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Srilankan Tamils: Anatomy of Indian Involvement

“Currently, the Indian Srilankan policy seems to be in a limbo. With LTTE banned in India for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, India has no leverage with this group. India also cannot offer much more than lip sympathy to the Srilankan Government which is turning to foreign sources like Pakistan and China for augmenting their assets to be used against LTTE.”

by A. K. Verma

(February 29, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The core problem in Srilanka is one of identity. The Tamils want to preserve their identity. The Sinhalas want to overrun it. No solution has emerged ever since Srilanka became a republic almost sixty years ago.

Today, the Srilankan Tamil quest for identity has crystallized around the demand for Ealam. Ironically, this milestone has been reached only because the Sinhalas, in various negotiations conducted through the period, refused to be generous to let the Tamils live as equal citizens and not a suppressed minority. Originally, the Srilankan Tamil leadership was moderate, willing to be a part of federal Srilanka, provided some minimum conditions were satisfied like recognition of Tamil as a national language, autonomy in the North East of Srilanka, equal opportunity in education and employment and non colonization of predominantly Tamil areas by non Tamil Srilankans. Sinhala obduracy and consistent bad faith led to the emergence of young militants who took over the leadership of the Tamil struggle from moderates. Today, as in the past more than 20 years, the shots in the movement are called by V. Prabakaran, the LTTE Supremo.

His experience with the Sinhalas has taught him that the Sinhala leadership of whatever hue cannot be trusted. He has implicit faith that Ealam is an achievable objective and he will be the one who will lead his people to this destination. His confidence in himself and his mission makes him in his own eyes the sole arbitrator of what can or cannot be accepted on behalf of the Srilankan Tamils from the Srilankan Government.

Unfortunately, the Government of India has been slow in grasping this truth. The failure is largely systemic because policy decisions in the past were often made without the benefit of well conducted policy research and analysis. Structures did not exist which could carry out an objective study of a situation, examining its short term and long term dynamics and throwing up a set of options with likely scenarios, for the policy maker to make his choice. It is evident that a study of this nature would try to reconcile various contradictions and their implications before recommending policy steps. In point of fact, policies those days were made through discussions in a core group, with rarely a position paper being ever presented to the discussants by anyone. No minutes were ever recorded and circulated after discussions which were often attended by bureaucratic overlords whose sole qualification for inclusion in the core group was their over lordship, not expertise, knowledge or understanding of the issues at stake. Bickering was not uncommon and were often initiated by these overlords whose objective would thereby be to register their over lordship.

India displayed no interest in the Srilankan Tamil ethnic questions till early 1980s. Prior to that the Indian interest had gravitated around the plantation Tamil immigrants from South India, who for more than 150 years had become the backbone of the plantation economy of Srilanka. After Srilanka’s independence, the Sinhala authorities wanted them, now numbering a million with several of them with residence in Srilanka for more than one generation, to be treated as Indian citizens. The Srilankan Tamils looked upon the plantation Tamil as a distinct group, separate from them. Consequently, the former did not enter India’s focus at that time.

But the rumblings of what was to follow had already started. The Sinhala leadership had displayed consistent insensitivity to implementation of their agreements with Tamil leadership over questions of regional autonomy and other rights of equal citizenship. The communal tempers were constantly rising and erupting in clashes. In July 1983, riots broke out which eventually catapulted ethnicity to the top of the agenda and marked that a point of no return had been reached for the Tamils of North East. The riots had erupted in Colombo and elsewhere after LTTE killed 13 Srilankan soldiers in the North on July 13 after an ambush. In these riots several Tamils were killed, including those locked up in prisons. There was credible suspicion of involvement of Srilankan Govt.

The riots led to an exodus of Tamils from Srilanka into Tamil Nadu, bringing into focus for the first time for the Government of India and people of Tamil Nadu the intensity of the ethnic question. The Indian reactions were guided by its political and strategic interests which required that while Srilanka must remain a united country, it should be advised against seeking a military solution of the ethnic problem through internal and external resources. Fearing that the influx might arouse fires of Tamil or Dravidian nationalism in Tamil Nadu also, it was felt, an option should be kept in hand to neutralize any effort by Srilankan Government to enforce a military solution in the North East. A decision was therefore taken to keep pressure on Sri Lanka by giving military training to Srilanka Tamil groups in India.

Actually there was no danger of igniting Tamil or Dravidian nationalism in Tamil Nadu. Dravidian nationalism had been just an intellectual concept of its progenitor Periyar EV Ramaswami Naicker, not based in ground reality. This theoretical formulation had also not even included Srilankan Tamils in its sweep. Besides in 1962, the idea of even Tamil separatist nationalism had been buried for good by CN Annadurai, founder of DMK. Training of Srilankan Tamils in India was, therefore, not a good idea. The situation in Srilanka was not comparable to East Pakistan in 1971, which became Bangladesh towards the end of that year. As later events were to prove Srilankan Tamils did not hold themselves beholden to India for all the assistance they received.

As Sri Lanka, in panic, looked for assistance from outside powers like US, UK, even China and Pakistan, Indian diplomacy tried to checkmate such efforts and to persuade the SL Govt. to devolve substantially central powers to North and East by creating regional councils. Indian efforts came to naught as Sri Lanka feared such devolution would lead to secession, with Trincomalee becoming the natural capital of Ealam Tamil region. How deep such fears ran was illustrated later by how quickly the demerger of North and East was brought about by the Srilankan Govt. after the IPKF left Srilanka.

However, India did not give up and hosted meetings in Thimpu in July and August 1985 between Srilankan Government and Tamil militants. It was the first time that all the Tamil militant groups came together to make a united set of proposals to the Srilankan Government, seeking recognition of identity, self determination and dignity. Unfortunately, the Srilankan Government failed to appreciate that this was an occasion to explore various options with the young leadership of the Tamil movement. The talks failed as the Srilankan Government could not offer anything to meet the Tamil aspirations. It also became evident that Indian influence did not count for much either with the Srilankan Government or the Tamil militant groups.

Failure at Thimpu also indicated that the negotiating process had reached a dead end. Srilankan Government felt that it must get back to a military campaign to vanquish the Tamils. The siege of Jaffna followed, with bombing raids and starving of Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula. This caused a tremendous sense of outrage in Tamil Nadu. India was left with no option except to send IAF relief flights over Jaffna to air drop supplies.

The July 29, 1987 Indo Srilankan agreement inevitably followed as yet another manifestation of Indian concerns for arresting the drift towards a long civil war. However, the agreement was another example of a flawed exercise. President Jayewardene of Srilanka might have sued for peace with the Tamils through the pact but obviously enough notice had not been taken of the seeds of insurrection which were sprouting in the South among militant Buddhist Srilankans who were dead set against any compromise towards Tamil aspirations. Their party JVP was an off shoot of the rural youth movement of the sixties. By 1980s it had acquired formidable strength in urban and quasi urban regions also. The agreement incorporated two major concessions to the Tamils, a single administrative unit with devolved powers in North and East with a single provincial council and elections to this council before December 1987, Prabhakaran’s heart was not in it as by that time he had already decided that Tamils deserved nothing short of Eelam. Indian assumptions that he would accept less were illusory. Similarly the dream expectation that a merger of North and East would be genuinely acceptable to the Srilankan Government was unreal. The agreement was doomed from the beginning. Indian Intelligence had misgivings about this agreement and had advised against the induction of Indian Military into Srilanka which followed the signing of the agreement.

The intransigent attitude of Prabhakaran’s LTTE came to surface soon enough. It refused to surrender all the arms which the agreement required. It refused to take part in the elections to the provincial council of the merged North East. The IPKF had in the meanwhile been inducted in Sri Lanka to organize de-militarization of the Tamil areas. In the absence of LTTE co-operation, the Indian authorities allowed IPKF to become coercive.

The Indian decision to opt for military operations against LTTE was based on the army assessment that IPKF would take no more than a week to drive LTTE to its knees. Indian Intelligence was not aware how this assessment had been arrived at. Unfortunately, this assessment was not subjected to any deeper scrutiny and became the basis for Indian army operations against the LTTE. Subsequent events proved that the so called assessment was just wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, the Indo Srilanka agreement served some useful purposes in that Srilanka agreed not to allow hostile use of Trincomalee port or VOA facilities in Srilanka for prejudiced propaganda. But IPKF had ultimately to withdraw, leaving over 1200 dead and with over 3000 injured. The strange spectacle was also witnessed of LTTE and the Srilankan Government, under the successor President Premdasa, cooperating against IPKF. The merger of North and East has now been undone. The current President Rajapakshe is offering no more than district development councils to the Tamils in a unitary set up which had been rejected way back in 1985 at Thimpu by the Tamils. The Sinhala leadership has come full circle in its attitude towards the Tamils.

Currently, the Indian Srilankan policy seems to be in a limbo. With LTTE banned in India for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, India has no leverage with this group. India also cannot offer much more than lip sympathy to the Srilankan Government which is turning to foreign sources like Pakistan and China for augmenting their assets to be used against LTTE. The merger of North East no longer seems practical with Srilanka having successfully split the Tamils in the East under Karuna and created reservations in the minds of Muslim Tamils of East. Rajapakshe seems to be aiming at the attrition of LTTE, an objective which will not easily be met. The Tamils of North East are, therefore, destined to suffer a hapless fate for an unknown number of years in the future.

(The author was the Chief of R&AW at the time of IPKF operations. For too long, Indian intelligence has been blamed for the debacle in Sri Lanka.)

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