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Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.

Lanka, Rajiv’s fatal misadventure

Handling the Lanka-Tamil problem needed diplomatic skill, vision and sound advice, all of which seemed lacking.

Rajiv Gandhi

ndia's Sri Lanka diplomacy under Rajiv Gandhi turned out to be his fatal misadventure, a thoughtless military intervention under the guise of peace keeping that brought great humiliation and loss to our Army, before taking his own life. Some subcontinent analysts termed it as India's Vietnam.

It was difficult diplomacy for any country to handle under any circumstances. There were complexities of ethnic ties, strategic interests and geopolitical considerations. India had for decades supported the Tamil movement, trained guerrillas and armed them, particularly in the time of Indira Gandhi. To shift from this position to one of allying with the Sri Lankan government, finding a solution to a chronic ethnic conflict, as well as maintaining covert aid to the Tamil rebels would require immense diplomatic skill and manoeuvres, an exceedingly long-term and lateral vision, and sound, capable advisors, all of which seemed lacking.

The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka started after its independence from Britain in 1948. The independent Sri Lankan government indulged in discriminatory policies against the Tamil minorities. In the 1970s, two major Tamil parties united to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that started agitating for a separate state of Tamil Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, within the federal structure. Violence and a civil war erupted, and the government's response was tough. The Sri Lankan army in 1987 laid siege to Jaffna, an LTTE stronghold, resulting in large-scale civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis. After failing to convince the Sri Lankan government to halt the offensive diplomatically, and after failure of a naval attempt to provide humanitarian assistance, India took a hard decision to carry out Operation Poomalai, an airdrop of humanitarian supplies commencing 4 June 1987. Sri Lanka was informed through its ambassador in New Delhi that any opposition "would be met by force". The airdrop mission was one mission that was successful.

Meanwhile, pressure grew within India to intervene on behalf of the Tamils and halt the offensive in an attempt to negotiate a political settlement. Prior to signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, Prabhakaran was airlifted to New Delhi for one to one discussions with Rajiv Gandhi in July 1987. It is reported to have been a very cordial meeting, which ended with Rajiv Gandhi ironically placing his bullet-proof jacket on the back of his future assassin, Velupillai Prabhakaran's, saying, "take care of yourself." Later, he fobbed off his advisors' warnings that Prabhakaran was not be trusted and would not keep his word, particularly on disarming by the LTTE, and helping India find a solution through the accord that was to be signed in Colombo.

Cementing of dynastic democracyRAM JETHMALANI

The late Balasingham, Prabhakaran's aide, who accompanied him, wrote later that Rajiv and Prabhakaran had a "gentleman's agreement" under which the LTTE supremo, even though he had deep reservations about the provisions of the agreement, would not oppose it in public, and that he would make only a token surrender of arms. Rajiv had agreed to compensate LTTE's financial loss if it were to dismantle its tax collection regime in Jaffna.

But the shrewd President Jayewardene was able to change Rajiv's mind and extract from him the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord signed in Colombo on 29 July 1987. The gentleman's agreement with Prabhakaran was placed on the back burner. Colombo agreed to a devolution of power to the provinces, Sri Lankan troops were to be withdrawn to their barracks in the north and Tamil rebels were to surrender their arms. India agreed to end support for the Tamil separatist movement and recognise the unity of Sri Lanka. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord also underlined the commitment of Indian military assistance on which the Indian Peace Keeping Force came to be inducted into Sri Lanka. However, the LTTE and other Tamil groups were not made party to the talks. Though they initially agreed to surrender their arms to the IPKF, they later refused to disarm.

The Tamils in Sri Lanka felt completely betrayed by the Accord. The day after the signing of the Accord, Rajiv Gandhi was assaulted with a rifle by a Sinhalese cadet while receiving the guard of honour. The LTTE started to target the IPKF that now found itself engaged in a bloody police action against them, instead of brokering peace. In 1990, India in humiliation, withdrew the last of its forces from Sri Lanka, and fighting between the LTTE and the government resumed. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber at Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991, during an election rally. This was the LTTE's revenge for the gross betrayal. Rajiv's Intelligence Bureau failed him in having no inkling about the assassination plot, though it had taken several months to plan, and he failed himself by showing no acumen and foresight to sense the danger lurking on his life. IPKF became for Rajiv what Blue Star was for Indira.

There is a macabre twist to the tragedy. My good friend Subramanian Swamy has placed in the public domain that since 1984 Sonia's Gandhi's mother Paola Predebon Maino, and friend Ottavio Quattrocchi, maintained regular contact with the Tamil Tigers. The mother used the LTTE for money laundering and Quattrocchi for selling weapons to earn commissions. To the best of my knowledge, this information appears to remain un-refuted by anyone even today.

To be continued

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