Accord turns to discord
by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002
Subsequent to the token surrender of arms by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the Sri Lankan Army, in the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), ceremonies connected with the surrender took place throughout North and Eastern provinces.
When India was about to sign the peace accord with Sri Lanka, on July 29, 1987, it selected nearly 500 exiled militants, who were resident in the Tamil Nadu state, except those from the LTTE, to be given refresher courses in arms, in a remote area in the state of Uttrapradesh, in North India. Also, according to the accord, India took with them the remainder of the exiled militant groups in Tamil Nadu, to surrender their arms and take part in the envisaged democratic political process.
These included the Eelam People Revolutionary Left Front (EPRLF), the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF). The ENDLF was popularly known as “Three Stars”, indicating the three ethnic communities living in the traditional Tamil homeland, and it was a breakaway group of PLOTE, formed under the tripartite leadership of “Paranthan Rajan” alias Gnanasegeram, Eeswaran and Douglas Devananda formerly of the EPRLF. Later, Eeswaran was removed and Douglas Devenanda left to form the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) with the blessing of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had succeeded J R Jayewardene as the second elected president of Sri Lanka.
The arms surrender of the exiled Tamil militant groups was televised on the national Sri Lankan television – Rupavahini – for the benefit of Sinhalese viewers, with the view to convince them that, the accord was progressing in the right direction. The arms surrenders of the LTTE and the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) were the ones that mattered most to the Sinhalese in the south.
Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, the Overall Force Commander of the IPKF, in his book IPKF in Sri Lanka describes the arms surrender as follows:
“54 Infantry Division had made elaborate arrangements for taking over of arms, ammunition and explosives from the militant groups and instructions to this effect were widely publicized among the local population. The return of weapons started with a small trickle and gradually picked up, while the other militant groups were returning arms and ammunition individually, the LTTE was doing so in more organized manner, collectively. We would be informed that a vehicle load would be coming at such and such a time; the vehicle would come exactly on time, escorted by armed LTTE cadres. I witnessed one such return and saw that among the assorted weapons were some very long cylinders. On inquiring about what these were, the LTTE cadre in charge informed that these were 175mm mortars, manufactured locally by the LTTE. On my expressing astonishment over the caliber, he added, I assume with tongue in cheek, that if India had so wanted, the LTTE could have manufactured 175 guns and howitzers for us and there would have been no need to go to Bofors.” – pages 50-51
On August 9, two militant cadres of EROS were shot and killed by Sri Lankan armed forces from the Pooneryn army camp. As a result, there was a general work stoppage in the Northern province. And the Tamil militant groups halted the arms surrender.
The London Times reported that the Tamil militant groups were burying their arms to keep them away from Indian troops. As a result, the deadline for disarmament and a deadline for the lifting of the state of emergency in the Tamil-dominated North and Eastern provinces had to be postponed until August 15. A contributing factor was a dispute among Tamil groups over the make up of the transitional government.
The Indian forces suffered their first causalities on August 12, when IPKF personnel tried to neutralize a booby trap at a house in Urumpirai, in the Jaffna district. It exploded prematurely, killing two officers and seriously injuring another, who later died. The deceased were Jaffna-born Major Dilip Singh, Lieutenant Vickram and Mohinder Rao from the Eighth Battalion Engineers. The Jaffna Traders’ Association immediately requested all shops in the district to fly black flags. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran, announced a grant of Indian Rs100,000 to the families of the deceased.
In the early days of August, there emerged indications that the LTTE would go for electoral politics. Eelamurasu, an LTTE-controlled tabloid daily, curiously started a rhetorical attack on the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which was considered as the chief rival to the LTTE, in the event of polling. In response, Shanker, one of the leaders of EROS, stated in an interview with the Colombo-based Sunday Island – the weekly publication of an English national daily – that his group had lost 150 men and said that none of them had taken cyanide capsules.
This was a rejoinder to the LTTE for its claim that their men were the only martyrs in the struggle for Tamil Eelam. Also, the LTTE men carried cyanide capsules around their necks, and many who died did so taking the poison after being cornered. Eelamurasu responded with an attack on Shanker. All of this indicated that the LTTE’s true intent was to play politics at the ballot.
The deputy leader of the LTTE, Mahattya, started giving interviews to foreign papers as well as to the Colombo-based ones. He said that Sinhalese were welcome to Jaffna and would not be harmed. As a result, Sinhalese from the South arrived in numbers to see for themselves the situation in Jaffna.
Amirthalingham Thileepan, who headed the LTTE political wing, began to address meetings all over the Jaffna peninsula. Velupillai Prabkaran, the Tigers leader, continued to give press interviews criticizing the accord and emphasized that he did not wish to take on India.
The Indian government went ahead to set up an interim administration in the North and Eastern provinces, as agreed in the accord, until such time elections could be held for a permanent administrative arrangement. An Indian legal team flew to Colombo to decide on the details of the devolution of powers for the North-Eastern region. The Indian and Sri Lankan governments agreed on the basis of representation in the interim administrative arrangement.
Accordingly, the LTTE, TULF, EROS and Muslims were to have two representatives each, while the PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and ENDLF were to have one seat each. The idea behind this was to involve all the Tamil groups in the interim administrative set-up, along with an advisory body consisting of prominent Sinhalese and Tamils to oversee administrative arrangements.
This amounted to scuttling the LTTE’s power plan by giving equal representation in the administration to other Tamil groups it had disarmed and exiled. The LTTE, according to that proposition, would not have a dominant role in the interim administration.
The IPKF was providing protection to other Tamil militant organizations to set up offices in the North and Eastern provinces. The IPKF promised that all militant groups were entitled to their protection. The ENDLF, under its leader Rajan, made an appearance in Jaffna under an IPKF escort and addressed a meeting at Jaffna University. The ENDLF tried to open an office on Beach Road, but a crowd supportive of the LTTE staged a sit-in protest in front of the house where the office was to be opened. This turned ugly, and an ENDLF member was badly manhandled. The IPKF failed to respond, so a ENDLF man grabbed a gun from one of the Indian soldiers and fired into the air. The crowd dispersed.
This incident showed the simmering discontent in Jaffna and leaflets began to appear demanding the IPKF’s withdrawal, in the name of an unknown group, Makkal Urumai Iyakkam – People’s Rights Movement.
“Somewhere around August 15, 1987, in one of my meetings with Prabakaran in Jaffna, he mentioned that the LTTE had positive information that the Research and Analysis Wing [RAW] was inciting the other Tamil militant groups, especially the recently created Tri-Star Group [through the merger of TELO, EPRLF and ENDLF] to attack LTTE cadres as the latter became progressively weaker following handing over their weapons. This was a serious allegation and was conveyed to army headquarters that evening for investigation and an early reply. The next day brought a categorical denial which, in turn, was conveyed to Prabakaran, who told me politely that since I was denying it, he believed me, but what Delhi had reported to me was incorrect and therefore he stood by his allegation.” The IPKF in Sri Lankaby Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, page 56
The IPKF failed to take note of the allegations as the Indian government had authorized RAW and the IB (Investigation Bureau) as chief players in the implementation of the accord and RAW, which was responsible for gathering information on the militant groups, especially the LTTE, played a key role in the escalation of the war in the North and Eastern provinces.
Pulendran was the regional commander of the LTTE in the Trincomalee district. At the meeting on August 4, at Suthumalai, Pulendran expressed unhappiness about surrendering of arms in the context of unresolved problems in Trincomalee. The Trincomalee district had been the site of many massacres in the past. It lies between two majority Tamil areas – the Northern Province and a section of the Eastern Province – and the Tamils and the Tamil militants had declared it a part of the traditional Tamil habitat from the days of antiquity and claimed it as a part of the Tamil homeland they sought to wrest from the Sri Lankan government, which had colonized the area with Sinhalese since independence in 1948.
On April 17, Tamil militants, about 40 to 60 in number, stationed themselves along a stretch of jungle highway between the cities of Trincomalee and Habarana. Disguised as government troops, they stopped three buses, two trucks and a van with altogether 200 passengers. Later, reports emerged that 127 bodies had been found on the spot. All the victims were reported to be Sinhalese. Later reports emerged that those who perished in that attack were Sri Lankan soldiers and their families returning from leave after celebrating Buddhist New Year festivals in Colombo.
On April 18, the government dispatched about 5,000 troops to comb the area for the assailants, and on April 21 the government announced its intention to increase the number of paramilitary Home Guards from 12,000 men to 20,000.
A second assault occurred on April 20 about 20 kilometers from the first incident. According to reports, a pre-dawn attack on the village of Wan Ela resulted in eight Sinhalese, including men, women and children, being killed.
The government blamed the killings on the LTTE, but the LTTE denied responsibility. The government offered a million Sri Lankan rupees for those providing information leading to the arrest of Pulendran, the regional LTTE commander for the Trincomalee district. Pulendran was considered a dare devil, but was highly respected by Prabakaran, and fondly called “Pulenthi Amman” – Uncle Pulendran by Tamils from all walks of life. After the signing of the accord, he and Kumarappah, the regional LTTE commander for the Jaffna district, married, and senior IPKF officials participated in the wedding ceremonies.
In the meantime, the IPKF had increased its troops to well over 40,000 by September in the North and Eastern provinces. The Trincomalee district was under the direction of Brigadier Kulwant Singh, who was Deputy General Officer Commanding the 54 Infantry Division. Batticaloa and Amparai were under the direction of Brigadier I M Dhar, Commander of the 76th Infantry Brigade.
At a meeting organized by Brigadier Kulwant Singh, in which Depinder Singh, the Overall Force Commander of the IPKF, participated, representatives of all the Tamil groups were invited to discuss problems. Pulendran participated as the LTTE representative, but was unusually quiet. When Depinder Singh inquired about his silence, he said that he would like to meet him alone after the meeting. “When we met after others had dispersed, Pulendran informed me that the LTTE never wished to associate with other groups as they were cowards and traitors and, in future, whenever I wanted to see him, I must see him alone.” The IPKF in Sri Lanka by Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, page 54
Simmering discord began to surface as the IPKF continued to establish camps. The Indian High Commissioner J N Dixit, in an interview with the Sunday Island, on August 30, stated that the IPKF was establishing new camps to contain internecine fighting between the rival Tamil militant groups. The IPKF opened complaint cells all over IPKF areas for the public to register complaints of missing persons, losses and even complaints of crimes committed by IPKF personnel.
The IPKF undertook to repair railway lines and by August 30 they managed to start Jaffna-Colombo train services which had been disrupted since 1986. Shop shelves started filling up with goods from Colombo as train and road communication improved. Banks were opened, indicating a return of normalcy in the war-ravaged areas.
On September 1, a Tamil crowd was tear-gassed when it tried to prevent policemen from leaving their station at Batticaloa. On the same day, two Sinhalese were killed by the IPKF following a heated altercation between Tamil and Sinhalese civilians in Trincomalee over the hoisting of the LTTE flag. The Tigers publicly alleged that the IPKF was not providing enough protection to Tamils returning to their homes in Trincomalee with their families.
A member of the PLOTE was shot dead by unidentified gunman in Mannar, earlier on August 24. The PLOTE retaliated by killing three unarmed militants from the LTTE.
The opening of offices by the EPRLF, PLOTE, ENDLF and TELO under the protection of the IPKF was considered as a threat to the LTTE. The Tigers alleged that RAW was arming rival militant groups with the ulterior motive to destroy them.
In September, things in Jaffna took a turn to the worse, with continued acts of violence. As many as 120 people were killed between September 13 and September 22, in a series of clashes between Tigers and the rival Tamil militant groups, and the LTTE slowly but steadily initiated a campaign trying to discredit the presence of IPKF in the North and East.
“A new twist was given to the process by trying to show that the Indian presence in Sri Lanka was for purely personal reasons and not because of any concern for the Tamils. At one of my meetings with the LTTE leadership in Jaffna, Yogi, who generally interpreted for Prabakaran [Balasingham being the other interpreter], made the suggestion that if India would provide unequivocal support to the LTTE, the latter would guarantee full rights to India as far as the port facilities of Trincomalee were concerned. The conversation was being taped, as was the usual custom, and what was wanted was an indiscreet remark from me which the LTTE obviously sought to use at some appropriate time. My reply was that the IPKF was not interested in Trincomalee; it was in Sri Lanka to do a job as soon as the job was over, it would return home.” The IPKF in Sri Lanka by Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, pages 71-72
Fratricidal rivalry among Tamil militants unfolded swiftly, at first in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Trincomalee and later in Jaffna, and the LTTE announced that it had lost faith in the accord and that it would not surrender any more arms. Depinder Singh recalls in his book The IPKF in Sri Lanka,“We go back in some weeks to see another two examples of LTTE duplicity. In early September, intelligence sources reported abnormally heavy sales of grease and polythene. It did not take such deductive prowess to conclude the reason, which was that the LTTE were greasing their weapons and caching them so that they could not be located in the event of a search or a leak. When next I met Prabakaran I mentioned the fact about LTTE buying up all the grease and ploythene and asked why they needed so much. He was startled for a moment, then gave a slight smile and answered through the interpreter that it must be the other groups who were doing the buying and attempting to discredit the LTTE.
“Speaking through an interpreter gives you an extra few seconds to collect your thoughts. By mid-September we had reasonable proof that the LTTE had imported a consignment of about 700 rifles, ammunition and explosives from Singapore, implying that either the orders were placed and purchases made after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed or no effort was made to cancel the orders placed earlier. Perhaps the incidents of weapons being smuggled in and purchase of grease had a connection and it was the new weapons which were cached in the grease and ploythene procured.” – pages 76-77
In these chaotic conditions, India continued to strive for an Interim Administrative Council to take over the administration of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. As no administrative machinery was available in the Tamil areas, an interim arrangement was felt as an urgent necessity as a prelude to an elected administrative council.
The LTTE was this time offered three seats in the interim administrative council of eight. Two places went to the TULF, one to another Tamil militant group and two members were to be government employees. The LTTE refused to be drawn into this arrangement and the negotiations continued.
The IPKF was unable to do anything regarding the ongoing killings and the press in the south was becoming very critical of the Indian forces in their handling of the peace and the surrender of arms.
Depinder Singh pointed out that the IPKF mandate did not include the maintenance of law and order, and this was subsequently extending to include law and order in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. More than 4,000 members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force with anti-riot equipment from Tamil Nadu were flown in to reinforce the IPKF. On September 23, India announced that it would increase the size of its peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka.
On September 15, the LTTE announced that Amirthalingham Thileepan would go on an indefinite fast in support of five demands – immediate stoppage of Sinhalese colonization in the traditional homeland of the Tamils; release of all the prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and under several emergency regulations; formation of the Interim Administrative Council for the North and Eastern Provinces; holding a referendum on a permanent merger of the North and Eastern provinces as one region; and Sri Lankan security personnel vacate school and college buildings in Tamil areas.
Thileepan, a fiery orator, was the head of the political wing of the LTTE. He joined the LTTE as a youth and was a trained militant. He sustained gunshot injuries in his stomach during the Operation Liberation campaign of May 1987. The bespectacled Thileepan was totally committed to the cause of Tamil Eelam and was hailed for his meticulous organizational ability. He commanded respect and regard among LTTE cadres.
A special stage was erected at the Nallur Kandaswamy temple for Thileepan to stage his fast, which at the beginning was considered a political gimmick to divert attention from the political killings in the East.
Thileepan said that the accord had failed to protect the interests of the Tamils. He said, “The accord has been brought by our enemies to dampen the national fervor whenever it shows signs of boiling over. Today the Indo-Sri Lanka accord is to suppress the peoples’ thirst for liberation. Our aim is to chase away the Indians and to fly our own flag of freedom in [Jaffna] fort.
“At this hour Tamils have to be united and alert, otherwise the future would be doomed. We should win back our lost rights. It is our right and we should not expect others’ support to win it back. If the people are ready, rise and then nobody can prevent the birth of Tamil Eelam. Liberation Tigers should continue to exist, but I do not long that they should rule, it is not what I long for. If our Tamils are able to have a prosperous future we Tigers are ready and willing to die for that noble cause for our people. The one soldier who comes willingly to fight for the resurrection of this land, he is the owner and the son of this soil,” said Thileepan before starting his fast to the death.
Gradually, the fast stirred anti-Indian feelings and the LTTE gave full coverage to Thileepan’s speeches and his fast in their television network, Nidharshanam. People from all over the peninsula started marching to Nallur to participate in the fast. Thileepan declined to take even water. Before he lost consciousness, he spoke for the last time from the podium. He said that he would join the 650 LTTE martyrs who were already in the heavenly abode and look down at Tamil Eelam, where the Tiger flag would certainly flutter in the near future.
Adle Balasingham narrates the moving episode of Thileepan in her book, The Will to Freedom as follows, “As Thileepan’s fast moved on in days, he was no longer able to address the public from the podium and spent much of his time lying quietly as his condition steadily deteriorated. As Thileepan grew visibly weaker in front of people’s eyes, their anger and resentment towards India and the IPKF grew stronger. The sight of this popular young man being allowed to die in such an agonizing manner generated disbelief at the callousness of the Indian government and the Indian Peace Keeping Force. All that was required to save Thileepan’s waning life was for the Indian High Commissioner, Mr Dixit, to humble himself and meet and reassure Thileepan that the Indian government would fulfill its pledges to the Tamils. In fact, Delhi ignored Thileepan’s fast in the early stages as an isolated idiosyncrasy of an individual, but later became seriously concerned when the episode gathered momentum and turned into a national uprising with anti-Indian sentiments.
“Delhi’s concern compelled Mr Dixit to pay a visit to Jaffna ‘to study the situation’. On September 22, the eighth day of Thileepan’s fast, Mr Dixit arrived at Palaly airport where Mr Pirabakaran and Bala met him. Bala told me later that Mr Dixit was rude and resentful and condemned Thileepan’s fasting campaign as a provocative act by the LTTE aimed at instigating the Tamil masses against the Indian government. Mr Pirabakaran showed remarkable patience and pleaded with the Indian diplomat to pay a visit to Nallur and talk to the dying young man to give up his fast by assuring him that India would fulfill it pledges. Displaying his typical arrogance and intransigence, Mr Dixit rejected the LTTE leader’s plea, arguing that it was not within the mandate of his visit. Had Mr Dixit correctly read the situation and genuinely cared for the sentiments of the Tamil people at this very crucial time, it is highly probable that the entire episode of India’s direct intervention in the ethnic conflict would have taken a different turn.” – pages 133-134
Thileepan died on September 26 and his death shattered the hopes the Tamils had placed on the Indian government. Thileepan was given a martyr’s funeral in Jaffna. His body, according to his wishes, was handed over to the medical faculty of the University of Jaffna. “He was a prominent personality and when he died, tragically on September 26, 1987, the chasm between India and the Sri Lankan Tamils widened immeasurably”, stated Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh in his book, The IPKF in Sri Lanka (page 81).
Meanwhile, Dixit has given a different version as to why he did not call on Thileepan, “By this time the physical condition of the LTTE leader Thileepan, at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, had irretrievably deteriorated. Prabakaran had asked me to personally go to the temple where Thileepan was on fast surrounded by crowds to request him to break the fast. I was quite willing to do so provided I had a guarantee that he would yield. But Prabkaran could not give no such guarantee, as Thileepan was an idealist and committed freedom fighter.
“IPKF and our intelligence sources had informed me that the plan was to take me to Thileepan at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, subject me to a massive anti-agreement and anti-Indian demonstrations and then reject my request with a lot of publicity about the Indian High Commissioner’s effort being spurned. I was clear in my mind that I would not subject the government of India to such a humiliation. So I told Prabakaran that unless I had an assurance that Thileepan would break the fast I was not prepared to make a futile effort. It was Thileepan who went on a fast for which there was no provocation in objective terms. And it was the LTTE high command decision to support his fast in which neither the government of India nor its people were involved.” Assignment Colombo page 202.
While Thileephan’s fast was still on, a series of meetings was held at the IPKF headquarters at Palaly, between the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, J N Dixit, and the LTTE leader Parabakaran, regarding the interim administration. The first was on September 24, followed with one on September 26. The Indian High Commissioner managed to convince the Sri Lankan president to change the composition of the interim council from eight to 12 members and also obtained the concurrence of the president for an LTTE majority in the council.
In the newly proposed council, the LTTE’s representation increased from three to seven, giving it a majority. On September 28, an agreement was reached and an official statement issued saying that an “agreement has been reached on certain specific matters raised by the LTTE on the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord”.
The LTTE agreed in writing to submit 15 names, including a list of three names for the chairman, from which the president of Sri Lanka would choose the required number, which put him in the driver’s seat. Mahattaya, alias Mahendrarajah, the second in command of the LTTE, and Hardeep Singh Puri, the first secretary of the Indian High Commission in Colombo, signed the agreement.
Earlier in July, when Indian officials met the other Tamil militant groups in New Delhi, they assured them that they would be given equal representation in the proposed temporary administrative arrangement. This was one of the crucial aspects of the understanding under which those groups agreed to accept the accord. But, in the end, the Indian government failed to keep its assurance by providing seven seats to the LTTE (two of them nominated) and two to the Tamil United Liberation Front, leaving out the other militant groups. Muslims were to get two seats and Sinhalese two.
The LTTE leader was at the IPKF headquarters in Palaly when he was informed of the death of Thileepan. It was reported that Prabakaran drove straight to the Nallur Kandasawamy Kovil (Temple) to pay his last respect to the departed LTTE stalwart. The people in Jaffna paid their last respects and an uneasy calm prevailed during the funeral days of Thileepan.
“This was a death that could have been avoided as, by September 26, 1987, the LTTE were assured that their demand as far as the Interim Administrative Council was concerned had been met. If they did nothing to prevent this death despite that knowledge, obviously they had other plans on their minds and posterity will surely blame on their shoulders for this and subsequent events.”The IPKF in Sri Lanka by Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, page 81
Even today, allegations persist from several quarters that the death of Thileepan could had been avoided.
The LTTE in its list submitted as administrator of the Interim Administrative Council put forward N Pathmanathan and C V K Sivagnanam. Pathmanathan was a Grade 1 civil administrative officer and an additional government agent, Trincomalee district. He had been arrested when he was an additional government agent under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on frivolous charges of helping some prisoners escape from Batticaloa prison. He was detained for much longer than the mandatory period of 18 months, but he was determined not to plead guilty to the charges the army had framed against him. He was detained for 45 months, and at last the government dropped all charges against him, releasing him on September 2, 1987. He came from the Eastern province
C V K Sivangnanam was also a civil servant. He had for many years been the special municipal commissioner, appointed when there was no elected mayor to run the affairs of the Jaffna Municipal Council. He came from the Northern province.
President Jayewardene nominated C V K Sivangnanam as the chief administrator, although the LTTE would have preferred Pathmanathan, so Sivangnanam tendered his resignation. The Indian High Commissioner, after being satisfied with the genuineness of the resignation, approved but Jayewardene was more stubborn. The impasse led to acrimonious charges and counter charges. The LTTE charged New Delhi with betrayal and also alleged that the agreement of September 28 had been forced on them. The Indians alleged that the LTTE had reneged on an agreement signed by them with the concurrence of their supremo. Most people thought that the matter would be sorted out soon.
But as the crisis dragged on, violent clashes began between September 30 and October 4 between the LTTE and Sinhalese residents in the Trincomalee district. At least 18 people were killed and 5,000 left homeless. As the clashes mounted, the Sri Lankan government accused the Indian army of doing nothing to protect Sinhalese civilians. Colombo threatened to send the IPKF packing if it could not bring the Trincomalee district under control.
The Sri Lankan Navy on October 2 apprehended 17 LTTE men traveling in a boat off the coast of Point Pedro. The navy disarmed them, took off their necklaces with cyanide capsules and took them to Palaly, where the Sri Lankan Army and the IPKF had their bases. It unfolded that two of the men were prize catches – Pulendran, the regional commander of the LTTE for Trincomalee and Kumarappah, the regional commander of the LTTE for Jaffna. The Sri Lankan government had earlier offered 1 million rupees each of the two Tamil militants.
The Sri Lankan government alleged that the 17 militants were acting in breach of the accord by transporting arms from Tamil Nadu, and also in breach of Sri Lankan immigration formalities. The government insisted that the militants be brought to Colombo for questioning.
The news spread like a wildfire and the LTTE screamed “foul”, saying the arrests were a violation of the accord under which all militants had been granted amnesty. In reply, the government said that the amnesty only pertained to the pre-accord period and that the 17 armed men were in violation of the accord. The LTTE rightly pointed out that the September 28 agreement signed by it with India allowed the Tigers to retain their weapons.
President J R Jayewardene spoke to the nation on the state television, Rupavahini, for two successive days, explaining first that the 17 LTTE militants detained at Palaly were smugglers, and that they were not covered by the accord. He told the nation that the detainees had been caught on the high seas while in the act of smuggling arms from Tamil Nadu. It was a significant lapse on the part of the Sri Lankan government not to exhibit the alleged arms and ammunition seized.
The LTTE said that the militants were traveling in a slow fishing trawler from Jaffna to Tamil Nadu to bring back office equipment and furniture from their Tamil Nadu office. They also claimed that they had requested the IPKF high command to assist them in transporting the equipment, but the IPKF had ignored their request. They further stated that only Pulendran and Kumarappah, the regional LTTE commanders, were armed, according to agreement, as an act of self-defense.
Lalith Athulathmudali, the Sri Lankan National Security Minister, when contacted by journalists, said that the 17 would be transported to Colombo and made to pose before television cameras and then be released.
The LTTE appealed to the Indian government to prevent their men from being transported to Colombo. Depinder Singh flew to Colombo to urge the president not to move the militants to Colombo. Jayewardene refused to relent. Indian High Commissioner Dixit dashed to Colombo from Delhi to prevail on the president, but he was adamant. In the meantime, the LTTE’s second in command Mahattaya, alias Mahendrarajah, was granted permission to meet the detainees at the Palaly base.
Depinder Singh in his book The IPKF in Sri Lanka, described the situation as follows, “Caught in a cleft, as it were, I flew to Colombo and saw General Ranatunge and the president to explain the LTTE’s position and apprehensions and seek release of the prisoners. Apart from obtaining assurance that the prisoners would not be tortured, or shown on TV, I could make little headway. In my meeting with the president, he asked what was the strength of the Indian Army and the Southern Command and why a large army with such a proud record had not been able to bring the LTTE to heel. He added that he was under great pressure from all political parties including his own to withdraw the IPKF. I replied that our endeavor to resolve the problem peacefully as, otherwise, we would be back to the pre-July 1987 position. I also added that, since we were refining our tactics and, hopefully, better control would ensue. This appeared to satisfy the president; it certainly cheered him up. Nirrupon Sen, the First Secretary of our High Commission, [the High Commissioner was away] remarked that my use of the word ‘refine’ had impressed the president. Though I had been unsuccessful in my mission of preventing the SLAF [Sri Lankan Armed Forces] taking the LTTE prisoners to Colombo, we tried one more shot which was to get New Delhi to recall Mani Dixit, who was enjoying some well earned leave to speak to the president. Mani rejoined on October 4, 1987 and met the president who, unfortunately, remained adamant. Back in Jaffna, meanwhile, Mahataya had sought and secured permission to visit the prisoners who were then located in Palaly, I am convinced that during this visit he distributed cyanide capsules as the prisoners had been thoroughly searched earlier and could not have come to be in possession of cyanide through any other sources.” – pages 82-83
The diplomacy of Jayewardene and the Sri Lankan government prevailed. Until the last moment, the IPKF was confident that the LTTE detainees would not be allowed to leave Jaffna. The IPKF threatened to block with armored cars any Sri Lankan plane intending to fly the prisoners to Colombo on October 5. By 4:30 in the afternoon, IPKF received instructions from New Delhi to abandon all efforts and allow events to take their own course.
“Mr Pirabakaran was furious when he was informed of the final decision. He felt he was obliged to fulfill the last wishes of his cadres in custody. Mr Pirabakaran and his commanders each took off his cyanide capsule and hung it around Bala and Mahataya’s neck with instructions to deliver it to the captured cadres. Garlanded with cyanide capsules, Bala and Mahataya reluctantly and hesitantly visited the cadres on the decisive day of their transfer.” Will to Freedom by Adele Balasingham, page 139
When people heard of the arrangements to take the detainees to Colombo they flocked in thousands in front of the Palaly base, demanding to see the detainees, without success.
The Sri Lankan government, in demanding that the detainees be flown to Colombo, ignored the advice and appeals of the IPKF, as well as strongly worded warnings of communal disharmony if anything happened to the detained militants. The government had its own designs of getting the IPKF involved in a confrontation with the domineering LTTE in the near future, and persisted in transporting the militants.
When Sri Lankan soldiers moved the take the militants to Colombo, IPKF soldiers stood by as passive on-ookers. But on the tarmac, on October 5 at about 5:30 in the evening, those 17 LTTErs swallowed cyanide capsules and 12 of them died instantly, including Pulendran and Kumarappah, and three died later in the IPKF hospital at Palaly.
The incident was a turning point in the Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord, as anticipated by the Sri Lankan government. The death of the Tamil militants resulted in scenarios never anticipated by the Indian government. India was reduced to a pawn in the cleverly manipulated move of the wily president of Sri Lanka, who began to dictate the pace of events and by which New Delhi eventually became the scapegoat of the century.
“The LTTE’s reaction was swift and savage,” was how it was described by Depinder Singh as LTTE militants took retaliatory steps to avenge the deaths of their colleagues, with many casualties. The IPKF went on maximum alert, but the accord of peace was turning into a discord of antagonism.
“On October 6, 1987, the Chief of the Army Staff General Sunderji flew into Palaly where he was briefed about the situation. It was apparent that the political decision to employ force against LTTE was already taken. However, he was en route to Colombo, where the Defense Minister K C Pant was proceeding the same evening for a meeting with the Sri Lankan president. Having met the latter on October 4, I had no doubt about the riot act he would read out to compel the IPKF to use force. My recommendation to General Sundarji was that we must not go in for the hard option because, if we did, we would be stuck in insurgency situation for the next 20 years. I was admonished not to adopt a defeatist attitude to which my reply was that I was not being defeatist, merely realistic. The chief then flew off to Colombo. I am not privy to what transpired there, but next day, HQ IPKF received direct instructions, in clear, from the chief in Colombo to use force against the LTTE.” The IPKF in Sri Lanka By Lieutenant-General Depinder Singh, Page 84
General Krishnaswamy Sunderji, the Indian Army’s Chief of Staff, rejected the realistic advice given to him by Depinder Singh. Comparing Sundarji’s style and approach in Sri Lanka with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army in 1971, India Today in its May 15, 1988 issue alleged, “Sri Lanka was another case of Sundarji’s style of rushing into things too fast with an eye to impress the political leadership.”
India Today magazine has alleged that Sundarji’s hawkish posture and his desire to please the political leadership made him rush into the decision to use force against the LTTE against the situation report and advice given to him by the IPKF leadership.
“General Sunderji ordered the commencement of what is known as ‘Operation Pawan’ on October 6, 1987.” Assignment Colombo by J N Dixit, page 212
The IPKF came to broker peace and order in the country, now it had become the party for escalating violence. The IPKF launched several demonstrative raids in the Jaffna Peninsula following Sunderji’s order.
On October 8, the IPKF raided the printing presses and offices of the pro-LTTE regional Tamil dailies Eelamurasu and Murasoli, and arrested journalists and workers. They also raided the office of Eelanadu, the pioneer regional Tamil daily, arrested journalists and closed down the paper. They also raided transmission facilities, such as the television station Nitharsanam and the radio station of the LTTE, rendering them ineffective.
“To keep the Tamil public in the dark concerning their military maneuvers and to suppress local and international criticism of possible military excess and atrocities of war, the Indian army launched sudden and swift operations against the free media in Jaffna in the early hours of the morning of October 10 [The author has made a mistake with the date], just a few hours after the major military onslaught. The printing presses of Eelamurasu, Murasoli were blasted with explosives and the journalists were arrested. Audio and television stations were attacked and all transmission facilities rendered ineffective. The world’s largest democracy carried out the heinous crime of striking down the very instrument of democracy, the media of the people of Jaffna, to stifle their freedom of opinion and expression.” The Will to Freedom by Adele Balasingham, page 143
“The IPKF units launched attacks against the media and television centers of the LTTE in Jaffna between October 7 and 11 and also started taking direct control of the Jaffna Peninsula. The operation, however, commenced somewhat disastrously. The IPKF’s plans to capture the entire leadership of the LTTE, including Prabakaran, from their headquarters in the Jaffna University grounds ended in a shambles.” Assignment Colombo by J N Dixit, page 213
The IPKF imposed a curfew in the peninsula, followed by helicopter gunship patrolling the region. At the beginning, the people of Jaffna thought the Indians who had came to protect the Tamils would be friendly and helpful, and they did not take the imposition of the curfew seriously. It began to dawn on them the seriousness of the Indian army when helicopter-gunship began to pound artillery shells and fire at those who violated the curfew.
On October 9, exchanges of fire between the Indian army and the Tamil militants took place and by that time reports also emerged that the Indian army had arrested more than 131 Tamil militants, along with their weapons, ammunition, explosives and communication equipment. In the afternoon, according to available reports, the LTTE militants attacked a post of the Madras regiment, at Tellipalai, with mortars and small arms. Again on the same afternoon, it was alleged that LTTE militants ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in the same area, killing four CRPF men.
The Indian government, which announced on October 7 that it would “use the strongest measures to deal with all those who seek to undermine the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement”, awaited the IPKF to take on the LTTE. Krishna Chandra Pant, the Indian Defense Minister, declared that the LTTE would no longer be accommodated. President Jayewardene revoked the amnesty given to the LTTE, outlawed the group and announced a reward on 1 million rupees on the head of V Prabakaran. Pant was told by Jayewardene, firmly, to incapacitate the LTTE without further delay.
On October 9, the military offensive code named Operaion Pawan (Wind) against the LTTE to wrest control of Jaffna was launched. New Delhi had taken a political decision to pin down the LTTE to safeguard the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord.
The IPKF planned to capture Jaffna town, dividing the area of operation into two sectors. The area north of Elephant Pass was called the Jaffna sector and the contingency plan was put under the 54th Infantry Division, and the remainder was called the Trincomalee sector, under the 36th Infantry Division.
The IPKF estimated the strength of the LTTE at around 1,500 in the Jaffna peninsula. This figure was later increased to 2,500 by the militant group’s urgent reinforcement arrangements. About 75 percent of the militants were armed with AK47 and G3 automatic rifles, light and medium machine guns, mortars and rocket launchers. The IPKF anticipated that approaches to Jaffna would be heavily defended by the LTTE in successive defense tiers, as these had been prepared against the Sri Lankan Army.
Dipender Singh writes that the reason in selecting to take Jaffna was follows, “It was selected because Jaffna had come to symbolize LTTE power and authority and one that had withstood all efforts made by the SLAF to capture it. Furthermore, the LTTE were urban guerillas and it was in this town that they had their headquarters, training facilities, munitions making factories and caches of arms and ammunition. It was necessary, therefore, to wrest control of this symbol to bring the LTTE back into the mainstream.” The IPKF in Sri Lanka, page 90
The fight to take the Jaffna city was launched on October 10 and continued up to October 25. According to Dipender Singh, the casualty figures during the period of October 11 to November 30 1987 were as follows:
IPKF: killed – 17 officers, 26 junior commissioned officers and 276 ordinary soldiers; wounded – 53 officers, 67 junior commissioned officers and 919 ordinary soldiers; LTTE: killed 1,100.
The IPKF Overall Force Commander failed to give any details of causalities sustained by non-combatants. According to reports from various citizen committees in the region as well as from local human rights groups, more than 1,000 civilians were killed in the campaign to take the control of Jaffna. In eastern Sri Lanka, Tamils as well as Muslims were alleged to be victims of indiscriminate or reprisal killings by both sides, as well as rapes.
The IPKF operation in Sri Lanka turned out to be one of the biggest Indian diplomatic and military debacles ever. Billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money was wasted in an adventurist experiment. To date, successive Indian governments have failed to appoint an impartial inquiry commission into the Sri Lankan fiasco.
The IPKF captured Jaffna Peninsula, which led the entire North and Eastern provinces degenerating into shambles. The entire Tamil region fell under Indian occupation. More than 2 million Tamils were internally displaced. Jaffna was without an administration as the administrators, the LTTE, had fled to outlying forest areas in the Vanni region, where they set up camps, regrouping and preparing for guerilla warfare.
The war-weary Tamils of Jaffna gradually moved from churches, Hindu temples and school buildings back to their houses, but they were disappointed to see their houses raised or ruined due to artillery fire. In areas such as Chunnakam, Mallakam, Uduvil, Manipay, Maruthanamadam and Inuvil, more than 100 civilian bodies were found by the Chunnakam Citizen Committee, of which this writer was a member. The deaths were widely attributed to the IPKF.
When the IPKF decided to launch its campaign against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran was in a hospital in Baltimore, in the United States, undergoing treatment. M G Ramachandran, the matinee idol turned political leader, had all along supported the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. According to Sachi Sri Kantha in his book, MGR Movies Revisited and other essays, MGR viewed the young Tamil rebels (especially the LTTE and its leader Prabakaran) as fighting for a worthy cause against oppression. When the LTTE was labeled as “The private army of Mr M G Ramachandran the present Chief Minister of Madras” MGR retorted strongly, as reported in Time magazine (May 11, 1987), “Tamil groups are spearheading the fight against the fascist action of the Jayewardene regime and they should be congratulated and helped.” This view has to be interpreted from the perspective of M G R’s life-long philosophy of “fighting the evil forces”. For four decades, M G R preached for the downtrodden Tamil masses via Tamil movie screens, a simple philosophical theme – “fight for your rights”.
“The Eelam issue also provided a psychological tonic to M G R in his last years in his legendary career. It gave an opportunity to contribute to the history of his land of birth. It is well known that displaced individuals keep affectionate spots of their land of their birth, and this affection reaches a climax when they near the end of their lives. M G R was a displaced individual and fate had it that he was moved to Tamil Nadu as a toddler from Kandy [in Sri Lanka], the place of his birth. Though he earned fame in Tamil Nadu, M G R was treated as an outsider in the political arena. Thus an active role in the Eelam issue would have given M G R a psychological uplift to influence the history of his land of birth. It can be asserted that other ranking Indian politicians would not bother to engage themselves with Eelam issues as M G R was, since they do not possess, the ‘birth identity’ M G R had with Sri Lanka.” – pages 9-10
K Mohandas, in his book M G R: The Man and the Myth, wrote, “Though officially I did not have anything to do with the accord, and whatever might be its terms or fate, I was closely following the developments. I felt that the induction of IPKF was a wrong step fraught with grave consequences to the image of India and the morale of the Indian Army. There were naturally wide protests from all Tamil Nadu political parties, except sections of the TNCC(I) and the AIADMK. I got a call one night from M G R undergoing medical tests at Brooklyn Hospital, USA. He asked me to update him on the political developments with particular reference to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. I, after gently reminding him that I was no longer the intelligence chief and therefore had no access to classified information, gave him my opinion as a layman that the induction of the IPKF was a blunder which should immediately be rectified. He said something which was inaudible, but he sounded very weak and tired.” – pages 163-164
Again as a continuation of the above telephone conversation, Attar Chand in his book M G R: My Blood Brother, reflected the sentiments of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu as follows:
“The July 29, 1987, agreement between Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President Jayewardene received only a lukewarm endorsement from M G R. He appeared to have been disappointed with the turn of events in Jaffna after the agreement began to be implemented. Available reports suggest that he was bitter at the way IPKF was put in the situation of fighting and killing cadres of the LTTE, and he had expressed himself strongly in a letter to Rajiv Gandhi from Baltimore, where he was convalescing. The prime minister had to send a special emissary from Vancouver to Baltimore to explain the government’s stand and also persuade M G R to be more emphatic in his support for the agreement.” – page 104
A P Venkateswaran, a reputed senior diplomat and formerly the secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India, who was sacked by Rajiv Gandhi, made the announcement of his sacking in a televised news conference in a most undiplomatic and unconventional way, in February 1987. In an interview with Asia Week dated March 4, 1988, he said as follows:
Question: Should India have gone into Sri Lanka?
Venkateswaran: I think it was a mistake in the manner we did it, without careful evaluation and working out the full package of devolution of powers for autonomy to the Tamil provinces. It is also important that the Tamil leadership be associated with the accord. In today’s context, the individual cannot decide for people without their consent. Now we have the sorry spectacle of both Sinhalese and Tamils fiercely opposed to the accord.
Question: Was India’s military action against Tamils warranted?
Venkateswaran: The purpose of a peacekeeping force is not to take sides with one or other of the opposing groups, but to separate them, so as to avoid a conflict. However, today we have the IPKF waging a full-scale offensive against the very group which it was ostensibly sent to protect. It is ironic that the causalities among the civilian population in the Northern and Eastern provinces have been higher, as a result of this offensive, than the announced causalities of either the IPKF or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Question: How else can insurgency be curbed?
Venkateswaran: Historically speaking, there is no instance of insurgency being quelled by armed action of security forces, except in the case of the communist insurgency in Malaysia. But the situation as well as the circumstances there were very different from what prevails in the Tamil areas.
Question: Should India halt the operation?
Venkateswaran: We have blotted our copybook badly both politically and militarily. It will take decades to remove the bitterness which has been created by our military action in the Tamil provinces. Let us hope that this bitterness will not spill over to Tamils in our own country. It is high time that the effort at armed suppression of those opposed to the accord ceases and political process be restored. All along we have been pronouncing on the futility of attempting a military solution to the problem and have consistently advocated a political solution. It will behoove us to follow the advice we have been offering.
Question: What are the long-term implications of the Indian action in Sri Lanka?
Venkateswaran: We have sown seeds of bitterness for decades even among the people of Tamil ethnic stock in Sri Lanka. Sooner or later the Indian forces will have to withdraw whether peace is restored or not. One can say definitely that when this happens, we will have left Sri Lanka in worse mess than we have went in.
Earlier, when thousands and thousands of the former East Pakistanis were killed by the Pakistan Army under General Tikka Khan, the Indian Army intervened to help the Mukthi Bahani, the militant organization of Bengalis of East Pakistan to liberate East Pakistan and to form a new sovereign nation, which came to be called Bangladesh. More than 90 percent of the East Pakistanis were Bengalis and earlier before the independence of India in 1947, East Bengal was subjected to partition and became an integral part of Pakistan. During the East Bengal uprising and civil war, West Bengalis, which was a state in India (West Bengal), clamored for the interference of the India to safeguard their brothers being killed by the Pakistan armed forces. During that period, Siddhartha Sankar Ray of the Indian Congress party was the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Joti Basu was the leader of the Marxist Communist party in West Bengal. Both the Bengali leaders prevailed on Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister of India, to interfere and safeguard the East Bengalis.
Accordingly, the Indian government ordered its troops to march into the then East Pakistan. When the West Bengalis and its leaders agitated for the Indian troops to interfere to safeguard the East Bengali brothers, either the Indian government or its leaders never raised an iota of suspicion regarding the intentions of the West Bengalis. Nobody doubted that, if in case East Bengal become a free, sovereign nation, then West Bengal too would follow suit.
Unfortunately, in the case Tamil Nadu, it was just the opposite. The then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M G Ramachandran and leaders like M Karunanithi, a veteran Indian political leader, agitated that the Indian government should interfere and free the Tamils in Sri Lanka, from the tyrannical rule of the Sinhalese chauvinists. Rajiv Gandhi and his cabinet of ministers began to entertain suspicions about the intentions of the 55 million people of Tamil Nadu and their leaders. If in case a free, independent sovereign state of Tamil Eelam materialized in the southernmost tip of India, in very close proximity to Tamil Nadu, the Indian ruling elites thought that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu, too, would follow suit and clamor for separation and independence from India in the future.
The Indian leaders failed to understand the genuine aspirations of the 55 million Tamils of Tamil Nadu, and gradually began to entertain fears of future disintegration of Tamil Nadu from India. A fear of such was considered the driving force for the order to the IPKF to disarm the LTTE with the view to force them to be in the Sri Lankan political mainstream, even though the majority of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu openly condoned the LTTE for their ruthless killings and appreciated the unswerving stand taken by them to defend for the creation of a separate state for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Due to lack of confidence in the 55 million Indian Tamil citizens, the Tamils in Sri Lanka faced the severest campaign ever unleashed against them. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord amounted to the imposition of the will of the government of India over the Tamils. The accord was a bilateral agreement between the government of India and the government of Sri Lanka. The accord failed to include the aggrieved party, the Tamils, as a party to the agreement. This led to the imposition of unilateral political declarations against them.
The IPKF, when they first arrived in Jaffna, were garlanded and given a hero’s welcome by the Tamil civilians. After the successful military campaign “Operation Pawan”, the Tamils were disappointed, filled their hearts with hatred and dismay over Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress leaders, but they never hated India and the Indian people. M Karunanithi, the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kalagam (DMK) who became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu after the demise of M G Ramachandran, refused to receive the IPKF when they finally left Sri Lanka in 1990. Karunanithi, one of the most diplomatic and veteran political leaders at present in the whole subcontinent of India, through his conspicuous absence from welcoming back the IPKF reflected the sentiments of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu. That act of Karunanithy amounted to an exhibition of open defiance to the erroneous political and military pressure adopted on the Tamils of Sri Lanka by the government of India. Several Indians failed to comprehend with the stand taken by the leader of Tamil Nadu.
One of them was Depinder Singh, who in his book stated, “I consider it reprehensible; the point is that anti-national acts were perpetrated earlier and swept under the carpet to suit political exigencies.” – The IPKF in Sri Lankapage 131
This was the comment from the Overall Force Commander of the IPKF who in his endeavor to terminate the LTTE created a situation by which the Sri Lankan Tamils filled their hearts from affection and friendship to hatred and despise of the Indian Army.
In the early part of 1987, Indian political leaders outmaneuvered the Sri Lankan gresident and the Sinhalese political leaders and forced their way to compel Sri Lanka to enter into an agreement with India. Again India imposed its will and grit in terms and conditions of the accord. Gradually the Sri Lankan government got around it weak position and began to impose conditions on India. The Sri Lankan president began to ask India to withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Forces from its soil. Unfortunately, India began to react to Sri Lanka’s threat which eventually led to chaos and crisis to India.
Once the agreement was reached and the accord signed, India failed to assert itself. The Sri Lankan president, considered a “cunning fox”, took advantage of the situation to make India fight the Tamil militants. The Sri Lankan experience ended up in a serious diplomatic debacle to India.
The government of India, up to date, had failed to order an in-depth investigation of its diplomatic fiasco in Sri Lanka. A clear analysis of why, how and where Indian diplomacy failed would have emerged by now if such an investigation had been undertaken to serve as a precedent for such future diplomatically intercourses. The short-lived Janata Dal government under V P Singh failed to order such a probe. The Indra Congress government under the leadership of Narasimha Rao, a bundle of absurdities, distanced itself from the policies of Rajiv Gandhi. Things will have to wait for a future responsible Indian government to raise above partisan politics to clear its past blemishes to restore the lost confidence of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Why did India take on Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil militants? Nobody has ever answered the simple question, always asked by everyone. The answer is to maintain law and order in Sri Lanka, the tiny neighbor of India.
The presence of Pakistani commando units, Israel’s Mossad and Shin Beth – its internal security agency – Kini Meeni Services from the Channel Islands, comprising British mercenaries of former British Special Air Services, in the neighboring country posed a real threat to India. Concessions given to America to have a powerful transmitting station of the Voice of America posed a threat to the security of the region. (On January 15, 1985, a total 1,000 acres of land – 800 acres in the village of Thoduwawa and 200 acres in Iranwila, Nattandiya in the west coast of Sri Lanka – was handed over to United States under an agreement signed on December 10, 1983, to install the most powerful Voice of America transmitter outside the United States which would be capable of jamming any other broadcasts in the region and with possible links to communication satellites. It was further reported that the VOA could broadcast low frequency messages to US nuclear submarines in canyons beneath the North India Ocean without the submarines having to surface. The granting of naval and military facilities at Trincomalee harbor posed a threat to the security and stability of India in particular and the region in general.
If a military coup against Jayewardene had materialized, as rumored, foreign powers would have stepped in and an Indian presence after the coup would have damaging repercussions internationally. The above are a few of the reasons given at times by the Indian government as to why it was involved in the IPKF presence and fighting Tamil militants at a cost of US$1.8 million per day, other than the loss of lives of soldiers. Even the president of India disbelieved the causality figures provided by the Indian Peace Keeping Forces in Sri Lanka.
“Taken from a reception hosted by ex-president Giani Zail Singh after I received the Shironmani Award 1987, Singh asked for the causality figures. When I gave him the figures, he asked whether he should believe me or the Sri Lankan president, who was quoting higher figures.” The IPKF in India by Depinder Singh, page 110
The Sri Lankan president maintained that the Indian troops in his country could not be compared with the presence of soldiers from the former Soviet Union, either in Afghanistan or with the presence of the Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Jayewardene, in an interview with British Broadcasting Corporation, clarified, “I don’t think the Indians would have come on their own accord, but, they could have helped the terrorists … which is worse. So I invited them.” Jayewardene’s argument sounded plausible, depicting a streak of diplomatic genius.
The Overall Force Commander of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka in his several statements about the Indian army, the fourth largest in the world with professionally trained soldiers, pointed to his soldiers’ inability to develop the correct mental attitude to their adversaries, the use of LTTE of human shields, and of “fighting with one hand tied behind our backs”. Statements of this nature coming from the commander indicated remarks made with the deliberate intention of covering up the lapses of his men.
Whatever is said and done, the leadership of the Indian forces in Sri Lanka in particular and the Indian government in general cannot evade responsibility for the damage and loss of lives caused during their stay in Sri Lanka. Several million dollars worth of property were lost due to Indian artillery and shell fire. Thousands of civilians lost their lives. Thousands more were arrested, tortured and left in makeshift jails. Several hundred civilians are still missing. The Indian government has ignored the issue of paying compensation to those affected by the IPKF.
On December 24, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, a central figure in the 1987 negotiations between India and Sri Lanka that resulted in the signing of the accord between the two nations on July 29, died of a heart attack at his home at Ramavaram, Madras.
Marthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, popularly known as M G R, was born in the up-country region of Sri Lanka in 1917. He dominated the South Indian cinema from 1950 to 1970 and was hailed as a matinee idol all over India and the Tamil-speaking world. He acted in more than 150 Tamil films, always playing the role of a swashbuckling hero.
Ramachandran earlier entered politics as a leading member of the Dravida Munnetra Kalagam and later, over differences of opinion with the DMK leadership, resigned to inaugurate the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kalagam (AIADMK) in 1972. In 1977, M G R was sworn in as the chief minister when his AIADMK won a landslide at the State Legislative Assembly elections. He continued to hold office as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu until his demise.
“J R was afraid that Ramachandran’s death could seriously weaken New Delhi’s position in Tamil Nadu and that it introduced another element of instability into Indian policy on Sri Lanka. As against this Sri Lanka foreign ministry officials believed that the death of Ramachandran would benefit both New Delhi and Sri Lanka, because nobody in Tamil Nadu would be able to dominate politics in that region as had Ramachandran. Ramachandran was a cult figure. Everybody else was a mere politician. And people of that sort would be easier to handle than Ramachandran. In that sense, they believed and argued, the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord would not be seriously affected.” J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography Volume Two: From 1956 to His Retirement (1989) by K M de Silva and Howard Wriggins, pages 668-669
On February 16, 1988, a Sri Lankan matinee idol and the leader of the Sri Lankan Peoples’ Party (Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya) was shot dead outside his home in Ragama, a suburb of Colombo, by unidentified gunmen, alleged to belong to the extremist People’s Liberation Front (JVP). Vijaya Kumaratunge, popularly called “Vije”, entered Sri Lanka’s film industry as a clean-cut popular hero in 1970 and soon became the heartthrob of the Sinhala screen. He acted in more than 60 films and won the prestigious “Sarasaviya” (Most Popular Actor) award continuously for six years. He was also the leader of the United Socialist Alliance, a loose coalition of the four parties that supported the controversial peace accord of 1987 between India and Sri Lanka, which the JVP vehemently opposed and warned of dire consequences for those who supported it.
Vije unsuccessfully contested the 1977 parliamentary general elections on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party ticket. He married Chandrika Bandaranaike, the second daughter of Srimavo Bandaranaike and S W R D Bandaranaike – former prime ministers of Sri Lanka. In October 1986, he and his wife Chandrika, who is the present president of Sri Lanka, visited Jaffna city, and met the charismatic LTTE commander of the region, Sathasivam Krishna Kumar or Kittu. The meeting resulted in the release of prisoners held by the LTTE.
An estimated half a million mourners watched the cremation of the politician in Colombo’s Independence Square on February 21. Supporters of the slain leader saluted the widow Chandrika as their new leader.
The JVP’s killing spree resulted in a revolt within the ruling party. The resignation of Gamini Jayasuriya was followed by the resignation of Ronnie De Mel on January 18, 1988, after 10 years in office. He was the longest serving Minister of Finance and cabinet member in Jayewardene’s government. De Mel criticized Jayewardene for failing to hold parliamentary elections over the past 10 years. A general election had been scheduled for 1983, but in December 1982 Jayewardene, after successfully conducting a nationwide referendum, passed a constitutional amendment extending the life of parliament for another six years.
De Mel had also been critical of Jayewardene’s response to violence by the JVP. The Finance Minister had advocated opening a dialogue with the JVP leadership about establishing employment programs and youth assistance. The virulence of the attacks on J R Jayewardene’s regime by the Finance Minister, while calling for a truce with the banned JVP, were as vicious as the insinuation in his remark that “we might have to ask the Pakistan Army to come to the south”.
“The uncertainty, together with the new twist in Sri Lankan politics following the assassination of the ruling party chief has raised new question marks about the Indo-Sri Lankan accord. There is no longer any doubt that the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP], the Trotskyite extremist organization, is feeling emboldened to undertake more audacious acts against the government which it feels can be humbled on the issue of Sinhala nationalism. Even as ardent a supporter of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord as Colombo’s Finance Minister Ronnie De Mel has felt frustrated enough to speak of inducting the Pakistan Army for tackling the JVP terrorists in southern Sri Lanka.
“This in a way negates the spirit of the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement which envisioned the resolution of all the tangles through mutual discussion between Colombo and New Delhi, keeping out Pakistan, Israel and other third parties which apparently had presence in Sri Lanka earlier. It is, therefore, a new situation that has made it necessary for India and Sri Lanka to meet soon at the highest level to take stock of the situation caused by the deaths of M G R and the Sri Lankan ruling party chief. With these events, which signify the elimination of the most important sobering influence on Tamils in the two countries, and the ascendancy of the militant Sinhala, enough has happened to cause an impact on Indo-Sri Lankan relations. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene will do well to meet and work out a strategy to abort the potential of these developments for queering the pitch for the Indo-Sri Lankan accord.” M G R: My Blood Brother by Attar Chand, pages 103-104