Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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'I Am Not Sure Prabakaran Ordered Rajiv's Assassination

by PC Vinoj Kumar,, November 4, 2006

Former Indian Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran 2006 Former Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran is unsparing in his criticism of India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. In an exclusive interview to Tehelka, he says then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi disregarded advice and sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). In early 1987, Venkateswaran quit as foreign secretary.

In the interview, Venkateswaran slammed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and felt he might have continued as foreign secretary, if he had been a ‘yes-man.’ He comes down heavily on President Mahinda Rajapakse and believes the Sinhala leader is gearing up for a military solution.

What is your assessment of the present situation in Sri Lanka?

Asia Centre, the organisation I am with now, and the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, conducted a joint seminar on the situation in Sri Lanka recently. The general assessment was that the situation in Sri Lanka was bad and getting worse. It seems the Sri Lankan government, despite its protestations, is not serious about finding a peaceful solution. On the other hand, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been left to its own devices.

India, the only country which could exercise some restraining influence on the course of events in Sri Lanka, is keeping studiously away. India has to respond in some way to the situation in Sri Lanka. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi concluded an agreement with the government of Sri Lanka and sent the IPKF there. He was advised that a civil war was going on in Sri Lanka and that it would not be advisable to send Indian forces, which were mainly intended to protect the frontiers of India and not the incumbency of the head of any foreign country. But that was the devious aim of (the then Sri Lanka) President JR Jayawardene in getting India involved in the Sri Lankan affairs at that time. He was under pressure from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the South, and the LTTE in the North. He even appealed to Rajiv Gandhi that if India did not come to his assistance, his government would fall.

Eventually the IPKF had to be withdrawn ignominiously. Jayawardene’s successor, Premadasa, even helped the LTTE with arms and material to fight the IPKF. Perhaps this is why India is keeping away from Sri Lanka now. But human needs and human catastrophes cannot be ignored. Today, around two million Tamil people are left helpless and international agencies including states like Norway are speaking about the serious violation of human rights and killings by Sri Lankan government forces in renewed fighting in the North.

What role do you think India should play now?

That is very difficult to say, because I am afraid in New Delhi the concerns of particular states are not taken fully into account. I know it sounds very strange coming from me. I have worked in Delhi and I happen to know even at that time that concerns of certain groups engaged more attention in decision-making in Delhi than concerns of certain other groups. When the linguistic commission was set up many years ago, Sardar KM Panicker, a member of the commission, gave his view that Uttar Pradesh, the biggest state, should be cut into three smaller states. Of course, it was not heeded at that time because the decision-makers came from that state.

If I could take you back to the 1980s, do you think if Rajiv Gandhi had listened to you and not sent the IPKF, or had not signed the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, the history of Sri Lanka would have been different?

I certainly think so. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi would still have been prime minister. He was a young man then, full of life. His life was cut short. It (the assassination) is ascribed to the LTTE, but I am not sure whether it was the head of the LTTE (Prabhakaran) who decided (to carry out the killing) or some lumpen elements. And that has alienated the decision-making authorities in India even more.

It was on Sri Lanka that you differed with Rajiv. Looking back, do you think you could have stayed on as foreign secretary, if you had been a “yes man”?

I imagine so. But Sri Lanka was not the only matter I differed with him on. There were many other issues, but I would not like to discuss them here.

But have you ever regretted giving your views on Sri Lanka?

Certainly not. I have no regrets at all about leaving the government. I gave my honest views.

Do you think you have been vindicated by the way events have played out in the subsequent years?

That is a strong word to use, because no one can determine the future shape of events. Not even your favourite astrologers.

Going back to the Accord, if you were to look at the Letters of Exchange, it seems India was more concerned about its own geopolitical interests. There was absolutely no reference to the Tamil question.

You may be quite right. One of the clauses of the agreement was directly related to the Voice of America broadcasting station in Sri Lanka. Today, the whole geopolitical situation has changed. We are having a nuclear agreement with the US, which had reneged upon its nuclear agreement for supply of fuel to Tarapore atomic power station in 1974. So, it is very difficult to go digging into the past. There is no point in digging up graveyards.

Looking to the future, do you get the impression that President Rajapakse appears to be gearing for a military solution to the ethnic crisis?

Certainly, I get the impression. I wished President Rajapakse success in his peace efforts when I met him during his visit to Delhi last December. I told him he had a good chance of success if he conducted himself as the president of all the people of Sri Lanka, instead of only a certain section of them. But I don’t think he has shown an all-inclusive spirit for finding a solution in his consequent actions.

During the Indira Gandhi era, India was perceived to be more sympathetic to the Tamil cause, but there was a sudden shift in approach after Rajiv Gandhi became PM. Was it because of a change in India’s perception of its own geopolitical interests or was it because of his advisers?

You are being slightly unfair to Rajiv. He offered to send Indian forces, as he said, to protect the Tamil people. He did not send the IPKF to fight the LTTE. In the first months there was a lot of bonhomie between the LTTE and the IPKF. Later on, for various reasons, the relationship between the two sides broke down.

But don’t you think he should have let the parties to the conflict come to an agreement (instead of India and Sri Lanka signing an agreement)?

It is a very valid point. The agreement should not have been between India and Sri Lanka. It should have been signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, with India, perhaps as a well-wisher, on the sidelines. On the other hand, the agreement was between the two governments and LTTE was not brought into the agreement directly, which is a pity. But all these are reminiscences in retrospect. Well, since you are asking me, I may say that before the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement was signed, I was still in Delhi after leaving my post as foreign secretary.

One evening, I bumped into N. Ram the present editor of The Hindu. I told him that the Accord, the draft of which was known, was very badly conceived. I felt the LTTE should have been made a party to the agreement, and the Indian government should not have been a direct party with the Lankan government. Ram said it was a bit too late to bring about any change in the agreement, which was happening in the next week or two. He was also travelling with the PM to Colombo for this “historic agreement”. The rest is history.

To wind up, let us have your opinion on the LTTE, because people have different opinions about the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran emerged at a critical stage in the history of Sri Lanka after successive Sri Lankan governments reneged on the promises made to Tamils and Sri Lanka introduced a new constitution that discriminated against them.

I will tell you a story about the signing of the declaration of independence by the Americans in their struggle against the British government. The declaration was signed in 1776. Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories, a respected leader, told the delegates from the 13 states, “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together or assuredly we shall all be hanged separately”. If the Americans had failed in their struggle for independence, the British would have hanged all of them as traitors. But they succeeded and we had the emergence of a country, which is today the most powerful country in the world. So it is a question of not trying to project things but looking at history as a whole.

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