India and Sri Lanka appear headed for a crisis in relations today. India seems determined to send a relief mission bearing food and medical supplies to the Tamil residents of Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna Peninsula, the scene of heavy fighting this past week.
The Sri Lankan government strongly objects to this move, and has ordered its armed forces to defend its territorial waters.
Tensions between India and its tiny southern neighbor have risen in the past week since Sri Lanka mounted largescale military offensives to regain Jaffna Peninsula from Tamil rebel control. The number of casualties and extent of destruction is still undetermined.
Reports Tuesday of a massacre of civilians by Tamil rebels in eastern Sri Lanka seemed likely to worsen tensions in that country. The Sri Lanka government said guerrillas ambushed a bus, killing 33 passengers, most of whom were Buddhist monks. Some 70 percent of Sri Lanka's population is of Sinhalese ethnic origin, and belongs to the Buddhist faith. Less than 20 percent of the island's 16 million people are Hindu Tamils.
In an official message to India, Sri Lanka said it ``has not concurred in the sending of persons and goods from India until the modalities of supply and distribution are worked out by the two governments.'' Colombo said it ``strongly objects to any unilateral action'' India and would consider it ``a violation of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.''
In response, New Delhi said: ``In view of prolonged suffering ... of the people of Jaffna, it is imperative that relief goods proceed to Jaffna without delay.''
Analysts and diplomatic sources here, however, play down the chances of an outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. India has said it will not intervene militarily in Sri Lanka's four-year-old ethnic conflict, which has claimed at least 6,000 lives. And Sri Lanka's military strength, despite its dramatic growth in recent years, is no match for India's forces.
India's move to send ``humanitarian aid'' to Jaffna's estimated 900,000 population appears to be aimed at undercutting a groundswell of domestic pressures bearing on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to take stronger measures and stop Sri Lankan military operations in Jaffna.
Mr. Gandhi, whose domestic political problems have risen steadily in recent months, has also been criticized for an apparently failing in his bid to mediate a peaceful settlement between President Junius Jayewardene's government and the Tamil rebels.
One diplomat comments on the possible reasoning behind his decision to send aid to the 800,000-strong Tamil population in Jaffna.
``There has been much criticism which the [Gandhi] government has to take account of. Short of other more radical action, the humanitarian aid is a useful step,'' the diplomat says.
And for one Indian critic of the Gandhi government, the Indian aid to Jaffna Tamils is help that comes ``too little and too late.''
``Much more should have been done in terms of diplomatic, economic and other pressures on Sri Lanka. India could have mobilized public opinion and world opinion more,'' this source asserts.
Observers here doubt that the Indian attempt to send the relief goods by sea to Jaffna City will prove successful. The goods are slated to be sent through the Indian Red Cross on a convoy of unarmed boats. There is strong speculation that the convoy will be turned back by Sri Lankan naval authorities, causing some political embarrassment to the Indian government.
India has voiced ``surprise'' and ``distress'' over reports that the Sri Lankan Navy has distributed leaflets to Indian fishing boats off India's southern coast, threatening to ``shoot and sink'' any Indian boat nearing Sri Lankan waters.
But, some analysts believe, Gandhi may use a Sri Lankan blockade of the convoy as an incident to galvanize international opinion on the side of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority.
The Tamils, who have claimed government discrimination and repression, have been waging a campaign for more autonomy. The more radical groups have been fighting to establish a separate state in the northern and eastern part of Sri Lanka.