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India as a safe haven?

Print edition : Dec 23, 2001 T+T-

Pro-LTTE forces in the country are regrouping and strengthening themselves as the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has started fading away from public memory.

AT long last, the Union Home Ministry acted effectively and expeditiously. In the early hours of December 4, 2000, officials reached M.K. Eelaventhan's residence in Chennai, escorted him to the airport and deported him to Sri Lanka. Eelaventhan, founder leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front, had abused Indian hospitality for long and was championing the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Tamil Nadu. In fact, quit notices were served on him and another Sri Lankan national, K. S atchidanandam, six months earlier. However, pressure was brought on the Central government by some of the constituents of the ruling coalition from Tamil Nadu that are well-known LTTE supporters, and the whole process got delayed. This time the entire op eration was planned meticulously in order to pre-empt any pressure from pro-LTTE forces in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi.

As former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's assassination has started fading away from public memory, pro-LTTE forces are regrouping and strengthening themselves. The Tamil National Party (Tamil Desiya Iyakkam) under P. Nedumaran, the Dravida Kazhagam under K. Veeramani, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) under Vaiko, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) under Dr. S. Ramdoss and extremist Tamil Nationalist organisations such as the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retri eval Force (TNRF) have stepped up their activities. The extremist Tamil organisations have won over the forest brigand Veerappan to their side. In a strange twist of fortunes, Veerappan today has become the spokesman of Tamil extremism and is demanding r edress of the grievances of Tamils. The MDMK and the PMK, while swearing their loyalty to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Vajpayee government, simultaneously supports the LTTE demand for a separate Tamil Eelam. Obviously their objective is to make New Delhi ineffective and irrelevant on the vital question of Sri Lanka's territorial integrity. A united Sri Lanka, with justice being done to the Tamils, is anathema to them. This situation, if allowed to drift further, will have adverse conse quences in Tamil Nadu politics and in the crucial issue of India-Sri Lanka relations.

India's policy towards the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has taken a zigzag course, confounding its opponents and supporters alike. One prominent factor that contributed to the failure of the policy has been the absence of a clear-cut objective and a lack of coordination among various agencies involved in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes. Equally relevant is the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics, with the two major Dravidian parties, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhag am (DMK) and the Opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), vying with each other in championing the cause of Tamil militants. V. Prabakaran, the LTTE supremo, exploited these contradictions to his advantage. A few illustrations are gi ven below to substantiate this point.

On August 10, 1983, DMK leaders M. Karunanidhi (now Chief Minister) and K. Anbazhagan (now Education Minister) resigned their seats in the State Assembly as a mark of protest against the "lukewarm" attitude of the Centre towards the "plight of Sri Lankan Tamils" and also as an expression of solidarity with them. The DMK emphatically maintained that the only solution to the ethnic conflict was the creation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam and that a solution cannot be found through mediation. Vaiko, th en a DMK Member of Parliament, warned that if India did not send its Army to Sri Lanka, then the "people will march from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka". The AIADMK Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), announced that his party would not contest the Assembly seats that fell vacant with the resignation of Karuna-nidhi and Anbazhagan. In order to take the wind out of the DMK's sails, MGR asked his followers to wear black shirts for a month from August 16, 1983. Karunanidhi later became a member of the Upper Ho use, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council. But MGR was not to be out-manoeuvred. The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution abolishing the Legislative Council on the plea that it served no useful purpose.

THE factional politics in Tamil Nadu had its impact on Sri Lankan Tamil groups. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) maintained cordial relations with the Government of India. Its leader A. Amirthalingam wanted to maintain good equations with both th e Dravidian parties, but knowing MGR's deep dislike for those associated with Karunanidhi, TULF leaders began to distance themselves from the DMK. The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), under S.P. Sabaratnam, moved closer to Karunanidhi. Initial ly MGR was friendly with Uma Maheshwaran of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Uma Maheshwaran however could not retain the friendship for long. Prabakaran stepped into the scene and became very close to MGR, and the relationship continued until MGR's death in December 1987. Prabakaran reaped immense benefits f rom this, not only in terms of money but also by building the LTTE's network throughout the State. The EPRLF initially tried to establish cordial relations with Maoist groups but later became friendly with the United Communist Party of India (UCPI). The Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) was neutral in the factional politics.

In order to ingratiate himself with MGR, Prabakaran not only distanced himself from the DMK but began to show disrespect to Karunanidhi. In one incident, the followers of the DMK collected contributions from the public on Karunanidhi's birthday in June 1 985. Karunanidhi decided to distribute the money among Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups. While TELO, the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the EPRLF and EROS gladly accepted the financial gift, Prabakaran declined to accept his sha re. While Karunanidhi was extremely upset, it had the effect of bringing Prabakaran still closer to MGR.

Another incident deserves mention. In 1986, Karunanidhi took the initiative to convene a national conference in Madurai under the auspices of the Tamil Eelam Solidarity Organisation (TESO). The conference, attended by major Opposition leaders including B haratiya Janata Party leader Atal Behari Vajpayee and Telugu Desam chief N.T. Rama Rao, was intended to rally support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. Despite their linkages with the AIADMK, LTTE representatives attended the conference and affirmed their support to the cause of Tamil unity. However, even while the conference was going on, the Tigers launched murderous attacks on TELO in the Jaffna peninsula. The chief patron of TELO in Tamil Nadu was Karunanidhi. After annihilating TELO leaders, Prabakar an turned his attention to other militant groups such as the EPRLF and PLOTE. Prabakaran proclaimed his belief in the monopoly of power in the hands of one organisation and in a one-party state.

Gradually the LTTE built its vast network in different parts of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu became not only its sanctuary, but a safe haven from where the Eelam struggle derived political and material support. The LTTE exploited fully the contradictions on th e Indian political scene - between the AIADMK and the DMK, between the Union government and the State governments, between the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). What is more, the efficient network that the LTTE p ainstakingly built in Tamil Nadu, comprising smugglers, fishermen, political activists, transport operators, businessmen and corrupt officials, provided support to its war machine. The long coastline of Tamil Nadu with its innumerable fishing harbours pr ovided safe havens for the LTTE's fast-moving boats. An efficient communication system linking Jaffna with the outside world through Tamil Nadu was built up.

The IPKF's plea to successive governments in Tamil Nadu - during AIADMK and DMK rule and even President's Rule - to curb the activities of the LTTE fell on deaf ears. It was a strange paradox that Indian soldiers were getting killed and maimed in Sri Lan ka by the explosives and grenades manufactured in Tamil Nadu. What is more, wounded LTTE guerillas were getting treatment in hospitals in Tamil Nadu. It should also be remembered that while the IPKF was fighting the LTTE in the jungles of Vavuniya, the R AW was negotiating with the LTTE's Kittu in Chennai to persuade the LTTE to join the democratic process.

The DMK, when it came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1989, changed its stance on the LTTE. The Tamil Nadu government's decision to boycott the function in connection with the return of the Indian soldiers has to be seen as an attempt by the DMK to get closer to the Tigers.

The intransigence of the LTTE and its readiness to flout all canons of civilised behaviour became evident in June 1990. In its single-minded pursuit of one-party dominance, the LTTE murdered EPRLF leader E. Padmanabha and his associates in Chennai. The w ell-knit LTTE network enabled the assassins to escape from the scene of murder without any difficulty. The contempt that the LTTE had for the DMK can be understood from the fact that on the day of Padmanabha's assassination, Karunanidhi was pleading with his allies in the National Front to accord permission to the LTTE to bring back the sick and the wounded to Tamil Nadu for treatment.

Even after Padmanabha's assassination, security in the State was not streamlined and tightened. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi in the prime of his life was the culmination of the overt and covert Indian involvement in Sri Lanka and the equally despicable LT TE activities in Tamil Nadu. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and later the publication of the Jain Commission Report, the AIADMK and the DMK made a sudden somersault and each started accusing the other of supporting the Tigers.

THE Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu must take immediate steps to revamp their security machinery, both on land and at sea. In recent years there have been a number of serious lapses, which enabled the LTTE to become a law unto itself . Very few people are conscious of the fact that six of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case - Robert Payas, Jayakumar, Shanti (Jayakumar's wife), Vijayan, Selva Lakshmi (Vijayan's wife) and Bhaskaran (Vijayan's father-in-law) - were regist ered as refugees. A clear case of abusing Indian hospitality. Kiruban, a top LTTE leader, escaped while being taken to Pudukkottai in April 1993. In May 1993, Charles Nawaz, a witness in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, escaped from the Saidapet Spec ial Camp. Cadres of the LTTE enacted a daring escape from the Tipu Mahal camp in Vellore in August 1995. All these incidents reflect poorly on the security machinery. If on that fateful night in Sriperumbudur female security personnel had physically fris ked all women who wanted to greet Rajiv Gandhi, perhaps India may not have lost a political leader of great promise.

The unwillingness to take hard decisions has created a number of anomalous situations. Here are three illustrations pertaining to Sri Lankan Tamils. Special Judge V. Navaneethan awarded capital punishment to all the 26 accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassi nation case. The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence on four and awarded life imprisonment for three. The rest were convicted for lesser offences under the Arms Act, the Explosive Substances Act, the Foreigners Act, the Passport Act, and so on. As they had already undergone imprisonment for a period, the Supreme Court set them free. While the acquitted Indian nationals were set free, the Sri Lankan Tamils were lodged in special camps.

The second illustration relates to the Ahat case. The ship M.V. Ahat was registered in Singapore and was flying a Honduran flag. It allegedly carried weapons and ammunition for the LTTE in Jaffna when the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard intercepted it. A fter an exchange of fire, the ship was set ablaze and some Sri Lankan Tamils, including Kittu, committed suicide. Judge Lakshmana Reddy acquitted all the accused in the case and ordered the Commissioner of Police to hand them over to Honduras. The Specia l Investigation Team (SIT) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) went on appeal to the Supreme Court, which found the accused guilty on some charges and sentenced them to a total period of imprisonment of three years. Here again, the accused had already completed the term of imprisonment and, therefore, were set free. Honduras did not want to accept the Tamils, and the Tamils did not have Honduran passports anyway. The Tamils also did not want to go back to Sri Lanka. One Tamil went to West Asia . The rest are in safe custody in Visakhapatnam.

The third illustration is a grim reminder of the ignorance of Tamil Nadu security officials about the international network that the Tigers have built up over the years. Bhaskaran, an LTTE guerilla, was detained in the Saidapet Special Camp (in Chennai) after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. No charges were preferred against him, and he appealed to the authorities for permission to go abroad. The immigration authorities left Bhaskaran at the Meenambakkam airport. A few weeks later, Bhaskaran was found in P hnom Penh negotiating the purchase of surface-to-air missiles for the LTTE. What is more, he boasted to journalists about how he hoodwinked the authorities in Tamil Nadu.

These examples should serve as a warning to New Delhi and Chennai. Even under existing rules and regulations, aliens working against the Indian national interest can be deported. What is lacking is the political will to make difficult decisions. India, e specially Tamil Nadu, cannot afford to become a "soft state".

V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.