India Shows its Hand
The second round of peace talks, in August 1985, between Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan Government, in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, ended suddenly in failure when the Tamil militants and TULF leaders walked out. The militant leaders were then asked to fly to New Delhi for consultations with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but the leaders of the ENLF went underground, and only the TULF and the PLOTE responded.
Meanwhile, the speech made by H W Jayewardene, the government’s representative, at the failed peace talks on August 12 was described as a diatribe, without any legal characterization. Jayewardene, it was said, failed to come up with any positive arguments and instead concentrated his entire speech on countering the proposals put forward by the Tamil militant groups and the TULF. There was nothing constructive in his verbal duel with the Tamil groups at Thimpu, except the vituperative rhetoric flourishes.
It was an accepted view that Harry Jayewardene at Thimpu was simply arguing a case against the Tamil militants for and on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. It was said that he miserably failed as a negotiator, and instead of exploring possibilities of bringing an end to the prevailing ethnic conflict he argued in such a way as to create further discord.
J N Dixit, in his Assignment Colombo, comments, “Though there were no polemics and angry exchanges during this round, Harry Jayewardene, instead of negotiating, behaved as if he was arguing a legal case on behalf of the Sri Lankan government against a petition by Tamils, though it was a non-existent court.” – page 37.
H W Jayewardene visited New Delhi after the collapse of the conference in Thimpu. He spent a week there, talking to Rajiv Gandhi and other senior Indian officials. Following discussions with the Foreign Secretary, the outcome was the drafting of a fresh set of proposals in a working paper, which, it was agreed, could serve as the basis for further negotiations.
“Hector Jayewardene was hedging in New Delhi on the working paper prepared in New Delhi,” writes M R Narayan Swamy in his Tigers of Lanka from Boys to Guerrillas, and continues, “but he finally and reluctantly signed it.” – pages 159-160.
Each page of the document was initialed and signed on August 30, as some Indian officials had begun to suspect Sri Lanka and they wanted Hector Jayewardene to place his signature, so that the government would not back off.
The document was known as “The Delhi Accord”, or the “Draft Framework of Accord and Understanding”, between the two governments. It accepted “province” as the unit of devolution. The working paper provided safeguards for the Tamils by accepting that a committee of Tamil-speaking members of parliament would be set up under the constitution, and without this committee’s consent, no legislation affecting Tamils could become law.
The paper was no breakthrough and simply carried some specific commitments. It did not provide for the merger of the North and Eastern provinces. Powers were to be devolved to the provincial councils, by parliament with a simple majority vote. Though law and order were among the subjects to be devolved, the police would be drawn from the national police service.
The most contentious issue, land allotment and settlement, was not clearly interpreted. The paper failed to define many important issues, but the power to determine national policies, and the power to provide guidelines, were retained by the center. Harry Jayewardene assured that he would carry the document back and get it approved by the Sri Lankan government, and then India could negotiate the proposals with Tamils by taking up the role of mediator in the conflict.
On September 4, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister A C S Hameed informed the Indian High Commissioner, J N Dixit, that the Sri Lankan cabinet and parliament were not ready to approve the document brought back by H W Jayewardene from New Delhi.
The Sri Lankan side contended that the basic proposals prepared by India included some constitutional and legal elements that, could alter the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state, and they might become the first step towards Tamil areas seceding from Sri Lanka.
“I carried back the message of the Sri Lankan government that they must continue their attempts to evolve a meaningful devolution package for Tamils. I was also asked to convey that, the period between September and December 1985 should be utilized by the Sri Lankan government for this purpose, so that when Jayewardene meet Rajiv Gandhi in Dhaka later at the inaugural and founding session of the SAARC, they could decide on further steps to be taken to resolve the ethnic problem during their bilateral meeting at the summit.” Assignment Colombo by J N Dixit, pages 38-39.
Representatives of the Tamil United Liberation Front later met in Delhi to discuss the working paper and matters relating to the maintenance of the ceasefire beyond the three-month period. The ceasefire, which was to expire on September 18, was unilaterally extended by Sri Lanka. A monitoring committee was set up by the government to monitor the workings of the ceasefire, but for all practical purposes the war raged on.
The collapse of the Thimpu talks created a rift between New Delhi and the Tamil militant organizations. Furthermore, the abrupt ending of the conference was a severe blow on the ego of Romesh Bhandari, the Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, whose longing to leave an indelible mark in the political scenery of Sri Lanka was crushed, as his retirement days were close, as he was to leave office in March 1986.
Consequent to the failure of Thimpu talks, three Sri Lankan Tamil leaders were ordered to be deported from India as their role was perceived to be obstructionist, with regard to the efforts being made by the government to find a solution. They were S C Chandrahasan, Anton Balasingham and N Satyendra. By the time the order was issued, Stayendra, a lawyer who represented TELO at Thimpu, had already left India. On August 22, the Indian government served deportation orders on Balasingham and Chandrahasan and they were arrested on the same day.
According to Adele Balasingham, “The arrest of Bala was swift and decisive. The police party arrived at our flat and ushered him out the door and he was gone. There was no mention of my position, so I assumed that I was not mentioned in the deportation order. Mr Pirabakaran, away in the training camps, immediately went underground in anticipation of punitive action.
“I felt that Bala’s deportation order was an expression of India’s displeasure over the collapse of the Thimpu talks and that he would be called back if the Rajiv administration was seriously concerned about a negotiated settlement. Bala also encouraged me to remain behind, assuring me that he would be returning to India within a couple of weeks.
“On the following morning, almost all the Indian national newspapers, both English and Tamil, highlighted Bala’s deportation. The newspaper reports were sympathetic towards the LTTE. Some editorials were critical of Rajiv’s administration for the ‘hasty, impudent action’. Soon after Bala’s expulsion from India, Tamil Nadu political parties took up the issue. Mass demonstrations were organized protesting Bala’s deportation and demanding his return.” The Will to Freedom pages 102-04
Chandrahasan in his disposition stated, “I had my own skepticism about the talks. So I was not associated with it. TULF was represented by Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam. Three persons, myself, Balasingham and Satyendra, the lawyer representing TELO, were ordered to be deported by the Indian government, after the Thimpu talks. Satyendra was on his way out. So he left before the deportation order was issued. Balasingham and myself were taken to the UK by an Air India flight. Balasingham got down at UK. He was having a UK passport. I was taken to the US. When I was asked by the immigration authorities, as to why I had come, I said I had not come on my own will. Then they ordered that the flight might take me back to India.”
According to M R Narayan Swamy, in his Tigers of Lanka from Boys to Guerrillas, “Chandrahasan added to the drama by going on airborne hunger strike and refusing to alight at Boston, where the Air India plane carrying him was diverted due to bad weather in New York. He said he wanted to go back to Madras. ‘I have done no wrong to India or Indian authorities,’ he said in Boston, where scores of Tamils had gathered at the airport to greet him.” – page 150.
In Madras, Dravida Munnetra Kalagam (DMK), took to the streets, denouncing Rajiv Gandhi. Back in Jaffna, thousands of Tamils participated in a noisy demonstration, condemning Gandhi and the Sri Lankan president.
Chandrahassan was sent back from Boston to Bombay on August 26. He was kept at Bombay airport for three days before being allowed to return to Madras. But by that time Balasingham, who was in London, had wired Rajiv Gandhi that he had the utmost trust and confidence in the Indian prime minister and he offered maximum support to Indian efforts to bring peace to Sri Lanka.
But the Indian authorities did not yield and were adamant. On September 12, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said, “The deportation of Balasingham was ordered in the public interest for reasons which cannot be disclosed. These orders will continue as long as these reasons remain valid.”
Later, ENLF leaders, including Prabkaran, met Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi. The LTTE leader wanted to dispel Rajiv Gandhi’s impression that, he was acting under the influence of Anton Balasingham, whose loyalties were suspected by many in New Delhi, because of his British citizenship.
During the meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, Prabkaran appealed to him on the deportation of Balasingham. He said that it was wrong to describe Balasingham as the LTTE’s ideologue. “I do all the thinking and planning formulations in the LTTE. As I am bad in English, Balasingham articulates my views. He only articulates. He does not influence me.”
Subsequently, the Indian administration yielded to the pressure exerted by Prabakaran and of the other leaders of the ENLF, and the Indian High Commission in London issued a visa and air ticket for Balasingham to fly back to New Delhi.
Earlier, prior to the ENLF leaders meeting Rajiv Gandhi, the TULF leaders met him in New Delhi. They disagreed with the documents prepared by India and H R Jayewardene on August 30, 1985. Amirthalingham wrote to Rajiv Gandhi that there were three issues which the Tamil delegation would never compromise.
They were the Tamil homeland, the devolution of power in regard to land and land settlement and law and order. TULF in its letter specified, “To ensure the security of the Tamil people, it is not sufficient in the present climate to have a regional police force only. Certain measures in respect to armed services have to be adopted: The armed services must be withdrawn from the North and East. The position can be reviewed by the president in consultation with the chief minister after a period of five years. The composition of the armed services shall be brought in line with the national ethnic ratio within five years. The creation of a separate Tamil and Muslim regiments should be undertaken.”
These proposals were conveyed to the government of Sri Lanka. The ENLF leaders were not happy with the TULF leaders due to their meeting with Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi.
On September 2, former members of parliament and TULF leaders, V Visvanathan Dharmalingham (65) and Murugesu Alalasunderam (46) were found dead of gun shot injuries. Apparently, two young men went to Alalasunderam’s house at Kalviyankadu and requested a character reference, which are usually issued by men of standing, as well as by members of parliament. As he went inside to collect his pen and stationary, the men pounced on him and bundled him into a waiting car at gun point. The kidnappers then went to Uduvil, Chunnakam, where Dharmalingham was attending a marriage ceremony, and told him that Alalasunderam wanted to see him. When he came near the car, he too, was pushed inside and the car sped off.
The next day Alalasunderam’s body was found in a thicket at Nallur with bullet wounds in the chest and arm. Dharmalingham’s body was found near Thavady cemetery, with a bullet wound in the forehead. A handwritten note found nearby said, “This is the punishment for those who pawn the Tamil Eelam, especially the TULF.” It was signed “Tamils with Self-Respect”.
Dharmalingham, born in 1918, entered politics in 1944 as an elected member of the Uduvil Village Committee and he later became its chairman. Though he was a leftist, he joined the Lianas Thamil Arasu Kadchi in 1960 and successfully contested the Uduvil electorate and was its member until 1977. In 1977, when the Uduvil electorate was changed to Manipay, Dharmalingham contested successfully as a TULF candidate, and remained as a member until the TULF decided to boycott parliament in 1983.
Dharmalingham was one of the best friends of this writer and he visited this writer’s house on September 1, at Chunnakam. Dharmalingham requested to meet some people in Colombo and requested to convey a message to them on his behalf, as the writer was traveling by train to the capital.
As the Kankesanthurai-Colombo bound mail train travels overnight, this writer arrived in Colombo Fort railway station next day early morning and was shocked to read the morning newspapers, which carried the news of the death of Dharmalingham.
Dharmalingham’s son Siddhartan was with PLOTE and he blamed the killing of his father on one of the groups in the ENLF. Thousands of Tamils participated in the funeral ceremonies of the two TULF former members of parliament. Speaker after speaker condemned the brutal slaying of the two men.
No groups claimed responsibility. Subsequently it became clear that it was Sri Sabaratnam, the TELO leader who had ordered his men in Jaffna to terminate the two men. He told his people in Jaffna it was a calculated political trick and he managed to pass the blame initially onto the LTTE.
Later, it was rumored that the Indian intelligence agency RAW, which controlled the TELO, told Sabaratnam to exterminate the two former members of parliament.
In 1985, Tamil militants targeted Tamil civilians more than the Sri Lankan armed forces. According to government figures, 61 Tamils, including the two TULF former members of parliament, were killed by Tamil militants. Tamils accused of collaborating with the government were singled out, arrested, taken and tied either to a lamppost with board hanging on their necks with details of their alleged crimes before being taken away and shot.
The LTTE in the early days, used to arrest members of rival groups, dub them as traitors, and kill them. The LTTE said that it was only executing dangerous and anti-social elements, who were not only hardcore criminals, but also traitors acting as agents of the government to sabotage the Tamil people.
“The internal killings in militant ranks erupted as early as the late 1970s, and never halted. The earliest killings took place in the LTTE. Since a few of the early entrants to militancy were criminals, a bit of thuggery crept into the ranks. Chetti, once an associate of Prabakaran, for example killed a fellow Tamil Kannadi, after their joint escape from the prison. A few years later, Chetti was himself shot for allegedly being a police informer. The year 1982 saw more such killings. The LTTE shot Sivashanmugamoorthy alias Sundaram of PLOT, which retaliated by killing two LTTE sympathizers. Prabakaran and Uma clashed in Madras. After a brief lull, the LTTE gunned down ‘Oberoi’ Thevan and Mano Master.” Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerrillas by M R Narayan Swamy, page 176
The lamppost killings became a common phenomenon in Tamil areas. It was said that it was punishment meted out to anti-social elements amid Tamils. Nobody knew, how one was determined to be an anti-social element, and who decided and who authorized the verdict.
The Tamils in the North and East failed to agitate against such killings and the militants took the people’s silence as acceptance of their ruthless killings.
On September 18, ENLF leaders Prabakaran, Balakumar, Sabaratnam and Pathmanabah arrived in New Delhi for talks. They had two rounds of talks with Romesh Bhandari and also met Rajiv Gandhi. They informed that they could be persuaded to accept a satisfactory package of the devolution of powers.
While a Tamil Eelam Army (TEA) delegation was in New Delhi, on September 20, the Home Guards, the paramilitary organization, entered a house in Amparai district and shot dead 15 Tamils, who were watching a video movie. The dead included two infants and their mothers. In retaliation, TEA cadres attacked the police station at Kilinochchi. It lasted for nearly five hours, and finally the TEA exploded a truck loaded with explosives, which resulted in nine policemen and soldiers being severely burnt.
Meanwhile, J R Jayewardene attended a conference in the Bahamas in October 1985. Before leaving, he told the press that Sri Lanka would not go beyond the Provincial Council, and if the formula worked out, and if the working paper was acceptable to the Tamils, then he was ready to hold Provincial Council elections immediately and hand over power to the provincial administrations.
India had also expressed concern over reports that suggested that Sri Lanka was attempting a military solution to the crisis. The rapid increase in Sri Lanka defense spending and reports of an escalation in the violence towards the end of the year were viewed with disquiet. India was seriously concerned at the activities of foreign security and intelligence organizations in Sri Lanka. There were reports of Israeli intelligence organizations and British security experts being involved with Sri Lanka, following President Jayewardene’s visit to Pakistan in April 1985 and the visit of the president of Pakistan to Sri Lanka in December, 1985.
Meanwhile, in the first week of December, the TULF presented its proposals to Romesh Bhandari. The 32-page document, proposed a federal set up for Sri Lanka. The preamble stated that, even though the TULF had received a mandate from the Tamils in 1977 for the establishment of a separate state of Tamil Eelam, it had indicated its willingness to consider an alternative. As the Sri Lankan government had failed to submit any meaningful proposals that merited consideration, stated the report, the TULF had decided to submit a set of proposals to help India’s efforts to work out a satisfactory solution to the Tamil problem.
The document proposed a federal form of government. It said that Sri Lanka would be a union of states and the Tamil-speaking northern and eastern provinces would constitute a Tamil linguistic state. It further said that, the legislative power of the union would be vested with parliament and its membership would be reflected according to the ethnic percentage of the union. Special provisions had to be included to ensure that the representation of Muslims and Tamils of Indian origin.
On behalf of the Indian government, J N Dixit, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, handed over the TULF’s proposal to the Sri Lankan government for its studied response. On January 30, 1986, Bernard Tilakaratne, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Colombo, handed over the Sri Lankan government’s response to Romesh Bhandari.
It was a 57-page document and a point-by-point rejection of the TULF’s proposals. The Sri Lankan government rejected the federal form of government envisaged in the TULF’s proposal and insisted on the unitary character of the constitution. It also rejected the merger of the north and eastern provinces to form a single unit. In New Delhi, the Indian prime minister made public his dissatisfaction with Colombo’s response to the TULF’s proposals. Romesh Bhandrai said, “There are yawning gaps.”
Subsequent to Rajiv Gandhi’s comment of dissatisfaction, the Sri Lankan government revised its response about the granting of northern and eastern provinces the powers which the Indian constitution had granted to its union territories. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Sahul Hameed handed over a second set of revised proposals. Immediately, the TULF rejected the union territory model, as falling short of the kind of devolution the Tamils wanted.
Rajiv Gandhi met President Jayewardene at the SAARC summit in Dhaka in December 1985. He conveyed India’s concern over the situation in Sri Lanka, however, he reiterated India’s continued willingness to assist in the quest for a peaceful solution.
In the meantime, there was a change of guard in the Indian External Affairs Ministry, in March 1986. Romesh Bahandari, the flamboyant secretary, retired and A P Venkateswaran succeeded him.
Rajiv Gandhi decided to send P Chidambaram, the Minister of State for Internal Security, and Natwar Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, to Colombo by the end of April for discussions with J Jayewardene and other leaders. They went to Colombo on April 30, 1986 and stayed on till May 4.
They were sent to Colombo to persuade Jayewardene to agree to the merger of the north and eastern provinces. After prolonged discussions with the Indian ministers, Jayewardene agreed to improve the devolution package and to consider making suitable institutional arrangements for the Provincial Councils, especially in the northern and eastern provinces, to consult with each other and act in coordination on matters of mutual interest and concern.
Earlier, on December 23, 1985, a bomb had gone off at the house of Anton Balasingham, his Australian wife Adele and his nephew in Besant Nagar, a plush Madras suburb. They escaped injury and Balasingham blamed Sri Lankan agents, while the TULF and PLOTE blamed the Mossad of Israel.
Adele Balasingham in her book, Will to Freedom, wrote, “People from all over Tamil Nadu visited us to express their concern. Hundreds of people passed through our house immediately after the incident. The leaders of all organizations, EPRLF’s Padmanabah, Sri Sabaratnam from TELO, Balakumar from EROS, Sidharthan from PLOTE, Mr Sivasithamparam from TULF came as show of Tamil solidarity. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr M G Ramachandran, was to visit us, but for security reasons cancelled his visit. The police began their investigation. They heard my story and showed me a fair woman for identification. The investigation took a different turn with the police suspecting the explosion to be an internal job of the LTTE. Eventually, at Bala’s suggestion, the real culprit was put under observation and was caught making a telephone call to his Sinhalese boss in Colombo – Lalith Athulathmudali. The potential assassin was taken in for questioning and, in a fit of guilt, broke down and told the story. His female accomplice was his niece.
“The offender remained in custody in the Chennai central jail for many months. All efforts undertaken by the state police to register a case of attempted murder were frustrated by the authorities of the central government, since it implicated a senior minister of Jayewardene’s cabinet, with far reaching implications in the inter-state relations. Both the governments colluded in hushing up the entire episode and Mr Kandasamy [the alleged assassin] was eventually released and mysteriously vanished to Sri Lanka to live in peace and without the stamp of criminality.” – pages 109-110
During this period, the hostile activities of Pro-LTTE Tamil groups were equally a cause for concern. Intelligence Bureau reports highlighted several instances of the use of explosive devices by pro-LTTE Tamils in Tamil Nadu. On January 29, 1986, an explosion carried out by the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army damaged a parapet wall of a bridge on Thanjavur Tiruvaiyur road. This incident assumes importance due to the fact that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was scheduled to proceed by that route the next day.
The Pound Bazaar incident of 1982 was repeated in March 1985, and at this time police did not even register a criminal case. The incident has been described in the book Tigers of Lanka from Boys to Guerrillas by M R Narayan Swamy as follows, “On March 7, 1985, a group of Tigers barged into the office of the Tamil Information Center in Madras and fired at some PLOTE members there, injuring two. One of them was Kannan who had been with Uma during the 1982 Madras shootout with Prabhakaran. The PLOTE told the police that Kannan had been taken to Besant Nagar in Madras where the LTTE had an office. Although Tamil Nadu Police rescued him, it wanted Uma to register a case of kidnapping against unknown persons. Uma refused and insisted that he would name the LTTE in his complaint. This led to violent arguments with the senior police officials.” – page 180
During 1985, the EPRLF was also engaged actively in arms smuggling. One Albert and 11 Sri Lankan militants of EPRLF were found entering the high seas of Rameswaram and the Coast Guard apprehended them. They took Albert and Sivanandam in their boat and directed others to follow them at Mandapam, but the boat with 10 occupants disappeared. Two boxes of dynamite detonators, machine guns etc were seized from the militants.
According to Rohana Gunaratna in his book Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, page 155, “The Indians controlled the growth of PLOTE by allowing the Indian customs to seize four containers of military hardware documented as carrying waste paper which had arrived in Madras from Singapore on April 2, 1985.”
Another incident occurred on December 23, 1985, indicating the ongoing internecine warfare between the rival Sri Lankan militant groups operating in Tamil Nadu.
Four militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Tamil (EROS) joined together to form a front called EELAM National Liberation Front (ENLF) during April-May 1985.
In December, 1985 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and TELO developed a misunderstanding and fought each other in Sri Lanka and India.
While the Sri Lankan Tamil militancy continued to have its repercussions in Tamil Nadu, the government of India went ahead in its ongoing efforts to use its good offices to bring about a peaceful solution to the problem. However, the task was not easy and various efforts met with only limited success. The annual report of the Ministry of External Affairs for the period 1985-86 has summarized these efforts. (Relevant extracts are reproduced below.) “Negotiations between the Sri Lanka government and the Sri Lanka Tamil groups were arranged with India’s assistance and while these have not yet brought about a solution, efforts at bringing the two sides closer through a process of direct and indirect negotiations are continuing.
“While the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka remained unresolved, an important positive development in the bilateral relationship between the two countries was the agreement in January, 1986, to end once and for all, the long-standing problem of statelessness of persons of Indian origin in Sri Lanka. The government of India agreed to grant citizenship and accept the repatriation of the balance of 94,000 remaining applicants for Indian citizenship together with their natural increase. The Sri Lanka government for its part undertook to accord citizenship to the remaining stateless persons whose applications were pending together with their natural increase. It is hoped that this process will be completed expeditiously.”
Several instances of smuggling by the LTTE have also been documented by the Under Secretary, Department of Revenue, India.
India was gradually drawn into the Sri Lankan ethnic turmoil head-on after the Choolaimedu incident on Novemebr 1, 1986, Deepavali day – the festival of lights.
Militant groups stationed in Tamil Nadu behaved as if they were a law unto themselves, taking advantage of the patronage extended to them by the chief minister and the political leaders of Tamil Nadu, RAW and other intelligence agencies of India.
On 1 November, following a dispute over the hiring of an auto rickshaw, a member of the EPRLF sprayed bullets from his semi-automatic weapon on unarmed civilians in Madras at Choolaimedu, killing a young lawyer and causing injury to many others. The crowd arrested Douglas Devananda, who was the military commander of the EPRLF in Jaffna, who was present.
Those suspected of being involved were taken into custody by the Madras city Police Commissioner, Walter Devaram. On hearing news of the incident and the arrest of EPRLF cadres, Sri Pathmanabah and other leading members of the EPRLF went underground.
P Kirupakaran, a friend of this writer and a leader of the EPRLF, and later the Minister of Finance in the North East Council, met this writer at Purasawakam, Madras and told of the Choolaimedu incident and requested to organize five or six air tickets to New Delhi for Sri Pathmanabah, Kirupakaran and others to leave Madras immediately and discreetly, as they were being hounded by the Tamil Nadu police. As the situation was critical, this writer helped them and they safely boarded for New Delhi.
The state of Tamil Nadu was shocked over the incident. K Mohandas, former Director General of Police, in his book MGR: The man and the myth,quotes extensively from The Hindu as follows:
“The Hindu in an editorial titled, A brutal outrage in Madras: ‘As if it were an ally of the Jayewardene regime in its propaganda campaign against the terrorist menace, a section of the armed militancy among the Sri Lankan Tamil turned murderously against the civil society in Madras on Deepavali day … but when those professing loyalty to the goal of national liberation and also India’s good offices, repay the hospitality that the people of this nation have provided ungrudgingly, with terrorist machine-gunning in the streets of Madras, democratic public opinion has every justification for feeling horribly betrayed – and for demanding that the government should protect its citizens through a combination of law and order and political action. The Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRLF) must be made to realize – at two levels – that it is fully accountable for the outrage of stockpiling heavy automatic weapons, (including a machine carbine and an automatic stengun in Madras) and unleashing some 60 rounds against those who cannot even, by the remotest stretch of a fevered imagination, be termed their enemy … popular and political feelings in Tamil Nadu has not at all taken kindly to the fact that, on the same day, some cadres of another Sri Lankan Tamil militant Organization [The People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam – PLOTE] descended upon a Thanjavur village with arms to back up their threat causing, fortunately, no loss of life in the process.
“The point is, The Hindu continued, that these have not been isolated incidents on Indian soil in the post-1983 period … this doesn’t imply that India’s settlement oriented patience with some wild tendencies among the militants – who must be incorporated in any peace plan if it is to have any chance – will allow them to get away with murder mayhem, that in the host’s own name.” – pages 141-142.
Tamil militants had opened up bases, offices and training camps all over Tamil Nadu and were engaged in all types unlawful activities since 1983. There were more than 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in camps and they were taken care of by the federal government of India. Beside these refugees, there were about 50,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in Madras, Madurai and Trichy living without proper visas.
The Tamils in the cities were under constant attack from Tamil militants. Cases of house break and thefts, assaults, murder, black-mailing, extortion and kidnapping were rampant. The Tamils avoided reporting to the police for fear of retaliation by the militant groups.
The PLOTE and TELO were involved in kidnapping well-to-do Tamils for ransom and the EPRLF exhorted money by adopting threats and intimidation. They collected several millions of dollars as ransom. Manickathasan, who was the No 1 military man for PLOTE in Vavuniya until 2000, was in charge of the kidnappings.
In the second week of December 1986, when this writer was returning from Madras airport, he, too, was ambushed. His driver was Indian, and he reported the incident to the police in Madras, where the Commissioner, Walter Devaram, took prompt action to arrest the PLOTE cadres involved, except for Manickathasan and Mukunthan alias Uma Maheswaran.
After the signing of the Peace Accord all the PLOTE cadres were released on the intervention of RAW and allowed to go to Jaffna. Except for Manickathasan, all those involved in kidnapping activities were killed by the LTTE. Manickathasan was killed in a bomb explosion in 2000.
Those militant groups branded as anti-social elements and expelled from Sri Lanka, spied on Tamils living in Madras to exhort money.
The Choolaimedu incident took place at the height of militant atrocities. After the arrest of the EPRLF assailants, the Director General of Police, K Mohandas, briefed M G Ramachandran, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He insisted that it was high time that some sort of action was taken to keep Tamil militants under control, otherwise the lives of innocent citizens in the state would be in danger.
At the same time, the Chief Secretary of the Government of Tamil Nadu received a message from the Home Ministry in New Delhi, instructing the police and security authorities in Tamil Nadu to ensure stringent security arrangements for the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit scheduled to be held in Bangalore from November 15-17, as the President of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, was scheduled to participate.
The Indian government was apprehensive about Tamil militants and insisted that a close watch should be kept on their movements.
“Two days later, M G R summoned me and straightaway asked me to disarm the Sri Lankan Tamil militants based in Tamil Nadu. He added that this action had to be taken under instruction from the prime minister, in view of the SAARC summit scheduled to be held shortly in Bangalore, which was being attended by President Jayewardene, and also because of the ‘unlawful’ activities indulged in by them in Tamil Nadu despite attempts to control them. I told the chiefmMinister that this was an almost impossible task in view of the sophisticated weapons known to be in possession of the militants and that this was a matter which should be more appropriately handled by the army or paramilitary organizations.
“I also told him that it was politically unwise for the Tamil Nadu government to take such action, as the matter involved a foreign country and, therefore, it fell under the Center’s jurisdiction. M G R told me that the prime minister was reluctant to intervene directly and use the army or the paramilitary forces because, in the event of an armed confrontation, there would be international ramifications. MGR further told me that I should ‘somehow’ disarm all militants, as he [MGR] had given his word to the prime minister that, the Tamil Nadu government would undertake the task.” MGR: The Man and the Mythby K Mohandas, page 143.
The disarming operation of the Sri Lankan Tamil militants was code named Operation Tiger, also called Operation Disarm and Humiliate. It was planned meticulously and carried out successfully by Mohandas and by his hand-picked Tamil Nadu police officials on November 8, in the early morning.
Tamil Nadu police entered the offices and bases of the Sri Lankan militants, dragged them out from their beds and took them to police stations. Police recovered nearly US$12 million worth of sophisticated weapons, including SAM missiles, AK-47 rifles, rocket launchers, two-inch mortars, hand grenades, rifles and pistols and large quantities ammunition, including long-range cartridges, apart from powerful explosives. The Tamil militants who earlier had been hailed as liberators and heroes were treated as common criminals and were set free after their personal details were recorded.
On the evening of November 8, Foreign Secretary A P Venkateswaran instructed Mohandas to put all the Tamil militant leaders under house arrest. New Delhi Police already had PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran under house arrest. M G Ramachandranm, who had been in New Delhi while Operation Tiger was under way, returned to Madras that evening.
“When I met M G R at his residence on his return from Delhi, he merely instructed me to make available LTTE Supremo Prabakaran for consultation over the phone, and that he [M G R] would be proceeding to Bangalore. He vaguely hinted that there might be some talks there. Sensing his mood, I took leave.
“That night, I got a call from Bangalore from a senior IB official stating that M G R desired that Prabakaran and his political advisor Anton Balasingham should be flown immediately to Bangalore by a special IAF aircraft which was waiting for them at Thambaram. I crosschecked with M G R, who confirmed what the IB official had conveyed. The Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, P Chidambaram, who was also learnt to be present in Bangalore. I did what I was asked to do, after taking precaution of frisking the LTTE supremo and his advisor and sending two CID officers as security guards during the flight. The grapevine told me that Prabakaran might agree to some sort of patch-up with Sri Lankan government and hence the trip to Bangalore. However, the expectation was short-lived, because the two LTTE leaders were reported to have backed out, at the end of the marathon parleys.” M G R: The Man and the Myth by K Mohandas, page 156.
At Bangalore, Prabakaran refused to drop the Eelam demand. The Indian side had two long parleys with Prabakaran and Anton Balasingham and persuaded them to be flexible in their demands and to meet the Sri Lankan president, who was at Bangalore for the SAARC summit meeting. As Prabakaran did not budge from his stand, the meeting with Jayewardene did not take place.
M G R, who had assured Rajiv Gandhi that he would persuade Prabakaran to come around, reacted furiously at the LTTE supremo’s intransigence. Apparently angry at the outcome of the Bangalore talks, M G R instructed K Mohandas to seize the wireless sets the militants were clandestinely using for communication with their bases in Sri Lanka.
“If the wireless sets were to be seized and put out of action, the intelligence agencies would be deprived of reliable sources that would furnish information about the intentions and activities of the militants. But M G R was insistent and the sets were seized without any resistance. An annoyed Prabakaran went on fast in protest. Added to this was a public statement issued by Union Minister for Home Affairs, P Chidambaram, that the center was not consulted or informed of the seizure. Acting on the statement, M G R ordered the return of not only the wireless sets but also all the arms and ammunitions seized during Operation Tiger, to the militants.
“I felt that the matter had come to a head and refused to be a party to this enterprise. Seizing and returning of lethal arms looked like mere child-play to M G R. I applied for two months’ leave [incidentally my daughter’s marriage had been fixed to be held within a month], reserving the option to prematurely retire at the end of the leave period. I informed M G R accordingly and there was no reaction except that he would sanction my leave with immediate effect.” M G R: The Man and the Myth by K Mohandas, page 157.
Back in Sri Lanka, by January 1986, fratricidal warfare had erupted among Tamil militant groups.
Initially, Tamil civilians tolerated and acquiesced to the extra-judicial killings committed by the militants, and it gradually became an unwritten edict for the militants to arrest anyone they preferred, branding them as anti-Tamil elements, and publicly shooting and killing anyone. Thus the Tamil militants enjoyed a license to kill and to get away with murder with impunity.
As the Sri Lankan government began to lose control of the Jaffna peninsula, Tamil militants went about establishing a new order in the peninsula. The LTTE, TELO, EPRLF, PLOTE and EROS began to impose taxes on a variety of goods, including cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos, cement, electronics and jewelries, while the EPRLF issued radio licenses and postage stamps. LTTE cadres sold detergent soap, jam and pickles and other products manufactured by them. The taxes were collected by gun-toting cadres of the respective militant organizations and used for their sustenance.
Businessmen and those involved in wholesale trade began to be kidnapped by the militant groups for ransom. A spate of robberies all over the Jaffna peninsula was reported. Houses, shops and temples were burgled, but none of the militant groups admitted to crime. The general public were aware that no one other than the militant groups, which were armed with lethal weapons, were the only people who could undertake such acts.
In the meantime, in Jaffna there was a clash between the TELO leadership. Das, alias Ratnam, from Udupiddy, was the TELO’s leader for the Vadamaradchy region. He was a terror and was feared for planning ruthless executions. Bobby was the military leader of TELO in Jaffna city and was close to Sri Sabaratnam. As the rivalry between the two leaders escalated, a section of the TELO cadres based in Madras requested Sri Sabaratnam to go to Jaffna and bring peace between the two rival leaders. In January 1986, Sri Sabaratnam arrived in Jaffna with dozens of heavily-armed TELO boys providing security.
Sri Sabaratnam visited all the TELO camps in the peninsula, but spent most of his time at the main base at Kalviyankadu, located near the University of Jaffna.
On March 10, Bobby went to Nelliady and met Das. After formal discussions, he requested Das to come to Jaffna Hospital the next day to meet some wounded TELO cadres. When Das arrived the next day with four of his guards, Bobby and his men were waiting with guns, and opened fire. A shot fired by Bruce from Manthikai, Pull, killed Das, and his four guards were also killed. Later, further shooting inside the hospital killed a primary court judge and three hospital staff members were injured.
The next day, TELO came up with posters blaming Das and his group for several murders and robberies. This created a serious crisis within TELO and several of Das’ group left TELO. University students marched in protest against the killings, but angry Sri Sabaratnam loyalists led by Thillai, fired at the students, killing two of them and injuring eight.
On April 25, 1986, the Sri Lankan Navy shot and destroyed a LTTE boat and the Tigers announced that the dead included Major Aruna. Earlier, on the previous day, the navy blasted a TELO boat, killing 10 TELO men. Both groups called for strikes to mourn their dead.
The LTTE put up posters all over Jaffna hailing Aruna. At Kalviyankadu, TELO cadres tore up the posters. The LTTE sent two of its members, Bashir Kaka and Murali, to the TELO camp at Kalviyankadu, to protest against the removal of the posters. When the two Tiger cadres arrived they were seized, beaten up and charged that the Tigers were holding four of their cadres.
The LTTE then sent one of its local leaders, Lingham, to the TELO office, where he was shot and killed by TELO men. When the incident was reported to the LTTE leadership in Madras, they stopped attending ENLF meetings. On April 29, hundreds of LTTE cadres moved in to kill TELO cadres in their camps in a surprise move using rocket launchers and heavy armories. The attack was ordered and led by Kittu, the LTTE’s Jaffna Commandant.
Sri Sabaratnam fled from Kalviyankadu camp and was on the run. The Tigers warned the PLOTE and the EPRLF not to intervene in the battle they were engaged in with the TELO. Everyone was asked to keep away. LTTE propaganda vans went around Jaffna peninsula announcing that TELO had been disbanded in Sri Lanka and that anyone found sheltering Sri Sabaratnam, the leader of the TELO group and other members, would be inviting death.
The LTTE announced that they had recovered much stolen property, including items from Hindu temples in the Peninsula. These were put on public display for people to recover.
In the Eastern province, the fratricidal war had yet to erupt. The LTTE commander, Kadavul, called a meeting of the major Tamil groups in Batticaloa and said that there would be no fighting anywhere in the East. Immediately, the LTTE high command send in Kumarappa as the overall commander of Batticaloa and the Eastern province. Kumarappa overruled Kadavul’s decision and he carried out orders with deadly efficiency by annihilating TELO cadres.
Kittu and his men began house-to-house searches for Sri Sabaratnam, the TELO leader. While the searches were on, the Tigers warned over loudspeakers that Sri Sabaratnam should not be sheltered. Finally, Kittu and his men located Sri Sabaratnam in a tobacco garden, at Kondavil. Immediately he was shot in his leg to stop him from running. Shaken, Sri Sabaratnam fell on his knees and begged Kittu to spare his life. He said that he would talk with Prabakaran, but Kittu was in no mood to listen and he sprayed bullets with his AK-47 rifle.
Immediately, jubilant LTTE members announced all over Jaffna that Sri Sabaratnam had been captured and killed and the war they were waging with TELO had ended. Sabaratnam’s body, with more than 25 bullet wounds, was displayed at the Kondavil bus-stand, and then delivered to his family for cremation.
During the LTTE-TELO war, the PLOTE gave shelter to many TELO cadres. It also helped Bobby, TELO’s Jaffna commander to escape to India. The PLOTE was well aware that it would be the next group to be attacked by the LTTE. Therefore, they announced on October 29, 1986, that they were withdrawing from Jaffna.
Immediately, the Tigers announced that the PLOTE had been banned in Sri Lanka and ordered the PLOTE cadres to hand over all their weapons with immediate effect. On December 13, the Tigers sent word to Mendis, the PLOTE Jaffna commander, to come to their office to identify some captured TELO members. On arrival he was arrested and dumped into an LTTE prison, Kandan Karunai, located on Navalar Road, Jaffna. This was a notorious LTTE torture center.
Those with connections to Kittu visited Mendis, who said that he had been mercilessly beaten. Mendis was subsequently shot and killed by Tigers. His body was not returned to his family, with the LTTE only returning his gold chain and clothes.
Meanwhile, after expelling Douglas Devananda as its commander of Jaffna, the EPRLF replaced him with K Premachandran, alias Suresh. He began to reorganize his cadres in Jaffna and in a move to exert authority on the EPRLF, Suresh issued postcards on December 13 to be used in Tamil areas.
On the same day, the LTTE launched an attack on the EPRLF in Jaffna peninsula and 17 EPRLF cadres were shot and killed. The LTTE alleged that like TELO, the EPRLF was under the control of the RAW. Kittu announced the banning of the EPRLF in Sri Lanka. By the time the fighting had subsided EPRLF had lost more than 100 members.
By the end of 1986, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam had emerged as the dominant Tamil militant group in Sri Lanka, as the TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE were proscribed and had been chased out of Tamil areas in Sri Lanka. EROS, which always took a compromising stand with the Tigers, was allowed to operate.
In Jaffna, a bizarre political turn took place when Sathasivam Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, the Jaffna regional commander for the LTTE, accepted an invitation from Captain Jayantha Kotelawala, a long-serving Sri Lankan army officer, for them to meet outside Jaffna Fort. After this first meeting, which took place inside a car just outside the fort, Kittu and Captain Kotelawala met regularly at Tiger headquarters in Jaffna. The LTTE leaders repeated in several public meetings that Tamils should never depend on India and any peace won through India would not be honorable.
The Sri Lankan government made a surprise move by announcing a cessation of hostilities during Christmas, and then an LTTE delegation led by Kittu met a Sri Lankan government team of officials at the Town hall building in Kankesanthurai. The meeting was held in camera, lasting for more than three hours.
The meeting set off alarm bells in the Indian capital, and the LTTE quickly sensed the mood in New Delhi to declare that it would not come to any conclusion without Indian’s mediation. The also asserted, “In policy and principle we have accepted and respected India’s mediation and we will continue to support India’s genuine efforts to support to find a political solution to the deteriorating crisis in the country”. This was said to be face-saving effort to assuage Indian concerns over direct negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.
Prabakaran, in the mean time, made it clear that a Tamil homeland was the basic demand and there would be no compromise on anything less than this. He also announced his intention of leaving Madras for Jaffna after the humiliating episode of the confiscation of arms, followed by the confiscation of communication equipment by the Tamil Nadu police. He revealed his suspicions of a plan to have him killed in India, and the danger would remain as long as he remained in Madras. He expressed his confidence that once he was back in Jaffna, the struggle for Eelam would intensify.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam withheld information of Prabakaran’s departure from Madras until the third week of January 1987.
Rumors had been rife that the LTTE had decided to announce its intention for a unilateral declaration of Tamil Eelam by January 1, 1987. On this day, instead of the unilateral declaration of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE declared its plan to license all motor vehicles in the Jaffna district, and an elaborate plan to control traffic in the district in the absence of a civil administration. The declaration was followed by LTTE-trained uniformed policemen controlling traffic. These measures were a prelude to the LTTE gradually taking over the civil administration in the North and Eastern provinces.
The Sri Lankan government was quick to respond by introducing an economic embargo on January 2. It came into effect immediately and prevented the transport of fuel, food, and other essentials into the Northern province, followed by an escalation of attacks by Sri Lankan security forces in the North and Eastern provinces. There was a murder spree, which led India to announce that it was suspending its mediatory efforts.
As the fear of Sri Lankan security forces occupying the four-storey Veerasingham hall and the Jaffna Post Office located just 50 meters from Jaffna Fort, in the heart of Jaffna city, became evident, the LTTE burnt down the two buildings on January 20.
On February 11, Sri Lankan air force planes bombed the government hospital at Adampan, in Mannar district. Then, helicopter gunship pounded the hospital, ultimately causing the death of more than 50 patients and employees. The carnage continued and several dozens of innocent civilians were shot and killed in Vavuniya, Trincomalee and other places. The LTTE vowed to fight on, but the Sri Lankan army, with its sophisticated firepower and aerial bombing, overran several of the Tiger’s positions between Elephant Pass and Vavuniya.
The security situation in the country underwent a significant transformation in the first and second quarters of 1987. In the early months of the year, Tigers continued with their well-established practice of landmines and ambush of government forces. The government security forces often retaliated by opening fire and conducting search and destroy operations in civilian areas. In one such incident, on January 28, the STF (Special Task Force), following a landmine blast which killed 12 of its men near Batticaloa, entered a nearby town and captured 83 non-combatant civilians, including 22 employees of a shrimp farm, and took them to an abandoned church, where they were killed. The Sri Lankan security forces began to advance on all fronts against Tamil militants.
On March 4, the Indian government representative at a human rights meeting in Geneva lambasted the Sri Lankan government, condemning it of committing acts of terror, intimidation and atrocities on innocent Tamil civilians. In his annual report, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment singled out Sri Lanka as a country of special concern. According to the report, “The situation in Sri Lanka, which finds itself caught in a spiral of violence and where civilians are allegedly tortured in order to extract information from them about planned acts of violence by the insurgent, is also a great concern.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s special envoy, Dinesh Singh, flew to Colombo for a closed-door session with President J R Jeyawardene, on March 13. The discussions were said to have reaffirmed the earlier plan that the governments agreed to in December 1986. Under this, they agreed to grant autonomy and not independence to the Tamil-majority Northern province and to the Eastern province, where Tamils had been reduced to 42 percent of the population.
Originally, in November 1986, Sri Lanka had offered to divide the administration in the Eastern province among small regional governments. The Tamils would govern where they had the majority and Sinhalese would govern in their majority area, Trincomalee.
But this approach was abandoned in the December plan, which instead allowed only for the province’s southern district of Amparai to be detached from the rest of the province. Amparai, largely populated with Muslims, would be joined to a neighboring province that was chiefly Sinhalese. Muslim opposition to the idea was the reason the Sri Lankan government abandoned it.
India suspected that Sri Lanka had turned against the plan for fear of letting the Tamils to control the Trincomalee district and its strategic harbor. The Tamils had been reduced to a minority in the Trincomalee district by systematic colonization by the Sri Lankan government since the country’s independence in 1948. They were expected to dominate the autonomous government that would run the Eastern Province.
LTTE militants, 200 of them, attacked the Jaffna telecommunication center, which was occupied by the army, in the early part of January. They overran the building and took five soldiers and three policemen as captives. The battle raged for more than six hours and five soldiers and six militants died.
This successful attack was followed by a serious setback to the LTTE, when Kittu, the LTTE commander of the Jaffna region, sustained serious injuries when an unidentified assailant lobbed a grenade into the motor car in which he was traveling at Second Cross Street, Jaffna, and then fired at the vehicle. Two of his bodyguards died, while another was seriously injured. Kittu survived, but the amputation of one of his legs put a sudden brake on the military career of the domineering, active, ruthless yet charismatic militant leader.
In Tamil Nadu, M G R’s closeness to Prabakaran was a major factor in the Tigers emerging as the most powerful of the Tamil militant groups. It was common knowledge in Madras that, the LTTE was receiving a good measure of assistance through the good offices of M G R, even when the center had decided to cut down on aid to the militants. It was also an open secret that police officials were asked to go soft on cadres of the LTTE.
“M G R himself was not always in agreement with Delhi’s policies and approach towards the Sri Lankan Tamil problem but, he nonetheless acted as a strong buffer between Delhi and the intense and emotional public opinion in the state on the Sri Lankan question. M G R did not conceal his partiality for the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] leadership, particularly Prabakaran, whom he used to help in many ways without Delhi’s knowledge and consent. The grant of Rs4 crore out of the state’s contingency funds to the LTTE announced publicly by M G R had taken Delhi by surprise.” M G R: My Blood Brother By Attar Chand, page 103
At that time, Indo-Lankan relations were considerably strained and Delhi considered M G R’s gesture of making public the contribution of nearly $2.5 million to the LTTE and nearly $1 million to EROS would exacerbate feelings in Sri Lanka.
Rajiv Gandhi summoned M G R to New Delhi to explore new initiatives on Sri Lanka. He went with Panruti S Ramachandran, the Food and Civil Supplies Minister of Tamil Nadu, who had been closely involved in shaping the state’s policy in respect of Tamil militants who had taken shelter in Tamil Nadu for the past four years. By April 10, Jayewardene made a unilateral declaration of the cessation of hostilities for 10 days. This coincided with Buddhist and Hindu New Year celebrations.
Considerable loss of civilian life occurred in the second half of April 1987. At least 127 Sinhalese were gunned down when several vehicles were stopped by Tamil militants 15 miles south of Trincomalee on April 17. The Trincomalee massacre was followed by a bomb explosion, believed to have been planted by Tamil militants at the main bus station at Pettah, Colombo, resulting in the death of 113 people and 295 injured. Tamil prisoners in the Welikade maximum security prison were attacked by Sinhalese inmates, leading to the death of five Tamil prisoners being hacked to death and six others sustaining serious injuries. Tamil prisoners at three other detention centers, including the notorious Boosa camp, came under attack.
The Sri Lankan government, shaken by the attacks, conducted a full-scale military offensive in northeastern Jaffna peninsula – Vadamaradchy – between May 26 and June 2. The offensive, Operation Liberation, resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand civilians and the arrest of another thousand or more youths.
Despite the government onslaughts, Tamil militants hit back in the Amparai district in the eastern part of the island on June 1. Thirty Buddhist monks and three Sinhalese civilians were taken from a bus and killed. But the military offensive launched at Vadamaradchy, successfully placed the Sri Lankan government in the driving seat.
Jayewardene pooled all his military resources into Operation Liberation to successfully dislodge and flush out the militants from the Vadamaradchy region. Government forces taking control of Vadamaradchy gave it confidence to venture further into Jaffna.
Government troops had been on the move in the Jaffna area since February 1987. Tension escalated in April when Tamil militants slaughtered hundreds of Sinhalese civilians. The government responded with an off-and-on aerial bombing that began on April 22. The last week of May was terrible in Jaffna, with Sri Lankan airplanes bombing temples housing hundreds of civilian refugees.
The bombs were “barrel-bombs” – locally improvised oil drums filled with several kilos of tri-nitro-toluene (TNT) explosives, nails, pieces of rubber and human excretion.
India began to show concern over the deteriorating situation in Jaffna. The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Joytindra Nath Dixit, met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, A C S Hameed on June 1 and delivered a note expressing India’s concern over the widespread starvation and food shortages due to the Sri Lankan government’s embargo. The note further added that India had decided to send relief to the starving Tamil population in Jaffna by boat on June 3. Sri Lanka insisted that it was well able to keep its own people fed and firmly rejected India’s request.
But on June 3 India sent a flotilla of fishing vessels, numbering around 19, loaded with 38 tonnes of provisions to Jaffna from Rameswaram, flying Red Cross flags and escorted by a coast-guard cutter carrying a battery of Indian and international media, with the discreet presence of an Indian naval craft in the background. The whole exercise, codenamed Operation Poomalai, was doomed though as Sri Lanka’s tiny navy turned out to be a mouse that roared by refusing the flotilla entry into Sri Lankan territorial waters.
After a six-hour stand-off, the Indian boats returned to Rameswaram, in Tamil Nadu. The whole exercise turned out to be a highly publicized fiasco for India. To salvage its wounded pride, it gave Colombo the message that direct intervention could no longer be ruled out.
On June 4, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi, Bernard Tilakaratne, was summoned by the Indian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and handed a typed message which read, “Consequent upon the refusal of the Sri Lankan authorities to allow our unarmed and unescorted boats carrying humanitarian relief supplies to get through Jaffna yesterday … It is our intention to carry out an air drop of humanitarian relief supplies to Jaffna after 1530 hrs IST [Indian Standard Time].”
Bernard Tilakaratne, visibly moved and shocked after reading the message, contacted Colombo by telephone from Natwar Singh’s office. “It is a naked violation of our independence and sovereignty …” was Sri Lanka’s reply. Even though it appeared the drama of the air drop unfolded so swiftly, India had planned it all along in anticipation that Operation Poomalai would fail.
Indian military intelligence was already in contact with several middle-order Tamil United Liberation Front leaders to provide them with strategic information on Colombo and its leaders. Based on this information, they had formulated plans even to seize the president, the prime minister, civil service chiefs and other VIPs in the event of Indian planes being shot at by the Sri Lankan security forces. Also, contingency plans had been drawn up to evacuate Indian citizens in the event of a backlash.
While India was busy planning its next course of action, the LTTE attacked a Sri Lankan army camp in Jaffna, on June 3, raising serious concern in Colombo. The Tigers ran off with large quantities of weapons. President Jayewardene was visibly shaken.
Meanwhile, India gave less than an hour’s notice in ordering an intrusion into Sri Lanka by launching Operation Eagle on July 4. The media were carried by five Antonov AN32 transport planes, accompanied by five Mirage 2000 jet fighters, to witness the dropping of some 25 tonnes of food in and around Jaffna city. This direct Indian intervention culminated in the signing of a peace accord on July 29, 1987.
The Tamils of Jaffna had a mixed reaction to Operation Eagle. The LTTE maintained silence, whereas other Tamil militant organizations and the Tamil United Liberation Front applauded India’s direct intervention. Through its unprecedented action India confirmed its regional supremacy by gesturing to the world that it would brook no nonsense in its backyard.
The airlift was India’s most direct intervention in a neighbor’s affairs since 1971, when the country’s troops were deployed in former East Pakistan to help Bangladesh win independence.
Indian opposition leaders, in an unprecedented joint communique, expressed unequivocal support to Rajiv Gandhi’s Operation Eagle, while the Sri Lankan press accused India of being a regional bully. Sri Lanka vowed to raise the issue in the United Nations, but there was nothing else that it could do.
Even though Indo-Lanka relations were at a very low ebb, neither moved toward severing diplomatic relations. India’s air intrusion failed to receive the approval of the international community, so it spared no efforts in fence mending with Sri Lanka during a foreign ministers’ conference of the seven-member SAARC hosted by India, which Foreign Minister A C S Hameed attended.
On June 6, India proposed talks with Sri Lanka, and Hameed announced that his government welcomed the offer from India to discuss future aid to the ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka.
As a preliminary measure, the nations reached a compromise on June 15, whereby India could ship civilian supplies to the Jaffna district as long as the Sri Lankan authorities inspected the goods and monitored distribution.
On June 14, Sri Lanka had released more than 1,000 Tamils detained as suspected militants during the Operation Liberation campaign. Amnesty International, the London based human rights group, charged on June 21 that more than 500 Tamils had vanished after being arrested. Amnesty said that it had also found evidence of torture and arbitrary killings.
The LTTE in a rare statement issued on June 23 announced a temporary ceasefire to allow the distribution of Indian aid to Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula. On the following day, President Jayewardene announced by-elections for two of the 14 vacant parliamentary seats in the Northern Province within two months.
The first two Indian relief ships, Srivastava and Island Pride, arrived at Kaknkesanthurai harbor on June 25, escorted by Sri Lankan gunboats. The ships carried about 500 metric tonnes of food and medicine. Thousands of people were at the harbor to welcome them.
Coup rumors against J R Jayewardene began to emerge, and on June 27 police arrested nearly 645 members of the extremist leftist group Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna and its military arm Deshapirya Janatha Viyaparaya, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government.
On the same day, a Sinhalese politician, Prins Gunasekera, a moderate leader, popularly known as “Podi Puththa” (small son), who had been a long-time MP for the Habaraduwa constituency, came forward to file nomination papers to contest the vacant Kayts seats in the by-election, but he was kidnapped on his way to canvas support for his candidature in Jaffna city.
The LTTE launched a suicide attack on a Sri Lankan army camp, located at the Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyalayam, Karaveddy, in the Vadamaradchy region, on July 5. In the evening, Captain Miller, a member of the Black Tiger unit, known as the Tiger’s suicide squad, drove a vehicle packed with explosives into a building housing a number of Sri Lankan soldiers. A gun battle ensued and the government announced that 20 armed personnel died. The LTTE claimed that more than 100 soldiers had died.
There was no way of cross-checking the authenticity of the causality figures, and both sides were prone to stating inaccurate figures to suit their own agendas.
The Sri Lankan army went on an offensive in retaliation for the attacks at Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyalayam and the country remained a boiling cauldron of unrest.
The High Commissioner for India in Colombo, D N Dixit, held two meetings with Jayewardene on July 18, reviving fresh hopes to end the ethnic turmoil in the country. The Indian envoy’s new proposal was to join the Northern and Eastern provinces into a single regional unit to be administered by an elected council with wide powers. The Tamils claimed the North and Eastern Provinces as their traditional homeland. The agreement reached at the meeting signaled the end to the political impasse that had prevailed since independence.
Hardeep Singh Puri, the first secretary of the Indian High Commission in Colombo, flew to Jaffna to oversee the unloading of a fifth Indian relief ship, the Nico Trade, docked at Kankesanthurai harbor. He made it a point to meet Prabakaran, the Tiger supremo, to brief him of the latest political developments – to merge the North and Eastern Provinces into a single region and to provide it autonomy under one Regional Council. The Indian diplomat also said that Jayewardene had agreed to grant official status to the Tamil language. In turn, the Tiger supremo demanded that Sri Lankan troops to be pulled back to positions of the pre-Operation Liberation period.
The Tamil militants were accustomed to armed struggle, but they were new to politics. Those with political experiences tended to shun the militants.
India continued to show a keen interest in developing an acceptable political package. Indian officials held talks with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M G Ramachandran, on the new proposals. Ramachandran was consulted at each step along the way taken by New Delhi. The sense of assurance thus created in Tamil Nadu was a matter of satisfaction for New Delhi.