Indian notions of its Sri Lanka involvement


by Rajeewa Jayaweera


Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated 25 years ago on August 20, 1991 in Sriperumbudur, Chennai, India. Several articles on the assassination of RG and of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s affairs commencing around 1980 appeared in the local media commencing last Sunday. Two articles were reviews of books published recently titled ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’ by Neena Gopal, a reputed Indian journalist and ‘Perilous Interventions’ by Hardeep Sigh Puri, a former Indian diplomat. Another article described different security precautions adopted by LTTE chief Prabhakaran, his enmity towards Gandhi which eventually made him decide to assassinate him and his close association with an Indian intelligence agent S Chandrasekharam known as ‘Chandran’, also Prabhakaran’s RAW appointed handler and supplier of video films for his entertainment in the Vanni jungles. Former IPKF intelligence chief in Jaffna, Col. R Hariharan too contributed by way of his article ‘Downside of Rajiv assassination’.

This writer has come across very few books and articles published and opinions expressed by Indians, may it be politicians, diplomats, journalists, intellectuals or even ordinary persons who see India’s role in Sri Lanka’s affairs commencing with housing, training and arming Tamil terrorists beginning from around 1980 as unjustified and a hostile act by a powerful nation against a small and weak nation. What most Indians would concede is to refer to the whole issue as a ‘mistake’ and that too from an Indian perspective. This is due to the 1200 IPKF members who did not return home from their mission in Sri Lanka and the lack of support from successive DMK governments in Tamil Nadu, once open hostilities broke out between the IPKF and LTTE.

Neena Gopal in her book "The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi" consider the assassination as avoidable and attributes the assassination to interagency rivalry between RAW and Indian IB, the negligence of the Indian intelligence apparatus and inability of the Indian political leadership that succeeded the Gandhi administration, to fully appreciate the threat posed by LTTE to the former Prime Minister. Several LTTE VHF communications intercepted by Indian intelligence with the use of the word ‘dump’, LTTE jargon to kill, had been incorrectly interpreted. The author claims, Col. Hariharan, himself a Tamil, with his ear to the ground in Jaffna and an aunt married to a Jaffna Tamil had been tipped off but had been unable to convince higher ups of the seriousness of the situation or the need for enhanced security for Gandhi. Col. Hariharan in his article on Thursday has confirmed Neena Gopal’s assertion.

Hardeep Singh Puri had been First Secretary / Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Colombo during the turbulent 1984 – 1988 period. He was subsequently India’s Permeant Representative to the United Nations in New York. His book ‘Perilous Interventions’ covers US/UK led intervention in Iraq and western led and Security Council sanctioned UN interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen. India’s forcible air drop of humanitarian supplies in Jaffna violating Sri Lanka’s air space too has been covered and termed as a ‘mercy mission’. Puri does not consider the IPKF mission "as a military intervention but as a peace keeping force with a specific mandate in pursuance of provisions of a peace agreement and sent at the specific request of the receiving state". During an interview, he has opined "you can’t subject an entire population of an area to an economic blockade and then hope to get understanding from the international community". Moving on, Puri states "the IPKF was invited under the provisions of the Agreement (ISLA) with the request made in writing. It was clearly understood that this would enable President Jayawardena to move his army back to deal with the growing opposition to the Agreement in the South".

India was dismayed by the assassination of its Leader of Opposition, also a former Prime Minister and member of an iconic family. It simply could not fathom this treacherous act by LTTE it had natured from its infancy. On the part of the LTTE, it was a case of biting the hand that had fed it. For India, it was a case of reaping the whirlwind resulting from the winds it had sowed.

In less than two years after Gandhi’s assassination, the LTTE assassinated the Head of State in Sri Lanka besides two other senior politicians, seriously weakening the Sri Lankan political leadership. The vacuum created by the death of these senior politicians and many more mid-level politicians was to seriously impact the political landscape of Sri Lanka in the years to come. The psychological impact on a nation due to the assassination of its Head of State, especially a state facing a separatist conflict, is considerable. Though not written about or spoken of, the assassinations of President Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake are losses from which Sri Lanka is yet to recover. Full credit all three can be laid at India’s door step.

Puri’s assertions are in line with the general Indian narrative. However, a close examination of his assertions would establish beyond doubt, the hollowness of some of his assertions. To begin with, India forced Sri Lanka to halt the Vedamarachchi Operation which would have seen the end of the LTTE. It is the Indian narrative that the IPKF was ‘invited’ whereas the Sri Lankan narrative is that the ‘invitation was coerced’. Puri’s then boss and Indian High Commissioner JN Dixit’s book ‘Assignment Colombo’ spells out clearly of the manner in which India coerced JR Jayawardena to accept the Indo – Sri Lanka Accord with its many humiliating clauses. Had this accord not been forced on Sri Lanka, the JVP would not have commenced its insurrection in the South. Had it been the case, the need to move the Sri Lanka army to the South would not have arisen. The need for a peace keeping force with or without an ‘invitation’ too would not have arisen.

Then President Jayawardena honored the initial requirement of the accord by confining the Sri Lankan army to barracks before bringing them to the South. However, India failed miserably in its first obligation spelt out in the accord by failing to disarm the LTTE in 48 hours. Notwithstanding Puri’s assertion of a peace keeping force, the IPKF was a thinly veiled military intervention which commenced with the forcible air drop of supplies into Jaffna under the guise of a ‘mercy mission’. It was also a gross violation of Sri Lanka’s air space.

President Premadasa, who was Prime Minister in 1987 opposed both ISLA and deployment of IPKF. To send back the IPKF was part of his manifesto during the 1988 Presidential election campaign. According to Dixit, Premadasa had privately requested the removal of the IPKF during their first meeting at Sucharitha even prior to being sworn in as President. Premadasa made his first public request for the departure of IPKF during an address at a temple in Kotte (if that was the correct approach is debatable). He also refused to hold the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Colombo as long as foreign troops were on Sri Lankan soil.

In any culture, an invited guest does not overstay his or her welcome. Neither does an invited guest remain, once requested by the host to leave. Pages 373 – 381 in Dixit’s ‘Assignment Colombo’ contain texts of three letters from Premadasa to Gandhi between June 02 and July 04, 1989 requesting the withdrawal of IPKF and three replies from Gandhi outlining his reasons for not removing the IPKF at the time.

Agitation in IoK (Indian occupied Kashmir) commenced in 1947 shortly after independence, long before the Tamil community in Sri Lanka began voicing their grievances. Fast forwarding the clock to 2016, IoK has been under siege and a virtual lock down since early July 2016. According to 2011 census, nearly 70% of the population of IoK are Muslims. The population is being subjected to all types of blockades, deprivation of basic rights and subjugation to draconian laws by the Indian state and its military, with the full understanding of the international community, something Puri asserts Sri Lanka could not have in 1987. Most essentials and medical supplies are in short supply in IoK. Applying India’s own justification for its air drop in Jaffna under the guise of a ‘mercy mission’, would it not be morally acceptable for Pakistan, a neighboring state with an overwhelming Muslim population to mount a ‘mercy mission’ similar to the Indian air drop and provide assistance to the suffering Kashmiris in IoK?

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