Sri Lankan war roils Indian politics

Tamil parties threaten to withdraw from India's Parliament, but some see this as an attempt to wrest more seats in upcoming elections.

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As Sri Lanka's military presses toward the Tamil Tiger rebels' last stronghold, the conflict has begun to send political shock waves through neighboring India.

Ethnic Tamil parties in India disrupted Parliament Tuesday with calls for New Delhi to intervene to stop what some called "genocide against Tamils" in the northern Sri Lankan war zone. The Tamil parties have threatened to withdraw from India's ruling coalition unless Delhi helps put a stop to the fighting or intervenes directly.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan military claimed on Tuesday that it had at last broken through a key Tiger trench line in heavy fighting under monsoon rains, reports Reuters. But the military admitted suffering scores of casualties in the process, and a suicide attack on merchant vessels off the northeastern coast Wednesday showed the Tamil Tigers aren't yet a spent force.

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Tuesday saw "unruly" scenes in India's Parliament, according to the New Delhi-based Khabrein.info news website, with Tamil MPs interrupting proceedings with shouting, banner-carrying, and walkouts.

The Rajya Sabha [the upper house of Parliament] had to be adjourned till noon after it witnessed angry scenes. Chairman Hamid Ansari's repeated requests to allow proceedings did not make any impact on members. While DMK [a prominent Tamil party] members were shouting slogans and carrying banners reading "Save the Tamils" and "Stop Genocide in Sri Lanka," Left parties members were hitting at Centre for "mortgaging" country's autonomy in the form of nuclear deal with the US.

The Tamil parties have given Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration until early next month to take action – after which they will quit his coalition, according to Reuters.

Some observers see cynical politics at work. Writing in Rediff News, columnist TVR Shenoy notes that Parliament is set to be dissolved soon anyway, with national elections due in the next six months, and that Tamil politicians and other coalition allies are raising a fuss to shore up their base and wrest concessions from the ruling Congress party.

Why then are these esteemed gentlemen piling on the pressure on Dr. Manmohan Singh and his party? Very simply, it is a bargaining tactic to wrest more seats out of the Congress in the general election.
The [ruling Congress party's coalition allies] would like the Congress to give something in return if they "sacrifice" their demands. The Congress – and the Indian electorate at large – is expected to politely ignore the fact that the demands are a load of unrealistic bunk that never had a prayer of being realized.
Call it whatever you want, a 'bargaining tactic' or, less politely, 'blackmail'. Let us just hope that the Congress does not take the demands from its "allies" too seriously.

The Tamil Tigers have been waging an insurgency for 25 years to create an independent ethnic Tamil state in northern and eastern provinces in Sri Lanka.

India, the US, and the European Union put the Tigers on their respective terrorist lists. But many among India's Tamil population – particularly in Tamil Nadu state – support or sympathize with the rebels. Others condemn the Tigers, but worry about civilian Tamils in northern Sri Lanka who have been displaced or caught in the crossfire.

Singh has responded to the pressure from his Tamil coalition partners, but only moderately. Last week he urged a political solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka and expressed concern for the estimated 230,000 displaced civilians. But analysts don't expect him to do much more, reports the Associated Press.

India has generally been reluctant to become directly involved in Sri Lanka's internal affairs after a disastrous military intervention in the 1980s that led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

Strategic concerns are also restraining India, according to a commentary in the Daily Mirror, an independent English-language daily in Sri Lanka. While India quietly provides Sri Lanka with equipment and low-key support, rivals China and Pakistan are providing arms for the fight against the Tigers.

For India, too, several geopolitical concerns have prevented it from exerting undue pressure on Sri Lanka. India knows too well that the more it distances from the Sri Lankan government, Sri Lanka would veer towards China, Pakistan, and Iran. Growing Chinese influence in many spheres including infrastructure development, power generation and many development activities in Sri Lanka would no doubt have raised alarm in India.

In a commentary in Frontline, an Indian magazine produced by publishers of The Hindu daily newspaper, B. Muralidhar Reddy writes that the clash between New Delhi's strategic concerns and pressure from Tamil politicians put it in a tight spot.

It is indeed a delicate moment for India. With general elections a few months away and a growing clamor in Tamil Nadu for a more active role by New Delhi to alleviate the sufferings of innocent Tamil citizens, India has to do a balancing act. Colombo understands the Indian predicament and does not want to add to its discomfiture by any rash talk....

The Sri Lankan government, responding to Singh's comments last week, said its fight was solely with the Tamil Tigers, not Tamil civilians. It said its concern for the welfare of Tamil civilians in the north was slowing its military campaign, according to the Agence France-Presse.

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