NEW DELHI — With Sri Lanka torn by renewed internal war, India has withstood the impulse to intervene once again in the ethnic conflict of its tiny neighbor to the south. Despite calls for Indian assistance by Sri Lanka’s beleaguered president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, New Delhi has balked at sending troops or supplying arms, offering only humanitarian aid and a possible evacuation of 30,000 Sri Lankan troops encircled by rebels — if both sides accepted a ceasefire. Humbled by its 1987 military intervention in Sri Lanka, the once-bitten, twice-shy India is resisting the macho urge to get involved again.

The present Sri Lankan crisis has been triggered by major military advances made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for an independent homeland for their minority Tamil community in the north and east of the island. The crisis is only the latest chapter in an interminable ethnic conflict that has turned a self-advertised “island of paradise” into an island of bloodletting. The scale of violence in Sri Lanka since the 1983 anti-Tamil riots is truly astounding. The civil war there is unlikely to end even with outside military intervention.

India, despite its 60 million Tamils who sympathize with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, has no major interest at stake in the Sri Lankan war. India’s responsibility is to defend its vital interests, not to fight the dirty internal war of a neighbor, a mistake it made in 1987.

Getting involved in a neighbor’s civil war carries serious costs and no rewards, unless the objective is to install an acquiescent government that will serve the intervener’s strategic interests, as Pakistan has done in Afghanistan. India’s past three-year intervention in Sri Lanka had no clear long-term goals and cost it dearly. India ended up with no friends in Sri Lanka, alienating both the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils there.

No intervention normally takes place in the world without the interveners seeking to advance their commercial or strategic objectives. With its vast mineral wealth, sub-Saharan Africa has been a happy hunting ground for covert and overt foreign interveners, whose efforts to exploit its rich resources have only fueled intrastate wars. For major players, even intervention in the guise of peacekeeping can help advance national interests.

India, in contrast, has intervened in the past for altruistic reasons, the classic case being the Maldives, a chain of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. What national interest did India advance when in November 1988 it swiftly crushed an attempted coup by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries against the autocratic Maldivian President Mumoon Abdul Gayoom? That intervention took place when India was already knee-deep in the Sri Lankan ethnic mess. Through a July 1987 accord between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, India directly embroiled itself in the brutish communal conflict of its neighbor.

When India intervened, it was clear that it was unlikely to come out a winner. Indeed, it emerged a loser. The Tamil Tigers and Jayewardene’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, ensured that India ended up badly wounded from its intervention, losing 1,400 troops for an indescribable cause. Moreover, the Indian peacekeeping operation, by relieving Colombo of its security burden in the north and east, gave Sri Lanka the opportunity to wipe out, pogrom-style, every suspected member of the Sinhalese militant organization, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

Today, India’s altruistic spirit extends to peacekeeping operations, even when the mission is questionable. Take Sierra Leone, where the key issue is the control of diamonds and where the players, besides the government and rebels, include South Africa’s De Beers giant, Western gemstone firms and the central diamond-clearing house in Antwerp, Belgium. The U.N. Security Council mandated that the rebels be cleared of the diamond-producing area, and India agreed to lead the blue-beret force in Sierra Leone. Some developing nations (Bangladesh is a prime example) send their troops to any peacekeeping operation to allow them to earn the much-higher U.N. salary. That blurs the line between mercenaries and peacekeepers. India has to guard against that.

National interest, not altruism, should guide India’s involvement in another state’s internal affairs. The present government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is doing the right thing by looking at the Sri Lankan issue strictly through the prism of national interest. It has shied away from any kind of direct involvement. Of course, nothing would please India’s two principal adversaries, Pakistan and China, more than to see New Delhi get drawn into Sri Lanka’s unending civil war. That would only help their joint efforts to contain and destabilize India.

When India was immersed in Sri Lanka between 1987-90, Pakistan took advantage of New Delhi’s preoccupation to sow the seeds of a bloody insurgency in the Kashmir Valley. The last thing India should do at this stage is to step back into Sri Lanka’s ethnic quagmire when a wounded general, styling himself as Pakistan’s chief executive, is looking for an opportunity to avenge last year’s humiliating withdrawal of Pakistani invaders from the vast tract of land in Indian Kashmir that they had stealthily occupied. That invasion in the Kargil area triggered an intense but limited India-Pakistan war that ended with a Pakistani pullout under U.S. political pressure and Indian military gains.

The two previous interventions in Sri Lanka and the Maldives — both endorsed by the United States — did India little good. In the Maldivian case, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in the closing weeks of his presidency, called Rajiv Gandhi and suggested India rescue Gayoom. Gandhi did not ask Reagan why the U.S., with a naval task force on hand, did not wish to itself intervene in the Maldives.

The net result of those interventions, which followed two Indian military exercises along the borders with China and Pakistan, was that India acquired an image as a dominant power in South Asia, where its sheer size spurs regional concerns. That damage to India’s standing in turn spurred another policy excess a decade later — to live down that image, New Delhi forswore reciprocity in dealings with its smaller neighbors under a doctrine propounded by then Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997. Diplomacy is a game of give and take, and that doctrine of nonreciprocity only encouraged India’s smaller neighbors to up the ante.

Today, despite the earlier disastrous intervention, all kinds of bogeys are being raised at home to again suck India into Sri Lanka’s civil war. One bogey is that if India doesn’t intervene, a hostile power like Pakistan might. If Pakistan is foolish to overstretch itself from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, it will open itself to Indian attack. Another bogey is that the Tamil Eelam homeland sought by the Tigers is bad for India’s unity, as if Eelam is within sight. Eelam remains a far cry, although Sri Lanka’s de facto partition has been and will likely remain a reality of little consequence to India.

India has to keep its priorities right: Its focus has to be on its major concerns and interests, not on a small island that treats its Tamils as outcasts and rarely sides with New Delhi. Sri Lanka’s militant Buddhist clergy, now seeking Indian assistance, took the lead in opposing Indian peacekeepers in 1987 and will again turn against India if it intervenes. President Kumaratunga needs to hang on to besieged Jaffna because parliamentary elections are due by October and her own political survival is at stake. But having failed to deliver on her promises to decentralize power, she can only stew in her own soup. The last thing India needs is another macho intervention.

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