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The Indo-LTTE War, 1987-1990

An Anthology, Part IX

Rajiv losing a battle against the defiant press and JR opting to ‘Retire Hurt’

The four mea culpa revelations of Dixit as to the failure of the Rajiv-Jayewardene agreement that he brokered in 1987 deserve highlighting. These are,

(1) The agreement failed because Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to sign the agreement on the basis of predications and advice conveyed to him by his advisers, which in retrospect were inaccurate and overoptimistic. He can be blamed for the decision to sign the agreement but not for the collective judgement of the Indian establishment. (pp. 338-339)

(2) I overestimated the sincerity and the political will of Jayewardene to come to a genuine compromise with the Tamils with the help of the Government of India. (p. 344)

(3) My expectation that the LTTE could be successfully isolated from Sri Lankan Tamils also proved to be wrong. (p. 344)

(4) My anticipation that once Jayewardene signed the agreement he would be decisive in neutralising Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali and their policies against the Tamils and the agreement, also proved to be wrong. (pp. 344-345)

Part I of the series

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

In its June 25, 1988 issue, The Nation, a respected Left-leaning weekly from New York, published a well-balanced summary-review covering the period July 1987 to June 1988 of Rajiv Gandhi’s arm-twisting diplomacy in Sri Lanka and the Indian army’s performance against the LTTE in Eelam. William McGowan, the author of this review, subsequently expanded his observations and published a book, entitled ‘Only Man is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1992).

As this review deserves incorporation in this anthology, first I reproduce McGowan's review in this part 9. Then, I have added 7 items that appeared between August and September of 1988. By the end of September 1988, the duration of the Indo-LTTE war had reached the one year mark, with the LTTE still holding strong against the Indian army, to the dismay of Sinhalese and Indians who anticipated a quick defeat for the LTTE. Apart from the increasing tally of casualties among the Indian army and the Tamil civilians then living in Eelam, casualties also included (1) the professional reputations of India’s political pundits who had predicted LTTE’s quick demise; and (2) the non-playing ‘captain’ of LTTE’s rival team – President Jayewardene – who opted to ‘retire hurt’ from the political arena.

The flag wavers for Indian diplomacy among the Tamils (the likes of D.B.S.Jeyaraj) naively continue to propagate an illusory view that, if not for LTTE’s opposition to the deal that Rajiv Gandhi had arranged with President Jayewardene in 1987, Eelam Tamils would have gained politically what they never had previously.

What spoils this up-beat note was the reality, even after a passage of one whole year, neither Rajiv Gandhi nor the then President Jayewardene could convince the Sinhalese camps that opposed the 1987 Accord; (1) the opposition SLFP, (2) the JVP, (3) the anti-Accord factions of Prime Minister Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali, and (4) the yellow-robed Buddhist clergy. During this period, sympathy to Rajiv Gandhi’s plight was non-existing among the Sinhalese. On the contrary, the Sinhalese mass-media delighted themselves in highlighting the misfortunes of the Rajiv-led Congress Party in Indian electoral politics.

I have no hesitation in asserting that Sinhalese media commentators (including ranking cartoonists like Wijesoma) were adept in displaying their skills, not excluding hypocrisy. Rajiv Gandhi became a paragon of virtue for these Sinhalese opinion makers only from May 22, 1991, after he became an assassination victim. To be fair, Rajiv Gandhi’s political broker, J.N. Dixit - in his book Assignment Colombo (1998) - was forthright in his assessment of the pusillanimous politics played to the gallery by the leading Sinhalese politicians of that period. But his wisdom was ten years late in arriving.

The four mea culpa revelations of Dixit as to the failure of the Rajiv-Jayewardene agreement that he brokered in 1987 deserve highlighting. These are,

(1) The agreement failed because Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to sign the agreement on the basis of predications and advice conveyed to him by his advisers, which in retrospect were inaccurate and overoptimistic. He can be blamed for the decision to sign the agreement but not for the collective judgement of the Indian establishment. (pp. 338-339)

(2) I overestimated the sincerity and the political will of Jayewardene to come to a genuine compromise with the Tamils with the help of a Government of India. (p. 344)

(3) My expectation that the LTTE could be successfully isolated from Sri Lankan Tamils also proved to be wrong. (p. 344)

(4) My anticipation that once Jayewardene signed the agreement he would be decisive in neutralising Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali and their policies against the Tamils and the agreement, also proved to be wrong. Jayewardene either did not have the political will, or his approach was that of political intrigue, because of which he refrained from reining in Lalith and Premadasa from their negative activities against the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. (pp. 344-345)

During August and September 1988, both Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayewardene lost considerable clout in the political arena of India and Sri Lanka respectively. Rajiv Gandhi had his nose thumped in a demanding battle against the defiant Indian press. Stung by the press criticism about his inept handling of so many issues, Rajiv Gandhi’s team attempted to pass a Defamation Bill in India’s parliament. This Defamation Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Aug. 29, 1988 and was adopted by the Lok Sabha on the following day. After that, Rajiv’s handlers found the opposition to this Defamation Bill too hot to handle. On Sept. 22, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi announced his government’s decision to drop the controversial bill. According to a summary of this confrontation that appeared in the Asiaweek of Sept.23, 1988, those journalists who stood up valiantly against Rajiv’s incursions to curb press freedom in India were Ramnath Goenka (owner of the Indian Express group), Khushwant Singh, Nikhil Chakravartty, B.G. Verghese, Aroun Shourie and M.J. Akbar. Not noted in this list were any of the grandstanders who represented the House of Hindu publishers!

Press protest in India, Asiaweek Sept 23 1988While Rajiv Gandhi was able to save his nose and neck by executing his option to withdraw the Defamation Bill, President Jayewardene’s plight turned out to be more precarious. The Sri Lanka correspondent for the Economist magazine wrote for the August 20, 1988 issue, that “The constitution limits him [i.e., Jayewardene] to two terms, but it would take only some minor tinkering to let him run for a third. The smart money of business backers says he will. The old man – he is 81 – prefers to keep everyone guessing. He would be hard to beat.”

But President Jayewardene’s designs of running again for re-election in late 1988 withered within a couple of weeks, and he opted to retire ‘hurt’ and pass the baton to his nominal lieutenant, Premadasa, who pinned his hopes for the presidential crown on his open opposition to the unpopular Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord.

Listed below are 8 items (a review, news reports and commentaries), which are presented in this part 9 of the anthology.

(1) William McGowan: India’s Quagmire in Sri Lanka. The Nation (New York), June 25, 1988, pp. 896-899.

(2) Editorial: What India’s Emperor Needs. Economist, Aug. 6, 1988, p.9.

(3) India Correspondent: Can Singh persuade India that its emperor has no clothes? Economist, Aug. 6, 1988, pp. 17-18.

(4) Sri Lanka Correspondent: It Still Looks Like No Change. Economist, Aug. 20, 1988, pp.23-24.  

(5) Anonymous: The Press Takes a Strong Stand. Asiaweek, Sept. 23, 1988, p. 31.

(6) Detained: Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kiddu. Asiaweek, Sept. 23, 1988, p. 50.

(7) William E. Smith: Mixed Signals – Jayewardene decides to retire. Time, Sept. 26, 1988, p. 8.

(8) Anonymous: Battling on Many Fronts. Asiaweek, Sept. 30, 1988, p. 33.

India’s Quagmire in Sri Lanka

[William McGowan; The Nation (New York), June 25, 1988, pp. 896-899.]

Jaffna, Sri Lanka: From the rubble of the nearly 75,000 houses destroyed or damaged during its drive last October against Tamil Tiger militants, the Indian Peacekeeping Force has built a city of pillboxes and fortified bunkers inside this former rebel stronghold. Normalcy now prevails past the ends of machine guns bristling from sentry posts on every street corner. Yet the Indian troops deployed throughout northern and eastern Sri Lanka still find their quarry elusive. Given the opportunity, the Tigers can still paralyze civil administration and commercial life, kill political foes and collaborators and attack unprotected Sinhalese villages as well as Indian Army patrols before melting away uncaught.

Having given arms, training and sanctuary to Tamil separatists fighting the Sri Lankan military, India originally thought it could quickly tame them under the terms of last summer’s Indo-Lankan Peace Accord. The accord was an attempt to resolve the longstanding conflict between the minority Tamils (18 percent of the population) and the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (74 percent of the country). The feud is rooted in the institutional discrimination Tamils say they have suffered since independence, in 1948, in education, employment, land settlement and language. But it dates further back, into colonial times and ancient antagonisms. Since 1983, when more than 1,000 Tamils were killed in Sinhalese pogroms, the nation had been in a state of civil war and de facto partition. Upwards of 7,000 civilians have perished.

India had supported the separatists because their cause was strong among 55 million ethnic brethren in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and because the Western leanings of the Colombo government of President J.R. Jayewardene made it anxious. But when the trouble it was encouraging in Sri Lanka began to threaten India’s own equilibrium, and Sri Lankan armed forces broke the struggle’s long stalemate in a successful lunge against the militants in May 1987, India stepped in – at first with only a small force to back up what was intended to be primarily a diplomatic initiative. There was nominal peace for six weeks, but now, nearly a year after the signing of the accord in July 1987, the fighting contiues; more civilians have been killed in the past year than in any previous year, most of them, ironically, by the Indian peacekeepers.

Any intervention into the miasma of Sri Lanka’s ethnic troubles ran the risk of frustration. But India’s presumptuous diplomacy military miscalculations have turned its involvement into a daily $3 million quagmire for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, with dark implications for his political future as well as for the domestic stability and international prestige of his country. Also on the line is the government of Jayewardene, co-signer of the accord, which has for months been under violent pressure from rabid Buddhist nationalists in the southern part of the island.

Delhi’s first mistake was to overestimate its leverage on the two warring sides. The Indo-Lankan Peace Accord called for the rebels to lay down their arms in return for substantial political autonomy in their traditional areas and a guarantee that Sri Lankan armed forces – 99 percent Sinhalese – would be confined to their barracks. Although the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, the dominant Tamil militant group, had gotten more than its fair share in the bargain, suspicions of the Colombo government built up over several decades were not easily dissipated. The language of the hastily prepared document left several substantive issues, like land colonization of Tamil areas, vague or unaddressed, and after provocation by Buddhist hard-liners within Jayewardene’s own Cabinet, the Tigers resumed armed hostilities. At first the Indians did little to hold the Tigers back; in some cases, in fact, Indian soldiers from Tamil Nadu turned a blind eye while brethren Tamils burned Sinhalese out of their homes and shops. Before long, however, the Indians came down hard on their former charges, although for years they had warned Sri Lanka of the futility of a military solution.

The drive on the rebel capital of Jaffna was a military and intelligence debacle. The Indians basically dismissed the Tigers as low-caste youths who would never dare stand against the world’s fourth-largest army – which after all had entered the conflict on their side. Having scoffed at Sri Lankan warnings, the Indians had little idea of Tiger manpower, firepower, intelligence and communications capabilities. Nor did they sense the fanatic motivation of the Tigers, symbolized by the cyanide capsule each cadre wears around his or her neck to swallow if captured. Most important, the Indians did not understand the lethal force of the Tigers’ form of land-mine warfare - an innovation in guerrilla strategy. Losing face politically as casualties mounted daily, Delhi poured more troops into battle, often without proper rest, briefings, maps or equipment.

What should have taken the Indians three days took nearly three weeks, and during that time brutality against civilians – which India had originally intervened to stop – was ghastly. Here in Jaffna during the October drive, I saw random shelling of civilian areas and evidence that Indians had strafed civilians from helicopters and also shot them point-blank as they hid in their own homes for safety. In direct violation of the Geneva Accords, top Indian officers ordered the storming of the Jaffna Hospital, killing scores of doctors, nurses and patients. The Indians banned foreign journalists and the International Red Cross, making it difficult to verify or dismiss consistent reports of rape and other atrocities committed by Indian troops. Likewise, reports that the Tigers had used civilians as human shields.

Utter bedlam reigned during the battle as a half-million panic-stricken refugees sought safety and the Tigers continued to fight – killing many more Indians than military authorities admitted – before pulling out of Jaffna still largely intact as a fighting force. When it was over, with the peacekeepers claiming victory, there was ‘a city of corpses and rotting flesh,’ as one Indian brigadier general put it, with some estimates of civilian casualties running as high as 3,000. There was also a deep bitterness among the Tamil populace toward what had effectively become an army of occupation. Conservative estimates say India has 50,000 troops in Sri Lanka, but if higher figures given by Indian analysts and journalists are accurate, it may have up to 100,000 there – almost as many as the Russians had in Afghanistan.

Whenever they are asked about the current situation, Indian troops in the field, cued by public relation officers, no doubt, broadly and answer ‘picnic’ – often the only English word they know. But a picnic it decidedly is not. Despite their overwhelming numbers, Indian forces are muscle bound, their bureaucratically minded officers vulnerable to the Tigers’ hit-and-run tactics; convoys still leave the main roads with trepidation. The Tigers continue to train new, ever younger cadres and say that even with weapons deliveries interdicted, they can hold out for five years more with the material that they currently have hidden. The Indians have been unable to protect informers or stop the Tigers from mounting boycotts, general strikes and shut-downs of important administrative services.

Most important, the same pattern of terror from previous years continues under the Indians’ very noses. Armed bands of Tamils, Sinhalese and Moslems still massacre civilians of other groups. Sri Lankan police have broken out of their barracks to retaliate against Tamil civilians. In other cases, the Tigers have rampaged through Sinhalese settlements with impunity, intimidating government-funded colonizers. The Indian presence has made it worse for the Moslems, an important community in the Eastern Province’s war of demographics. The rise of Islamic militias has been the result, with indications of Iranian and Libyan financial support, poisoning the ethnic brew even further.

Support for the Tigers among the Tamils had been waning until the harshness of the Indian occupation. Indian commanders talk of winning hearts and minds, but detentions of suspected militants and sympathizers are arbitrary, beatings are standard and the ethnic and caste complexion of the soldiers clashes with that of the population, leading to tension. The officer corps may be Sandhurst material, but the largely illiterate rank and file have treated civilians badly and are undisciplined. The simple presence of so many gun bearers who can’t speak their language has the population on the edge of nervous breakdown and wishing, ironically, for the return of Sri Lankan troops, who had a harrowing record of human rights offenses.

The upshot is that despite their war-weariness and the hardship brought about by the Tigers’ rejection of the peace accord, a majority of the Tamil population supports the guerrillas. And without the backing of the civilians, the Indians can do very little. The chemistry is by no means unalloyed. Tamils may fear the Tigers’ authoritarianism and question their lower-caste background and their political inexperience, yet they are recognized as a historically necessary force asserting long-denied rights for national identity and liberation. Besides, there is simply no alternative moderate group.

In fact, the Indians may also feel that the Tigers are the only legitimate force; there are many indications that the military drive against them is more of a bid to discipline than to liquidate. The Indians have seemed reluctant to go for the Tigers’ jugular: For example, reporters seeking interviews have sometimes had to wait for the militants to finish cricket games within half a mile of major Indian Army encampments, the Tigers keeping their AK-47s at the ready in bat bags. Such apparent laxity signals a fundamental contradiction in Indian policy, for as much as the Indians need to neutralize the Tigers militarily, they also need to preserve them politically, a balancing act requiring great delicacy and organization, which often elude them. For the accord to work, the Indians need some kind of gurantee of compliance from the increasingly disgruntled Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in the south, which will be hard to secure without the prospect of a reactivated Tiger threat as leverage.

Gandhi’s underestimation of resentment in the south and the effect that has on Jayewardene’s ability to hold up his end of the bargain may prove the real undoing of the peace accord. The southern heartland, which prides itself as the land Buddha chose to preserve his doctrine of nonviolence and compassion, has become almost ungovernable under the emotional strains of the Indian intervention. Instead of seeing the accord as an opportunity to build bridges of trust between two warring communities, Sinhalese generally see the Indian presence on their soil as a violation of national sovereignty as well as threat to the existence of Buddhism, which they claim to practice in its most pristine form and to protect as part of their mythic charter. The Indian presence has been popularly depicted as a reincarnation of invasions from southern India that wiped out Sinhalese kingdoms centuries ago. Most of the Buddhist majority saw President Jayewardene’s acceptance of India’s ‘help’ – Gandhi would have invaded otherwise – not as a shrewd calculation of geopolitical realities but as a selling out of national interests.

Broad popular resentment of the accord sparked other latent sources of disaffection against the ruling United National Party (UNP) of J.R. (as the President is popularly known). Its Western-style economic policies, which have greatly widened the gap between rich and poor and led to official corruption on a vast scale, were attacked by the Sinhalese populace as inimical to Buddhist values. Also attacked were the regime’s increasingly antidemocratic tendencies: the denial of elections for the past ten years, manipulation of parliamentary procedure and the official sanction given to political thuggery. The signing of the peace accord without popular ratification was taken as the final step in J.R.’s subversion of the democratic traditions that have been cherished since independence, even if observed more in form than in substance. The widespread feeling was that the old fox J.R. had tricked the young Mr. Gandhi into bailing him out in the north so he could better defend himself in the south, where his base of support had crumbled and a rebellion was only a matter of time.

A banned ultra-nationalistic political party called the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) has capitalized on the wave of discontent, focusing anger against the Indo-Lankan Peace Accord. Since September it has conducted a campaign of political killings and subversion that has taken the lives of almost 300 ruling party officials, nearly brought the simple exercise of civil administration to a collapse and fed worry that the Sinhalese will repudiate their obligations toward India and the Tamils. In areas where the JVP is strongest, police are reluctant to leave their stations after dark, and the public cowers behind shuttered doors. Where Buddha supposedly saw a flourishing dharma, the people see assassinations and assault. Most members of Parliament belonging to the UNP are under threat of death and shun their home districts for the security of the capital. Provincial Council elections, which are crucial to the momentum of the peace process, were called off in over half the country due to the threat of violence. Politically moderate intellectuals who have backed the peace accord have been branded traitors to the motherland by the JVP. It is also likely that the JVP has infiltrated cadres into the armed forces, raising the specter of unreliability and coup.

The JVP taps into latent Sinhalese feelings of their special destiny, advancing a program that blends masochistic nationalism, apocalyptic rhetoric and the same chauvinistic cultural revivalism that also polarized Sinhalese-Tamil relations in the 1950s. Highly xenophobic, racist and romantic, the JVP calls for a return to ‘indigenous’ thought, values and economic development that predate European colonialism and contemporary Western influence.

The JVP thrives in the economically depressed far south of the island. Most of its members – their numbers still unknown – are lower-caste youths in the universities or jobless graduates with few prospects in an economy still skewed to favor high-caste English-speakers, despite decades of lip service by successive governments to the ‘son of the soil’. There are also widening ranks of militant Buddhist monks in the party, who see their clerical role in political rather than spiritual terms and have defied superiors by calling for armed resistance in a Buddhist holy war. ‘We must weaponize,’ ranted one of them, clad in a brilliant saffron cloth, as a full moon bathed the sentinel face of a nearby stone Buddha. ‘We must weaponize to kill the traitor J.R. Jayewardene.’

The armed subversion of the JVP has justified the government’s drift to authoritarianism in the name of preserving the only ‘five-star democracy’ in Asia. The ruling party has armed a private militia, at least 20,000 strong, many of them recently paroled criminals. Fifty thousand troops hitherto fighting Tamil guerrillas have been redeployed in the south to quell the insurgents and their sympathizers. And the government is operating death squads, which are targeting JVP suspects as well as legal political activists, opposition parties claim. Many innocents have been falsely accused and summarily punished in the bid to crush the JVP – the very pattern that has fed militancy in the north among Tamils over the past five years. Police have been personally indemnified against civil actions, extending a carte blanche for abuse, and international human rights groups have been blocked from investigating.

The recent announcement of an agreement between the government and the JVP to end the insurrection in return for the lifting of proscription was a promising sign – until it was discovered that the Minister of National Defense had been negotiating with hoaxers. But bringing the JVP into the mainstream means little when the mainstream itself – including many of JR’s inner circle – mistrusts the accord. Parliamentary ratification of the peace agreements, despite a UNP majority, could only be secured by strong-arm methods. Having whipped up his hardliners for years, even as he tried to negotiate a peace, JR found it very hard to contain them. Many right wingers preferred an outright Indian invasion so they could reap windfalls of international sympathy for once.

Sinhalese government bureaucrats have shown their true colors by dragging their feet on the provisions of the accord that require them to grant equal rights to the Tamils. For example, very few of the relief supplies and funds that Western donors rushed to the country have made their way from government ministries in Colombo to war-ravaged Jaffna as was intended. Priority has been given to the plight of Sinhalese refugees instead, even though Tamils in need outnumber them tenfold. The government also refuses to discontinue its West Bank-style settlement program in the crucial Eastern Province, and has erected bureaucratic barriers to the repatriation of Tamil refugees who fled to India – 100,000 of them. On a grimmer note, virtually none of the police or soldiers involved in any of the atrocities since India stepped in have been disciplined, sending ominous signals that the security of Tamils is still not a state concern.

In essence, the Indian presence has not, as intended, provided an umbrella under which Tamils and Sinhalese can seek reconciliation. Instead it has made the scheming more byzantine and covert, with both sides jockeying around India for position. Sinhalese bloody-mindedness has made matters worse. As a recently returned Sri Lankan expatriate scholar said, ‘There is simply no sense of repentance on the part of the Sinhalese, no sense that they were in the wrong for many years and are now suffering for it, no sense that they brought the very intervention they feared on themselves. The reaction is just the opposite. They say they weren’t tough enough. It’s a very spooky psychology.’ Only now coming to recognize the extent of the alienation that persists between the two communities, all that Indian diplomats can say is, ‘Nation-building takes time.’

The Indians are in a double bind. Even if they tame the Tigers, there is very little chance for lasting peace unless the Sinhalese south gives up deep-seated anxieties and accepts the legitimacy of Tamil autonomy without backsliding. Given the current mood in the south, that is unlikely to happen. Should anti-government pressure build to a more dangerous level, or should the 82 year-old President die, the situation may become uncontrollable for the peacekeepers. The very point of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka was to stabilize its own southern flank, but any direct movement of troops into the Sinhalese south could prompt a nationalistic backlash, uniting factions that are now hostile to each other. The ensuing bloodbath could further destabilize the situation and prompt a greater Indian intervention, which would be politically dangerous for Rajiv Gandhi, who already faces widespread public opposition over what many consider India’s Vietnam.

Gandhi’s Sri Lanka misadventure has emboldened his opponents. The unpopularity of the initiative among the 55 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu could hand his Congress Party an ill-affordable defeat in critical upcoming state elections. Bogged down by a few thousand guerrillas, the reputation of the Indian Army has been sullied under the watchful eyes of regional rivals Pakistan and China, as well as of armed separatists inside India. And its clumsy handling of ethnic factionalism bodes ill for India’s role in refereeing power sharing in post-Soviet Afghanistan.

The situation in Sri Lanka may in fact have grown so poisonous that a cathartic bloodletting is inevitable. Militants on both sides – backed up by significant bodies of popular opinion – embrace the idea of a nationalistic Gotterdammerung much more readily than that of compromise. The psychological breach between the two communities may be much too profound for ready reconciliation, no matter what agreements are signed and what platitudes mouthed. Even if the flames are banked for a while, the fuel will ignite again. As the Indians navigating them know only too well, the currents on both sides of Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide are vicious. Far from being the light at the end of the tunnel, India’s involvement in Sri Lanka may well prove to be just a sidestep in a steady descent into darkness.

*****

What India’s Emperor Needs

[Editorial; Economist, Aug. 6, 1988, p. 9.]

 The voters of the world’s biggest and most improbable democracy have chosen to be ruled for almost all of the past 40 years by three members of a single family. On August 15th, the 41st anniversary of India’s independence, a group of Indian opposition parties is to set the formal seal on an alliance whose main aim is to turn Mr Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress Party out of office in the general election due by the end of next year. Its more important by-product may be to turn India into the sort of place where power alternates smoothly from party to party – and from person to person, not all of them Jawaharlal Nehru or his direct descendants.

Does Emperor Rajiv need a plausible democratic opposition? Some say the country has bigger things to worry about. India’s 800m people have a GNP per person of only $290, slightly lower than that of the 1.1 billion people living next door in still-totalitarian China. India’s middle class is nearly as big as the entire populations of Britain and France put together: but the number of its dirt-poor people exceeds the whole population of black Africa excluding Nigeria. By third world standards India has done well to grow its economy by 5% a year in real terms during the 1980s; but that was less than half China’s alleged rate (with almost twice its population growth) over the same years. Never since independence has India got through to the growth per head that creates great Asian successes like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Rajiv Gandhi – Nehru’s grandson, Indira’s son – shares the family weakness for certain imperial vices: in particular high-handedness, opportunism and arbitrariness. To these Mr Gandhi has added some unhappy embellishments of his own: a bored inattention to the execution of policy; a style of life, at public expense, fit for a maharajah. Yet Mr Gandhi has done some impressive things since he took over in late 1984. An early dash for economic liberalisation was stopped short, but its benefits still make themselves felt. Mr Gandhi has improved India’s dismal relations with America. His policy of helping Sri Lanka defeat its Tamil guerrillas has been courageous. At home the horrifying and dangerous carnage in Punjab seems, for now, under better control. A mixed record. Is it really so worrying?

Yes. Mr Gandhi has failed in his early promises to cleanse Indian politics of the corruption that is eating ever more deeply into public life, and to reform the ever more unrepresentative Congress Party. The prime minister remains personally untainted by corruption charges. But the sale of any and all public favours has reached a level that discredits everything the government does – crucially its on-and-off efforts to unstrap the economy. Congress itself has become a nest of vipers which is not only self-seeking but demoralised. The worst result of the political decay is that it is stopping India from taking the decisions that would let its economy make its breakthrough.

Troubling obstacles to future growth are beginning to build up. The exceptions to past liberalisation swallow the rule: India cannot scrap licenses because somebody makes a fortune selling them. Foreign debt is up (the debt-service ratio has risen sharply over the past five years, from 17% to 27%); domestic debt has grown even faster, as the budget deficit expands to above 4% of GNP. Alarmingly, much of this has been due to a huge rise in the number of government employees – from 7m in 1961 to 17.3m last year.

Prodding another miracle

There were hopes that Mr Gandhi would tackle these obstacles at his own behest. He did not, or not head on; but nothing concentrates politicians’ minds like the thought of losing office. Is the opposition alliance that has crystalised around Mr Vishwanath Pratap Singh capable of forcing Mr Gandhi and his party from office? India had one disastrous experience with opposition rule, in 1977-79. This challenge may be different, and more permanent. The opposition has learned a bit about cooperation from last time. Mr Singh – a former member of the Congress Party who served Mr Gandhi as finance then defence minister – has built his campaign on an assault on corruption. His main allies have built their state organisations on decentralisation of local political power. Mr Singh is keeping quiet about economic liberalisation – though it is encouraging that he was finance minister when Mr Gandhi’s reformist tide was running strongest.

The main point, however, is not the planks in Mr Singh’s platform: it is that India should have a believable alternative government. India has the human wherewithal – an astonishingly well-educated population with a high propensity to save and a lot of entrepreneurial verve – to ignite the greatest Asian miracle so far. For that it needs the prod of a complete democracy. Russian and Chinese communists now happily observe that everybody, socialist and capitalist, obeys the same rules of economics. What too few people are willing to admit is that everybody is also driven in the end to obey the same rules of freedom and self-expression. Since becoming independent, India has looked a democratic prodigy. Forty one years on, it is ready to be a democracy grown up.

*****

Can Singh persuade India that its emperor has no clothes?

[India Correspondent; Economist, Aug. 6, 1988, pp. 17-18.]

The unimaginable now seems possible: an India without Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister. For the first time, Mr Gandhi’s leadership is being openly questioned by members of parliament belonging to his ruling Congress Party. More ominously for him, the opposition parties are at last putting aside their differences and uniting behind a man who has the look of a potential prime minister. He is Mr Vishwanath Pratap Singh, whose fight against corruption is being propelled beyond a crusade and into a serious campaign for power. India might not be the same again.

Perhaps Mr Gandhi’s colleagues know it. Their grumbles, taken separately, should be copeable with. Some, such as his ‘inaccessibility’ and his taste for foreign trips, seem petty. Others, including his failure to hold internal party elections and to attack corruption, are deeply serious – though they are problems that Mr Gandhi inherited and which he has said, sincerely, must be dealt with. But all the criticisms, the petty and the serious, were put down in a letter of complaint signed by some 30 Congress members of parliament and sent to the prime minister last week.

The spark that set off this revolt was provided by the party’s poor showing in June’s by-elections for seven parliamentary and 11 state-assembly seats. The Congress Party won only three of the parliamentary seats and five of the others. It lost the all-important parliamentary by-election in Allahabad to Mr Singh, Mr Gandhi’s former defence minister and finance minister.

The prime minister does not obviously court popularity. No doubt this shows merit in a politician. But his lack of rapport with ordinary people is a disadvantage for a leader. In December he took a ten-day holiday in the Laccadive islands with his family and some friends. Not only were the islands, in the Indian Ocean, declared off limits to ordinary visitors, but an aircraft carrier of the Indian navy was used to ferry guests; it stood by for the entire period. The party ate European delicacies like caviare and pate de foie gras, washed down with French wines. In a country as poor as India, this sort of behaviour does not go down well.

Mr Gandhi is not accused of being corrupt. But he leads a party in which corruption is rife. The corruption story of the year has been about the purchase by India of howitzers from the Swedish firm of Bofors. The sheer size of the Bofors kickbacks – 16% of the purchase price of $1.4 billion, some of which is assumed to have found its way into Congress Party coffers – has caused disgust throughout India.

That would not unduly disturb the ruling party if the opposition were in its usual shambles. But on July 25th the two most important opposition groups, the Janata (People’s) Party and the Jana Morcha (People’s Movement), a not-quite-party begun last year by Mr V.P. Singh, decided to merge into a single Socialist Janata Party (SJP). The merger is to be announced formally on August 15th, the day on which, 41 years ago, Britain’s last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, handed over power to Congress government in India.

The SJP is to become the centrepiece of a ‘national front’ that will include several powerful regional parties. Among them are the Telugu Desam, led by the filmstar-turned-politician, Mr N.T. Rama Rao, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh; the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by another former filmstar, Mr M. Karunanidhi; and the Assam Peoples’ Party, which threw Congress out of power in that state in 1985. The front also hopes to have electoral arrangements with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and with the Communist Party (Marxist), which governs West Bengal.

Will this patchwork hold together? Skeptics in Delhi recall that a cobbled-together government formed in 1977 by the original Janata Party broke up in 28 months. The comparison may be misleading. The four national opposition parties which merged in 1977 had to do so in a matter of days because Mrs Gandhi had given them just six weeks to face the people after she lifted her state of emergency. The shotgun marriage was followed by a quick divorce.

This time the opposition leaders have been sorting out their differences for more than six months. Every likely contentious issue has been discussed, and the leaders have had time to get used to the idea that they cannot all be number one. Even if Mr Gandhi calls an early election, instead of waiting until the last legal moment (at the end of next year), the opposition will not again be caught on the hop.

The passage of time has removed another hurdle to unity, the allocation of parliamentary seats to each of the constituents of the opposition alliance. In the past ten years the battle lines have become much more sharply drawn. In all but one or two states, only one big opposition party now faces the Congress Party. The SJP’s organisers say that in more than 400 of the 546 parliamentary constituencies there is only one obvious opposition candidate.

The opposition also has a genuine political programme. One promise is to get rid of corruption, Mr. V.P. Singh’s big theme. Another is to take real democracy to the villages. Village democracy was an important part of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology. In the first decade of independence the Congress Party established a system under which directly elected village councils in turn elected two higher bodies. At the top was the direct council – which, in theory at least, oversaw all local development programmes. Under successive Congress state governments these local bodies have withered. In sharp contrast, opposition-ruled states have regularly held elections for them.

So far so good, but there are plenty of perils. One is that under India’s anti-defection law any legislator who changes his party loses his seat. Thus when the Jana Morcha, which is not yet a political party, merges formally into the SJP, those of its members who are still nominally members of the Congress Party will have to give up their seats. Mr V.P. Singh is going to have a hard time persuading some of them to stick with him through a hungry period out of office. But he had better learn: being a good persuader is part of being a successful leader, especially if you are trying to move the world’s biggest electorate.

*****

It Still Looks like No Change

[Sri Lanka Correspondent; Economist, Aug. 20, 1988, pp. 23-24.]

Whatever chances Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike has of becoming Sri Lanka’s next president have been somewhat improved by the defection to her party of Mr Ronnie de Mel. For ten years Mr de Mel was finance minister in the government of President Junius Jayewardene. He was a national asset, persuading aid donors and foreign investors to keep the cash flowing to his hard-up country. In January he fell out with Mr Jayewardene, calling his ruling United National Party undemocratic. Through a series of constitutional wriggles, the government has managed to avoid calling a parliamentary election for 11 years.

Mr de Mel announced last week that he was rejoining Mrs Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which he had deserted in the mid-1970s. He will lose his parliamentary seat under the rules brought in by the Jayewardene government, but should regain it at the general election due next August. He may not have to wait even that long. A presidential election will probably be held in December, and the parliamentary election may be brought forward to coincide with it.

Mrs Bandaranaike and Mr de Mel believe that Sri Lanka is itching for a change of government. This, though, is far from sure, particularly if Mr Jayewardene stands again as president. The constitution limits him to two terms, but it would take only some minor tinkering to let him run for a third. The smart money of business backers says he will. The old man – he is 81 – prefers to keep everyone guessing.

He would be hard to beat. The island’s whole political structure has been built around the man who helped to found the United National Party in 1946, before independence from Britain. He led it to its biggest election victory in 1977, and took on the new executive presidency with its sweeping powers a few months later.

Admittedly, Mrs Bandaranaike is no lightweight. She was the world’s first woman prime minister, leading two administrations in 1960-65 and 1970-77. A commission set up by Mr Jayewardene to inquire into alleged misdeeds of her previous administration banned her from standing in the presidential election of 1982. Though in her seventies, she remains hungry for power. How she would use the power is unclear.

In a way now grown familiar around the world, the socialist policies of her governments led to economic constriction and to shortages which swept her out of office. Her Freedom Party had another setback in July when the government held on to three out of four seats in by-elections. She had hoped for a large protest vote by Sinhalese who dislike the 50,000-strong Indian peacekeeping force brought into Sri Lanka last year to help subdue the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the north and east of the island. The Tigers are at bay but not yet tamed. Even so, the India-Sri Lanka agreement no longer seems a handicap for the government. The parlous state of the economy, caused by five years of civil war and the consequent loss of tourist revenue and increase in defence spending, might have given the opposition an opening, but apparently did not.

This disappointment seems to have forced a rethink in the Freedom Party. It had previously been offering portfolios in a future government to the anti-agreement-with-India Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), if the Front stopped killing pro-agreement politicians. Mrs Bandaranaike may now try to make a deal with Sri Lanka’s third political force, the pro-agreement United Socialist Alliance, whose presidential nominee is Mrs Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika. Daughter is unlikely to challenge mother.

At a conference of Asian historians in Colombo President confessed: ‘No one knows how the people think. I have been in politics for the past 50 years and I am no better in this respect than when I started.’ The opposition’s best hope is that the voters will suddenly turn fickle.

*****

 The Press Takes a Strong Stand

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, September 23, 1988]

‘Rajiv Gandhi, come to your senses!’ chanted the crowd of some 600 angry newspaper employees who gathered in New Delhi last week. ‘Dictatorship will not work!’ The Sept. 5 protest against the prime minister and his government was a matter all sections of Indian press, for once, agreed on. Among the rank-and-file reporters and editors who marched down the city’s royal carriageway, Rajpath, were some of the biggest names in Indian journalism: octogenarian Ramnath Goenka, owner of the Indian Express chain of newspapers, respected elder editors Khushwant Singh and Nikhil Chakravartty, Magsaysay Award laureates B.G. Varghese and Arun Shourie, even M.J. Akbar, youthful pro-Gandhi editor of the Telegraph of Calcutta. They walked in 37oC heat to the lawns of the Boat Club, the capital’s traditional venue for rallies, and joined a solemn pledge: ‘Freedom of expression is an inalienable right the founders of the republic have guaranteed to us. We will protect it to the last drop of our blood.’ The next morning, newspapers and wire services went on strike and India had to do without its favourite dailies the following day.

The target of the press’s wrath was the 1988 Defamation Bill, a law proposed by PM Gandhi’s Congress (I) party as an adjunct to the country’s libel laws. The crux of the legislation is a new offence called ‘criminal imputation’ covering any suggestion made in the press falsely alleging that a person has committed a crime or anything that might amount to one. In itself, that is little more than a clarification of existing law, but what has upset all those connected with newspapers and periodicals is that anyone charged with the offence will have to produce evidence to prove that the imputations are true and that they were made for the public good. ‘While murderers, rapists and kidnappers are presumed innocent until found guilty, the press will be henceforth presumed guilty until found innocent,’ complains H.K. Dua, editor of The Hindustan Times and general secretary of the Editors’ Guild of India.

Although the bill concerns a non-partisan issue, it caused a storm when it was introduced into the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, on Aug. 29. Minister of State for Home Affairs Palaniappan Chidambaram and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Shiela Dixit refused to agree to an opposition request for a day’s postponement to allow time to study it. After two opposition walkouts and nine hours of debate, the controversial measure went through. The haste of that first step towards making the bill law only added to the ire of the newspaper people.

According to Asiaweek’s sources, the matter has its origins in a crisis control meeting between Gandhi and some of his ministers at mid-year. The PM’s administration had been rocked by press allegations of corruption, most notably in the awarding of big contracts to Bofors, the Swedish arms company, and HDW, a West German concern that sold India submarines. Gandhi asked his cabinet colleagues to look into legislation that could curb aggressive journalism and the task was assigned to the Law Ministry, which was to report to Chidambaram. The junior minister, a Harvard law graduate, himself helped draft the bill and has been its main proponent. ‘Published matters which are per se defamatory are one thing but defaming a person by charging him with a crime is quite another and there must be a law in this country to deal with such offences,’ he told the Lok Sabha.

Many agree with him that the law should ensure that the right to free expression does not degenerate into character assassination, but there is discontent with the way Chidambaram has handled it. ‘He came on too strongly,’ a senior cabinet source who has turned against the legislation told Asiaweek. ‘It would not have blown up in this nasty manner but for his reckless flamboyance. Now he has a lot of explaining to do to the prime minister.’ Sources close to Chidambaram was unprepared for the vehemence of the reaction from the press.

The bill was due to go to the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, on Sept. 5. The day before, however, PM Gandhi told a party seminar that it would not be debated at all during the current session, which has just ended. The decision was considered so momentous that state-run television interrupted its Sunday afternoon movie to announce it. Even so, the postponement did not deter the Rajpath march, and protests have continued, joined now by lawyers and some Gandhi allies who want the bill scrapped altogether.

India’s libel laws do not have much bite and their enforcement is lamentably slow. A ten year-old case involving a Times of India editor and an art critic was only recently decided, for example, with the two journalists sentenced to seven days’ imprisonment and a fine of $12.80. There is also wide agreement, even among the press, that some publications deliberately aim to destroy reputations. But, argues the conservative Times of India in an editorial, ‘Publications known for their strident and baseless allegations have tended to lose their readership.’ What is needed, concludes the Times, is to amend present laws to ensure that cases are given a speedy trial.

*****

Detained: Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kiddu

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, September 23, 1988, p.50.]

Detained: Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kiddu, 28, a senior leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group fighting for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, and fourteen fellow members; by Indian police in Madras, Tamil Nadu state, Sept. 12. Kiddu had been holding talks with the Indian government to end the fighting between the Indian peace-keeping force in Sri Lanka and Tiger guerillas. His arrest follows India’s declaration last month that it was tired of negotiating with the guerillas. Since then, Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene has signed an order merging the mainly Tamil northern and eastern provinces into one political unit, in keeping with last year’s Indo-Lanka peace accord. However, observers say the Tigers’ cooperation is essential for maintaining peace.

*****

Mixed Signals – Jayewardene decides to retire

[William E. Smith; Time, September 26, 1988, p. 8.]

 

Once again the politics of Sri Lanka seemed as tortuously complex as a grand master’s chess game, with the conclusion of the contest still many moves away. Last week President Junius Jayewardene, 82, astounded his countrymen by disclosing that he would retire in January, after ten years in office. With the nation torn by extremist groups purporting to represent both the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, Jayewardene also declared that elections to choose a new President would be held in December.

While many thought the aging President was getting out just in time, it was difficult to assesss the impact of his decision. On Friday the ruling United National Party (UNP) selected Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa as its candidate to succeed Jayewardene. Premadasa’s principal opponent will be former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Significantly, neither supported the peace agreement Jayewardene signed in July 1987 with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which brought an Indian peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka.

A week before, the President issued an executive order merging Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, home to most of the country’s 3 million Tamils (out of a national population of 16 million). Jayewardene then scheduled November elections for the newly merged provinces. Both steps, aimed at giving Sri Lanka’s Tamils a measure of autonomy, had been guaranteed by last year’s agreement with India. Following Jayewardene’s announcements, India declared a five-day unilateral ceasefire by its 70,000 troops in Sri Lanka. The purpose: to give militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been fighting a guerrilla war against the central government for the past five years, a chance to surrender their weapons and take part in the elections.

That seemed unlikely. But if Jayewardene’s concessions were not sweeping enough for the Tigers, they were far too generous for extremists of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP feels that the government is caving in to Tamil demands and in effect giving them a separate state. Last August, scarcely a month after the accord with India was announced, Sinhalese terrorists nearly succeeded in killing Jayewardene in a daring grenade attack inside the parliament building. Since then, they have killed more than 300 members and supporters of the ruling party, including 23 last week, and have paralyzed the party’s activities.

The JVP is also angry about the death of Wijedasa Liyanaarachchi, an attorney who frequently defended its members. An autopsy showed that the lawyer, who died in police custody earlier this month after his arrest on unspecified charges, had sustained more than 100 internal injuries caused by a blunt weapon. The legal community, as well as the JVP, was outraged. Declared Desmond Fernando, vice president of the Sri Lankan Bar Association: ‘The government is so desperate that it will take anyone into custody and subject him to torture and possible death.’

Jayewardene’s retirement and Premadasa’s emergence as the new UNP leader will alter Sri Lanka’s political equation. Premadasa is known to have links with the Sinhalese extremists and to favor a policy of leniency toward them. Observers in Colombo interpreted Jayewardene’s decision last week to release a prominent JVP member from prison as a move to promote Premadasa’s candidacy. Inevitably, these developments will send a signal of reconciliation to the Sinhalese majority. What they will say to the Tamil minority, as well as to watchful India, is an entirely different matter. [reported by Qadri Ismail/Colombo].

*****

Battling on Many Fronts

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, September 30, 1988, p.33.]

Most people knew Wijedasa Liyanarachchi as a brilliant activist lawyer. He often took legal action against pro-government goon squads harassing villagers suspected of sympathizing with the outlawed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), a militant Marxist-cum-Sinhalese chauvinist organization. ‘Few could match Liyanarachchi’s oratory in Sinhala,’ a colleague once observed. Few also knew of his secret life as a high-ranking JVP leader who penned many of the terrorist group’s chilling pamphlets in classical Sinhala. In August, Liyanarachchi was arrested on charges of having ordered the assassination of an opposition presidential candidate. Nine days later he died in police custody, with more than 100 internal and external injuries caused by a blunt instrument.

To the JVP, Liyanarachchi is a martyr. His death has intensified the group’s grim struggle to unseat the government. In recent months the insurgents have gunned down hundreds of members of the ruling United National Party (UNP), mostly in the island nation’s southern and western sectors, and have now become a much bigger security problem for the government than the Tamil separatists in the northern and eastern areas. For one thing, the JVP opposes the 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord, under which an Indian peacekeeping force (IPKF) has been stationed on the island in order to control the Tamils. The group is also against political reforms proposed to give the Tamils greater autonomy.

‘Liyanarachchi’s death was the spark needed to light an already volatile situation,’ says political analyst Sarath Gunawardene. ‘Dissent has spread rapidly, even to professionals like doctors and lawyers, who have always been a bulwark for the UNP.’ Among the more than 20,000 mourners at Liyanarachchi’s funeral were JVP second-in-command Upatissa Gamanayake and opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). ‘The funeral was an SLFP rally,’ reckons Gunawardene. ‘It established the close connection the government claims the party has with the JVP.’

That same day, the JVP assassinated several UNP supporters and derailed the Colombo-Matara night train with a mine. But the most successful action by the JVP was a Sept. 12 general strike. Shops, businesses, public and private transport and even government departments nationwide closed down. ‘It seemed to indicate the majority want a change of government,’ observed a Western diplomat. To prevent strikes from paralyzing the country, the government imposed emergency regulations classifying transport, electricity and water as essential services, and empowering security forces to force open shops closed by the JVP and distribute their goods free to the public.

The turmoil overshadowed developments in the mainly Tamil northern and eastern provinces. Although the IPKF, which arrived in July 1987, was originally to have been withdrawn within two weeks, the disarming of separatists has turned into a prolonged battle. While many have surrendered, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest group, continues to wage war. As a highly placed government source tells it, IPKF commander Lt.-Gen. Amarajeet Singh Kalkat pressured President Junius Jayewardene to move quickly on political reforms to give the Indian peacekeepers leverage on the Tigers. Accordingly, Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged on Sept. 9, paving the way for council elections in the new political unit. Kalkat then announced a five-day ceasefire on Sept. 15, which he later extended by another five days, and called on the rebels to ‘return to the path of peace and normalization.’ But the Tigers first want their leaders released, including deputy chief Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias ‘Kiddu’, who is imprisoned in southern India.

The authorities seem to be compromising on another point to win public support. With a presidential election due by December, the UNP has nominated Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa to succeed Jayewardene, who will not run again. Premadasa is known for his anti-India and anti-accord stand. Popular among the rural poor and the urban working class, he seems the party’s best bet against Bandaranaike, who is plainly seeking JVP support in her campaign. National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, who has been ambivalent about the peace accord, is tipped to become PM if Premadasa wins. The JVP has countered by calling for a common opposition candidate dedicated to ridding Sri Lanka of ‘foreign interference.’ The JVP’s platform: scrap the peace accord, abolish the provincial councils set up under the agreement and send the IPKF home.

Continued...Part 10

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