Chronicle of a failed policy

Published : Mar 21, 1998 00:00 IST

Assignment Colombo by J.N. Dixit; Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 1998; pages 393, Rs. 400.

J.N. DIXIT, former Foreign Secretary, was High Commissioner in Sri Lanka between 1985 and 1989, at a critical juncture in Sri Lanka's political evolution and during a tumultuous phase in India-Sri Lanka relations. This book, an "insider account", is informative, lucid and candid. It has generated controversy in India and Sri Lanka, and will be of immense interest to all students and observers of the South Asian political scene.

The responsibility for the formulation and implementation of India's foreign policy is vested in the Ministry of External Affairs and its respective territorial divisions. Unfortunately, this general principle was not adhered to during the turbulent times when India-Sri Lanka relations reached an all-time low. The Prime Minister's Office became a "super cabinet", and Dixit mentions that from the end of 1985 he was receiving instructions directly from the PMO. Similarly, on the Sri Lankan side, neither Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed nor Foreign Secretary W.T. Jayasinghe could make any meaningful inputs to Sri Lanka's India policy. The crucial decisions were taken by President J.R. Jayewardene and his close advisers, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, and senior civil servants in the President's Secretariat. Dixit, who was often referred to as the "Viceroy" by the Sri Lankan media, directly dealt with the President and was even asked to address the Sri Lankan Cabinet. Ironically, Bernard Tilakaratne, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India, did not enjoy a similar status. Dixit writes: "Tilekaratne became increasingly critical about India's interactions with his Government. An additional reason for this was the failure of President Jayewardene and his Cabinet Ministers in keeping him fully in the picture regarding some of the events and development" (page 90). This extraordinary decision-making process was bound to have long-term implications for New Delhi and Colombo alike. Was it a good precedent to relegate the Foreign Office to the background on crucial issues of foreign policy?

The past weighs heavily on the present. An interesting incident during the Indian nationalist movement provides invaluable insights into the complexities of India-Sri Lanka relations. In 1939, during a visit to Ceylon to study the problems of daily-rated Indian workers, Jawaharlal Nehru encountered what he described as the "adamant and unresponsive attitude" of Sinhalese leaders vis-a-vis Indian sensitivities. Despite his frustration, Nehru took a long-term view of India-Sri Lanka relations. He wrote: "Ceylon cannot forget that India and Ceylon are close, and that India, by her size, is like a giant. It is easy enough to create psychological barriers and ill will, but not so easy to remove or control them. I cannot conceive of any hostile action on the part of India towards a country like Ceylon if it does not threaten her freedom."

It is a tragedy of India-Sri Lanka relations that some Sri Lankan leaders, far from reciprocating goodwill, have resented any mention of close cooperation. In more recent times, the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on the invitation of President Jayewardene under the India-Sri Lanka Agreement, enabled the Sri Lankan Army to devote itself completely to counter the threat from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Dixit records that on July 29, 1987, when Sinhalese areas in the island were in a state of virtual siege, President Jayewardene requested Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to provide aircraft to air-lift Sri Lankan forces from the North and the East to control "growing violence". Indian planes flew sorties through the night to airlift Sri Lankan soldiers.

What is instructive for Indian observers is the fact that the military marginalisation of the LTTE, accomplished at heavy cost of men and materials, did not earn for New Delhi the gratitude of the Sinhalese. On the contrary, it gave a fillip to Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism and was used as grounds to argue that Sri Lanka would soon become a client state of a hegemonist neighbour. Deep-seated misgivings were evident from the the beginning of the process. A Sinhala soldier attacked Rajiv Gandhi, an indication that large sections of the Sinhalese population were under the sway of chauvinist sentiments. Dixit writes of how Jayewardene and Gamini Dissanayake supported the Accord, while another equally powerful pair in Government, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, tried to sabotage it.

A limited convergence of interests - to get the IPKF out of Sri Lanka - brought Premadasa and Prabakaran together. If New Delhi and Tamil Nadu contributed to the creation of the Frankenstein, so also did Premadasa at a time when the Tigers were gasping for breath. Prabakaran extracted as many concessions as possible from Premadasa during the brief period of closeness between the two. The LTTE leader used the interval of negotiations to regroup his forces, acquire a considerable quantity of weapons from Premadasa, and transport them, with the connivance of Sri Lankan Army, to Tamil-populated areas.

After the withdrawal of the IPKF, the LTTE came into virtual control of the North and East. As Dixit points out, Premadasa's strategy after the withdrawal of the IPKF was "to inveigle the LTTE into negotiations, lull them into a mood of complacency and then to neutralise them militarily". But Premadasa and his advisers under-estimated the "political sophistication and tactical adroitness of the LTTE leadership" (page xii). As many Sri Lanka watchers in India had predicted, Prabakaran once again proved intransigent and the Second Eelam War began. Ironically, Premadasa himself fell victim to a human bomb, in an operation that had the hallmark of the LTTE.

A careful reading of the book makes clear a tragic reality: India's policy with regard to the ethnic conflict was on a zig-zag course, and the policy confounded its opponents and supporters alike. The absence of a clear-cut objective and lack of coordination among the various agencies involved were factors that contributed to the failure of that policy.

During the Nehru era, the distinction between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils was clearly maintained. Since Sinhala-Sri Lankan Tamil relations fell within the island's domestic domain, there was a realisation of New Delhi's limitations in any effort to remedy the situation.

AS the gulf between Jaffna and Colombo widened, New Delhi shifted its stance from one of aloofness to one of mediation. The Indian commitment to the unity of Sri Lanka was repeatedly affirmed; at the same time, New Delhi advised President Jayewardene to give more powers and finances to District Councils in order to ensure Tamils substantive autonomy within a united Sri Lanka.

Two observations by Dixit merit mention here. First, Indira Gandhi "began to give support to Sri Lankan Tamil parties and Tamil militant groups from 1980 onwards" (page 15). Secondly, "there were media reports confirming the fact that from 1981 onwards India had provided training, weaponry and logistical support to Tamil militant groups" (page 23). These statements are not borne out by facts. Officials of the Research and Analysis Wing established contact with Prabakaran and Uma Maheswaran for the first time after a shoot-out between them in Chennai in May 1982. And the training of Tamil militants began only after the anti-Tamil violence of July 1993.

The anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 and the partisan policy measures taken by President Jayewardene - including the deliberate exclusion of India from among the countries that he approached for help - caused indignation in the sub-continent. Thus the ethnic issue took on strategic and political dimensions. Broadly speaking, two major considerations underlay India's Sri Lanka policy when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. First, there were geo-strategic concerns, and a desire to insulate Sri Lanka from external forces that would have a destabilising effect on India's security and strategic environment. The second consideration was to prevent geographical proximity and ethnic affinities from leading to a resurgence of secessionist demands in Tamil Nadu. While proclaiming India's commitment to the unity of Sri Lanka, New Delhi also helped Tamils wrest concessions from an unwilling Sinhalese-dominated Government. The cumulative effect was the pursuance of a two-pronged but contradictory strategy - mediatory and militant-supportive.

The Rajiv Gandhi-Romesh Bhandari team had different priorities and their policies further contributed to the worsening of the overall situation. Jayewardene hoped that he would be able to have a better relationship with Rajiv Gandhi than the relationship he had with his mother. Rajiv Gandhi, assisted by Romesh Bhandari, wanted to make a fresh beginning. He told Jayewardene that New Delhi would like to make a fresh start. India's policy, he said, would be an "Indian policy" and not a policy dominated by narrow ethnic considerations (page 29). Dixit's categorical assertion that "in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi decided to stop all training and assistance to Sri Lankan Tamil groups to ensure the success of the mediatory efforts he had initiated" (page 78) is intriguing. Reliable sources in the Government of India do not subscribe to this point of view. In fact, the LTTE received massive assistance when Rajiv Gandhi was in power. It received more arms than all the other militant groups put together; the quality of the arms the organisation received was also higher than that of what the other organisations received. This assistance continued till July 1987.

Dixit provides rare insights regarding Romesh Bhandari, who became Foreign Secretary after M.K. Rasgotra. Bhandari did not (or could not) quite comprehend the complexities of the attitudes of Tamils and Sinhalese towards each other. He was keen to find a quick solution to the ethnic crisis before he retired. When Dixit explained the wide gap between Tamil aspirations and what Sinhalese-dominated governments were prepared to offer, Bhandari chided him "for not having a positive attitude". "The punchline in his admonition," Dixit writes, was that "I must not function in the mindset of Indira Gandhi and G. Parthasarathy period" (page 42). Dixit makes a telling comment about Bhandari's monumental ignorance about Tamil leaders and even Tamil names. New Delhi had prepared a "non-paper", to be used as a basis for further negotiations between Colombo and Tamil groups. Copies of the "non-paper" were to be given to both sides. In the course of a conversation, Bhandari told Dixit: "Mani, as soon as you reach Colombo, hand over the documents to Chelvanayakam." "I pointed out that Chelvanayakam had died two decades ago. So handing over the papers to him would not be possible. I said perhaps he meant I must hand over the paper to Dr. N. Thiruchalvam. Bhandari was impatient. He said, "Mani, give the paper to Chelvanayakam, Thiruchalvam, whosoever it is. All these South Indian names are confusing." With Bhandari at the helm of affairs in South Block, no wonder the Thimpu talks ended in a fiasco.

Dixit's narration of the background to the Accord is revealing. Attempts made by New Delhi to narrow down the differences between Colombo and the Tamil groups could not make much headway because of the intransigence of both sides. Colombo did not entertain any proposal that would change the unitary character of the Constitution, and the Tamil organisations, especially the LTTE, vetoed one proposal after another. New Delhi's determination not to permit Colombo to solve the ethnic problem through military means and the possible effects of the "fall of Jaffna" on Tamil Nadu and on Centre-State relations were key considerations as far as India was concerned. Attempts made by Sri Lanka to internationalise the ethnic conflict and encourage the involvement of external powers was an example of cutting one's nose to spite one's face. Finally, when the moment of reckoning came in May-June 1987, no external power lifted a finger against India. The demoralisation within the Sri Lankan armed forces and the increasing despair all around compelled Colombo to sign the India-Sri Lanka Agreement. Dixit refers to a conversation that he had with J.R. Jayewardene's wife during the course of which she asked whether Rajiv Gandhi "would ensure the safety of the President and his continuation in power" if he faced the danger of "being overthrown" (page 135).

In the final chapter, "Why did India fail?", Dixit admits that he "overestimated the sincerity and the political will of Jayewardene to come to a genuine compromise with the Tamils with the help of the Government of India". Dixit says that his assessment that Jayewardene "will be decisive in neutralising Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali and their policies against Tamils and the Agreement also proved wrong" (pages 344-45).

The conflicting and contradictory views among the higher echelons of the government in New Delhi exacerbated problems in the post-Accord period. According the Dixit, General K. Sundarji, the Chief of the Army Staff, underestimated Prabakaran's qualities of leadership and his determination to fight a prolonged war to attain the goal of Tamil Eelam. Dixit's version of General Sundarji's assessment need to be highlighted: "Rajiv Gandhi asked the then Chief of Army Staff General K. Sundarji what his assessment was. The General's reply was that once the LTTE endorsed the Agreement, they would not have the wherewithal to go back and confront India or the Sri Lankan Government. He went on to say that if the LTTE decided to take on India and Sri Lanka militarily, Indian armed forces would be able to neutralise them militarily within two weeks" (page 156). The fact was, as Dixit puts it, the Army brass did not consider any contingency plans to be put to work in case the LTTE did not cooperate and resorted to an armed struggle. The smug assumption was that "there was no expectation that India would have to undertake a large scale military intervention in Sri Lanka to enforce the Agreement" (page 156).

How did RAW view the LTTE? S.E. Joshi, Secretary of RAW, who was due to retire soon, "was cautious". He explained that the "LTTE was not a trustworthy organisation and the Agreement in a manner went against their high flown demand for Eelam."

Only External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao introduced a note of caution. When the draft Agreement was shown to Narasimha Rao, he told Dixit that India "should not rush" into it. Secondly, he said that India should consider carefully the wisdom of being a direct signatory to the Agreement. He wanted the Agreement to be signed between Colombo and the Tamils and suggested that "we just be the guarantors". Thirdly, he suggested that India assess carefully the motivations of various parties to find out whether it was based "on a genuine desire for peace" or whether it was "only a tactical move" (pages 119-20).

Above all, India's Sri Lanka policy got derailed because New Delhi did not make a correct assessment of the LTTE. During the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Bangalore, it was evident that Prabakaran was unhappy with the peace process. Equally important was his uncompromising commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam. The sudden shifts in the LTTE's stance on several occasions can be understood only if one keeps in mind the fact that the LTTE undertakes negotiations only as a matter of strategy; it would take a step backward only to consolidate itself and later leap forward. In New Delhi, Prabakaran was taken aback when he was confronted with the fait accompli of the Accord. He wanted a chance to put his demands to Rajiv Gandhi and his hope was that "he would be allowed to negotiate with Jayewardene and finalise the Agreement" (page 147). According to Dixit, Rajiv Gandhi persuaded Prabakaran "to go along with the Agreement even if he did not formally endorse it" (page 150). Rajiv Gandhi was convinced that with the endorsement of the Agreement by the Tamil Nadu Government, New Delhi should not be obstructed in its effort to bring back peace and normalcy to Sri Lanka.

WITH the benefit of hindsight, Dixit makes a correct assessment of the LTTE: "One over-arching miscalculation of India was our under-estimating Prabakaran's passionate, even obsessive, commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam, his authoritarian and single minded nature, his tactical cleverness and his resilience in adversity. The second miscalculation about him and his cadres was that India and Sri Lanka together could persuade other Tamil groups and the Tamil population in general to join the mainstream of democratic politics bypassing the LTTE" (page 343).

One disappointing aspect about the book relates to innumerable spelling mistakes and factual errors. Names of Sri Lankan leaders, Sinhalese and Tamil, are sometimes spelt wrongly. As for factual errors, a few are cited here: Alfred Duriappa was killed by the LTTE in 1975, not 1978 (page 12); Sinhalese constitute 74 per cent of the population, not 85 per cent (page 13); there are no Sinhalese Tamils in Sri Lanka (page 21); EPRLF is not Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Forum (page 27); Indian Tamils were rendered stateless in the late 1940s, not 1950s (page 71); Quakers are referred to as "Quackers" (page 74) and Pongal is not Tamil New Year Day, but a harvest festival (page 83).

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Director, Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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