Diplomacy: Politics of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987

The point of interest here was that at the time of the discussions to forge the Indo Sri Lanka agreement, sufficient thought had not been given as to what should be done by India, if confronted by a recalcitrant LTTE. The dialogue preceding the Indo Sri Lanka agreement had not given adequate consideration to guarantees in the event of unforeseen situations.


by Merril Gunaratne

( February 19, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) According to the CIA document, President Jayewardene is said to have disclosed to a visiting American diplomat in February 1988 that he was compelled to seek Indian intervention because Sri Lankan troops twice refused to execute his order “to take Jaffna”. In actual fact, such intervention occurred in somewhat different circumstances.

Background to the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement

The ascent to office by Rajiv Gandhi saw a shift in Delhi’s stance towards terrorist turbulence in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi, during her tenure of office as PM, had permitted Tamil terror groups to enjoy the soil of Tamil Nadu as a “safe haven”. Profiting by political patronage of Delhi and Chennai, terrorists obtained training facilities, procured and transited arms, received funds from the DMK and ADMK, and established political, military, propaganda, communications and logistical offices and bases in Chennai. Delhi also repeatedly restrained bids of security forces to nullify the activities of terror groups.

This “Indian factor” also enabled the LTTE in particular to recoup losses sustained at the hands of SL security forces. In a nutshell, the head and body of terrorist groups were entrenched safely in Tamil Nadu whilst the strikes of SL troops were limited to nibbling away at their limbs. The nerve centre was outside Sri Lankan shores with ample nourishment. Fortified by this “Indian factor”, terrorist groups appeared impregnable. They were responsible for murder and mayhem with monotonous regularity, encompassing the north, east, and even Colombo.

Rajiv Gandhi veered from this extremely hostile policy. He offered a political framework to the SL government to achieve a settlement with terror groups by the grant of political concessions to them. He also assured that Delhi would work towards denying them a safe haven in Tamil Nadu and persuade them to appear for discussions as a prelude to a political settlement. This framework was disclosed to Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of National Security on his visit to Delhi in early 1985. This political framework, despite constant hiccups, dotted the political landscape of Sri Lanka from the time of the Thimphu talks until the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement in July 1987. The agreement of July 1987 was the brainchild of Minister Gamini Dissanayake. In a way, what Athulathmudali commenced, Gamini Dissanayake concluded, though differently.

Mutual benefits seen by Colombo and Delhi

President JRJ was convinced that the “Indian factor” brought about a scenario where he was contending with an enemy within, and a hostile India outside, which, by providing a safe haven to the terror groups and restraining the initiative of security forces, made it extremely difficult for SL security forces to strike effectively at the head and body of terror. At the time, the LTTE were adept at exerting pressure on Delhi through politicians in Tamil Nadu, alleging excesses and the trek of refugees. Desiring to eliminate the “Indian factor” which benefited terror groups, he saw wisdom in accepting the political framework of Delhi. He also saw scope to isolate one from the other.

Delhi proposed the formula because they considered it necessary to mollify Tamil Nadu politicians through a political settlement which would address tamil grievances in the north and the east of Sri Lanka. Pursuing a steadfast policy against the prospect of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka which would have caused reverberations in Tamil Nadu, and realizing that the LTTE in particular were growing to monstrous proportions, the Indian establishment felt that the formula proposed by them would eliminate the danger of Tamil Nadu politics destabilizing the central government by threatening to withdraw support and weaken their stability. Uppermost in their mind was the consciousness that skirmishes in the north and the east caused a trek of refugees, and enabled the LTTE in particular to allege excesses, which in turn provoked the Tamil Nadu politicians to accuse Delhi of inaction.

But all endeavours to achieve a political deal failed from the time of Thimphu in 1985 to July 1987 because of the recalcitrance of the LTTE who were not prepared to dilute their goal of a separate state. The Sri Lankan government, driven to exasperation with Delhi and the LTTE, reverted to the conduct of offensives. This was how General Cyril Ranatunga spearheaded the Vadamarachchi campaign in May 1987, the architect of which was Minister Lalith Athulathmudali.

Aftermath of the Vadamarachchi offensive

As a result of this major offensive, the retreating LTTE considered that the loss of Jaffna was imminent, and as was customary, exploited the Indian factor to exert pressure on Delhi to intervene and stop the war alleging excesses and the flow of refugees. It was in these circumstances that Delhi flexed their muscles and airlifted rice and flour to a supposedly beleaguered Jaffna. The SL government was compelled to cry a halt to war because far more threats were implicit in the airlifting of food provisions to Jaffna. Actually, the SL government may have regained the initiative in Jaffna if the offensive was not aborted by India. The Indian establishment in Delhi and Minister Gamini Dissanayake concerted to break the impasse by moving to resume political talks and emerge with a political settlement. The new feature in the framework was the willingness of Delhi to dispatch troops to the north to oversee and ensure that the LTTE would accept the terms of the political settlement formulated by agreement between the two governments. This was the backdrop to the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement of July 29, 1987 which brought Indian troops to Sri Lanka.

It would therefore not be exactly correct that President JRJ had to seek Indian intervention because SL troops twice refused to take Jaffna. Rather, Indian intervention occurred precisely because the Vadamarachchi campaign was a success, and the LTTE cleverly exploited the Indian factor to secure Delhi’s support to halt the war. Even before July 1987, security forces found the LTTE impervious because of the Indian factor. It would therefore not be wrong to assume that from the inception of terror, security forces had failed for reasons beyond their control and reach.

President JRJ was correct in saying that his forces could not wrest the initiative from the LTTE, though reasons for such a plight were more due to circumstances beyond their control than within. The political framework encompassing the offer of Indian troops certainly caught his imagination as a way of taming the LTTE and coercing them to accept a settlement. Consciously or unconsciously, he took refuge in the dictum that “war can also be prosecuted by negotiations and diplomacy”.

President JRJ appears to have seen a silver lining in the induction of IPKF troops following the Indo Sri Lanka agreement of July 1987. He foresaw the prospect of the LTTE clashing with Indian troops, resulting in isolating Delhi from the LTTE by eliminating the Indian factor. I quote from my book “Dilemma of an Island” written in 2001 – [quote] “I recount meeting the President at President’s House on or around September 4, 1987. When I pointed out that the LTTE had already defied the Accord by evading the surrender of a major portion of their weapons within 72 hours of the agreement, the President’s reply was “that is not my problem, that is India’s problem” – he was slowly but surely anticipating a situation where the IPKF and the LTTE would conflict with each other’’ [unquote].

President JRJ clearly looked for a fall back position if the Delhi – Colombo plan failed to work according to the script. Perhaps, the way he addressed me gave the impression that if the LTTE reneged in regard to accepting a political settlement, he would have been satisfied if IPKF troops fought the LTTE, a scenario which would have turned a hitherto friendly India hostile to the LTTE.

“Accord” as a turning point in the war with the LTTE

From 1987, the chain of events set in motion by President JRJ eventually led to Delhi becoming hostile to the LTTE, particularly with Indian troops suffering over 1,000 dead and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. The climate for the prosecution of war became far more conducive with the virtual disappearance of the Indian factor; and this was the environment that the Rajapaksa regime exploited to the fullest. Of course they employed a recipe like no other – giving prominence to talent, eschewing the “assembly line” system of promotions, providing unwavering leadership, total commitment and all the resources required for battle, and adopting unique covert methods of war, particularly the strategy of using small groups to cause havoc behind enemy lines. Kamal Gunaratne’s book says it all.

Nonetheless, the security forces were able to wage an uninhibited war without restraint because Delhi was not sympathetic to the LTTE any further. The brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in particular had caused a serious diminution of support in Tamil Nadu as well.

Flaws and mistakes

Delhi underestimated the LTTE and perceived that the latter would tamely accept a political settlement by the mere presence of their troops. The LTTE instead refused to surrender their main armory and went on the rampage committing murder and mayhem in the north and the east upon the death of Thileepan who committed suicide in protest against the “Accord”. The IPKF yet refused to combat the LTTE, nor permitted Sri Lankan security forces to act against them. A serious crisis was in the making with Sri Lankan leaders unable to make contact with their counterparts in Delhi through communication channels; for strange reasons. President JRJ rushed me to Delhi to influence the Indian government through intelligence channels. The directive of the PM of India for the IPKF to combat the LTTE came about in these circumstances.

The point of interest here was that at the time of the discussions to forge the Indo Sri Lanka agreement, sufficient thought had not been given as to what should be done by India, if confronted by a recalcitrant LTTE. The dialogue preceding the Indo Sri Lanka agreement had not given adequate consideration to guarantees in the event of unforeseen situations.

The IPKF made many sacrifices. They suffered a considerable number of lives, but did succeed in driving the LTTE to the jungles of Mullaitivu. To outrival the LTTE, they built up the Tamil National Army. Assuming that they were able to defeat the LTTE totally, it is a matter for conjecture as to whether they would have wished to see the total elimination of their writ from the north and east altogether, knowing how geopolitics and realpolitik work. In a way, despite the criticism that can be leveled against many decisions taken in the field of national security, President Premadasa goes on record for ensuring the departure of the IPKF.

History is about interpreting occurrences, events and developments correctly – not assumptions. The planting of seeds of discord by President JRJ, the hostility of Delhi to the LTTE, particularly after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and the withdrawal of the IPKF served as the background for the emergence of a climate which helped the eventual defeat of the LTTE. The agreement of July 1987 was a mixed blessing.

The political contours of the package which had certain contentious features too were not subject to close scrutiny in the discussions which served as a prelude to the Indo Sri Lanka agreement. The Tamil terror problem had many faces. It was not a simplistic military threat alone. It was multi faceted. Tamil grievances had to be appeased, political and diplomatic thrusts were necessary against the Indian factor, and the activities of the Tamil diaspora abroad in respect of procurement of funds, arms, and staging of propaganda had to be addressed. In early 1985, Jayanath Rajepakse of the foreign ministry and I advocated the formation of a multi-disciplinary team to view the total picture concerning the Tamil equation, and offer advice to the government. Had this been done, the long term implications of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement including political concessions on offer would have been examined exhaustively.

I again quote from my book of 2001 – “In early 1985, Jayanath Rajepakse, Director of the South Asia desk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I submitted a joint proposal for the establishment of a Policy Planning Committee embracing representatives from agencies connected with the resolution of the ethnic question, so that the totality of the problem could always be borne in mind in decision making. Sadly, we did not even receive a response to our proposal”. President JRJ directed Cabinet Secretary GVP Samarasinghe and President’s Secretary Menikdiwela to steer the proposal. A working dinner was arranged by them for the purpose. We had an excellent dinner, but not a word was raised about the proposal.


(Merril Gunaratne served as Director General of Intelligence and Security in the Ministry of Defence and as Director of National Iintelligence in the 1980’s and is one of the witnesses to events at the time. He played a decisive role in persuading Delhi to direct a reluctant IPKF to fight the LTTE when the latter went on the rampage and caused murder and mayhem in September 1987.)

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