COLOMBO: Leaders of Tamil Nadu, across the political divide, privately but effectively supported the Indian government’s policy of opposing efforts by the US and Norway to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran so that his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) lived to fight another day, says Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Adviser (NSA) in his book; “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy”.
“Political leaders across the political divide in Tamil Nadu knew that the only way Prabhakaran could lead Tamil Eelam would be to physically eliminate the real leaders of the Tamils who were in India, just as he had already done to other Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka,” Menon says in the chapter entitled ‘Force Works.’
“Despite differences in public posture on the issue in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, there was cross party private understanding on the basics of the policy toward Sri Lanka with both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party and the All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam Party (AIADMK) party, as a result of considerable hard work by Pranab Mukherjee (the then Foreign Minister) and Narayanan (the then NSA), as I found when I met alone with very senior Tamil Nadu politicians in Chennai, away from the glare of publicity,” Menon recalls.
“Ironically, by murdering Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE had caused a shift in broader Indian attitudes, which came to be more in line with those of the Sri Lankan government,” he says.
According to Menon, India’s policy options were limited. New Delhi was aware that a victorious Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be less dependent on India and therefore less responsive. Rajapaksa not only had a firm grip on the levers of power, including the military, but also the backing of China, Pakistan “and to an extent, the United States.”
As regards the US he makes the interesting observation that “the United States was willing to help him (Rajapaksa) in practice with intelligence and military training, but was constrained to express human rights concerns, without letting them to rise to the level of affecting his conduct of the war against terrorism.”
On the issues before India, Menon says: “If India had stood aside and asked him (Rajapaksa) to desist, in effect, defending the killers of an Indian Prime Minister, we would have effectively written ourselves out of Sri Lanka for the next decade or more, sacrificing our maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abdicating a geopolitically strategic neighbor to other powers. We could hardly abandon Sri Lanka to potentially hostile influences. In effect, Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked fourteen miles off the Indian coast.”
Knowing that victory was round the corner, Rajapaksa was in no mood to agree to Western ceasefire proposals or to any idea that the LTTE leadership might be evacuated to safety, even if that was the only certain way to prevent casualties among civilians that the LTTE had driven onto to the peninsula as their hostages and human shields, Menon notes.
But Rajapaksa’s obduracy was matched by Prabkaran’s whose thoughts and plans were increasingly remote from reality. He had either sidelined or killed people who could have advised him better. Prabhakaran’s obduracy resulted in the complete elimination of the LTTE’s military machine and its leadership, including himself and his family.
The way the Sri Lankans fought the war, though criticized for its brutality in the final stages, might have taken a higher toll if delay and stalemate were brought about, Menon feels in his assessment of the war.
“It is arguable that some brutality was inevitable in a war of this kind against a violent terrorist group that had shown no qualms about terrorizing its own people and physically eliminating all its potential adversaries, Tamil or Sinhala.”
“Indeed, one must logically ask the question, would an earlier adoption of the more brutal methods of the last thirty months of the war have brought it to an earlier end and actually saved lives and minimized the war’s deleterious effects?. This is a recurrent problem in state craft. It is also the strongest justification for the use of atomic weapons to end World War II.”
“The strategist Edward Luttwak argues that there are situations in which one should give war a chance. Was Sri Lanka one of them, where peace building efforts and international mediation only prolonged and worsened the agony?,” Menon asks and concludes by saying: “ These are difficult counterfactuals that go against the grain of liberal thinking, but they do seem appropriate to the Sri Lankan case.”