Colombo, Diplomacy, International Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Eelam War and the Long Arm of the Indian Rearguard Across the Palk Straits

Indo- Sri Lanka relations made a dramatic and unprecedented change with the beginning of the Eelam war. This change   contributed to bringing about   far reaching military and political consequences within Sri Lanka and its two destructive wars. The JVP led anti-devolutionary Sinhalese rebellion had been the direct result of the changed Indian policy. The most destructive Eelam war was the other. These developments have fundamentally shaped the future course of Sri Lankan politics. Since 1983 India had begun supporting the Tamil militant groups to train and arm its cadres for military confrontations with the Sri Lankan state. Their bases in Tamil Nadu provided a rearguard and they could retreat safely to these bases after mounting deadly attacks to the Sri Lankan security forces. The current Indian policy has changed positively as India has become pragmatic but Sri Lanka needs political investment in the form of political devolution and inclusiveness of ethnic minorities in order to effectively de-activate the rearguard in Tamil Nadu.

This short essay attempts to analyze the impact of Indian policy on the Sri Lankan political and military developments for the last 30 years through the rearguard in Tamil Nadu and how it has shaped our political agenda on the ethnic issue.

Role of the rearguard

The Tamil armed struggle had a trustworthy, stable and dependable rearguard which was easily   accessible by sea from the North and East. It became their main supply line throughout the war. It was politically and militarily supportive and culturally compatible since it was historically connected with the Sri Lankan Tamils. Such a rearguard for guerilla warfare is an ideal one for sustained protracted guerilla warfare against a militarily and politically powerful enemy if used strategically. However, the LTTE’s   lack of political maturity and the pursuit of unprincipled and dangerous application of violence changed the political support they could enjoy in Tamil Nadu. The decision to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi proved to be a costly mistake for the LTTE. The LTTE’s political and military ruthlessness has often been seen as strength, feared but also admired. While it has sometimes been as seen as bad for their image, the role that the LTTE’s violent politics played in placing them into a strategically weaker position both politically and militarily has not been sufficiently considered. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Tamil Nadu could no longer be counted on for the level of support it had once provided the Tigers. .  When the LTTE leadership was cornered and decimated by the Sri Lankan army on 18 May 2009, in Vellamulaivikkal the Tamil Tigers paid in full for their past mistake. Had not the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the conclusion of the Eelam war could have been entirely different.

The protracted guerilla war against the Sri Lankan state has been possible due to the existence of    the Indian rearguard and its stable base in Tamil Nadu. The Indian rearguard had a twin purpose, military as well as political throughout its existence. Firstly it enabled a group like the LTTE to conduct a war using a rearguard in a foreign soil with a relative safety.  The Sri Lankan    state had no capacity to place a watertight naval blockade to stop any supply lines. As a consequence, the feared Sea Tiger wing was able to establish a complete domination of the sea across Falk Strait until the last phase of the war. Secondly, the Eelamists were able to exert pressure on the Indian Government through Tamil Nadu to gain political and military advantages when the war was not going well in their favaour. The Indian rearguard would have been the envy of any guerilla leader elsewhere but Prabaharan showed his inability to understand or appreciate its value in political and military terms for the LTTE’s future when he ordered the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in1991.

The Indian government had its own political reasons for allowing Tamil militant groups the use of Tamil Nadu since 1979. The LTTE’s activities there would not have been possible without the knowledge of RAW. After the 1983 riots in Colombo, the Congress party allowed the training of guerilla fighters in Tamil Nadu for use against the Sri Lankan state, enhancing the party’s support in that region.    In addition to this internal political advantage it also provided greater possibilities for India to re-balance the   regional political forces in the South Asian region. The Indian contention has been that the Tamil grievances among Sri Lankan Tamils were    unresolved. The sharp contrast between the basic democratic rights enjoyed by people living in Tamil Nadu as opposed to the Sri Lankan Tamils gave a legitimate weight to India’s efforts to resolve the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka.

Military intervention

In 1987, Indian troops came to North and East following the Indo-Lanka Agreement signed between Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayewardene. This led to the second JVP rebellion as they portrayed the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) as an invading army   of the Indian imperialism supported by the USA and its imperialist policies. The Indo -Lanka Agreement   pushed for the devolution of power to the Tamil community in the North and East through the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution which inflamed anti-Tamil and anti-Indian sentiments in the Sinhalese south. The JVP led armed struggle against Jayewardene and the UNP became destructive and    the JVP was able to deepen its Sinhalese political and social base. Some sections of the SLFP and Buddhist clergy were attracted by anti-Tamil and anti-Indian ultra-nationalist passions and proved responsive to the JVP’s message.

The JVP also assassinated left activists and others who supported the devolution of power under the 13th amendment. All the democratic and left activists who supported the devolution package were branded as the fifth column of the Indian imperialism by the JVP. The IPKF was not prepared to leave Sri Lanka but they found no one on their side either militarily or politically except the EPRLF which could not assert its political independence .The IPKF was militarily vulnerable and politically isolated. The LTTE also fought   against the Indian Army in the North and East until the IPKF was finally withdrawn from Sri Lanka by the end 1989. President Premadasa who was elected as President after Jayewardene had provided   weapons to Tamil Tigers secretly to fight against the IPKF. His political naivety in trusting the LTTE was disastrous and his misjudgment was probably driven by his desire for regaining Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Later on 1 May in 1993, the LTTE assassinated President Premadasa in Colombo. Rajiv Gandhi had also become a victim of a LTTE suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu in 1991.  India had her own bitter lessons in the destructive nature of Sri Lankan politics. Nevertheless, they remained vocal in support of the devolution of power to the North and East. At the same time the militant groups also learnt their bitter lessons. They could not go beyond India’ political interests and never agreed for a separatist political solution to the Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue. When the LTTE refused to accept a solution based on the 13th amendment India committed its troops to fight against the LTTE.

Even after the IPKF withdrawal the Indian influence on Sri Lankan politics has not diminished. The Indo-Lanka Agreement signed in 1987 and its political objectives of devolution of power still drive our political process and this will continue in the foreseeable future and beyond. The Indo-Lanka Agreement and its political proposals have made a lasting impact on the issues of political democracy and pluralism despite the bitter and destructive civil war it generated in both communities in the country.

Closing the rearguard

Closing down the Indian rearguard is primarily a political act .The Indian request for the devolution power to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka is a prerequisite in this endeavor. Unless Sri Lanka is prepared to do their bit, the political closure of the Tamil Nadu support for a separate state in the North and East will not simply go away. Even after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi the Tamil Tigers were able to get the support in order to get the war going against Sri Lanka.Howver   following the defeat of the Tigers a political solution to the Tamil community will offer a greater capacity for India to close down the rearguard in Tamil Nadu. India has assured the Sri Lankan State time and again that it will respect Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity to allay the Sri Lankan fears and to encourage political devolution of power. However, the Sri Lankan leadership so far has not made a firm commitment to devolution despite the Indian assurances.

The problem has been the lack of political courage and imagination on the part of the Sri Lankan leadership to overcome the opposition by the Sinhalese chauvinist political forces in implementing a package of devolution to the Tamil community in the North and East. As long as a solution is not offered the external threat of political interference remains   and that will continue to destabilize Sri Lanka. India will bring up the issue again and again as it has done so far at the diplomatic front. This will encourage the Tamil community to action as they realize in their day to day existence that the Indian diplomacy is morally and politically correct and India has been advancing solutions to their grievances since the Eelam war has begun. It is politically ironic and nationally   embarrassing in a democracy when your neighbor has taken up the issue of political democracy on behalf of a community that lives within your own political borders. When the Indian diplomacy is exhausted the Indian rearguard will re-emerge even without the Indian patronage. This is a vicious cycle that    Sri Lanka cannot politically and militarily afford experience again.

The Sri Lankan political leadership needs to understand that the defeating the LTTE is not going to resolve the democratic rights issue and we need to address it not simply   because of the Indian concerns but because the devolution of power is morally and politically correct .We need to be realists and India is our powerful neighbor . Given the regional political balance of forces and the political history of ours we need India on our side. Political stability in Sri Lanka would benefit both India as well as Sri Lanka.


The LTTE’s comprehensive military defeat at the hand of the Sri Lankan military has taken us back to the fundamental political issue that is the test of our resolve and courage to offer a reasonable political solution to the Tamil grievances. When this was not forthcoming India redefined its role as Sri Lanka’s neighbor. The Indian intervention in Sri Lankan    politics through the Indian rearguard and the shadow of its long arm should be dislodged .However, in order to remove this Sri Lanka should act in a way that it fulfills the democratic aspirations of the Tamil community within a united Sri Lanka.The devolution of power through the 13th amendment will be a basic democratic requirement in this exercise. Our sovereignty as a democratic nation will be safer only when we resolve the Tamil community’s grievances. In the absence of a political solution, will the history repeat itself?

Time will tell.