Twenty –five years have passed since the signing of the Indo – Lanka accord by former Indian Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and ex –Sri Lankan president Junius Richard Jayewardene on July 29th 1987. It was hailed as a great breakthrough when it was signed. Much was expected of it then. Today it remains “valid” only on paper and seems destined for the dustbin of history unless New Delhi makes a determined effort to re-activate and enforce it vigorously.
On June 4th 1987 the Indian Air Force conducted “operation Poomalai” by which food parcels were dropped over Jaffna in what was described as a humanitarian exercise. This was in the aftermath of “Operation Liberation” in Vadamaratchy and India claimed overt concern then about starvation in Jaffna.
Actually no one was starving in Jaffna then. The whole exercise, beneath the humanitarian facade, was a power projection, intended to drive home a lesson to Colombo.
In 1987, reality in Jaffna was distorted to convey an impression that there was starvation warranting the drastic action of violating Lankan air space. So food parcels were dropped in what was essentially a “demonstration effect” device.
JR Jayewardene who was president then realised what was in store if he failed to toe the “Lakshmana Rekha” being drawn by India. So he ‘bowed” to the big neighbour. The immediate consequence was the accord. Yet, later events proved that JR had only “stooped to conquer”
When the accord was signed and Indian soldiers arrived in the Island as “peacekeepers” the predominantly Sinhala “South” protested vehemently. But the Tamils of the North – East welcomed the “jawans” whole- heartedly. Within months the situation reversed when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took on the Indian army.
In the words of Jayewardena “the referee was now fighting in the ring”. The image of the IPKF underwent a change from that of “Indian Peace Keeping Force” to “Innocent People Killing Force”. When the Indian army left Lankan shores in 1990 there were few to mourn its departure.
Generally Countries act in their own self – interest but often attribute lofty motives for such actions. In the case of India vis a vis Sri Lanka there were three reasons for its conduct.
Firstly the Jayewardene Govt was spurning “non – alignment” and taking Sri Lanka into a pro – Western orbit. Under prevailing conditions of the day New Delhi feared a Washington – Tel Aviv – Islamabad axis. India needed to bring Sri Lanka to “heel” and keep out undesirable elements out of the region.
Secondly there was the domestic imperative. There was much concern in Tamil Nadu for the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu was once home to a flourishing separatist movement. India was concerned about the fall – out from Sri Lanka on Tamil Nadu if the conflict escalated here.
Thirdly there was the unacknowledged personality factor. Indira Gandhi was personally hostile to Jayewardene and Premadasa. At the same time she had a soft corner for the TULF politicians who remained loyal to her when in the opposition. The UNP on the other hand made fun of her defeat and cosied up to bête noir Morarji Desai.
This confluence of factors deemed it necessary that India make a “benign” intervention in Sri Lanka
1) to help resolve the ethnic conflict within a united Sri Lanka but in a manner acceptable to Tamils,
2) Make Colombo accept New Delhi’s hegemony over the region and appreciate Indian security concerns and teach the Jayewardene regime a lesson while rewarding the TULF.
It was at this point that the July 1983 pogramme occurred. Thousands of Tamils fled as refugees to India. Indian interests in Sri Lanka were harmed. This provided a “locus standi” for India to intervene in Sri Lanka.
Jayewardene then played into India’s hands by bringing in the 6th amendment disavowing separatism. This effectively disenfranchised the Tamil representatives in Parliament. JR also refused to talk directly to the TULF. This created an opportunity for India to step in and offer its “good offices” to bring about ethnic reconciliation. So Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy became India’s official emissary tasked with evolving political rapprochement. But India followed a two – track policy. Tamil militant groups were trained and armed and housed on Indian soil. They were allowed to run political cum propaganda offices in Tamil Nadu publicly.
India’s objectives were clear. New Delhi wanted to use the Tamil militants as a cutting edge to de – stabilize the Jayewardene regime and also exert pressure on Colombo to deliver a political settlement. Once a viable solution was arrived the Tamil armed struggle was expected to end.
But the Tamils were not to be abandoned entirely. India would underwrite a political solution and maintain a physical armed presence in North – East Sri Lanka to protect the Tamils and help to implement the political solution.
Primarily, India was acting in its own interest. There was no “identity” of interests between India and the Tamils but there was certainly a “convergence” of interests between both. But this congruence had its limits.
Using the armed struggle for separatism as a pressuring device or bargaining tool was acceptable. But prolonging the struggle for a separate state in defiance of New Delhi was unacceptable. India was all for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka but opposed to a separate state.
Pragmatically, the best option was for the Sri Lankan Tamils to hitch their “vandil” to the Indian star and accept the settlement provided through Indian efforts. The Tamils had a large support base in Tamil Nadu among fellow Thamizhiyans.
If the Tamils were politically astute they could have accepted the accord as a starting point and then gradually enhanced devolution to the point of quasi – federalism. In this exercise, India would have been on the side of the Tamils.
In practice , North – East Sri Lanka would have enjoyed a “special” status. The N – E would be part of a “de – Jure” Sri Lanka but virtually a “de – facto” extension of India. Let us remember that Indian “media” and “officials” were simply clambering aboard Indian air force planes and travelling to and from Palaly and Trincomalee then.
A delicate tight – rope walking act was required of Sri Lankan Tamil leaders. If they maintained correct relations with New Delhi and Colombo they could have elicited the best of both worlds for their people. If Sinhala hard- liners ruled the roost in Colombo and adopted a confrontation course with India, a Turkish – Cyprus type of de – facto partition may have ensued.
But these things did not happen. One reason was the shrewdness of Jayewardene who gave no cause for India to turn against him. Given the opposition to him in the Sinhala majority South, New Delhi was constrained to bail him out.
On the other hand there was the colossal political stupidity and self – centered arrogance of the LTTE. Not only did it target the Sri Lankan armed forces but also took on the Indian soldiers. New Delhi had no choice other than to fight the Tigers. The IPKF – LTTE war altered the flow of events. War has a cruel logic and powerful momentum that changes things utterly.
Subsequent events may have transformed the situation drastically and alienated a large segment of the Tamils from India. Nevertheless the original intention of India to help evolve a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka is not to be faulted.
Even if New Delhi and Colombo disputed it there is no denying that the Sri Lankan Tamils are a distinct nation or nationality. But it is a tiny nation within another state that is also small. Also the Tamils have never had the North – East recognized as a legal entity with an administrative apparatus. The accord provided it.
A tiny people like the Sri Lankan Tamils cannot afford to fight the Sri Lankan state or the Indian state. The saner and prudent course would have been to align with India and accept what was given. Thereafter a process of political evolution could have extended Tamil political horizons.
Moreover Tamils cannot forget the depths of despair they had descended into after the July 1983 pogrom. A thoroughly de – moralised and dejected people revived themselves only after India stepped in. The Tamils felt they were not “orphans” only because of India. The hospitality shown by Tamil Nadu then must always be remembered with gratitude.
It cannot be forgotten that till war erupted between the LTTE and IPKF, the Tamils on the whole appreciated Indian efforts in peacemaking and peacekeeping.
I recall writing an article in the “Sunday Island ” twenty-five years ago headlined “Why Tamil Eyes Are Smiling” when the accord was signed.
Weeks later on October 10th war broke out. I was in Jaffna at that time and saw firsthand what was happening. It was my articles and news stories in the “Sunday Island” of Oct 25th 1987 that exposed the truth about “Indian military exploits” in Jaffna.
I was arrested on Oct 26th and held at the fourth floor for days. Later I was produced in courts and released on bail with a travel ban imposed. I had to report frequently to courts till I was cleared of all charges. Ultimately I was discharged.
I also wrote an article in “Sunday Island” later with the headline “Can the Pawan break the Palmyrah?” The inference was to the IPKF operation codenamed “Pawan” or strong wind. I compared the Tamils to the Palmyrah tree which sways dangerously and may break in a storm but will never, ever bend like the reed to survive a storm.
Once again that article struck a responsive chord in the hurt Tamil psyche and I received innumerable letters. There was however some who disagreed. I remember, Rajini Thiranagama nee Rajasingham, my old schoolmate at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai arguing with me saying the “Palmyrah tree is broken.” Later she along with colleagues of the University Teachers for Human Rights(UTHR-Jaffna) was to co-author the book’The Broken Palmyrah.”
These thoughts are recollected here only to portray how Sri Lankan Tamil perceptions changed about Indian intervention due to the IPKF – LTTE conflict. It cannot be denied that the Tigers provoked the Indian army into responding the way it did.
People affected directly or indirectly by the Indian army find it difficult to forgive and forget. This is understandable to some extent. But this rancour and ill – will should not cloud the fact that Indian intervention in Sri Lanka did succeed in providing what was perhaps the best ever tangible political settlement.
Emotional responses to the IPKF episode must not affect judgement about the political paradise gained (and now lost ) by the Tamils through India. The greatest quantum achieved politically by the Sri Lankan Tamils in redressing valid grievances, accommodating legitimate aspirations and restoring negated rights was through the Indo – Lanka accord.
Aborted agreements like the Banda – Chelva (1957) or Dudley – Chelva(1965) pacts did not succeed. Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 failed to deliver. The District Development Councils of 1981 failed to get off the ground. Besides they were exercises in de – centralisation confined to districts.
The Indo – Lanka accord provided feasible devolution within constraints of the prevailing situation. It was a pragmatic effort to extend quasi-federalism as was practically possible.
The Indo – Lanka accord acknowledged for the first time that “Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic and multi – lingual plural society consisting inter – alia of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims (Moors) and Burghers”.
It recognised that “each ethnic group has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity which has to be carefully nurtured”. The accord also recognized that “the Northern and Eastern provinces have been areas of historical habitation of the Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived in this territory with other ethnic groups.”
It also emphasised “the necessity of strengthening the forces contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and preserving its character as a multi – ethnic, multi – lingual and multi – religious plural society in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfil their aspirations”.
Among other things the accord provided for the establishment of Provincial Councils.
The Province was to be a unit of devolution. The North and East were temporarily merged as a single Tamil majority province with a single Provincial Council, Chief Minister, Governor and board of ministers.
A referendum was to be held in the Eastern province to determine whether the provinces should remain merged or be de- merged.
Sinhala, Tamil and English were to be official languages of Sri Lanka. The thirteenth and subsequent sixteenth amendment to the Constitution enshrined Tamil as an official language on par with Sinhala. The injustice of 1956 was remedied. Likewise the 13th amendment paved the way for Provincial Councils to be established. Despite perceived flaws the setting up of Provincial councils remains the only instance of a power –sharing mechanism in post –independence Sri Lanka.
Thus the accord accomplished and laid the groundwork for many praise worthy feats. It achieved a compromise between the concepts of Sinhala – dominated mono state and the Tamil separate state.
Sri Lanka was not the exclusive preserve of any ethnic, linguistic or religious group. It was a multi – ethnic, multi – lingual, multi – religious country with a plural society.
The North – East was not recognized as the “traditional Tamil homeland” but as an area of historic habitation of the Tamil speaking people (Tamils and Muslims). This however was not an exclusive right.
It was acknowledged that the “Tamil – speakers” had lived in this territory at all times with other ethnic groups.
The temporary merger was a great boon as far as the Tamils were concerned. The referendum provided an opportunity to make or break the merger .
It was entirely possible that the merger could become permanent if an overwhelming number of Eastern Tamils and a sizable number of Muslims voted in favour.
Tamil as an official language was excellent in principle. Practically it involved a set of procedures to be evolved and the necessary facilities being set up.
India was keen on helping out in language implementation just as it was enthusiastic then about constructing a coastal highway linking North and East.
Given the opposition mounted by the SLFP and JVP then it was feared that any Constitutional amendment requiring an Island – wide referendum would not be ratified if the Supreme court decreed so.
Thus the powers and composition of the envisaged Provincial Councils through the 13th amendment were somewhat restricted. The Supreme Court allowed it without a referendum because of this.
Even then the nine Judge bench was divided five to four. Interestingly three of the Judges voting in favour were from the Tamil, Muslim and Burgher ethnicities.
New Delhi however extracted a promise in writing from JR on Nov 7th 1987 that he would devolve more powers to the PC’s within a specific time frame. But events took a different turn.
The Indo – Lanka accord was not perfect. It did not rectify all problems concerning Tamils. But it provided a good and great beginning.
The power equation of that time saw the Sri Lankan Tamils enjoying “favourite” status in New Delhi. This was of great advantage. With Indian support the Tamils could have resolved much of the problems within a united Sri Lanka where the North – East would have been a semi-autonomous region.
A tiny nation like the Sri Lankan Tamils could gain politically by modifying their aspirations within parameters set by India. These parameters themselves could have been extended to the advantage of Tamils over the years.
A pragmatic approach by the Tamils required greater co-operation with both New Delhi and Colombo. Extra -ordinary statesmanship consisting of intricate balancing acts was necessary.
But the LTTE chose to confront India instead of compromising and co-operating. The armed confrontation saw the Tamils being perceived as enemies of India and vice – versa.
Tragically, for the Tamils, their so – called leaders “blew it” to use an expression by Hardeep Singh Puri, former Indian political secretary in Colombo.
Once the LTTE went back on its pledge to Rajiv Gandhi , the first cracks began to appear. The LTTE began mobilising Tamil opinion against the accord and India.
This exercise was duplicated to some extent among the Sinhala people by the SLFP and JVP. Then came the Kumarappa – Pulenthiran episode. The Tigers took on the Indians.
The accord made it conditional that the Tamil militants would be disarmed. Earlier Indian High Commissioner had stated in an interview given to me for “Frontline” that the LTTE had surrendered 85% of its heavy weapons and 65 per cent of small arms.
But now the LTTE was fighting the Indian army itself. Against this backdrop Colombo began backtracking on its commitments. India found itself caught in the middle.
Once the LTTE dishonoured its commitment, refused to disarm and fought the Indian army, New Delhi’s obligation to Colombo also failed. The Sri Lankan government was well within its rights to insist that the LTTE be disarmed as a pre – requisite to implementing Tamil friendly provisions of the accord. There are two sides to the accord “coin”.
If meaningful devolution was to be made a reality to the North – East and the temporary merger validated the Provincial Council had to be set up. New Delhi was further let down by the unwillingness of the TULF to contest PC elections.
Thus India was compelled to make a painful decision comprising two blunders. One was to under- estimate the LTTE. The other was to over – estimate the EPRLF.
The N – E provincial council was a farce. There was no contest in the north and a combined EPRLF – ENDLF list was returned. In the East there was an appearance of elections. Ethnic rivalry was stimulated and exploited.
The EPRLF complicated matters further when its immensely popular secretary – General Padmanabha a.k.a Ranjan alias Nabha refused to assume office. He wanted his deputy Suresh Premachandran to take over. But Annamalai Varatharajapperumal curried favour with Dixit and got himself appointed as chief minister. Varathan was a Jaffna resident but his father was an Indian Tamil. He exploited this “card” with India.
Initially, Dayan Jayatilleke was also an N- E provincial minister representing the Sinhalese. But he resigned soon afterwards.
His replacement was Joe Seneviratne who was in reality “George” of Malayalee origin. The Muslim minister Abu Yusoof was also of Indian Muslim extraction. Thus three of the four Provincial ministers including the CM were of Indian lineage.
This was a colossal blunder as both Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils became suspicious and hostile. Then came the march of folly by the EPRLF and LTTE.
The EPRLF administration of Varatharajapperumal began to confront and estrange itself from the Central Government in Colombo. Like the mythical serpent around Lord Shiva’s neck taunting the “Karudan” (kite) Perumal irritated Premadasa. Instead of establishing rapport with Premadasa he alienated Colombo.
Meanwhile the LTTE began targeting the provincial administration and council. Through a violent campaign the Tigers made sure that the PC would not work. Thus the North – Eastern council found itself unable to deliver with Colombo stifling it on the one hand and the LTTE undermining it on the other. The violence unleashed by EPRLF elements against civilians suspected of supporting the LTTE and its intensive conscription estranged Perumal’s administration from the Tamil people. Perumal’s puppet regime was fast becoming a dud. Now the unexpected happened.
The Tigers struck a deal with Premadasa. The Colombo Govt called for the IPKF’s withdrawal. The LTTE then encouraged Premadasa to dissolve the N – E council while massacring the civilian volunteer force rose as the “Tamil National Army” by the N- E administration. Varatharajapperumal played into Premadasa’s hands by his foolish proclamation of declaring intent to establish Tamil Eelam. As the council was dissolved Perumal fled the Country. He relocated to North India as a highly protected person.
Within three months of the Indian army leaving Sri Lanka war broke out between the GOSL forces and LTTE in June 1990. Thus the “Sinhala dominated” Government of Ranasinghe Premadasa negated the single – biggest gain of the Indo – Lanka accord. That the LTTE contributed wittingly and the EPRLF unwittingly to the dismantling of the North – Eastern provincial council is a severe indictment of Sri Lankan Tamil political integrity and sagacity.
The N- E provincial council became defunct and remained so for many years. Ironically the PC’s functioned in the other seven provinces. The SLFP and JVP who opposed and boycotted these councils changed their minds and contested them. There are now SLFP chief ministers, ministers and councillors. There are JVP councillors too.
But there was no PC for decades in the N – E. where provincial councils were deemed necessary to share power with Tamils. Despite the council being defunct, the unified North – East administration remained functional for years.
The Eastern referendum was postponed from time to time by Presidential decree.
There were some Tamils who thought that revival of the N- E, PC would be an effective fall – back position if and when other efforts to reach a political a settlement failed.
But such hopes turned into dupes. The Supreme Court ruled that the merger itself was not done legally. It did not rule out such a merger being validated through appropriate procedures.
Both provinces are now de – linked administratively. The North and East function separately. After the LTTE was dislodged from the East in 2007 the Govt, of President Mahinda Rajapaksa held Eastern Provincial council elections in 2008.
Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaian became chief minister. Now the Province faces polls again in September 2012. .
The north-east merger regarded then as the single biggest gain to the Tamils through the Indo – Lanka accord is now lost forever.
But realistically the merger at best was tenuous. Yet a determined effort may have brought it about democratically at a referendum if Tamil – Muslim co-operation was there
The LTTE lost the East politically when it alienated the Muslims. It lost the East militarily when it failed to contain the eastern revolt led by its erstwhile regional commander “Col” Karuna.
Apart from the unified North – Eastern province, other benefits derived from the Indo – Lanka accord are also under threat. In practice, many gains of the Indo – Lanka accord are being reduced, removed and reversed.
India was the guarantor of the accord. Once India was edged out physically and politically the accord was doomed. The Indo – Lanka accord was becoming increasingly irrelevant both in letter and spirit. The constructive gains are becoming irredeemably lost.
There seems no chance of salvaging any of these provisions in a major way unless New Delhi reactivates its interest again. Given current realities such a change seems highly unlikely.
Already New Delhi’s efforts to enhance devolution was made possible through the 13th Amendment that made little progress on ground.
The accord despite its positive attributes seems destined for oblivion. Paradise gained is now becoming paradise lost.
As the Thamizh bard Subramaniya Bharathi sang “a well-fashioned musical instrument (Veenai) thrown in the dust is decaying!” (ENDS)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org