A note on the Indian handling of its Southern Front
By: Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan

Even though Lanka and Ravana are names carrying a stigma among the Ramayana literate populace, Indians do not entertain any malice towards the present day Sri Lanka. An innate suspicion and the consequent feeling of insecurity have historical reasons for the Sinhalese towards India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular. Sinhalese misgivings stems from the experiences of repeated military expeditions from the mainland to the island over a period of more than 2000 years. This attitude is directly related to the manifestations of the Sri Lankan policies towards India even today.

The many fold interactive historical associations among the Kingdoms in the region including those in the island have left many landmarks in history as recorded in stone inscriptions and literary writings. Matrimonial alliances, military conquests, cultural exchanges and pilgrimages brought about this active interaction.

For the Sinhalese, the only external front was the influences and forces from or through Tamil Nadu. Whereas for the Tamils, it was from all sides and the Sinhalese front formed a very insignificant factor.

Given this historical and mindset backdrop, it is very easy to perceive the Indian (Tamil Nadu) reaction to the recent ethnic related happenings in Sri Lanka.

During the first half of this century, Sinhalese were concerned with the continued arrival of Indian labour and Muslim businessmen to serve British interests. There were anti-Muslim riots in the hill country. Muslims not only refused to evacuate but hit the Sinhalese back during the riots. Thereafter until now the Sinhalese have not tried their hands at the Muslims.

Later, Sinhala Maha Saba members protested against the presence of Indian port workers and asked them to return home. Keralites working in the harbour and suburbs of Colombo voluntarily evacuated after 1925. Emboldened by this, the Sinhala chauvinists were toying with the idea of deporting the entire Tamil plantation community.

For the first time in the century, India reacted to the emerging Sinhala nationalism and sent Jawaharlal Nehru to Colombo in 1939, which resulted in the formation of the Ceylon Indian Congress. Later the Indian National Congress at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru passed a resolution criticising Sri Lankan initiative to deport the plantation Tamils. Indian National Congress leaders were aware that any unrest due to maltreatment of plantation Tamils would become a concern of Delhi and Chennai.

Unlike the Muslims, the plantations Tamils were weak. This weakness of the Indian labour community beginning with the Keralite evacuation, gave the post independent Sinhala majority parliament to legislate two enactment’s, one in 1948 and the other in 1949, disenfranchising the plantation Tamil community.

India became furious. Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru was at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. He refused to accept the plantation Tamil community back in India. He said that it was an internal problem of Sri Lanka. They were neither Sri Lankans nor Indians, and hence ‘stateless’.

Prior to independence in February 1948, Sri Lankans and Indians freely traveled without restrictions. A visa regime was initiated after the independence and Sri Lanka was particular that only visa holders from India could travel to the island. India was more liberal and visas could be obtained in India at the point of landing.

Until the early fifties, fishermen and traders from northern Sri Lanka arrived freely by boat at the many landing points along the coast of Tamil Nadu. Export and import of commodities were allowed from these landing points from Tuticorin stretching to Nagapattinam. But Sri Lanka permitted cargo and human traffic only from designated landing points like Colombo, Talaimannar, and Jaffna.

Sri Lanka declared any transportation of cargo and humans from its traditional landing points as illegal. The traffic was either called smuggling or illegal immigration (Kallaththoni). To enforce this policy Sri Lanka established naval units at Kankesanthurai, Karainagar, Talaimannar and Kalpittiy. India did not even have police outposts along the coastline to check this traffic. India acknowledged the historical exchange of goods, services and people across the Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar and did very little to close its maritime border with Sri Lanka. India’s borders were porous and the Sri Lankan borders had taps. This allowed the Tamils on both sides of the border to openly flout the customs, excise and immigration laws of Sri Lanka.

Colombo’s policy towards the traditional boat traffic between the shores of north Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu reflected its need to protect the status quo in the ethnic composition of the island. Colombo was irritated by the slow influx of economic migrants who illicitly crossed over to the island and started settling down. These migrants maintained close connections with their kith and kin in Tamil Nadu and periodically remitted their savings allegedly causing a drain on Colombo’s foreign exchange reserves but in effect were a paltry amount.

The naval units in northern Sri Lanka arrested many Tamils in the high seas and sent them to a camp in Slave Island for punitive detainment and subsequent deportation. This camp was a source of irritation between Colombo and New Delhi because New Delhi suspected that Colombo was dumping its unwanted plantation Tamils also into this camp for deportation to India. Tamil Nadu did not protest either to New Delhi or to Colombo of the inhuman conditions its own citizens were undergoing in the camp of Slave Island.

From 1947-1964, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru prevailed upon the Indian establishment to reject any proposal from Sri Lanka to take back the plantation Tamils. Having made nearly a million Tamils stateless, the Sinhala chauvinists were progressively depriving the Eelam Tamils of their rights to language, their traditional homeland, education and employment.

The Sinhala colonisation of the Tamil homeland began in right earnest in 1952. Sinhalese was made the official language in 1956. Tamils had a taste of Sinhala violence in 1956. This was followed by a Government sponsored pogrom in 1958. There were no large-scale protests in Tamil Nadu because the Congress party in power at that time in Tamil Nadu refused any public debate on what was essentially a ‘central subject’ - the external affairs.

However, the Dravidian parties made their impact in the form of articles, platform speeches and press statements. Mr. C. N. Annadurai, the DMK chief had with him a sober lieutenant from Eelam, Mr. Eelaththu Adigal who gave the DMK leadership a detailed analysis on the consequences of the emergence of Sinhala chauvinism.

Mr. E. V. Ramasamy Naiker, the DK leader was espousing the cause of the downtrodden in Tamil Nadu. In the process of attempting to dismantle the caste-based Hindu feudalism, he was hoping that the underprivileged might be better off as Buddhists. Mr. E. V. Ramasamy Naiker visited Colombo once. Mr. E. V. Ramasamy Naiker met Dr. G. P. Malalasekhara, a Sinhala Buddhist ideologue at a Buddhist conference in Burma.

Tamil Nadu’s emotional reaction to the horror and agony inflicted on the Eelam Tamils in 1958, was conspicuously low, even though Sinhala moderates like Mr. Tarzie Vitachi, were abhorred by the ghastly inhuman acts of their fellow Sinhalese.

In 1960, Eelam Tamil reaction to the successive discriminative enactments, and government orchestrated violent onslaughts sharpened and took the form of a campaign of peaceful non-violent civil disobedience movement. This peaked in April 1961 with the gheroing of the district administrative units in the Tamil homeland by Tamil Satyagrahis.

Mr. C. Vanniasingham came to Tamil Nadu and met leaders of all political parties in an attempt to galvanise the slender support base in Tamil Nadu for the Satyagraha movement. The Congress leadership pointed its fingers to Delhi and told Mr. Vanniasingham to contact them as external affairs was a central subject. Mr. C. Rajagopalachari told Mr. Vanniasingham and others from Eelam that the United Nations should be invited to intervene in the conflict. He also wrote a one page article in Swarajya (1961) clarifying the two different situations, viz., first of the plantation Tamils and second of the traditional inhabitants of Eelam. In that article he appealed to the Sinhalese leadership to exercise restraint and exhibit statesmanship in dealing with its own citizens. He supported a federal form of government as a sound basis for containing the grievances of the traditional Tamil inhabitants.

Mr. Kasi Anandan, then a student in Chennai, undertook a one-day token fast in Marina in support of the Satyagraha campaign in Sri Lanka and Mr. C. Rajagopalachari gave him the fruit juice to end the fast. That was the first protest registered in the recent past in Tamil Nadu in support of the Eelam Tamils.

Subsequent to the visit of Mr. Vanniasingham, Mr. Pathmanathan from Batticaloa was stationed in Chennai by the Federal party to be in touch with the leaders of political parties in Tamil Nadu. Also there was a large number of Ceylon students studying in the various university colleges in Tamil Nadu. They also lobbied with the political leadership. Consequent to the efforts of these students (Mr. Kasi Anandan and myself included), Mr. C.N. Annadurai agreed to hold a public meeting at Marina in early 1961 in support of the Satyagraha campaign in Eelam. That was the first public meeting in Tamil Nadu during this century held in support of the Eelam Tamils in their campaign for justice.

This meeting was an isolated event. However, it gave the Eelam Tamil Campaign a pat in the back. Sinhala chauvinists confirmed their suspicions of an ‘unholy link’ between the island Tamils and the mainland Tamils.

Tamil Satyagraha movement received a soft blow from Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru in his last visit to Colombo during 1964. He reportedly said that the concept of Satyagraha ended with Mahatma Gandhi and was not any more relevant in the resolution of internal conflicts. During this visit he avoided a direct meeting with Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who by then had emerged as the leader of the Tamil protest campaign. However, persistent pressurisation resulted in an invitation to Mr. Chelvanayakam to a function held at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner where and Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru was also present.

During the Indo-China war, Colombo wanted to play a mediator role. Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike went to Peking and then she came to New Delhi. This obviously irritated New Delhi. India did not feel comfortable with influences Colombo may have from forces inimical to India.

When and Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru died, Mr. Lal Bahadur Shastri took over as Prime Minister. New Delhi wanted to reduce the number of hostile fronts across its borders. It wanted to mollify Sri Lanka and relented to one of its repeated requests to take back the plantation Tamils.

The Sinhalisation of the island required, the deportation of the plantation workers, the colonisation of the Tamil homeland, Giving Sinhalese language, and Buddhist religion the pride and prominence in the social and political fabric of Sri Lanka.

The 1964 Srimavo-Shastri pact was a step forward in the Sinhalisation of the island to which New Delhi unwittingly consented by taking back about 400,000 plantation Tamils in return for conferring Sri Lankan citizenship to the rest. This retrogressive Indian contribution (a policy of appeasement) was rejected in toto by the Eelam Tamil leadership, which from 1948 has been campaigning for the full-fledged citizenship rights to all plantation workers.

The 1965 Hindi agitation and the emergence of DMK to wield power in Tamil Nadu rekindled the hopes of the Tamil protest campaign in Sri Lanka, but then the Eelam Tamil leadership had frozen their civil disobedient movement for a while to participate in the Colombo government. That silenced any slender support that DMK might have wanted to give to the Eelam Tamil protest campaign.

It should be said to the credit of the Tamil Nadu leadership that at no time in their post independent history they established any form of political contact with the Sinhalese leadership or with the Colombo government to the detriment of the Sri Lankan Tamils. None of them visited Colombo or publicly received Sinhalese leaders in Tamil Nadu

The message from Tamil Nadu to the Sinhala leadership was clear.

“Your attempts to discriminate and/or dislodge the Tamils in Sri Lanka will not be recognised by us. We will not be friendly with you. Because you are a government recognised by the Govt. of India, we are obliged to provide you the necessary official facilities.’’

The presence of a Deputy High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Chennai has been one of the official windows Sri Lanka enjoyed in Tamil Nadu to monitor and measure the pulse of the Tamil Nadu reaction to its Sinhalisation agenda.

When the Sinhalese youth revolted against the government in Colombo in April 1971, India rushed a small contingent of armed men in support of the Colombo government to quell the insurgency. But that bonhomie was not to last long.

Few months later, during the liberation of Bangladesh, Colombo provided landing facilities to Pakistani military aircraft in their long haul from Karachi to Dakka circling the subcontinent. This was resented by India, which had the US seventh fleet at its doorstep. A disloyal neighbour at its southern front in spite of India's policy of appeasement!

During the early seventies, the magnitude of the discriminatory measures by the Sri Lankan government provoked the Eelam Tamil youth to develop armed resistance.

This was spontaneous and unorganised during its early phase. Many of the resisters hailing from Valvettithurai, (a town famous for disregarding the Sri Lankan post independent customs regulations) were familiar with the Tamil Nadu coastline. These youth used to cross over for safety to Tamil Nadu after 'retaliatory operations'.

It happened during the mid seventies, that Mr. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister agreed to the deportation of a youth suspected of having master minded 'retaliatory operations' in Sri Lanka. Mr. Kuttimani was brought to Sri Lanka and was under custody for some time. Tamil Nadu was not helping the Sri Lankan government but was obliging a request (once again to appease Colombo) from New Delhi for extradition. There were mild protests in Tamil Nadu when Kuttimani was deported.

Colombo insisted and India agreed (once again to appease Colombo) to a maritime delimitation in the Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar (1974 and 1976). Colombo got the island of Kachativu and a virtual control over the seas of Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar. Sri Lankan navy was granted the 'official' licence by India to shoot and kill anybody it pleased anywhere in these waters in addition of extortion of money, fish-catch and fishing gear from the traditional users of these waters. These waters became the water-grave for a large number of persons, all of them Tamils (traders, migrants, militants, refugees and fishermen).

More than one thousand Tamil Nadu fishermen have lost their lives and many thousands have been maimed and India stops at asking its High Commission in Colombo to facilitate the return of arrested fishermen. The usual series of diplomatic expressions - 'concerns', 'protests', or 'warnings' - were never used by New Delhi in checking these trigger happy naval boats from Colombo. One incident worth mentioning is the recent (1999) incursion by the Sri Lankan navy into Indian waters to reach the village Ollaiyadi in the island of Rameswaram and destroy the hutment there (a feeler for future incursions) and return with impunity!

During the early seventies Mr. Rajaratnam from Eelam came to Tamil Nadu to lobby for the cause of the Eelam Tamils. A youth leader, Mr. R. Janardhanan hired a house in Egmore, (courtesy, a Muslim philanthropist) to run an organisation whose basic object was to lobby for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. Mr. Rajaratnam was behind these activities. Periodical briefings to political leaders, conducting small meetings and publishing leaflets were the main activities of this organisation. Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam visited Chennai along with his lieutenants and met all the first and second line leaders of all political parties in Chennai. Mr. & Mrs. Amirthalingam amplified his feeble utterances during discussions. Mr. Rajaratnam and Mr. Janardhanan arranged for these meetings. Mr. Karunanidhi was then Chief Minister.

In early 1977, when Mr. Chelvanayakam was ill, Mr. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister sent a neurosurgeon and later when Mr. Chelvanayakam passed away, second line leaders from DMK and ADMK visited Jaffna to pay homage. This was reflective of the efforts of Mr. Rajaratnam during his mission in Chennai. Thus began the active interest Tamil Nadu took to the sufferings the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The 1977 manifestation of the violent pogrom drew huge protests in Tamil Nadu. Some of us (including Mr Kovai Mahesan and myself) telephoned the DMK leaders from Colombo and urged them to do anything that will protect us from the hooligans. The state of Tamil Nadu observed a 12-hour hartal in July 1977, for the first time in support of the Eelam Tamils, answering a call of Mr. M. Karunanidhi, who was then the leader of the opposition in the assembly.

The Tamil United Liberation Front and the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu had by then established an emotional relationship which had sincerity of purpose, dedication to values and most of all a deep involvement to uplift the Tamils in Eelam and in the plantation sector of Sri Lanka.

They could have easily chartered out a political course with connotations of a greater Tamilakam but that was not anywhere in the agenda. TULF wanted the restoration of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka towards sharing power in Colombo or having it on their own. Similarly Dravidian parties were not only forging electoral alliances with national parties in India but also enjoying the fruits of such associations by sharing power in Delhi.

In 1979 I attended a seminar in Gujarat representing one of the front organisations of the TULF. Followers of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement were at the seminar. An informal request seeking India's intervention in taming Sinhala chauvinism were made by me to Mr. Narayan Desai and Mr.Radhakrishnan (both of them from Gandhi Peace Foundation). This was conveyed by them later to the then Prime Minister Mr. Morarji Desai.

During his visit to Colombo during early 1979, Prime Minister Mr. Morarji Desai publicly offered to facilitate a settlement of the ethnic conflict. TULF leaders led by Professor K. Nesiah had few rounds of discussions with Prime Minister Mr. Morarji Desai at Colombo. This was the first offer by any Prime Minister of India to facilitate a settlement. That was the beginning. Thereafter India began providing a firm support base to the Tamils.

The Tamil militancy became more organised and forceful. This gave Colombo the necessary excuse to enlarge its security establishment. Numerous army camps spotted the Tamil homeland. Many locations in the Tamil homeland were identified for Sinhala colonisation. Ex-convicts and goondas were settled in these colonies.

During this period (1977-1983) Tamil militants crossed the Palk Straits many times to establish pockets of support bases in several parts of Tamil Nadu which after 1983 became their centres of training. Also during this period Tamil militants organised themselves into groups. Their group names included two key words - Liberation and Eelam.

These and other related events were ferments for the next mega pogrom of 1983. Mrs. Gandhi as Prime Minister sent Mr. Narasimmha Rao to Colombo during the rioting days of August 1983. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Mr. M. G. Ramachandran spoke on the All India Radio emphasising the support Tamil Nadu will provide for the Eelam Tamils. President Jayawardane was working on an undeclared war and Mr Rao's visit could not stop it.

The spontaneous emotional upheaval in Tamil Nadu to the 1983 events in Sri Lanka received recognition all over India. Dravidian and National parties vied with each other to support the Tamil Eelam liberation groups. Indian media gave adequate coverage. Mrs. Gandhi ignoring protocol, invited Mr. Amirthalingam for talks. The protection of Tamils in Sri Lanka was India's duty President Giani Jail Singh said. India's de facto recognition of the Tamil militant groups was another step in that direction. India provided them arms and training. The people of Tamil Nadu enthusiastically supported the Tamil militants. They were like cheering supporters at sports events. They gave financial, logistical and moral support to the militants and stopped at that. In similar situations in Africa, Latin America and the Far East some of such supporters transformed themselves into recruits either as volunteers or as mercenaries. To the credit of Tamils on both sides of the Palk Straits this transformation did not take place at all.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi identified the Colombo Government as lackey of US interests in the region. Verification is necessary about a statement attributed to her calling Mr. Jayawardane as a 'political old fox.' India was trying to understand the real nature of the Sinhalese polity.

But Colombo has been known for outmaneuvering India. When Mr. Rao's mission failed, Mr. Parthasarathy took over as India's chief negotiator. He had an open mandate from Mrs. Gandhi to tame Colombo. But Mr. Jayawardane did not oblige. He led India into a maze of political lanes and by-lanes and bought time.

Passing away of Mrs. Gandhi and the arrival of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi made a relaxing change for Colombo. Mrs. Gandhi was the most feared of all Indian Prime Ministers in Colombo. She was not there. For Mr Jayawardane the wind was taken off the sail and as he indicated in Bangalore, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was a political novice.

Mr. Bhandari took over from Mr Parthasarathy. The Thimpu talks were a set back to India. Mr. Dixit was appointed. One incident - when Mr. Dixit had to wait at Prime Minister Premadasa's door for a few hours before being called in - provided the hint for India bashing.

Colombo cleverly manipulated India to send its forces to contain Tamil militancy. The 1987 agreement between India and Sri Lanka provided for an inkling of a political institution (for the Tamil homeland), which never took shape.

The signing of the agreement was a clear infringement of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese nationalists were fully aware of this. Their token protest was through a naval rating that hit Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in his back inside the Presidential Palace of Colombo. This was not the first time Sinhalese were hitting Indian leaders. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi's grand father Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, while addressing a meeting at Galle Face Green in July 26, 1939 was hooted and humiliated by thugs organised by the Sinhala Maha Saba's Mr. A. E. Gunasinghe to protest at India's intervention in the formation of Ceylon Indian Congress. The naval rating who hit Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 was a follower of Prime Minister Premadasa (in turn a disciple of Mr. A. E. Gunasinghe).

Using the agreement, India was gearing to translate the emotions of its Tamil Nadu citizens to save the Eelam and plantation Tamils. However, Colombo merticulouly perfected the transformation of these Indian objectives to turn the Indian forces fight the very same people (Tamils) they came to save! That is why Mr. M. Karunanithi as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu reflecting the mood of all Tamils did not go to receive the returning IPKF at Chennai harbour.

Two major events after 1987 put India's support to Eelam Tamils in hibernation. First was the Tamil support for the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The second was the murder of Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu. Two minor factors were the

(1) Spill over violence in Tamil Nadu that received undue media attention in India, and

(2) Murders of moderate Tamils and fellow militants.

During 1991-95 India was gasping for a way to wriggle out of the embroilment of the 1983-1989 past. There were mistakes made by all sides in handling the situation. India did not want the situation to get out of its hand and allow the western countries to poke in. At the same time both warring parties were reluctant to consult India.

The conquest of Jaffna in November 1995 brought the Eelam Tamil issue back into focus in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Karunanidhi led DMK, organised a black shirt procession to test the reaction of the people. Later he called for a 12-hour hartal on 30th November 1995, which was supported by all political parties in Tamil Nadu including the ruling AIADMK. This marked the beginning of the revival of the support base for Eelam Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

However, past experiences prevented the translation of this support into any form of action. The establishment in Delhi, as Colombo's Foreign Minister Kadirgamar once said, "the Brahmins of the South Block" both in the defence and external affairs call the shots. Because they understood the dubious attitude of Colombo, they are not prepared take chances and for another bout of disappointment from their southern front. Also the Tamil militants have nearly reached a point of no return from their position of liberating Tamil Eelam. That is why south block is hesitant to chalk out another diplomatic offensive to give effect to the emotional and political content of the growing protests in Tamil Nadu.

Mr. Gujral as Foreign Minister and later as Prime Minister after 1995 drew a policy charter for India's neighbours, which was later called the Gujral doctrine. This policy envisaged among others, the

(1)Non-interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring states

(2) Non-availability of Indian soil for dissenters and revolters from neighbouring states, and (3) Dismantling of any image India had as big brother in the region.

This was a big boon to Colombo. Even after BJP led coalition took over in 1996, Mr. Gujral had his say in Foreign policy whom the south block frequently consulted.

The continuing movement of most people across the borders of India's neighbours does not enjoy any legitimacy in any country in the region. If they are innocent people, these countries may close their eyes and allow them to move across the British introduced demarcations violating British introduced travel procedures. But among these migrants are -

  1. Armed persons

  2. Political asylum seekers

  3. Economic offenders

  4. Missionaries, and

  5. Persons intentionally seeking to change the demography of regions in the subcontinent.

Also India is hosting a Government in Exile for a neighbouring liberation movement. In this context, as I said earlier, the southern front is an insignificant front for India. This by default is to the advantage of the Sinhala chauvinism and its continued violent manifestations.

Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan,
Formerly with the University of Jaffna,

Courtesy: Tamil Canadian 1 Feb 2000