Can India's Gandhi reap diplomatic gains from Sri Lanka initiative? Skeptics contend Army presence will tarnish India's image in region
New Delhi — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appears to have taken a major diplomatic gamble by sending nearly 7,000 troops to enforce an Indian-brokered peace accord in Sri Lanka. Foreign diplomats and Indian analysts view the action as a subtle move to enlarge India's influence and reinforce its image as the dominant power in South Asia. If the Indian presence can successfully bring about a resolution to Sri Lanka's four-year ethnic conflict, it would be a diplomatic triumph for Gandhi.
There is danger, however, these sources say, that the Indian troops will become inextricably entangled in Sri Lanka in the event of violence by Sinhalese or Tamil extremists. And a prolonged presence there could give credence to the image of India as regional bully.
``India has to see that its troops do not stay in Sri Lanka a day longer than necessary. New Delhi will have to avoid getting stuck [there] although it has been sucked in,'' says H.K. Dua, editor of New Delhi's largest paper, the Hindustan Times.
Mr. Gandhi's July 29 accord with Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, confers wide powers on India to enforce a cease-fire and other terms of the agreement. A Western diplomat here says Indian troops may have to stay in Sri Lanka for more than a year to complete the rebels' weapons surrender, provide security for elections in the proposed semi-autonomous Tamil province, and oversee a referendum.
India is also looking after Mr. Jayewardene's security. Official sources here say an elite commando unit was flown to protect the Sri Lankan leader soon after the accord was signed - apparently at the request of Jayewardene, who fears that sections of his Sinhalese-dominated Army may rebel against his settlement.
``India now is Jayewardene's sword arm, champion of Tamil rights, and mediator - all in one,'' says columnist B.G. Verghese. ``India's other neighbors, especially the smaller ones, may be expected to look warily'' at this new development.
The Indian role has become a highly emotional issue for Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese majority, who make up 74 percent of the nation's 16 million population and fear domination by India.
Militant Tamils, who waged a bloody guerrilla campaign for an independent homeland, also are bitter at India. The accord, they contend, serves New Delhi's strategic interests rather than those of Sri Lankan Tamils.
The main Tamil guerrilla organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, reluctantly started laying down arms last week. But the rebels' public weapons surrender, Sri Lankan and Indian officials say, is largely symbolic. They indicate it will have to be followed by Indian Army searches for other hidden arms and other military equipment.
Tigers' chief Veluppillai Prabhakaran had been kept a virtual prisoner for a week in a New Delhi hotel as the government pressured the rebels to accept the accord. The government reportedly threatened to expel exiled militant leaders and cut off rebel supply lines from southern India.
The Tamil militants' refusal to wholeheartedly support the settlement has spurred fears of a confrontation between Indian troops and the rebels. Gandhi, whose political base has been shrinking in recent months, can ill afford to antagonize India's 55-million-member Tamil community, which strongly supports the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.
The Indian Army, one of the world's largest, is not trained to battle hit-and-run rebels. Some analysts say it could be trapped in bloody jungle warfare by a few hundred Tamil insurgents.
After the surrender began, Colombo announced an amnesty for all Tamil guerrillas including those in prison. The insurgents also announced that they would free Army soldiers held captive by them.
Gandhi also managed to extract other key concessions from Colombo. Jayewardene, say Indian officials here, also agreed not to allow foreign navies to use its Trincomalee port; not to permit the Voice of America to use its facilities for military or intelligence purposes; and not to hire foreign mercenaries.