is partly emotional and partly strategic.The emotional interest arises from the fact that India has a large Tamilpopulation in Tamil Nadu, a southern province, who have ethnically andlinguistically much in common with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Any policies ofthe Government of Sri Lanka, which affect the Sri Lankan Tamils, have anecho in Tamil Nadu. Hence, the close Indian interest in the problems and thewell-being of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Strategically, the Sri LankanGovernment has been cultivating China and Pakistan to keep India in check.It has good political and economic relations with China. It has invitedChina to construct a modern port in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. It hasinvited the Chinese to help it in gas exploration in areas which are closeto India. Similarly, there is a growing military-military relationship betweenSri Lanka and Pakistan, which worries India.

(d). Indian aid is partly economic and partly military. The economic aid isin the form of cheap credit to enable Sri Lanka to import from India whatit needs. India has been helping in gas exploration and has taken on leasethe large number of oil storage tanks in Trincomallee in the Eastern Province,which were constructed by the British during the Second World War.India ishoping to play an important role in the economic development of the Tamilareas in the North and the East when the LTTE is defeated by the Sri LankanArmy. The military aid is in the form of supply of defensive equipment suchas radars at concessional prices and training to the Sri Lankan Armed Forcesand Police in India.

(e).The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa comes from a party (the SriLanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is left of centre and has been traditionally friendly to India. He has been warm to India and claims to be attentive to India'sstrategic interests. At the same time, he has been determined to crush the LTTEnot only as a terrorist organisation, but also as a Tamil political movement with assistance from India, if possible, and from China and Pakistan,if necessary. Sensitivities of Tamil public opinion in Tamil Nadu have put limitson the kind of military assistance that India can give to Sri Lanka. He has triedto make up for this by seeking assistance from China and Pakistan and credit fromIran. Thus, the strategic space for India in Sri Lanka is slowly getting reduced dueto the increasing presence of not only China, Pakistan and Iran, but also the US. In thepast, India was concerned over the US presence in Sri Lanka. It is no longer sosince Dr.Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister in 2004. He does not sharethe traditional concerns of India over the impact of the US presence in the Indian neighbourhood on the regional influence of India. As a result of the victories of theSri Lankan Army, there has been an increase inSinhalese pride and chauvinism. Just now, Rajapaksa has been asssuring Indiathat once he crushes the LTTE, he would give to the Tamils a federal set-up whichwill satisfy their political aspirations. It is doubtful whether he would keep his wordIn view of the increased influence of Sinhaleseextremism on policy-making, he is likely to go back on his word and give theTamils something less than what he had promised. It would have been in India'sinterest to help him in destroying the LTTE's capability for insurgency and terrorism,while at the same time preserving its potential and strength as a political movementwhich would safeguard the interests of the Tamils.Of all the Tamil organisations in Sri Lanka, the LTTE was the most motivated. Manyof its young cadres, who fought ferociously against the SL Army, joined it long afterthe assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. They had no role in his assassination. India shouldhave made a distinction between those who had a role in his assassination and thosewho did not and tried to wean away the latter to India's side. It did not do so. It was avery short-sighted policy. Rajapaksa has skilfully and cunningly used Indian supportand ambivalence to destroy not only the capability of the LTTE for terrorism , but alsoits potential and usefulness to India in future as a political strategic asset. Indian political class never understands the importance of identifying and preserving ourstrategic assets in the neighbourhood. Jawaharlal Nehru let go our strategic assetsin Tibet.I.K.Gujral, who was the Prime Minister in 1997, unwisely and in a moment ofmisplaced generosity let go our strategic assets in Pakistan. Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, has let go our strategic assets in Nepal and Sri Lanka. It could be a great tragedy. (5-2-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. )