India's Covert Role in Sri Lanka's Ceasefire by M. R. Narayan Swamy SignUp

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India's Covert Role in Sri Lanka's Ceasefire
by M. R. Narayan Swamy Bookmark and Share
New Delhi
Now that Sri Lanka has jettisoned the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Tamil Tigers, one of India's best kept secrets can be revealed: it was New Delhi that quietly authored the process that led to the Norway-brokered pact.

The dominant thinking in India and Sri Lanka, and even elsewhere, is that New Delhi has been a distant watcher to the goings on in the war-hit island barring its interactions with Colombo and countries like Norway as part of a "hands off" policy sparked off by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 assassination.

While it is true that India took a detached view of the ethnic conflict in the aftermath of Gandhi's killing, things changed shortly after Atal Bihari Vajpayee took office in 1998 at the head of a non-Congress coalition.

By 1999, the Indian state had concluded after years of study that there could never be a military winner in Sri Lanka: neither the government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would reign supreme although at that stage the rebels appeared to hold an upper hand.

The Indian government then took the view that it was time for a major peace push in Sri Lanka.

Supervised by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, the Indian establishment got into the act of ushering in peace in Sri Lanka, with just one rider: everything would be done away from media glare. Only a few would be in the know of what was being planned.

Then Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga was waging a "war for peace" against the LTTE that steadily lost steam as the Tigers hit back with a military precision that stunned the world.

The stalemate was a continuation of what had happened earlier. The Indian military intervention in 1987-90 had run aground; the fighting between 1990 and 1994, mostly during Ranasinghe Premadasa's presidency, led to no decisive result; and the war during Kumaratunga's presidency was going the same way.

The Indian establishment, however, felt that Kumaratunga was incapable of making peace. What Sri Lanka needed, so went the reading, was a leader who was ready to shake hands with the LTTE with a long-term vision to bring peace to the country.

It may have been a coincidence, but political convulsions quickly rocked Colombo, destabilising Kumaratunga's government and sparking an election in 2000 and a second election the next year.

The Indian establishment felt there was a need to bring in an international player to facilitate peace in Sri Lanka, a party both Colombo and the LTTE could do business with as they appeared incapable of talking to one another.

Kumaratunga's first choice was France, but this the LTTE rejected.

India by then had zeroed in on Norway. Norwegian diplomats began visiting New Delhi. No publicity was given to these brainstorming trips.

Norway was picked for mainly three reasons: it was physically far removed from South Asia; it had no territorial ambitions; and it had a proven record in peace building.

Kumaratunga and the LTTE eventually settled on Norway as the peace facilitator. The war, however, continued to rage.

Norway's chosen Special Envoy Erik Solheim travelled to Kilinochchi, the LTTE-controlled northern part of Sri Lanka, in November 2000 and met the group's top leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, for the first time.

The next month, the LTTE offered a ceasefire and extended it, month by month, for four months. After that the Tigers again took the offensive.

In July 2001, the LTTE virtually overran Sri Lanka's international airport at Katunayake, dealing a shattering blow from which Colombo never recovered.

The second of the two elections followed, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the opposition leader, became prime minister in December 2001. Events galloped at a rapid pace, in both New Delhi and Colombo, but all under wraps.

Overseen by New Delhi, a truce document began to be drafted. Norway was deeply involved in the exercise, roping in some of its veteran diplomats.

Eventually, this translated into CFA. India also told Norwegian diplomats to let the LTTE know about the Indian involvement in the entire effort.

On Feb 21, 2002, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran signed the CFA. Wickremesinghe put his signature a day later.

Since India never publicised its role in the developments, many Indians argued that New Delhi was letting Sri Lanka slip into Western hands!

By then, India had also mooted the idea of a Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the first such international peace monitoring body outside the UN aegis. India wanted Nordic countries - Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland - to make up the SLMM to oversee the ceasefire.

The arrangement between India and Norway was that the latter would keep New Delhi informed about its peace diplomacy. At some point of time, irritations did crop up in this deal but these were quickly sorted out.

The CFA was a watershed in Sri Lanka's blood-soaked history but within months things began to go wrong.

Norway came under attack from large sections in Sri Lanka. Solheim bore the brunt of the criticism, at times too personal, though he was only the best-known face of an international exercise that had India's solid backing and he himself had no axe to grind.

In May 2004, Vajpayee gave way to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who headed a Congress-led coalition government. J.N. Dixit, a former Indian envoy to Colombo during the turbulent 1980s, was named the new national security advisor.

The nuts and bolts of India's involvement in Sri Lanka's peace process was till then known only to a few in New Delhi.

Dixit's eyes opened up when Wickremesinghe, who by then had lost power, flew to New Delhi and gave a detailed briefing about India's deep and covert role in the entire process.

It was the first time Dixit realised that India had for years pursued a pro-active policy towards Sri Lanka but quietly - in complete contrast to the public perception that New Delhi had lost interest in the ethnic conflict.

Dixit was to learn quickly that this was also the case vis-'-vis Nepal and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Dixit died in office in 2005, and with him died many secrets.

India's active participation in the later much-maligned peace process in Sri Lanka is as deep as was its role in the military training of Tamil militants two decades ago.

Official India denies that it ever trained Tamils in warfare. In the case of the peace process, even many in India are not fully aware of the story.

This was evident in some of the statements made in India when Colombo axed the CFA. This has also been evident in repeated statements from many quarters in Sri Lanka urging India to step in and throw out 'imperialist' Norway and the West!

In Norway, one diplomat recently made a public comment about India's entanglement with the peace process without, however, spilling out any details.

Vidar Helgesen, who was assistant foreign minister of Norway during the inception of the peace process and is now secretary general of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said: "I may reasonably say that the Norwegian contribution in structuring the CFA ... was, indeed, crucial. However, we could not have achieved any success without the active role played by India at every step of the negotiations. Nothing could be attempted without Indian support at every step, including the CFA."
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