Last week saw the 22nd death anniversary of former Indian Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi being commemorated. He was killed on May 21st 1991. The date of Rajiv Gandhi’s death has poignant significance for me personally. May 21st is the date of my birth. My birth and his death, which happened thirty – seven years later, are inter-twined in my consciousness. Rajiv’s memory looms large on each birthday. Some people who wish me regularly on my birthday remind me of this. I think of him very often on my birthday. It is hard to believe that twenty-two years have passed since Rajiv’s death.
Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary was of particular significance this time as I reflected upon it. This was due to recent political developments in Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi’s greatest political legacy in the Sri Lankan context was the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement on July 29th 1987. The Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment was a result of the Indo-Lanka Accord. Currently in Sri Lanka the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment is under serious threat. If certain moves on the political chessboard succeed, the 13th Amendment is likely to be repealed or downsized. If and when that happens Rajiv Gandhi’s political legacy in Sri Lanka-for which he was killed- would be nonexistent.
Initially I had welcomed the accord but soon became critical of India after fighting broke out in 1987. However I later changed my mind again in relation to the Accord. I felt it was the only tangible political gain made in the sphere of ethnic relations in post-Independence Sri Lanka. I have seen the substantive powers and unit of devolution of the Provincial councils created by the 13th Amendment being reduced or whittled away over the years. Now it appears that the entire 13th Amendment may be done away with in the near future. If that happens Rajiv Gandhi’s death and the loss of more than 1,300 Indian military personnel would have been in vain.
It is against this backdrop that I thought of Rajiv Gandhi and all what had transpired in the aftermath of the accord. My intention this week in writing my column was to focus again on the political turmoil within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as I had done last week. Rajiv’s death anniversary and the “offensive” against his political legacy in Sri Lanka plunged me into a contemplative mood. I write pensively therefore of Rajiv, his death and its aftermath and also of his legacy the 13th Amendment and would be relying to a great extent on some of my earlier writings as I walk down memory lane.
Rajiv Gandhi was killed at a place called Sriperumbhudoor in Tamil Nadu. He was not prime minister then. An election campaign was underway to elect a new Lok Sabha or Parliament. The Congress led by Rajiv was the front runner. After Rajiv’s death it was a Congress government that assumed office under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Death came in the form of Dhanu a young Tamil woman from Sri Lanka. Dressed in a churidar she came up to the smiling Rajiv and garlanded him. The chubby, dark-skinned, be-spectacled girl bent low to touch his feet as a mark of respect. Then came the explosion. A bomb strapped to her body was triggered off. Rajiv Gandhi was no more. Eighteen people died and many others were injured in the suicide bomber attack.
I recall discussing Rajiv’s death with the then “Frontline” Editor Narasimhan Ram on the telephone after the incident. At the time both of us could not believe that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was responsible.
The Rajiv assassination came at a time when influential journalists in Chennai were trying hard to bring about rapprochement between Rajiv and the LTTE. The well-known Tamil poet Kasi Anandan (Kathamuthu Sivanandan) had met Rajiv Gandhi in March that year. The London based financial consultant Arjuna Sittambalam had met Rajiv some weeks later. Both were regarded as pro-tiger emissaries.
It appeared that the stage was being set for some kind of political reconciliation. The Indian establishment at that time was more angry with Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa for booting out the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) than the LTTE which fought the Indian army. Earlier Rajiv had told “Murasoli” Maran that he was prepared to discuss even a “de-facto” Eelam with the LTTE if necessary. Maran was the trusted confidant and nephew of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham(DMK)chief “Kalainger” M. Karunanidhi. Kalainger (artiste) was chief minister of Tamil Nadu when Rajiv conveyed this to Maran.
It was against this backdrop that we felt the LTTE would not have committed this murder. I wrote an article then for “Frontline” in which I argued the pros and cons of the assassination. It was overwhelmingly against the chances of the Tigers being responsible. Yet I ended the piece with the line that if the LTTE was indeed responsible the ultimate losers would be the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias “Col” Kittu was then living in London. The former Jaffna commander of the Tigers was then head of the LTTE international secretariat. Kittu argued passionately with me that the Tigers were not responsible for the killing. He seemed to sincerely believe then that his movement was not responsible. It was Kittu acting at the behest of his leader who was instrumental in sending emissaries to meet Rajiv Gandhi.
He was doing so because Velupillai Prabakharan had ordered him to do so. I was quite close to Kittu then and also played a minor role in these efforts to reconcile with Rajiv Gandhi and by extension with India. Though I had been critical of Rajiv Gandhi and the IPKF earlier the wisdom of hindsight had made me realise that the Sri Lankan Tamils could not afford to be alienated from India in the long-term.
Alas! All those hopes and the efforts, of those Indian Journalists who in association with Kittu arranged the meetings with Rajiv, were dashed when it became clearly established that the Tigers were responsible for the killing. What has happened thereafter is a progressive estrangement between “Mother” India and her “Eelam” Tamil children. The people of Tamil Nadu in particular were hurt and angry then at the LTTE.
Jayalalitha Jayaram swept the polls in Tamil Nadu in 1991. The DMK regarded as being partisan towards the LTTE was vanquished. Only its leader Karunanidhi managed to scrape through with an 800-vote lead in the Chennai harbour constituency. Jayalalitha followed a hard, strict policy towards Tamil refugees in the state. Even educational opportunities were restricted. Harassment became the order of the day. Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils who preferred to live in Tamil Nadu because of the Tamil ethos reluctantly relocated to the West.
More importantly the Indian public mood changed. India had welcomed Tamil refugees in 1983 and looked after them. Now they were made to feel unwelcome. Sri Lankan Tamils were regarded as having abused Indian hospitality. The LTTE was officially banned. Indian policy towards Sri Lanka changed. No longer was the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils paramount in Indian calculations. Having banned the LTTE India found itself unable to interact with the Tamils as it had done before. That situation continues to prevail still though with some improvement now. It is ironic that the same Jayalalithaa who cracked the whip then is hailed by some clowns in the Tamil Diaspora as the “mother of Tamil Eelam”. Whatever the protests and pressures by the pro-LTTE lobby in Tamil Nadu and whatever the extent of emotional sympathy for the Tamils of Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu there is always a “Lakshmana Rekha” that India would not cross in the case of Sri Lanka. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE plays a big part in demarcating this rekha or line.
The LTTE had a golden opportunity to salvage the situation a little in April 2002 when Prabakharan held his famous news conference in Kilinochchi. When Indian journalists raised the issue of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the LTTE leader could have been apologetic. Some remorse could have been displayed. This could have demonstrated that the killing was regretted and the Tigers were sorry. Instead Anton Balasingham called it a “thunbiyal sambhavam” (tragic incident) and asked journalists not to dig into it. This perhaps made the situation worse.
The killing of Rajiv Gandhi was arguably the single most harmful act inflicted upon themselves by the Tigers until the Mullivaaikkal military debacle. Not only the Tigers but all Sri Lankan Tamils by extension were affected. Twenty two years later it remains as the biggest stumbling block to improve relations between India and the Tamils even though fresh developments leading to the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 have altered the political landscape drastically. The real or perceived role of India in the military debacle of the LTTE in 2009 has now made Tiger sympathisers extremely hostile to New Delhi. On the other hand prolonged imprisonment of the four people sentenced to death over the Rajiv murder shows the Indian establishment’s continuing unwillingness to “relent” in this respect.
I was in Jaffna when the IPKF-LTTE fighting began on October 10, 1987. I saw the atrocities and civilian killings first hand. When I returned to Colombo and exposed these in “The Island” I was arrested and detained at the fourth floor. I was also charged in courts but ultimately cleared of any alleged offence. It was this and consequent harassment that followed, which made me leave Sri Lanka at the time.
There was a time when my relationship with the Indian High Commission people in Colombo was excellent. I was the “Hindu” correspondent then. Other Indian journalists used to call me the blue-eyed boy” of the IHC. Yet my relationship soured because I criticised the IPKF, some aspects of the Indo-Lanka accord and Rajiv Gandhi. I was even fired by the “The Hindu” for trying to expose IPKF rapes.
I was for some time very bitter about Rajiv Gandhi and the Indian role in Sri Lanka. But time changes things. Rajiv’s assassination was a shock. However much one may be critical of a person no decent human being would want that person to die or worse still be killed in this gruesome fashion.
Rajiv was the great grandson of Mothilal Nehru, the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru and the son of Indira and Feroze Gandhi. He belonged to what was modern India’s greatest political dynasty. Yet he was reluctant to enter politics. It was the plane accident that killed his brother Sanjay, which made Rajiv enter politics. Otherwise he would have been quite content to be flying planes. His mother’s assassination catapulted him into the Prime Minister’s seat.it is a historic irony that the man interested in politics got killed when flying a plane thus compelling the brother who was a professional flyer to be reluctantly thrust into politics which ultimately killed him.
I was in India covering the momentous election of Dec 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi won with a landslide. It was the biggest margin of victory enjoyed by the Congress till then. With his handsome features and attractive smile Rajiv was India’s darling. He brought modern methods into politics. Initially Rajiv with Arun Nehru and Arun Singh formed a trio at the helm. The three “P”s they were called (Pilotwalla, Polishwalla and Paintwalla).
Rajiv’s mission was to take India into the 21st century. That was not to be but today India has entered that century and is doing gloriously well. The dynasty too flourishes. His widow Sonia is the power that rules India. His dashing son Rahul is an MP and a premier in waiting. His vivacious daughter Priyanka reminds many of grandma Indira will be a political force to be reckoned with in the future. Even Rajiv’s sister-in-law Maneka and nephew Varun are in politics though at the other side of the political spectrum.
After Rajiv Gandhi became premier he brought about two praiseworthy political settlements in the domestic sphere. One was the pact with Punjab Sikhs and the other the accord with Assamese student activists. It was in the wake of these agreements that he accelerated efforts to resolve the Sri Lankan crisis. He was a man in a hurry and people in a hurry often make mistakes.
He removed veteran Gopalswamy Parthasarathy and sent the high flying Romesh Bhandari as his special envoy to Colombo. Rajiv made a significant departure from his mother’s strategy when he brought in the militants for talks. Indira and GP kept the militants out and relied on the TULF alone for negotiations. Five militant groups were kept on par with the TULF at the Thimphu talks. Being in a hurry, the originally envisaged extended time frame of the staggered ceasefire was telescoped into a short duration. The talks failed but not due to this reason alone.
Later Rajiv got into a “huff” with foreign secretary AP Venkateshwaran which led to the latter’s resignation. This was a great loss as APV was fully cognizant with the Lankan issues. Then came Natwar Singh, P. Chidamparam and even Dinesh Singh as emissaries. In Colombo it was High Commissioner Jyotindra Nath Dixit who did the spade work ably assisted by First Secretaries Hardeep and Lakshmi Puri.
The Indian air drop that prevented Jaffna peninsula being overrun by the Lankan Army in 1987 was a matter of touch and go. Had Sri Lanka resisted the air drop of supplies by India things may have been different. India was not taking any chances and had made preparations for such an eventuality.
Even if a de jure Eelam had not come into being a de facto Eelam like that of Turkish Cyprus may have been possible. But the crafty Junius Richard Jayawardene knew when to bow his head. Jayewardene did this and New Delhi was happy. Negotiations were on and soon came the Indo-Lanka accord. It had its short comings but could have been improved if allowed to work. This was not to be.
Rajiv won the world’s admiration and respect when he went to Colombo to sign the accord. The Tamils on the whole were happy then. I remember writing a piece “Why Tamil eyes are smiling” for the “Island” then. Rajiv had a nasty experience when a naval rating took a swipe at him with his rifle during the guard of honour. Rajiv saw it from the corner of his eye and deftly sidestepped taking the blow on his shoulder instead of head.
When Rajiv returned President Venkatraman defied convention and came to the airport to receive him. “The hazards of waging peace” said Venkatraman aptly describing the situation. If that blow was fatal Indo-Lanka history may have been different. Then came the war with the LTTE. A confident Rajiv said “It will be a short, swift strike. Our boys will be back home soon”.
How wrong he was! The IPKF-LTTE war dragged on. Tamil civilians suffered and many harboured deep antipathy towards India. Finally India was outsmarted when the LTTE aligned with President Premadasa to drive the third party out.
Soon after Rajiv himself lost elections. The Bofors scandal had raised its head. Had Rajiv lived longer this issue itself may have been detrimental to his image. But that was not to be. The explosion at Sriperumbhudoor changed all that and the course of history.
With the passage of time, my thoughts about the Indian role and Rajiv Gandhi too began to change. Looking at the predicament of the Tamils, I now feel that the Indo-Lanka accord with all its shortcomings would have been much better for the Tamils in particular and Sri Lanka in general if it had been allowed full implementtion.
The Indo-Lanka accord has provisions that changed Sri Lanka for the better. The accord recognized the reality of Sri Lanka being a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation and not a mono-ethnic, mono-religious entity as proclaimed by majoritarian hardliners .Likewise it negated the two nation theory of the Tamil ultra-nationalists. It also acknowledged the North-East to be the historic habitat of the Tamils and Muslims. The accord did not refer to the North and East being the homeland of the Tamils or being exclusively for Tamils and Muslims
The accord also brought about the temporary North-East merger subject to a referendum in the East. It afforded Official language status to Tamil. More importantly it brought about a scheme of devolution. The Provincial Councils were introduced because of the Indo-Lanka pact. The provincial powers had to be reduced due to the tricky situation of getting it past the Supreme Court without a referendum being stipulated. The final SC decision was five to four with three of those Judges voting in favour coming from the minority communities.
The Indians had plans of enhancing devolution on a staggered basis. They had obtained an assurance in writing from JR Jayewardene to that effect. One of the changes envisaged was doing away with the concurrent list of powers or reducing it to a minimum. But then the North-Eastern Provincial Council was never allowed to function properly in the North-East. PC’s were active in the Sinhala areas but not in the North-East for many years although it was mainly intended for the people of those regions.
Subsequently after 19 years of a temporary merger a Supreme Court ruling “de-merged” both Provinces. Then after the Eastern province was cleared of the Tigers in 2007, elections to the Eastern Provincial council were held in 2008. Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan became Chief Minister. Eastern provincial polls were held again in 2012 and Najeeb Abdul Majeed was made Chief Minister. Now President Rajapaksa has announced elections to the Northern Provincial council would be held in September this year.
The troubling element however is the growing demand in the country that the provincial councils be scrapped and that the 13th Constitutional Amendment is done away with. While Sinhala hardline opposition to the 13th Amendment is understandable though not acceptable what is even more irritating is the unrealistic stance of many Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka. They reject the 13th Amendment saying it is not enough. Tamil National Alliance leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan once told the BBC Tamil service that the 13th Amendment was a corpse which they would not touch.
The 13th Amendment and its creation, the Provincial council have many flaws but it is the only political arrangement that addresses Tamil concerns reasonably in 65 years of post-independence politics in Sri Lanka. Pragmatic politics decrees that the attainable in the hand is worth two desirables in the bush. If Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders are reluctant to accept the 13th Amendment then what else is available? In the post-war scenario that has diminished Tamil political power considerably can grandiose political expectations be viable?
I remember the past vividly when former Indian High Commissioner JN Dixit, Political Secretary Hardeep Singh Puri and Information Secretary Lakshmi Puri were trying to convince me in discussions that the Indo-Lanka accord was the best possible deal that the Tamils could have obtained at that time. Historically it was the highest quantum of Tamil rights recognized by the Sinhala dominated state. “lets work it out and improve it further” they would say. But I would have none of it.
Appapillai Amirthalingam and I were engaged in a heated argument once about the Indo-Lanka accord. I remember him repeating again and again, “I am telling you from experience. The Sinhala state will never accept our rights without outside intervention. We need India to help us. If the Indian army goes off before our rights are ensured our people particularly those in the East and Vanni will be finished”.
Belatedly I realise the wisdom in those views. I too wanted the Indians out then. I was happy when the NE Provincial Council was dissolved. But what has happened now? After years of strife and sacrifice the Tamil people have not achieved anything tangible. Multitudes have died or been maimed, economy is shattered; people displaced and dispersed, values brutalised, culture eroded and dwellings destroyed. Yet the Tamils have nothing solid in political terms.
The LTTE may have built a military machine once but practically it was of no use other than to perpetuate misery, destruction and loss. Now the LTTE is no more in Sri Lanka. Had the Tigers gone in for meaningful negotiations from a position of strength and entered into a genuine settlement the situation would have been far different. Velupillai Prabhakaran did not negotiate when he had the chance. As a result the Sri Lankan Tamils are in a terrible plight today. Shakespeare said that the ‘evil done by men lives after them’. The harm caused by the LTTE to the Tamils is an overwhelming reality.
It is with this mindset therefore that I think of Rajiv Gandhi nowadays. Though critical of Rajiv then, I realise now that he was trying to do the right thing by the Tamils and Sri Lanka. N. Ram who later became Editor-in-chief of “The Hindu” was to tell me once that Rajiv Gandhi despite his blunders was genuinely sincere in trying to resolve the ethnic problem in Lanka. Other Indian journalists have also told me that Rajiv really felt sorry for the Tamils and wanted to usher in a fair deal for them. I also subscribe to these sentiments now.
Former Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam’s younger son Dr. Bhageerathan once told me of a letter written by Sonia Gandhi to his mother Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam. In that letter, Sonia had said her husband (Rajiv) and Mrs. Amirthalingam’s husband had both lost their lives because they wanted the Tamils of Sri Lanka to live with equal rights and justice. It is indeed ironic to see that the 13th Amendment is being opposed on the grounds of it being part of a Tiger agenda when the LTTE itself was firmly against it.
Sometimes we appreciate the value of things only after their loss or upon the verge of losing them. The 13th Constitutional Amendment is an example. Unless some urgent course correction is done by responsible sections the India-sponsored amendment and the political arrangements set in place face the danger of being irretrievably lost. Sri Lankan Tamil politicians who dream of a silk verti may lose even the cotton verti they are clad in now. It is in this bleak political environment that my thoughts dwell on Rajiv Gandhi and his vulnerable political legacy in Sri Lanka.
Let us remember Rajiv Gandhi as the man who wanted to usher in a fair deal for Sri Lankans in general and Tamils in particular. Let us commemorate him with the acknowledgement that the accord he signed on July 29, 1987 remains the best possible settlement to the Tamil national question ever made so far. Let us also hope and strive to ensure that Rajiv’s political legacy in Sri Lanka which is the 13th Amendment will endure the trials of time.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com