A succinct account of how India got caught in a cleft stick during the regime of Lankan President Premadasa who continued to engage in a deadly game of political brinkmanship
By Lakhan Mehrotra.
Reviewed by SJS Chhatwal
A former High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, the author comprehensively deals with the unfortunate discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka since 1956 and the long, peaceful but unsuccessful struggle of Tamil political parties to get equal rights.
The trouble right from the beginning was that the Sri Lankan government never conceded anything worthwhile to Tamil parties struggling peacefully with which they could take back to their constituents and give them confidence that their struggle would succeed one day. It is for this reason that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil militant groups such as People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) came into existence.
What was the situation prevailing in Sri Lanka when the author reached Colombo in April 1989? “In the aftermath of President Premadasa’s victory with just over 50 per cent of votes polled by him in his election, it was assessed that the difference was made by the Tamil vote in his favour in the area under Indian Peacekeeping Force’s (IPKF) tentative charge due to peaceful conditions there generated by its presence. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for the people of the area to exercise their vote at all. Moreover, if the government of Sri Lanka did not ‘exercise jurisdiction and control in the northeast’ due to the presence of the IPKF as it maintained, what about the south where district after district had been ‘liberated’ by the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front) from government control. The Sinhala militants belonging to that organisation had been working assiduously to wrest control of Colombo itself from its hands. In the areas under JVP’s control, the writ of the government did not run at all`85. Ships were not allowed to either load or unload their wares even at the Colombo port. There were serious blackouts at JVP’s command in the south and in all administrative matters it was the ‘JVP Commander’ in charge who ruled the roost.
“Grenades were thrown at the Indian High Commission frequently and the JVP headquarters stood right across from the ‘India House’ in an academic campus with the Sri Lankan government having done little to dismantle them.”
The signing of the 1987 Accord and the invitation to the IPKF to go for the assistance of Sri Lanka government has been dealt with in detail. The author observes that the reason behind the serious problems, which arose concerning the effective functioning of the IPKF in the north and the eastern areas of Sri Lanka, was that “the old fox” of Sri Lankan politics, President J. R. Jayewardene, knew that Prime Minister Premadasa was against the provisions of the 1987 Accord. It is for this reason that he decided to sign the Accord with India when Premadasa was abroad briefly. Instead of helping the IPKF in disarming the LTTE, Premadasa, when he became the President in January, 1989, started supplying covertly arms and the ammunition to the LTTE in Tata trucks presented earlier to Sri Lanka for relief work in Tamil areas. This tragic story of how the Sri Lankan government, radical Sinhalese organisation JVP and LTTE, all combined against the IPKF to wreck the 1987 Accord, has been explained well by the author.
It is amusing to note the role astrology plays in politics both in India and Sri Lanka. “At one point of time the President’s astrologers advised him that he should invite his better half to all his Cabinet meetings so that her supposedly better stars could impact on his decision making! From then on Mrs Premadasa started attending those meetings. Cooray took it upon himself to advise the President to stop that most unconventional practice. However, the brave Cooray invited the wrath of the Fist Lady.”
It is well known that President Premadasa started indulging in brinkmanship in Sri Lankan relations with India. He even went to the extent of issuing a written ultimatum that if the IPKF were not withdrawn by July 29, 1989, Sri Lankan forces will be ordered to put the IPKF in barracks and take over forcibly the north-eastern areas of the country. This was despite the assurance already given by the Indian side that the process of de-induction of the IPKF from Sri Lanka, which had already begun, would be completed by mid-1990s. It is at this critical stage of relations that B.G. Deshmukh, the then Principal Secretary to India’s Prime Minister, was sent to Sri Lanka as a Special Envoy. The response of Premadasa, unfortunately, was to give a desperate and dangerous ultimatum to India to withdraw the IPKF immediately.
India had had enough of it. Therefore, Deshmukh in his meeting with President Premadasa gave the following dignified and firm response: “Quite unfazed by the President’s remarks, Deshmukh stated that those developments (the ultimatum to India) would pose no threat to India and that he could go ahead. The President then said that he would declare the ‘Indian Army’ in Sri Lanka an ‘occupation force’ which could sully India’s fair name. The Special Envoy quipped back saying that India could take care of its reputation and he should not worry about it.”
It is heartening that eventually we have been able to come out of the dangerous situation which prevailed in 1989-90 in relations of the two countries. For this, the credit has to go to the saner voices on both sides of the border. The book is based on authentic documents, author’s personal knowledge of events and is engrossingly written. I would certainly recommend it to those interested in India’s relations with its neighbours in South Asia.