Dr. Anil Athale,

former Joint Dir War Studies Division

And ex Colonel.



Ever since the Presidential elections in Sri Lanka and ascent of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Sri Lankan Presidency, there was apprehension that the hardliner would opt for military solution to the four decade old Tamil problem. This year as Sri Lanka has abrogated the cease fire agreement and renewed fighting has broken out, there is a real danger of the island turning into another trouble spot in the Indian subcontinent.


While many Tamils disagree with the means used by the Tigers and its fascist outlook, they nevertheless regard them as saviours of Tamils in face of Sinhala chauvinism. This is the greatest strength of the Tigers and makes it possible for them to survive. There is no military solution to the underlying political problem, a fact well understood in India ( and therefore our remarkable success in curbing internal conflicts from Naga to Punjab to even Kashmir).


Indian ocean is a unique area in as much as for an ocean it has very few littoral countries. As a consequence most of its vast expanse consist  of open or international sea. It is reputed to be very rich in minerals and in times to come as the resources on land exhaust, a race for sea bed exploitation is a distinct possibility. The Chinese naval expansion , proceeding currently at 13% growth rate per annum as well as her attempts to build a base at Coco island belonging to Mynmar and at Gawadar in Pakistan,  portend an Indian ocean rivalry. India can ill afford to lose control of this area , vital for its security. Located at the apex of Indian ocean , a friendly  and peaceful Sri Lanka is essential for Indian defence.


The future domination of the Indian ocean by Chinese poses a threat to the vital interest of Japan as well as the United States. It is a well known secret that the two decade old Indian intervention in Sri Lanka ( the IPKF interlude of 1987) was prompted by the fear of the Trincomalee harbour going into hostile hands. Logically, today the interests of India, Japan and the US seem to coincide in having peace in Sri Lanka.




The Tamil-Sinhala rivalry is ‘mother of oldest conflicts’. The two sides trace their animosities to the battle between Tamil King Ellara (after whom Ellam is named) and Sinhalese Duttagamini in 167 (or 145) B.C. !  Obviously it was not a continuing conflict and there were many periods of peace between the two. But it must be understood that in the perception of ordinary Tamils and Sinhalas, the conflict is as old. This in itself becomes an obstacle to a solution. 


Since the Buddhist revival of  1956-57, Sri Lanka has become a ‘Buddhist State, much on the lines of many Islamic states that exist. But even worse, the law of the land denies equal opportunities to non –Sinhala citizens. Many, specially Indian commentators have flippantly ‘advised’ Tamils to accept Sri Lankan unity without realising that Sri Lanka is NOT a secular state like India nor is it a ‘fair state’ like UK etc in terms of rule of law. Thus there is a fundamental problem of the nature of Sri Lankan state at the root of this conflict.




Geography dictates that any conflict in the countries of the Indian subcontinent affects India as she is at the centre and her borders touch on each and every country. Common borders ,race, religion and history make India and Sri Lanka one of the closest neighbors in the region with the possible exception of Nepal. But mere cultural similarities or even common religion or race do not necessarily lead to peaceful relations- examples; Sino-Japanese or relations between dozen odd middle eastern countries , prove this assertion.


              Sri Lanka is a plural society and multi ethnic  country. Like the other developing countries , the process of economic development as well as nation building , on since 1945 all over the third world, has often led to clashes between various groups within the nation. India has experienced this and so has Sri Lanka. In the late 19th century conflicts took place mainly between the Budhists and Catholics and Muslims. The most serious riots against the Catholics took place in 1883 and 1903. Major Anti Muslim riots took place in 1915 . But since 1958, the focus of Sinhala violence has shifted to Tamils. Major anti Tamil riots took place in 1958,1977 and 1981-83. This antagonism has led to a feeling of insecurity amongst the Tamils and the movement for Tamil Elam or homeland , was born out of this cauldron of hate.

              The Tamil speaking people of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have historical and blood relations ties with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. ( Wife of tennis icon Vijay AmritRaj is from Jaffna while wife of cricket ace Muthahiah Murlidharan is from Tamilnadu…proves the point) They could not remain inactive and watch the genocidal tactics of the Sri Lanka army against their own brethren . Rise of Drvadian parties like Dravid Kazagam and later of its two offshoots DMK and AI_ADMK ensured a competitive backing for the rights of the Sri Lanka Tamils. The late MGR went a step further and linked the Tamil survival with Indian nationalism. Indian support to the Tamil militants was good politics, both regionally as well as nationally. India intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987 initially with the sole aim of saving the Tamils. That subsequently it ended up fighting the Tamils themselves can be only understood as a result of naivete of top Indian leaders, bungling of an egotist diplomat and shrewdness of President Jayavardhane.  



There are three distinct Tamil entities in Sri Lanka,

·         Jaffna Tamils

·         Jaffna Tamils living in Sri Lanka’s other Sinhala majority area,

·         Plantation Tamils.



There is no chance of a Greater Elaam or Tamil Nadu joining it. Even Pondecherry is maintaining its separate existence , it will be foolish to consider this seriously.




The IPKF failed due to two main reasons,

·         Sri Lanka government went back on promise of political concessions.

·         At a crucial period in 1988, under late Premadasa, it is the Sri Lankan govt. and the army that supplied arms and ammunition to the LTTE to fight the Indian Army.




Tamil Elaam is no solution. The new state cannot be in peace with Sri Lanka as the Eastern  province claimed by them has mixed population , the boundary is not . well defined and is 600 kms long. Perpetual bloodshed is predetermined in case of that outcome.


On the other hand most Sri Lankan Tamils would be quite satisfied with Indian type of Federal structure. The first step in the direction has to be taken by the Sinhlas by recognising that Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic and NOT a Buddhist state. The Sinhalas have to give up their insistence on ‘Unitary’ state and accept federalism.


Federal structure with a Kashmir like arrangement  where with Article 370, the Kashmiri identity is preserved.


A three language formulae to solve the language issue.


Equality before law for all citizens and no Sinhala bias.


Open negotiations and a cease fire.


India could guarantee this accord.




Unfortunately, with our capital located in Delhi, the ruling establishment is often oblivious to the Indian ocean, despite the fact that the last rulers, British, came from the sea. One often wonders if situation would have been different if Mohammed Bin Tuglaq had succeeded and capital shifted to Daulatabad…….near the centre of the country?


Before and ideological dispute can be solved it needs to be converted into a tangible dispute over territory or rights. The Middle East process only got off the ground and also derailed) once the Palestinians recognised Israel’s right to exist and Israel in turn accepted the demand for a Palestinian state. Once the ideological hurdle was crossed there can be give and take over territory. Till such time this happens, there is very little chance of peace. World and major powers like the US and Japan have to convince or coerce the Sri Lankans into abandoning the path of military solution. India has to act and realize that between inaction and military intervention, there are many tools available to it.


The dialogue must be open and the world at large told of the issue involved. But the first step for the process to begin is for both sides to accept that they are in a ‘No Win Situation’.  If the world and India fails to convince the Sri Lankans, then we are looking at a fire next door with China gleefully fishing in troubled waters!