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IN the midst of our continuing preoccupation with Gujarat – be it the unending violence or the political battle over the fate of the Modi government – it is not surprising that the recent developments in Sri Lanka have gone virtually uncommented. Not only has the Norwegian brokered peace initiative been widely welcomed, the cease-fire agreement has now held for weeks. Equally unusual is the LTTE chief’s reiteration of the need for a political settlement and the Sri Lankan prime minister’s enthusiastic welcome, this despite Prabhakaran showing no signs of giving up the demand for Eelam.

It is likely that in the coming days the Sri Lankan government will take steps to deproscribe the LTTE as a crucial step towards initiating full-fledged dialogue. Of course, the situation remains fragile and can slip back, as has so often happened in the past. In a country which has experienced a protracted civil war for close to two decades, a conflict which has claimed over 60,000 lives and left many more maimed, traumatized and dislocated, only the wildly optimistic would posit peace as a certainty.

So why the optimism? At one level, though continuous war does generate an internal logic for its continuation, it appears that both parties to the conflict – the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE – now find it difficult to either rationalise or sustain a policy of waging war for peace. Take first the LTTE.

Many analysts believe that changes in the global situation post September 11 have compelled the LTTE to change gear and pursue the cease-fire and negotiation path. The likelihood of being targeted as a terrorist entity by the global community, as also endanger its diasporic support, is certainly a crucial factor. But as, if not more, important is the pressure it is experiencing from its domestic base.

As Jayadeva Uyangoda argues, ‘It is one thing for the LTTE to demonstrate, both to the world and to its own people, its ability to match and best the state in terms of military capability. It is another to be unable to provide even the bare necessities to people under its control.’ No self-styled nationalist force which claims the people’s support can sustain such a situation indefinitely.

As for the government, in particular the current leadership, it is clear that decisive military victory over the LTTE is unlikely. The Sri Lankan armed forces have been defeated far too often for them to push a ‘war for peace’ line. Additionally, the economy is in a mess. But most important, as the victory of Ranil Wickremesinghe over Chandrika Kumaratunga’s alliance shows, mainstream Sinhala opinion is now ready for accommodation.

Of course, neither side really trusts the other. They would be foolish to. Enough people in government continue to believe that the reprieve might be used by the LTTE to regroup and rearm. The LTTE, in turn, is still far from becoming an open entity, ready to permit political functioning in the Tamil areas. Nevertheless, it is significant that the LTTE has floated a political party, permitted relatively free movement of civilians across its areas, and that both sides are working out the modalities of a neutral monitoring force.

It is critical that India, a crucial presence in the region, does nothing to derail the fragile process. Ever so often it has attempted to intervene, militarily through the IPKF and by backing sundry political formations. And it has suffered in the process. There may be no immediate reason for it to lift the ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organization. But nor is there any call to demand extradition of Prabhakaran as Jayalalithaa has. Fortunately, our external affairs ministry has wisely decided to remain mum.

There are other lessons that we need to draw. The majority community, the Sinhalas, seem to have learnt, at great cost, the futility of stigmatizing, marginalizing and coercing a significant minority. Five decades of discriminatory politics only ended up near destroying the island state once admired for its human development. The ideologues of political Hindutva need to take a leaf out of the failed Sinhala experiment. Not that what is being attempted in Gujarat displays any such learning.

Similarly, the extremists among our beleaguered minorities too must realize that there is no future for inward directed, community focused, militant politics. All it does is feed paranoia and strengthen ghettoization. Our political leadership, across party divides, has so far done little to promote constructive, inter-community engagements. Let us hope that we do not have to live through a Sri Lanka to rediscover the virtues of dialogue and honourable peace.

Harsh Sethi