India's 'misadventure' in Sri Lanka
For almost three decades, India has been accused of conducting a “misadventure” in Sri Lanka, sending thousands of soldiers for peace-keeping, where it got thrashed diplomatically, and at home, politically.
Worse — it had to leave the island nation with 1,138 soldiers killed and 2,762 wounded without getting close to resolving the ethnic strife between the majority Sinhalas and minority Tamils.
Worst — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had signed the July 1987 peace deal with Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ), was assassinated by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres in May 1991.
Rajiv’s daughter has forgiven the lady convicted for the assassination. It is poignant, but has not left any player in the imbroglio wiser.
The killing, masterminded by LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabakaran, who was killed in a Sri Lankan military operation in 2009, had more than a symbolic impact. It ended the popular support Tamil militants had enjoyed in Tamil Nadu and remains confined to fringe groups.
The Gandhi-Jayawardane Agreement carried JRJ’s promise of the devolution of powers to the Tamil minority and recognition of Tamil as an official language. It envisaged military assistance that took the shape of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) for operations against LTTE in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
It was a difficult, unconventional war waged against an insurgent group, trained, at one stage, in India, with connections in Tamil Nadu.
New Delhi’s vague articulation of its military intervention in support of the accord triggered an emotional backlash in both countries.
With soldiers caught in a thankless conflict in one of the world’s densest tropical jungles, the politicians and diplomats who committed India to it became unpopular.
Conducted between 1987 and 1990, they earned Rajiv much opprobrium. He meant well and, perhaps, even JRJ did. But, it was clear that JRJ had got the better end of the bargain that he breached under pressure.
India felt cheated when his successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, joined hands with LTTE to send IPKF out before they could complete their job.
The accord got sidelined. Political leaders opposing it assumed power in both countries around the same time. The Lankan Tamils, who had put their faith in it, were in limbo. LTTE strengthened to fight on till it was crushed in 2009. Reconciliation remains a mirage.
Documents declassified last month by the United States’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirm what is agreed. JRJ had told US president Ronald Reagan’s envoy Peter Galbraith that he was “forced” to sign the pact because his armed forces twice refused to “take Jaffna”.
“…IPKF and the Sri Lankan forces are getting on well together, and… the situation in Jaffna, while still far from normal, is gradually improving,” Galbraith said in his assessment sent to Reagan. Things changed later.
The documents indicate Americans promoted rapprochement between Rajiv and JRJ, persuading the latter who had been unhappy about Indians training LTTE cadres.
Did they help wily JRJ use a politically inexperienced Rajiv to pull his chestnuts out of fire?
In the evening of the cold war, many viewed India with suspicion after its role in the 1971 birth of Bangladesh. A brief intervention in the Maldives in 1988 strengthened these perceptions. Its navy was seen as nursing “blue water ambitions”.
A reassessment, even some soul-searching, is on among Indians, some of whom had played key roles in those events.
In his book Perilous Interventions, retired Indian diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, who served in Colombo between 1984 and 1988, during the run-up to the accord and its implementation, blames both the international community and the United Nations for “looking the other way” at crucial moments during the crisis.
Taking an objective, even critical view of the Indian intervention, Puri, however, stresses: “In retrospect, the mistreatment of the Tamils was, in the first instance, responsible for the outside intervention. A problem with linguistic rights transformed into one of minority rights and developed into militancy, inviting intervention from across the Palk Strait.”
Commodore (Rtd.) Ranjit Rai, Naval Intelligence director at the relevant time, says the botched operations would require in-depth study of the objectives and whether they were achieved, if it aimed to obtain greater autonomy for Lankan Tamils, to relieve pressure on them, or fight LTTE to maintain Sri Lanka’s integrity and to prevent foreign interference in India’s neighbourhood.
Like most analysts, Rai thinks Indira Gandhi, in her time, viewed the Tamils’ issue quite differently from Rajiv, and had avoided getting involved directly. But, it is also true, as Puri points out; Rajiv inherited his mother’s legacy of Indians training LTTE. The difficult course correction Rajiv attempted went haywire.
Sri Lanka events in the second half of the 1980s rank among the five most significant foreign policy decisions India made in recent decades. Former foreign secretary and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, terms that “choice” between “bad and less bad”.
As Stephen P. Cohen writes in his blurb to Menon’s book, critics may feel “anyone can do it, and can do it better than the government — but the reality is that India was never spoilt for choices”.
Puri stresses that, “Colombo itself ensures that the rights of the Tamil citizens are constitutionally guaranteed, and they are shown the respect and dignity all Sri Lankans get”.
For any Indian role in future, he warns: “Working at cross-purposes, as would appear to have been the case for several decades, will create problems for Sri Lanka and India.”
New Straits Times