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The Indo-LTTE War

An Anthology, Part V

Brewing Discontent with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi

January 8, 2008

The first item in this part 5 authored by Saeed Naqvi...provides a background-summary to the Rajiv – V.P. Singh split in 1987. The wheel of political fortune would turn towards Singh, who would eventually succeed Rajiv as the Indian prime minister in late 1989. As Naqvi concluded his commentary, by the end of 1987, “With the Left and the Right vying for [V.P.]Singh’s support and Gandhi’s grip on the middle ground rapidly weakening, India’s political future promises some interesting twists.” When 1988 dawned, what Rajiv and his Congress Party panderers yearned for was a quick victory for the Indian army against the LTTE in Eelam.

Part 1 of series

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

The 9 news reports, commentaries and interviews that appear in this part (in chronological order) predominantly cover two themes; (1) brewing discontent on Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi in early 1988, and (2) the tug of war for Jayewardene succession among the four UNP contenders amidst the ascent of JVP terrorism in the southern Sri Lanka. These were the sub-plots which exerted influences on the progress of the Indo-LTTE war. In chronological order, these 9 news reports, commentaries and interviews are as follows:

  • Saeed Naqvi: The Many Faces of V P Singh. South (London), Nov.,1987.
  • Marguerite Johnson: Caught in the Bloody Middle. Time, Jan. 11, 1988, p. 25.
  • Manik de Silva: Militants and Ministers. Far Eastern Economic Review, Jan. 14, 1988, p. 34.
  • Anonymous: The Italian Connection. Asiaweek, Jan.15, 1988, pp. 12-18.
  • Anonymous: Now, Terror in the South. Asiaweek, Jan.22, 1988, pp. 12-14.
  • Mathews K. George and Valli Dharmarajah: The Bloody Trail to the South. South (London), Jan.1988, pp.66-67.
  • Pran Chopra: Colombos Policies Strike a Chord. South (London), Jan.1988, p. 74.
  • Sri Lanka correspondent: Bad day at Batticaloa. Economist, Jan.23, 1988, p.20 & 22.
  • Power-Sharing in Sri Lanka [Views of Gamini Dissanayake and Neelan Tiruchelvam]. Asiaweek, Jan. 29, 1988, p. 58.

 

That Rajiv Gandhi suffered from vanity, ignorance and pomposity (conveniently abbreviated as VIP) syndrome became exposed in how he handled the post-MGR political equations in the Tamil Nadu. And as a modus operandi to this politicking in the Tamil Nadu, he was promised a knock-out victory against the LTTE by the handlers of the Indian army. Rajiv’s then plight had been anticipated by the English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771), in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1742). Here are those lines:

‘Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise.’

The first item in this part 5 authored by Saeed Naqvi (though Nov.1987 was its cover date) really appeared in December 1987 and provides a background-summary to the Rajiv – V.P. Singh split in 1987. The wheel of political fortune would turn towards Singh, who would eventually succeed Rajiv as the Indian prime minister in late 1989. As Naqvi concluded his commentary, by the end of 1987, “With the Left and the Right vying for [V.P.]Singh’s support and Gandhi’s grip on the middle ground rapidly weakening, India’s political future promises some interesting twists.” When 1988 dawned, what Rajiv and his Congress Party panderers yearned for was a quick victory for the Indian army against the LTTE in Eelam. But the Indian troops couldn’t grasp the battle plans of the LTTE.

 Asiaweek Jan 15 1988 Sonia GandhiCompared to New Delhi-based Pran Chopra’s pom-pom swinging spin that “The Indian army is disarming Tamil militants faster than Sri Lankan troops could have managed…”, Colombo-based Mervyn de Silva (contributing under the by-line ‘Sri Lanka correspondent') assessed the failure of the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord within six months perceptively; “If the Indians want the agreement to work, they will have to offer the Tamils something more positive than mere suppression of the guerrillas. That means the resettlement of refugees, and provincial elections. But elections are hardly possible so long as the guerrillas can stroll in and do what they did in Batticaloa. India’s credibility is at risk.”

For obvious reasons, I also reproduce a cover story on Sonia Gandhi, which appeared in the Asiaweek of Jan. 15, 1988. Since Sonia Gandhi currently represents the real power in the debased and decadent Congress Party, it is not irrelevant to learn the then status and the hidden power Sonia Gandhi wielded in New Delhi 20 years ago.

Wherever they appear, words within parenthesis, in italics and in bold fonts are as in the originals.

 

The Many Faces of V.P. Singh

[Saeed Naqvi; South (London), Nov. 1987.]

Vishwanath Pratap Singh is a political player cast in many conflicting roles. The former minister is known both as a crusader against corruption and as a shrewd strategist seeking to oust Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Some see him as a friend of the right-wing Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata; others, including Singh himself, say he is an ally of the Left.

What is clear, however, is that Singh has raised the issues and unleashed the forces which may determine the outcome of the 1989 general election. Six months ago, when the government was buckling under the weight of allegations about illegal defence deals, it was even being suggested that the then President, Giani Zail Singh, was preparing to use his extraordinary powers to sack Gandhi and elevate V.P. Singh to the prime minstership. When Gandhi took over in December 1984, Singh was his favourite minister and confidante. Then a crackdown by Singh’s finance ministry on tax evasion, including foreign exchange fraud by leading industrialists, backfired on the special relationship between the two.

It was the start of a spectacular fall from power by Singh. He was shunted aside to the defence ministry in January, from where he resigned in April after launching an investigation into defence contracts. In July, Gandhi sacked him from the ruling Congress (I) party, though Singh had earlier offered to resign in anticipation of such a move.

The split between Singh and Gandhi can be traced to the era when the late Indira Gandhi was in power. Her most senior colleague, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, proved a strong patron of Dhirubhai Ambani, a textile merchant who turned his small company into the country’s third largest in the space of 10 years. In the process, he ended the 100-year domination of textiles by Bombay Dyeing, controlled by Nusli Wadia. Mukherjee was tipped to take over after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. But when the ruling party opted for Rajiv Gandhi instead, Mukherjee was eased out, and Ambani lost a key political ally.

Wadia, a descendant of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, fitted in better with the educated elite surrounding India’s new Prime Minister. And when Singh took over the finance portfolio and began his campaign against tax evasion, Wadia called on the finance ministry to hire a US-based agency, Fairfax, to investigate Ambani. Having pulled strings with the Prime Minister, Singh and the finance ministry, all Wadia needed was a press campaign to bring Ambani to heel.

Ramnath Goenka, owner of the Indian Express chain, knew Wadia and Ambani equally well. Because of his own rags-to-riches career, Goenka had much more in common with Ambani, who suffered a massive stroke early in 1986. But Goenka’s political sympathies have always been with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Vije Raje Scindia, an influential BJP leader, and her son Madhorao Scindia, the minister of railways, held majority shares in Bombay Dyeing. They are said to have pressured Goenka into publishing a series of articles in March 1986 on Ambani’s allegedly irregular dealing abroad.

Asiaweek Jan 22 1988Then, in December 1986, a letter from the Fairfax agency, now generally believed to be a forgery, fell into government hands. It indicated that Fairfax was investigating the foreign exchange dealings of Ajitabh Bachchan, brother of India’s most popular film star, Amitabh Bachchan. Both were among Rajiv Gandhi’s closest friends. At about the same time, two unidentified sleuths turned up in Switzerland to question Ajitabh about his purchase of property in Geneva. A panic-stricken Ahitabh turned to Gandhi, who became alarmed at the way foreign agencies were investigating his friends on behalf of Singh’s finance ministry.

There was a raid on Goenka’s premises to search for more so-called Fairfax documents. In one stroke, the enemies of Ambani had also become the enemies of the Prime Minister. Ambani’s role in all this is unclear. But Singh was shifted to the defence ministry on the grounds that there was tension on the Pakistan border. Even at the defence ministry, though, Singh maintained his offensive against corruption. He continued to call Gandhi his leader, while winning more plaudits from the opposition.

Singh ordered an inquiry into alleged kickbacks in a submarine deal signed with West Germany when Indira Gandhi was in power – a move which brought him under heavy fire from ruling party members. He was accused of politicking, and in April he resigned both his portfolio and his seat in parliament. Within days India was shaken by a new story about a US$ 1.4 billion contract Rajiv Gandhi’s government had negotiated with Bofors of Sweden for 400 field guns. Swedish radio reported that millions of dollars had been paid to Indian middlemen in kickbacks.

Then Goenka and his young editor, Arun Shourie, another BJP sympathiser, turned the guns of the Indian Express on the Prime Minister. All the opposition backed Singh’s crusade against corruption, and for an entire session of parliament the government was under fire. The opposition and the Indian Express have been highly effective, with Gandhi’s leadership taking a battering. The irony is that nothing has been proved.

There is a parallel with 1974, when the Indian Express and the precursor of the BJP, the Jana Sangh, orchestrated a campaign for clean government against Indira Gandhi. At the fore was the Bihar movement, launched under the leadership of the late Jaya Prakash Narayan, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Pressure from this movement was largely responsible for the introduction of a state of emergency in 1975 – which prepared the ground for Mrs Gandhi’s defeat in 1977. On this occasion, the Indian Express, like-minded newspapers and the BJP are casting Singh in the role of Narayan, who also renounced power. However, important political changes have taken place in India since the 1970s. And these present obstacles to the creation of a united opposition front capable of taking on the ruling party. For example, the Left is more of a force than it was in the mid-1970s. The Communist Party Marxist and the Communist Party of India are not only united, but also effectively in power in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

In the 1970s, the Muslims were Indira Gandhi’s vote bank. But in the past year Hindu-Muslim differences have reached fever pitch, resulting in clashes in which hundreds of Muslims have been killed. In Punjab the Hindu-Sikh conflict continues; the minorities as a whole are disenchanted with Gandhi, and a Hindu group such as the BJP is hardly the haven they seek.

The Left is playing on this factor in its search for a broad democratic alternative to Gandhi which excludes the BJP. When Singh described the Left as his natural allies, he was applauded by the Communists. But this angered the BJP, which had helped to build him up with the help of the Indian Express. Meanwhile, Ambani has recovered from a near-fatal stroke. The government, stung by the Indian Express in recent months, has raided Goenka’s premises and officials of the revenue department’s intelligence unit claim to have evidence of ‘fraudulent machine purchases abroad.’

With the Left and the Right vying for Singh’s support and Gandhi’s grip on the middle ground rapidly weakening, India’s political future promises some interesting twists, not least of which will be the unravelling of the deepest mystery of all – the political identity of the real V.P. Singh.

 

Caught in the Bloody Middle

[Marguerite Johnson; Time, Jan. 11, 1988, p.25.]

Sri Lanka’s latest nightmare began innocently enough. Two days after Christmas, the market in the east coast town of Batticaloa was crowded with shoppers buying provisions for the festive week ahead. Among the throng were three plainclothes policemen. Suddenly a group of youths rushed up and opened fire on the constables. One of the trio fell dead; the two others, both wounded, scaled the wall of a nearby police compound and sounded the alarm. The assailants picked up the policemen’s guns, which had fallen to the ground during the assault, and fled.

Within minutes police reinforcements arrived, and an even greater slaughter began. Guns blazing, the police dragged terrified shopkeepers from their stores and shot them. Other merchants were shot inside their places of business, some of them dispatched by a single bullet to the head. Using grenades and gasoline, the police proceeded to burn down 25 to 30 shops. By the time soldiers of the Indian peacekeeping force arrived – and joined, some witncesses charged, in the shooting – 25 people were dead, most of them Tamils. None had been involved in the earlier attack on the police.

A leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the guerrilla organization that has been leading the battle for greater autonomy for the country’s Tamil minority, promptly claimed responsibility for the assault on the police. He ntoed that the attack had been planned so as not to ‘cause any harm to our people.’ But while Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene has said he is confident that the 35,000 Indian troops brought in under a joint accord with India will soon ‘finish’ the Tigers, the Batticaloa attack seemed to herald a new strategy. Unable to defeat the Indians militarily, the Tigers appear to be launching attacks in crowded areas in an effort to provoke a backlash that would lead to demands for the withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces.

But although the Tamil threat has been considerably diminished in the northern and eastern parts of the country, the south has become increasingly engulfed by terrorism from another sector. The challenge comes from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a Sinhalese extremist group that Jayewardene banned in 1983, which has been leading the opposition against the Indian-Sri Lankan accord signed by Jayewardene last July. Three weeks after the signing, JVP terrorists nearly succeeded in assassinating the President. Since then, the group has struck repeatedly against Jayewardene’s United National Party, killing local leaders and workers. Two weeks ago, gunmen assassinated Party Chairman Harsha Abeywardene and three companions as they were driving through Colombo.

The JVP campaign has virtually paralyzed the ruling party, especially in the south, where the JVP is the strongest. To counter the threat, the UNP has formed its own militia. A number of prominent members of Jayewardene’s government, including Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, have urged that the ban on the JVP be lifted. Said De Mel after Abeywardene’s assassination: ‘I don’t think a military step can put a stop to the violence.’ The Finance Minister also suggested that parliamentary elections, not due till September 1989, be held as soon as possible. Jayewardene, however, gave no indication that he was listening.

*****

Militants and Ministers

[Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, Jan. 14, 1988, p. 34]

President Junius Jayewardene is facing the toughest period of his presidency. Divisions within his cabinet have resurfaced, compounding the problems of the minority Tamil insurgency in the north and east. Majority Sinhalese subversives in the south have continued to demonstrate their ability to strike at will, despite the president’s public pronouncements that he would finish them off in weeks.

An Indian peace-keeping force (IPKF), now more than 35,000 strong, has not yet been able to break the back of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the dominant Tamil separatist group. The IPKF took control of the northern Jaffna peninsula after a major offensive in October. But in recent weeks, the LTTE has shifted its base to the eastern Batticaloa district and shown that it has not been crushed, even in Jaffna. Recent LTTE bombings in Jaffna have delayed the return of normalcy in the north. There is little doubt that the IPKF has made progress in disarming the LTTE in Jaffna. The Indians have unearthed large caches of rebel arms in the peninsula. Since the beginning of the month, five rebel boats ferrying arms from the north to the east have been sunk by the Indian Navy.

Despite these reverses, the LTTE has been attempting to pressure Jaffna civilians not to allow Colombo to restart its civilian administration. Posters are prominently displayed and handbills have been distributed demanding that public servants stay away from their offices. Cooperation with the IPKF, the posters threaten, will mean death. In a counter-propaganda drive, the IPKF has been displaying its own posters promising the citizens of Jaffna that they will be protected. But to the people of Jaffna, the repetition of recent events in Batticaloa – where the LTTE clashed with both the Sri Lankan police and the IPKF in heavily populated areas, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths – is a dangerous possibility.

In the east, the rebels have been following a strategy of exposing Muslim civilians to crossfire in an effort to alienate Muslims from the IPKF. Problems in Battiacaloa, the eastern provincial capital, have been compounded by police reprisals in the local bazaar following the killing of an off-duty policeman and the wounding of two other constables soon after Christmas. A sniper fired at the policemen, provoking the reprisal in which at least 19 civilians were killed and dozens of shops gutted.

The IPKF too has been having its own problems with the Muslims of the east. IPKF activities triggered by the LTTE have cost several Muslim lives. Colombo, as well as the Indians, has played down these incidents which attracted international attention. The Muslims themselves decided to take on the LTTE at Kattankudy, a Muslim town of 50,000 people on the outskirts of Batticaloa, between 29 December and 1 January, resulting in the killings of some LTTE district leaders and 30 Muslims.

The IPKF is confident that if the public would cooperate in helping arrest LTTE followers, the problems in the east could be quickly eliminated. Maj.-Gen. Jameel Mahmood, the IPKF’s eastern commander, told Transport Minister M.H. Mohamed, whom Jayewardene sent to the East to sort out what appeared to be a deteriorating situation, that it was essential the public should keep the IPKF informed of LTTE activities. If the Indians had the necessary information, they could act against the LTTE, he said. Reports in the Indian press have expressed concern that the IPKF has been slow in dealing with the LTTE in the east. These criticisms have not taken into account India’s reluctance to expose the east to a Jaffna-style operation which caused a lot of civilian deaths.

In the south, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – People’s Liberation Front) and other subversive groups have continued to make sporadic strikes after the 23 December assassination of Harsha Abeywardene, chairman of the ruling United National Party (UNP). Abeywardene’s killing came three days after Jayewardene had toured the troubled southern districts and made several hardline speeches vowing to liquidate the subversives within two weeks. While some of Jayewardene’s opponents chose to regard the Abeywardene killing as a response to his speeches, investigations suggest that the assassination plan had been in place for some time. ‘The speeches may have influenced the timing, but the people who did it could not have mapped it out in three days,’ an investigator said.

An attack on a police station in the Ratnapura district, southeast of Colombo, a week after the UNP chairman was killed, seriously disturbed the authorities. An armed group raided the police station, locked up the policemen and escaped with arms and explosives. The inspector-general of police conceded that there had been security lapses at the police outpost.

The opposition has accused the UNP of organising its own ‘Green Tigers’ militia to counter the southern subversives who have made UNP supporters their special targets. Asked about this group recently, Jayewardene said that his party’s MPs were asking for protection. It was not possible for the government to cover the large number at risk, and some auxiliaries were being used to provide protection to MPs and some others. These people had to work with the police, Jayewardene said.

Local press reports said about 500 auxiliaries, including some former JVP members, have been given small-arms training and are available in areas where UNP members are under threat. The government has neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Adding to Jayewardene’s problems are speeches by some of his ministers demonstrating dissension within the ranks of government. Winding up the recent budget debate, Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel told parliament that a 1982 referendum, which extended the incumbent legislature’s term by six years, was the cause of many of the country’s problems. Shortly after de Mel’s controversial speech, Mohamed said there would be no general elections this year, despite demands for a poll by de Mel, among others.

Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa made a speech which analysts believe was loaded with innuendoes. It indicated clearly that Premadasa was pushing for a reappraisal of policies on Tamil separatists, as well as on the southern subversives.

 

The ‘Italian Connection’

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Jan. 15, 1988, pp. 12-18.]

Last month Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi arrived to a lavish welcome at Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport. Telugu Desam, the opposition party that governs southern Andhra Pradesh state, had pulled out all the stops to honour the prime minister and his elegant Italian-born wife.

 Among the top Telugu Desam leaders on hand was MP Parvathaneni Upendra, who walked discreetly behind the pair. Spotting Upendra, Sonia suddenly strode over to him and reportedly said: ‘ I will see your end if I am alive, for what you spoke about me in Parliament.’ According to the outspoken Indian Express newspaper, the politician was ‘visibly shaken’ by the remark. And baffled. ‘Let her consult all the records of Parliament,’ he told the daily. ‘If there is any reference to the prime minister’s wife [by me], I am prepared to quit Parliament.’ The next day, Telugu Desam party workers staged demonstrations across Hyderabad to demand an apology from Sonia. Her husband’s response was terse: ‘My wife does not threaten anybody.’

Indeed, the encounter seemed totally out of character for Sonia Gandhi, who is known to shy away from both strangers and confrontations. For the press, however, the incident was a bonanza. Of late, Indian media have once again been speculating vigorously about just how powerful the prime minister’s wife is.

When Rajiv came to power in October 1984 after the assassination of his mother, premier Indira Gandhi, there was plenty of talk about the ‘Italian connection’ at No. 1, Safdarjang Road, then the prime ministerial residence. Although Sonia took Indian citizenship in 1982, a joke making the rounds in New Delhi at the time suggested the (I) in Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) party stood for Italy, not founder Indira. The latest quip refers to the tight security surrounding the couple’s fortress-like residence: ‘andar (inside) Italian, bahar (outside) battalion.’

As Rajiv Gandhi’s political woes have grown, carping about his wife’s perceived influence has become nastier. Predictably, much of it springs from the opposition and is often little more than political rhetoric. For example, one opposition slogan derided Congress (I)’s closeness to ‘videshi paisa, videshi bank, videshi bibi’ (foreign funds, foreign bank [accounts], foreign wife). Gandhi’s critics also finger million-dollar contracts clinched by Italian multinational Snam Progetti in the past few years. Sonia is a close friend of Maria Quattrocchi, wife of a regional director for the firm. Quoted in the Bombay-based Onlooker magazine, a well-known journalist identified as Walter Vinci, the husband of Sonia’s elder sister, Anushka, as one of those involved in last year’s Bofors defence scandal. The same report said London-based industrialist Azad Shivadasani was also involved, adding: ‘His sister, Bina, is married to an Italian count who is rumoured to be a close friend of Sonia.’

Does the prime minister’s wife really involve herself in affairs of state? Ex-president Zail Singh, who feuded with Rajiv while in office, believes so. ‘She tries to give the impression that she does not interfere but my feeling is that she does,’ he told respected journalist Kuldip Nayar. Accusations by a former head of state lend some credibility to speculation that she was responsible for the political demise of several Congress (I) stalwarts, including Gandhi cousin Arun Nehru last year. Says a Gandhi confidant: ‘Nehru had this peremptory way of talking, even with Rajiv, that Sonia resented greatly. So she levelled her sights on the guy.’

Sonia’s critics also hold her responsible for the summary dismissal of A.P. Venkateswaran, also last year. Top Congress (I) officials say that the straight-talking foreign secretary was resisting a move to allow Indian diplomats to marry foreigners; Sonia reportedly took it as a personal affront. The startling resignation last July of Arun Singh, minister of state for defence and an old Cambridge buddy of Gandhi’s, was due to Sonia as well, party insiders claim. It is an open secret that there is an ongoing tiff between Sonia and Arun Singh’s wife Nina, a former friend.

Yet friends say Sonia has a keen sense of what is proper. During Indira Gandhi’s visit to Rome in 1981, the Indian leader was granted audience with the Pope. With typical consideration, Mrs. Gandhi asked Sonia’s family if they would like to accompany her. But Sonia cut in firmly: ‘Mummy, this is a state visit and the audience has been arranged for you. They can meet Pape some other time.’ Although she does not attend church regularly, Sonia is undeniably influenced by her religion. During the Pope’s 1986 visit to India, the Home Ministry was reluctant to permit a visit to the country’s turbulent northeast, home not only to thousands of Christian converts but a vigorous secessionist movement. It is believed the go-ahead was given only after the prime minister’s wife stepped in.

Dark-haired, brown-eyed Sonia Maino was born in December 1946, the second of three daughters of a middle class Italian businessman. She met Rajiv, scion of the powerful Gandhi family, in 1965 while she was studying English at a language school in Cambridge, Britain. They soon started dating and it wasn’t long before they decided to marry. Initially, Indira Gandhi had her doubts: a foreign daughter-in-law is a political liability in conservative India. But finally she gave her consent.

In Sonia’s only interview to date, she recalled to the Hindi weekly Dharmayug in June 1985 that at their first meeting, her famous mother-in-law told her in a kind voice: ‘You need not be afraid of me. I can understand your love.’ Later, when Sonia was preparing to leave, the late premier pulled out a needle and thread and mended a loose hem on her dress. ‘I was really touched,’ Sonia told the magazine. ‘This was the first gift I received from Mummy.’

After her marriage to Rajiv in 1968, the couple moved in at Safdarjang Road and Sonia tried her best to adapt to life as an Indian wife. She took to wearing Indian clothes, especially the sari which she now carries as well as any Indian woman. Son Rahul was born in 1970 and daughter Priyanka two years later. Sonia took over the housekeeping and oversaw the grocery shopping and cooking, even the selection of her mother-in-law’s wardrobe. Though poles apart in temperament, the two women formed a close bond. Indira Gandhi clearly favoured Sonia over her other daughter-in-law, Maneka, who was married to her younger son and political heir, Sanjay. After Sanjay’s death in a 1980 plane crash, his widow tried to build a political base of her own, forcing a bitter split with her in-laws. The tragedy set the stage for the reluctant entry into politics of Rajiv, until then an airline pilot.

Sonia came into her own during the dark days following Indira Gandhi’s 1977 ouster from power, becoming ‘a stable force amid the turmoil,’ according to a source close to the family. It was Sonia who heard the shots when Mrs. Gandhi was gunned down outside her home and ran towards the woman lying in a pool of blood, crying: ‘Mummy! Oh my God, Mummy!’ And it was she who summoned a car to take her mother-in-law to hospital while others around sobbed.

The same fierce loyalty is extended to close friends – even at high political cost to her husband. Last year, Rajiv’s childhood chum, movie star-politician Amitabh Bachchan, and his businessman brother, Ajitabh, embarrassed the PM when they were linked to various financial scandals. Yet Gandhi refused to dissociate himself from the Bachchans because his wife would not permit it, says a senior Congress (I) official. When she came to India for her wedding, Sonia had stayed with the Bachchan’s socialite mother, Teji, who introduced her to the intricacies of Indian culture. Over the years, Sonia’s relationship with the family has deepened, especially with Jaya and Ramola, the Bachchan brothers’ wives.

By necessity, the Gandhis have whittled down their circle of friends. Not surprisingly, Sonia is no longer as free to go on shopping sprees or meet chums over coffee as she used to. Some of her leisure time nowadays is spent at the National Museum in New Delhi, where she helps restore old oil paintings. Confides a well-placed source: ‘On her tours [across the country], Indira Gandhi noticed several oil paintings in the various Raj Bhavans [residences of state governors] which had fallen into disrepair. Sonia has worked on several of those paintings and many of them have been returned after repairs.’

Sonia is said to have good taste – and a penchant for extravagance. Stories are rife in the Indian capital about her furious spending on clothes, bric-a-brac and antiques. Many of the barbs are probably unfair: after all, the prime minister’s wife must purchase gifts for visiting dignitaries. But Onlooker reported last summer that she had made wildly expensive purchases of Mikimoto pearls during an official visit to Tokyo. Claims oppositionist Subramaniam Swamy: ‘When she returns from abroad she carries not less than sixteen bags and those sail through customs without being checked. India is not the Philippines but within the constraints of the situation, she is a blossoming Imelda to Rajiv’s Marcos.’

Spouses of prominent leaders are often subjected to such sniping, but observers say Sonia is somewhat a political liability for her husband. Her intense dislike for public life has often worked against her. On a visit to Tamil Nadu last month, shortly before the death of the state’s charismatic chief minister M.G. Ramachandran, Sonia returned to Madras airport from her engagements 40 minutes early. Rather than following the program by waiting in the VIP lounge for Rajiv, she boarded the plane and refused to disembark to accept farewell bouquets when the chief minister arrived with Gandhi. Asiaweek learned that Ramachandran, barely able to conceal his annoyance, later remarked to an aide: ‘It would be better for Rajiv if she does not do this too often.’

Sycophantic Congress (I) men, however, believe Sonia can do no wrong. For the past two years, the party’s Delhi unit has been proposing her entry into politics. Recently, there were calls for her to contest the Allahabad parliamentary seat vacated by the resignation last July of Amitabh Bachchan. The prime minister’s office has firmly quashed the demands. ‘Sonia has no plans for coming out into public life,’ says a senior official who works with Gandhi. ‘She is a very private person and wants to continue to be so.’ Indeed, the shy, introverted woman has replied to all the accusations with a deafening silence. Only once did she let the mask slip, remarking to a friend: ‘If I’d had my way, Rajiv would never have been in politics in the first place.’

*****

Now, Terror in the South

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Jan. 22, 1988, pp.12-14.]

Gunasena Karunamunige lay moaning on a mat in the bedroom of his tiny home in Kolonne, a run-down hamlet 130 km southeast of Colombo. Hepatitis had ravaged his body, leaving him too weak to move. On that fateful night last October, his wife, Wimalawathie, was bringing him a glass of water when three masked men suddenly burst in through the back door. Ignoring Wimalawathie’s screams, they strode to the sick man. One intruder pulled out a pistol and stopped Gunasena’s feeble attempt to escape with a bullet through his left eye. Another pummelled his wife to the ground and dragged her, kicking and sobbing, into an adjoining room. “He closed the door and I heard him say, ‘Everrayak karala damu,’ (‘Let’s finish it’),” recalls a grief-stricken Wimalawathie. ‘A few seconds later I heard them running out. Gunasena was on the mat, dead, with a bullet in his brain and five stab wounds in his chest.’

The 26 year-old victim was secretary of the Kolonne branch of the ruling United National Party (UNP). His assailants were members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), an outlawed Sinhalese chauvinist group based in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Sinhalese south. In a way, Gunasena’s execution stems from the July 29, 1987, accord Colombo signed with India. A major clause in the agreement called for a merger of the island’s Eastern and Northern provinces (the latter is dominated by the minority Tamils). The JVP rejected it as a ‘sell-out’ to the Tamils and vowed to exact retribution on UNP legislators. Now, in addition to the eight year-old threat from separatist Tamils in the north, the government must also cope with an extremist Sinhalese war of terror in the south.

Barely three weeks after the accord, the JVP struck. On Aug. 18, the terrorists tried to assassinate President Junius Jayewardene inside the high-security Parliament building in Kotte city on the outskirts of Colombo. While the Sri Lankan leader was spared, the grenade attack killed two people and shocked the ruling party. Riding on anti-government sentiments, the JVP spread further south, temporarily seizing control of several villages. Any resistance was brutally snuffed out: street vendors who defied their orders not to sell government newspapers were killed; UNP supporters were executed.

By the time a stunned Colombo set up a special military front in the south, the JVP was already well-entrenched. The arrival of government soldiers has merely slowed its sweep across Southern Province. Even as villages and towns teem with army and police patrols, the executions of JVP enemies continue – only now they are carried out after dark. In towns such as Kataragama, the army has been forced to take over the distribution of newspapers because the local people are too frightened to do it themselves.

A chilling response to the vicious anti-UNP backlash has been the emergence of armed pro-government goon squads. Dubbed the Green Tigers (the UNP’s colour is green), they have begun prowling the south, striking at those who oppose the accord. Most are small-time thugs affiliated with the ruling party. The government has allocated 600 of these ‘home guards’ to each electorate and 150 to each ruling party parliamentarian. The MPs are responsible for arming and training them as private armies.

The village militias have outraged many Sri Lankans. Thunders ex-MP Tennyson Edirisooriya: ‘Jayewardene is using fear of the JVP to set up a paramilitary state.’ Adds Mervyn de Silva, project director of a church-based action group: ‘Such methods can be counterproductive, particularly when the grievances of the insurgents and the people begin to converge.’

Analysts say the JVP has skilfully exploited the suffering of the common people to further its own cause. Professing Marxist beliefs, it has attracted many recruits among the poor and oppressed. Says Edirisooriya: ‘In supporting the JVP, the peasants feel they are making use of these violent elements for their own purposes. They have no other means of opposing the government, so they feel the JVP is the only answer.’

Dr. Henry Pathirane, a father of two, is one example. He grew up amid deprivation. By the time he left medical school, he was committed to Marxism. The malnourished villagers who flocked to his Kolonne clinic only strengthened his belief that revolution alone could rectify the imbalances in Sri Lankan society. Says Pathirane, who is now in army custody: ‘I saw that nothing had changed since the days when my family went hungry and I decided that the JVP was the only alternative.’

For his part, Jayewardene plainly feels he is justified in fighting fire with fire. The president has ordered security forces to ‘annihilate the JVP in two months’ time.’ He has also ignored repeated appeals by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a vocal critic of the July 29 accord, to lift an on-again, off-again ban on the leftist group. But Jayewardene’s determination to exterminate the JVP grows from a certain irony. After a bloody insurrection in 1971, the extremists were virtually wiped out by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party government. The group was banned and its fiery leader, Rohana Wijeweera, was sentenced to life imprisonment. During campaigning for the 1977 general elections, however, the UNP, then the opposition, made political capital of alleged government atrocities.

On coming to power, it set all JVP members free and even formed an alliance with the radical group. The UNP-JVP honeymoon ended in August 1983 when evidence surfaced that the Sinhalese extremists had fuelled bloody ethnic rioting a month earlier in the hope that the unrest would topple the government. The leaders of the JVP, which had earlier been outlawed again, went underground. Five years later, the JVP is still a force to reckon with. What is worrisome, however, is that in their bid to stamp out the extremists, frustrated government troops may ‘kill thousands of innocent civilians in a repetition of what happened in the north and east,’ says political analyst Sarath Gunawardene. Already, the army is making mass arrests in the south, identifying JVP members with the help of UNP informants.

Col. Lakshman Algama, military coordinating officer for the southwestern front, insists the counter-terrorist campaigns are not comparable. Says he: ‘In the north and east, we could not get any information [about the Tamil separatists] from the public because they did not trust us. In the case of the JVP, we will eventually get the information from the local people, because we can communicate with them. We will win.’

Many Sri Lankans believe, however, that the answer to the JVP problem is political, not military. There have been no parliamentary elections since the UNP came to power in 1977. Some observers reckon disgruntled Sri Lankans have turned to the rebels only because they have no other means of protest. As Edirisooriya puts it: ‘The government has to realise that this uprising can be put down only by the ballot, not the bullet.’ 

The Muslim Factor

‘Peace has almost been restored by the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka. Whatever problems reamin will be solved soon.’ So said Indian Defence Minister Krishna Chandra Pant last week when addressing troops in India’s eastern Bihar State. Military officials closer to the action do not share his optimism, however. ‘No matter what is being said, the picture in the field is very dismal,’ insists a Sri Lankan army intelligence source in Colombo. Indeed, while heavily-armed Indian soldiers have contained militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the island’s Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula, the Tigers seem to be gaining ground in the east. In the first week of the new year, the Tigers went on a rampage in Kattankudi, a village south of Batticaloa in multi-ethnic Eastern Province. They torched homes, ransacked shops and battled gunmen claiming to belong to the fundamentalist Muslim Jihad, leaving at least 46 dead and scores injured.

The violence was sparked by the Muslim Jihad’s execution of a local Tiger leader accused of exhorting money from Muslim businessmen. The Tigers’ retaliation against the Muslims, a tiny community in predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka, has broader political meaning. Tamil militants claim the Jihad is financed by the Sri Lankan government with Indian help – a charge Colombo strongly denies. ‘We believe they are receiving funds from Iran and Libya,’ a senior government official told Asiaweek.

Clashes between Muslims and Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, are not new. But the latest Tiger attack may have a deeper motive behind it. Muslim and Sinhalese communities in the east will have plenty to say in the forthcoming referendum to decide whether their province should merge with Northern Province, as proposed in the India-Sri Lanka peace accord. Analysts say their combined strength in Eastern Province has triggered the Tamil assaults. Asserts one military official: ‘The Tiger attacks are similar to earlier ones against Sinhalese in the east. They are meant to drive out the Muslims.’

Contenders: After Jayewardene, Who?

An old joke about President Junius Richard Jayewardene is circulating again in Colombo’s diplomatic circles. When the Sri Lankan leader visited the US in 1984, it goes, video-crazy Americans thought it might be a friendly gesture to name a screen personality after him. But a wily, ruthless ‘JR’ already existed in the popular TV serial Dallas. So the visitor’s admirers decided to name a movie studio after him instead. They called it ‘20th Century Fox’.

Jayewardene’s rivals might bitterly complain that the jest has the ring of truth. At 81, the ‘lokka’ or ‘old man,’ as he is fondly called by stalwarts of the ruling United National Party, can still execute a nimble political quickstep. The president has for a decade outwitted opponents coveting a shot at the island’s top office. For more than fourteen years, he has held just as firmly to the helm of the UNP. Opponents can only guess what his plans might be for the next presidential poll due by January 1989.

Insiders say Jayewardene may pull out of the race at wife Elina’s insistence. But contradictory comments by him have clouded the issue. Last October, he told The Times of London that he would still be president in 1990. Barely a week later, he retracted the statement, saying a ‘printing mistake’ in his copy of the Constitution had led him to believe he could stand for more than two consecutive terms. The Constitution clearly states that a president cannot be ‘elected’ for more than two consecutive terms.

But supporters of Jayewardene, who is in his second tenure as head of state, have used that phrasing to argue that he is eligible to run again. As far as they are concerned, he was ‘elected’ to office only once – for a second term in 1982. His first stint as president was gained through an appointment by Parliament in 1978, soon after a fresh charter introducing a presidential form of government was promulgated.

Who will succeed Jayewardene should he step down? At the moment, it looks like a straight fight between Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. Dissanayake would hold an edge because of his backing by New Delhi, which since the July 29, 1987, signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka peace pact wields considerable influence in Sri Lankan politics. Dissanayake initiated the talks that led to the accord.

Supporters of the Lands Minister claim he can clinch at least 30% of the votes in the coming polls – 12% from the minority Tamil population, 3% from Muslims, and 15% from ‘intellectuals’ among the Sinhalese majority. ‘That’s a mistake,’ says political analyst Sarath Gunawardene. ‘The Tamils would never vote en bloc for any Sinhalese candidate. The Muslim vote may come, but that is negligible.’ Gunawardene thinks Sinhalese intellectuals would favour Athulathmudali or ex-PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike, boss of the anti-government Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Although fervently pro-Sinhalese, both are moderates and have proven administrative ability.

Curiously, the ambitious Athulathmudali, an early critic of the accord, has been reticent about his plans. Now fully recovered from severe injuries sustained in a grenade attack on Parliament last August, the security minister is ‘in a position to turn the situation in the north and east to his advantage,’ observes a cabinet member close to him. ‘But he appears to [prefer] to remain silent.’

Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, once a frontrunner, has meanwhile knocked himself out of the presidential race. Earlier this month he incurred Jayewardene’s wrath for denouncing as ‘unconstitutional’ a 1982 referendum backed by the UNP which extended the life of parliament for six more years.

For his part, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa appears to have been sidelined because he does not belong to the high govigama (farmer) caste from which the UNP has traditionally drawn its leaders. But a source close to the president says the PM should not be counted out so soon. Notes he: ‘If the selection is left to Jayewardene, he would not be looking at issues like caste so much. The fact that Premadasa could become the prime minister in spite of obstacles he had to face speaks volumes for his abilities as a political game player.’

 

*****

The Bloody Trail to the South

[Mathews K George and Valli Dharmarajah; South (London), Jan. 1988,

pp. 66-67.]

More bloodshed threatens in 1988, especially in the Sinhala-dominated south. The race and class wars and the government’s militarisation have brutalised the society. Peace, unity and national stability are unlikely to emerge from October’s presidential election and the referendum due to be held in the north and east on the proposed merger of these two war-torn provinces.

President Junius Jayewardene’s decision not to stand for a second term has led to a scramble between prospective successors in his United National Party. They include Gamini Dissanayake, whose cricket diplomacy led to the 29 July peace accord with India; finance minister Ronnie de Mel, an enthusiastic supporter of the deal and believed to be backed by New Delhi; national security minister and Sinhala hawk Lalith Athulathmudali; and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a critic of the accord whose stand has lost him ground with the Sinhala middle class.

The political infighting will be bitter. Premadasa is tipped to win because he is the only UNP candidate with sufficient grassroots support to take on opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate. But his challenge for Jayewardene’s mantle will not be easy – Gamini, De Mel and Athulathmudali are all dangerous opponents. Bandaranaike has mobilised Sinhala and Buddhist clergy’s opposition to the accord. But she would have to work with a legislature dominated by the UNP members; a victory by her would not gurantee her divided SLFP party victory in the 1989 elections to the legislature.

The referendum on the merger of the northern and eastern provinces is due to be held before the end of the year. It will again highlight racial divisions. The diehard proponents of a Tamil homeland – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – hope the merger proposal will succeed. To Colombo that result is unacceptable. The east is predominantly Muslim, and the Muslims are unlikely to vote for a merger with the 97 percent Tamil-populated north.

Last year, it was this recognition that provoked the Tigers’ onslaught on the Sinhalese, but their attempt to precipitate an exodus from the east brought them into conflict with the Indian peace-keeping force. After bloody fighting, the Indian forces took the key northern town of Jaffna, but the Tigers have retreated to jungle hideouts for more hit and run attacks. The heavy casualties inflicted on the Indian army will lead to increased Indian demands for a troop pull-out. But India is committed to guaranteeing peace.

With violence and instability continuing in the north and east, the implementation of the provincial councils bill will suffer a setback. The bill, which passed through parliament last November, grants the Tamils the autonomy they sought. But to reap the benefits of devolution, a new, moderate Tamil leadership has to emerge, able to buck the tactics of the Tigers and to negotiate land colonisation and other Tamil rights. If the Tamils do not grasp the political opportunity, their future will again be dictated by Sinhalese.

The Tigers’ demand for a separate homeland is rivalled by the chauvinist call for a Sinhala Buddhist nation; both reject a pluralist approach to the ethnic problem. The chauvinists in the south will increasingly be represented by the militant Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which has violently opposed the accord and has been blamed for the deaths of more than 40 UNP supporters, including MPs, in recent months. Support for the JVP will increase among the have-nots.

The universities are potential recruiting grounds for the JVP, already powerful in the rural south. Disgruntled student monks and poorly paid army privates have been recruited to the JVP – the latter providing access to weapons. It has potential to wage an all-out guerrilla war in the south, and possibly isolate Colombo.

The future is bleak. But thanks to western aid donors, the cash lines will remain open. The aid consortiums – under pressure to halt funds until peace with the Tamils is negotiated – will continue to provide political and economic support to ensure that external, anti-western forces do not move in. But the donors will stop at providing military aid.

India’s position is more explicit; Sri Lanka, especially its natural harbour at Trincomalee in the eastern province, is vital to its interests. But the human and financial cost of its presence in Sri Lanka will have a bearing. New Delhi is spending almost 3-million rupees (US$ 230,000) a day to maintain its forces there. About 250 troops have been killed and almost 1,000 wounded.

For Sri Lanka, the year ahead will be traumatic. The peace accord, however imperfect, may be the only prospect for building a lasting peace with the Tamils. Failure by both sides to accept this reality will lead only to the continuation and inevitable escalation of factional violence and further economic trouble.

*****

Colombo’s Policies Strike a Chord

[Pran Chopra; South (London), Jan., 1988, p.74.]

India’s foreign policy hawks are crowing over what they see as their diplomatic coup in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese hawks call New Delhi’s intervention a sell-out by President Junius Jayewardene. Tamil hawks in both countries call it betrayal of Tamils by India. All three are misperceptions, but each will add friction to Indo-Sri Lankan relations.

Each group refers to compromises in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, which Jayewardene promised Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the end of July last year. If carried out, these revisions will reduce a slant towards the West which the President has given Sri Lankan foreign policy, eliminate the possibility of a foreign military base in the excellent harbour at Trincomalee, and disengage Sri Lanka from certain aspects of recent deals with the Voice of America, Pakistan’s army and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

But this is no coup. During the 20 years it was in power, Sirima Bandaranaike’s opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had followed a foreign policy similar to – and supportive of – India’s. Nor are the revisions a sell-out since all they would do is to revert foreign policy to that of the SLFP. But the Sinhalese hawks – including the SLFP – have denounced Jayewardene’s agreement because it has allowed the Indian army on to the island.

Tamils condemn the agreement as betrayal because India settled for much less than Tamil militants could have won through battle – if New Delhi had not intervened. The longer Indian troops stay, the more Sinhalese pride will be hurt. The Indian troops came at Jayewardene’s request, and because they are under his authority he can order them out at his discretion. He has already sent back two Indian warships which had been lurking on Colombo’s horizon.

The Indian army is disarming Tamil militants faster than Sri Lankan troops could have managed. Success in flushing out the Tamil Tigers will sufficiently strengthen Jayewardene to enable him to stand by his promises of regional autonomy for Tamils. It would be unwise for the SLFP to encourage the right-wing Sinhalese Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front – JVP) to embarrass Jayewardene or to scuttle the accord with India. The SLFP’s sympathies towards the Indian position may influence changes in the accord but not its annulment. The worst scenario for Indo-Sri Lankan relations in 1988 is friction. There is no likelihood of a major rupture or discord.

*****

Bad Day at Batticaloa

[Sri Lanka Correspondent; Economist, Jan. 23, 1988, pp. 20 & 22]

With the resignation on January 18th of the flamboyant Mr Ronnie de Mel, the world’s longest-serving finance minister (he had held the post since 1977), Sri Lanka has lost the man who coaxed the world into providing the foreign aid that has kept it going through four years of civil war. More such skill may be demanded of Mr de Mel’s successor, his faithful deputy, Mr Naina Marikkar. Sri Lanka’s violent troubles are far from over.

For some time, Mr de Mel had been growing alarmed by the mood of his country’s impatient young people. He wanted a lifting of the ban on the group of Sinhalese chauvinists that calls itself the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People’s Liberation Front, so that its leaders could be drawn into a debate about unemployment and other issues. A series of recent bombings and shootings in the south of the island has been attributed to the JVP, which in some places has defied the local police.

Just after the murder on December 23rd of the chairman of the ruling United National Party, Mr de Mel said that Sri Lanka had not been a democracy since a referendum in 1982 prolonged the existing parliament’s life (it is still there). He added that the government would have no moral claim on power if no election were held this year. Many of his colleagues protested that a senior minister was sounding like a member of the opposition. Me de Mel had to go.

President Junius Jayewardene did not seem unduly worried by the loss of one of the strongest supporters of last year’s agreement with India, which has helped the government get the rebellion of Sri Lanka’s Tamils under control. But the president cannot affor such insouciance on his visit to New Delhi for India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26th. He needs to have a serious talk with Mr Rajiv Gandhi about the agreement, which is having trouble.

The Indian troops in Sri Lanka have mastered the northern Tamil area around Jaffna, but are floundering in the Eastenr province, whose population is a mixture of Tamils, Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims. The Indian army has only two companies in the east-coast town of Batticaloa. They have failed to cope with the Tamil guerrillas’ threat of ‘maximum punishment’ for anybody who cooperates with ‘the repressive apparatus of the racist Sri Lankan state’. The threat shut Batticaloa’s local government offices and courts, and on January 19th ten armed Tamils forced their way into the jail and compelled the 54 prisoners to leave – which they did rather reluctantly; some of them promptly gave themselves up at the police station. The Indian soldiers did nothing and looked silly.

The guerrillas never had as much support in Batticaloa as in Jaffna, and Batticaloa’s people were expecting the Indians to protect them. The Indians say they are sending in more soldiers, but the psychological damage has been done. If the Indians want the agreement to work, they will have to offer the Tamils something more positive than mere suppression of the guerrillas. That means the resettlement of refugees, and provincial elections. But elections are hardly possible so long as the guerrillas can stroll in and do what they did in Batticaloa. India’s credibility is at risk.

India’s credibility is at risk.

*****

Power-Sharing in Sri Lanka: Two View Points

[Gamini Dissanayake and Neelan Tiruchelvam; Asiaweek, Jan. 29, 1988; p. 58]

In November, Sri Lankan President Junius Jaywardene pushed through a bill to devolve power from Colombo to the provinces. The peace accord he had signed with India in July contained a provision for the move, designed to satisfy the Tamil minority. The legislation gives each province a council with governor, chief minister and board of ministers. In line with another Tamil demand, it also proposes to merge predominantly Tamil Northern Province with neighbouring Eastern Province, which is equally Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim.

Viewpoint of Gamini Dissanayake [Minister of Lands and largely responsible for the negotiations that brought about the peace accord]

Q: Why is the Provincial Council Bill considered landmark legislation?

A: Just prior to Independence in 1948, there were signs of grave concern amongst certain minority groups as to how power was to be shared. Today, those concerns have become real, leading to a great degree of divisiveness. The provincial council concept itself has been seriously discussed at the highest levels for over 40 years. The bill is necessary and relevant law in a country which is very deeply rooted in democracy. It will throw up new leaders and will break the history of frustration that only those who are elected to the central legislature have a say in the affairs of the country.

Q: Does the bill meet the aspirations of the Tamil people?

A: In my view, the Tamil people of Sri Lanka both in their origin and in their broader perspectives were never separatists in spirit. They are practical enough to see the role they can play in a wider policy within the framework of a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-religious society. The Indo-Lanka accord is the basis of an honourable settlement. It provides the provincial council system with firm agreements about the future structure of government.

Q: What shortcomings do you see in the bill’s format?

A: I cannot see any basic problems. I would personally like to see very wide powers being given to the councils. However, there are constraints such as the lack of resources and expertise, and shortcomings in the technology and planning processes. Much will depend on the interaction between the executive, the national Parliament and the new political realities.

Q: Do you think the bill provides a durable basis to resolve the ethnic conflict?

A: It has become abundantly clear that extremist groups on all sides are being marginalised. They cannot find popular support in the political context for their extremist views. They are therefore resolved to make a fight for it. It is only the emergence of political forces that can eliminate this process totally. That is what the provincial council system would do.

Q: How can opposition to the bill from the south be resolved?

A: The government is taking steps to ensure that law and order prevails there. Extremist groups will not be provided with opportunities to carry out political assassinations. Also, social and political steps are being taken to bring extreme radicals into the mainstream.

Viewpoint of Neelan Tiruchelvam [The official spokesman for the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front]

Q: Why is the Provincial Council Bill considered landmark legislation?

A: Since Independence, political leaders and academics have recognised the importance of devolution not only as a means of redressing grievances of ethnic minorities, but also in the democratisation of political authority. The bill can be viewed as a step in establishing political institutions in which legislative and executive power could be vested in the provincial level. The bill’s effectiveness will depend on the scope of the powers which will in fact be exercised by these institutions.

Q: Does the bill meet the aspirations of the Tamil people?

A: One of the important provisions in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution relates to the recognition of Tamil as an official language. If this provision is effectively implemented it will advance the Tamil concern for linguistic equality. The recognition of English as a link language would also help to build bridges between communities which have been alienated from each other for decades.

Q: What are its shortcomings?

A: They relate to the granting of state land, which is central to the socio-economic development of the provinces. There is also concern that the emergency and residual powers of the centre are excessive and provide for in-roads into provincial authority by an overbearing government.

Q: Does the bill provide a durable basis for resolving the ethnic conflict?

A: An important element of the accord is the power sharing arrangement in the provincial scheme. It was expected that it would be resolved in a manner which is satisfactory to the Tamils. This expectation proved to be false. However, if we reject the provincial council for this reason, the accord would be a dead letter. The overwhelming concern is for an immediate end to the hostilities and to the human suffering, and that must form the basis for any enduring solution.

Q: What about opposition to the bill from the south?

A: We remain dismayed that influential sections of Sinhala opinion within the clergy, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the [militant Sinhalese] Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna remain unreconciled to political accomodation with the Tamils. One must continue to persuade the rational forces in our society that the failure of the accord and the devolution scheme could only result in further chaos and anarchy.

Continued...Part VI