Tamil Nadu politicians have begun speaking up on the plight of civilians caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan army and the guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); they should be careful and make a clear distinction between non-combatant civilians who need to be taken out of the danger zone where they are trapped (and for which a time window has been agreed upon), and “tigers” who should be eliminated. The issue is believed to be an emotive one this side of the Palk Straits, and could become an election issue in Tamil Nadu in the summer. For all that, there should be no doubting the fact that the LTTE deserves the fate that it has met, with the loss of what is said to be its “capital” as well as one of its important operating bases. The force that has now been cornered in the jungles of north-eastern Sri Lanka is a ruthless, unreasonable organisation that has bedeviled the region for a quarter century, and proved immensely harmful to the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils. It has spurned every opportunity to come to a settlement with Colombo, and used every cease-fire to ready itself for fresh fighting. Peace-making interlocutors from various countries have come and gone, after giving up any hope they had of bringing about an amicable settlement. It became clear some time ago, therefore, that the only way to end the long-running civil war was for one side to emerge victorious; and it was inconceivable that that would be anything other than the Sri Lankan army. In addition to all this, the LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is a wanted criminal in India for his role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
From the perspective in New Delhi, India needs an atmosphere of peace and tranquility in its neighbourhood. The country already has a full plate of regional problems, given the semi-permanent state of tension with a rogue state like Pakistan, the unresolved border dispute with China and the concerns about terrorism taking root in Bangladesh, not to mention the unrestrained flow of illegal immigrants from that country. All these make South Asia one of the most difficult neighbourhoods that exist.
No one therefore needs yet more trouble-spots in the form of Sri Lanka and Nepal. Among other things, they give external powers an opportunity to fish in troubled South Asian waters, create a domestic spill-over in a variety of ways, and therefore have domestic political implications (as the grabbing of power by Maoists in Nepal shows).
While it must be hoped that the LTTE gets demolished, the long-term issue is how Sri Lanka intends to deal with its Tamil minority. Some were shipped back to India, under the Shastri-Sirimavo pact of the mid-1960s. The rest are legitimate Sri Lankan citizens, and they have the valid grievance that they have been deliberately put down by the government’s policies on language (taking Tamil down to a lower peg), employment and the like. Indeed, the initial response to these injustices was parliamentary opposition, which made no impact on Colombo. When guerrilla forces started out, the issue escalated to civil war. That is now drawing to a close. Once the LTTE is no longer on the scene, Colombo needs to urgently reach out to the civilian Tamil population and offer a package of autonomy and special measures of the kind that were there in the Rajiv-Jayewardene accord. Otherwise, one set of “tigers” will have died, but another will be born. In victory, as Churchill said, Colombo should show magnanimity.