By the middle of 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was besieged by many domestic problems of extreme gravity. Yet he decided to mediate in the catastrophic ethnic strife in neighbouring Sri Lanka between the ruling Sinhala majority and the highly aggrieved Tamil minority concentrated in the northern and eastern regions of the island republic. The problem had begun long ago, when the Sinhala-dominated government imposed Sinhala as the only language of the country, and it escalated so fast as to become nearly intractable. India’s policy on Sri Lanka, which Rajiv inherited from his mother, was as complex as the situation in the island.
Indira Gandhi did not like the efforts of Sri Lanka’s veteran and wily executive president, J.R. Jayewardene, to draw in the United States, some west European countries and Israel, to help out with his difficulties. She wanted the problem of Sri Lanka to be resolved with Indian assistance without any “any foreign intrusion”. So she had seen to it that her foreign policy advisor, G. Parthasarathy, and a nominee of Jayewardene worked out an arrangement for devolution of power to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka that would be acceptable to the Sinhala majority also. The effort remained a work in progress. At the same time, she was keen to ensure that Sri Lankan Tamils did not feel let down by India. There was so much sympathy and support for them in Tamil Nadu that they could use the Indian state as a safe haven and also a training field, with the Central government benignly looking away.
Rajiv did not like this and changed the policy. Meanwhile, of the various Tamil groups resisting Sinhala domination, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the most influential and powerful. Eelam in the name stood for complete independence. This was the brainchild of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran who, as the world witnessed, was a “brutal fighter”.
The old fox, Jayewardene, was usually in awe of Indira. But he found it easy to deal with her son and successor. Fairly early during their negotiations, the two agreed on a new approach. The Sri Lankan government had so isolated the northern Tamil area as to virtually force India to do some “bread bombing” of Jaffna to enable the starving people to eat. Yet, the two sides broke new ground soon enough. New Delhi and Colombo decided to sign an agreement on solving the problem and to cajole or coerce the LTTE to accept it. The Rajiv-Jayewardene accord was duly inked on July 29 in Colombo in an immensely tense atmosphere. But, as Rajiv’s MoS for External Affairs K. Natwar Singh (who later became foreign minister) has recorded in his autobiography, One Life Is Not Enough, its implementations created more problems than it solved.
In the first place, even while the agreement was being signed, Sri Lanka’s prime minister, R. Premadasa, and a senior minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, made no secret of their opposition to it. Something even more startling happened a little later. Seeing that Jayewardene was talking seriously to Rajiv surrounded only by Sri Lankan officials, Foreign Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao asked Natwar Singh to go and find out what was afoot. Rajiv told him that Colombo was a besieged city and Jayewardene feared that there might be a coup before nightfall. So he had asked for an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) immediately. To Natwar’s question of whether he would like to consult his senior colleagues before sending troops, Rajiv replied that he had already ordered a division of the army to get to Colombo as fast as possible.
Before signing the agreement, Rajiv had sent for Prabhakaran in Delhi, and was apparently satisfied with the LTTE supremo’s verbal acceptance of the draft accord. Tamil Nadu’s hugely popular chief minister, M.G. Ramachandaran, was also in Delhi and reportedly gave Prabhakaran a lot of money. However, when asked to surrender arms, as required by the July 29 accord, the LTTE insisted on a series of preconditions, including the release of all Tamil prisoners in government custody and a halt to Sinhala colonisation of the island’s eastern region. How terribly high the Sinhala rage against Indian intervention in their country was became known at the time of Rajiv’s departure for home. At the guard of honour, a Lankan soldier tried to hit him with the stem of his gun. The prime minister’s youthful reflexes saved his life. At the Bandaranaike International Airport, the Sri Lankan prime minister was conspicuous by his absence. When asked about this “discourtesy”, Rajiv blandly replied: “Some presidents have a problem with their prime ministers, and some prime ministers have a problem with their presidents.” The latter part of the statement was a clear reference to his row with the then president, Giani Zail Singh.
For a short while, an uneasy peace lasted in Sri Lanka. But even the Tamils of that country turned against India because the IPKF had to storm and capture the LTTE headquarters in Jaffna, though at a high cost. Several IPKF commanders have written books about the often vague and even contradictory instructions from Delhi. This should explain why the much-respected Indian army suffered a dent in its image. Over a thousand Indian soldiers were killed. In 1989, when Rajiv was defeated in the election, Premadasa had replaced Jayewardene as Lanka’s president. He lost no time in demanding the IPKF’s withdrawal. The new Indian prime minister, V.P. Singh, was happy to undo what Rajiv had done. When the first batch of the IPKF landed in Chennai, no one in the Tamil Nadu government was willing to receive it. Only the governor, P.C. Alexander, welcomed them.
Even more sadly, there is no memorial for the IPKF anywhere in India. Only the Sri Lankans have built one in Colombo. Evidently, they realise that India spilled blood and spent from its treasury to save their country’s unity.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator