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Old Ghosts will rise again if the GoSL cannot address core issues of the ethnic problems – Ex-R&AW Chief

- If the concerns of the Tamils are not satisfied by mutual dialogue, even if militarily defeated, the old ghosts will rise again to torment later

- I do not think India would ever plan to involve itself in Sri Lanka as it did in 1987.

A K Verma in conversation with Nilantha Ilangamuwa

(October 04, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Former Head of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), an Indian External Intelligence agency, Mr. Anand Kumar Verma has given an exclusive interview to Nilantha Ilangamuwa. He also shared his thoughts on the present situation in Sri Lanka.

Mr. A. K. Verma served as the head of the R&AW from 1987 to 1990, during which period he led mainly two external operations were known worldwide. One was “Operation Cactus” in November 1988, when the People's Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) comprising about 200 Tamil secessionists’ invaded Maldives. At the request of the President of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Indian Armed Forces with the active assistance of the Research and Analysis Wing launched a military campaign to fight the mercenaries out of Maldives. The second operation was the Indian Peace Keeping Force offensive on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE) from 1987 to 1990.

He has explained why an Indian was involved with case the in Sri Lanka during 87-89, ignoring even the Tamil Nadu factor and Tamil nationalism, the ongoing military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other complicated issues.

According to Mr. V. K. Verma, “training of Sri Lankan Tamils in India was, therefore, not a good idea. The situation in Sri Lanka was not comparable to East Pakistan in 1971, which became Bangladesh towards the end of that year. As later events were to prove Sri Lankan Tamils did not hold themselves beholden to India for all the assistance they received.”

He doesn’t believe military solution is the right one to the problems in Sri Lanka. He urged to find a sustainable political solution politically. “If the concerns of the Tamils are not satisfied by mutual dialogue, even if militarily defeated, the old ghosts will rise again to torment later,” he pointed out.

Here is the full text of the interview;

Q. How would you identify the concept of terrorism in South Asia?

Modern terrorism is linked to one's perception of violation of one's identity. It could be religious, ethnic or linguistic. This places terrorism on both sides of morality. A terrorist could be a freedom fighter in which case he does not see himself as a terrorist while the state against which he has taken arms would not think so. This conundrum has so far prevented the evolution of a universal definition of terrorism and the UN has been unable to get a resolution on the subject.

Q. Please comment on the state’s rights to kill terrorists? Since the US uses water-boarding, why can't Sri Lanka use similar techniques in interrogation? Does India use anything like water-boarding?

In a modern state governed by principles of human rights no state can claim an executive right to kill anybody. Laws have to be followed always which can award a death sentence only after a due process. However certain states like the US do reserve such a right but here also there is a legal cover available by special laws of the state. Public opinion in such a state generally does not approve such special provisions. India has no laws of this kind nor do I think Sri Lanka.

Terrorists are like ordinary criminals who must face all legal consequences for their actions. From the point of view of a state their defining themselves as freedom fighters gives them no immunity.

The state has many options to guard its national interests some of which may lie in the covert field and can therefore be denied publicly.

Q. Please comment on the crisis in Sri Lanka. Who in your opinion is principally behind it? Why have we been unable to find out a sustainable solution during the last three decades?

India displayed no interest in the Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lanka. After Sri Lanka’s independence, the Sinhala authorities wanted them, now numbering a million with several of them with residence in Sri Lanka for more than one generation, to be treated as Indian citizens. The Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan Govt.

Q. Meanwhile in Tamil Nadu politicians also have interests in a Dream State; they have given energy to Sri Lankan Tamil youth for thru uprising. Can you explain the Tamil Nadu factor and case for Eelam?

The communal riots led to an exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka into Tamil Nadu, bringing into focus for the first time 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 Sri Lanka must remain a united country, it should be advised against seeking a military solution to 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 Sri Lankan Government to enforce a military solution in the North and East. A decision was therefore taken to keep pressure on Sri Lanka by giving military training to Sri Lanka 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 on ground reality. This theoretical formulation had also not even included Sri Lankan 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.

Q. According to history, R&AW provided training and arms to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters known as Mukti Bahini. RAW's aid was instrumental in Bangladesh's gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971. India has been also giving arms to opponents in Pakistan. Also India has been giving arms and arms training for Sri Lankan Tamil military groups in the early 80s.But India never supported separation in Sri Lanka. Why? Does it mean that India is playing a double game in the region of South Asia?

Training of Sri Lankan Tamils in India was, therefore, not a good idea. The situation in Sri Lanka was not comparable to East Pakistan in 1971, which became Bangladesh towards the end of that year. As later events were to prove Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan Government 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 Eelam Tamil region. How deep such fears ran was illustrated later by how quickly the demerger of North and East was brought about by the Sri Lankan Government after the IPKF left Sri Lanka.

India did not give up and hosted meetings in Thimpu in July and August 1985 between Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan Government, seeking recognition of identity, self determination and dignity. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lankan Government or the Tamil militant groups.

Failure at Thimpu also indicated that the negotiating process had reached a dead end. Sri Lankan 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.

Q. Please comment on India's intervention in the internal problems in Sri Lanka.

The July 29, 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lanka 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 Sri Lankans 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 Sri Lankan 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 Sri Lanka 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 LLTE. Subsequent events proved that the so called assessment was just wishful thinking.

Q. Why did the IPKF fail in its war with the LTTE?

The failure of the Government of India was 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.

Q. What do you think of the current military operations against the LTTE by the security forces in Sri Lanka?

I am not sure that only military measures can solve the problems between the Sri Lankans and the Tamils of the North and East. If the concerns of the Tamils are not satisfied by mutual dialogue, even if militarily defeated, the old ghosts will rise again to torment later.

Q. Please comment on the future of the LTTE and the fate of Prabhakaran. Where will this all end? Can he ever hold office even if it is through a negotiated settlement given that he is wanted in India?

The LTTE should be seen as the embodiment of Tamil aspirations. Whether or not the LTTE is vanquished, these aspirations have a life of their own and will keep looking for fulfillment.

Prabhakaran is a wanted criminal in India and will remain so as long as his wanted status is not altered legally. But I do not think India would ever plan to involve itself in Sri Lanka as it did in 1987.

Q. I would like to know your experiences on action against terrorism in India and more generally South Asia in your career as a security officer

If the terrorists are not aided from outside they can be neutralized fairly easily. Many terrorist groups in India have been persuaded to join the mainstream through dialogue and offer of participation in governance. Most difficulties arise where a state is a nonactor supporter of terrorism. It is common knowledge that such states exist in South Asia.

Q. More than 20 terrorist organisations have been activating in South Asia. Thousands of people are victims in this conflict every year. Please explain what should be done by the governments of South Asia to wipe out terrorism?

States should not offer mere lip sympathy and instead be ready to alter their creed and philosophy to fight terrorism. Unfortunately such an approach is not visible.

Q. All our terrorist organizations have been building up networks. But we can't see any strong tendency for political cohabitations within a country or between states within the Region of South Asia. How does it influence the stability of the region?

It is true that without peace and harmony stability will remain a distant dream.

Q. Could you please explain to us the importance of espionage networks for counter terrorism within South Asia and the governments and military?

It is very difficult to deal with terrorism by military means alone. A considered counterstrategy is necessary. In this espionage plays an important role. Good human agents inside a terrorist network are worth their weight in gold but recruitment of such agents is almost next to impossible.

Q. Finally, do you think the present regime under President Mahinda Rajapaksha can find a sustainable solution to the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka?

The Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement served some useful purposes in that Sri Lanka agreed not to allow hostile use of Trincomalee port or VOA facilities in Sri Lanka 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 Sri Lankan Government, under the successor President Premadasa, cooperating against IPKF. The merger of North and East has now been undone. The current President Rajapaksa 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.

In my view, based on the wisdom that hind sight generates, the induction of IPKF into Sri Lanka, cannot but be considered flawed. The real cause was the consistent non realization by the Government of India that the issue at stake, of conflicting identities, was held non negotiable by both the Tamils as well as Sri Lankans. The enigma of Prabhakaran could never be comprehended.

His experience with the Sinhalese has taught him that the Sinhala leadership of whatever hue cannot be trusted. He had implicit faith that Eelam 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 Sri Lankan Tamils from the Sri Lankan Government.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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