December 10, 2019
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Just Desserts For Big Brother

Jain's report and the fall of government at Delhi is met with 'glee' despite the feared economic fallout

Just Desserts For Big Brother

JUSTICE has finally been done. Following the Jain Commission report—which triggered the fall of the I.K. Gujral government and the great debate in India as to which political party gave more support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—that's the feeling Sri Lankans are left with.

"People here see the political crisis in India after the Jain Commission report with a sense of glee. They feel that Sri Lanka has had to pay a huge price for India's mishandling of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka, while India got away scot-free. They feel that it is high time that India too paid a price," says Victor Ivan, editor of the weekly Sinhala newspaper Ravaya.

Over 50,000 people have died, millions made homeless and tens of billions of dollars wasted on a bitter war which is now in its 14th year. And much of the resentment generated by the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is directed Indiawards.

For centuries, the majority Sinhalese in the island nation have feared that the 60 million Tamils across the Palk Strait would one day help their kinsmen in the north and east of the island to establish a separate state. Ever since the late 1960s, when the ethnic war was waged in the form of hit and run battles, the Tamil rebels fighting for a separate state in the north and east of the island for the minority Tamil community operated freely from Tamil Nadu. The rebels came into the Jaffna peninsula in boats from Tamil Nadu, carried out an ambush and fled back to base.

The Tamil insurgency blew up into a full-scale war when India trained, armed and financed thousands of Tamil youth who fled to south India after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka. For Indira Gandhi's government, the rebels were to be used as a lever to force the right-wing government of President J.R. Jayawardene to drop its pro-American foreign policy.

For most Sri Lankans, it seemed their worst fears were coming true. With Tamil Nadu as a secure rear base, using sophisticated arms given by India and acquired from the international black market, the rebels took the mostly ceremonial Sri Lankan military head-on.

However, India miscalculated the intentions of the LTTE. The guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had his own agenda. Unlike the other rebel groups that depended entirely on India's patronage, the LTTE set up an alternative financial and weapon procurement network. And in 1987 it first agreed to, and then went back on, a peace accord between the Jayawardene government and the rebel groups that was brokered by the Rajiv Gandhi government. It then launched a guerrilla campaign independent of the support of India. This was the background in which Rajiv

Gandhi's government made the crucial decision to unleash the Indian peace keeping forces (IPKF) on the LTTE. A decision, the repercussions of which were to rock the subcontinent for many years after. After initial setbacks, the rebels were cornered by the IPKF in the thick jungles of northern Sri Lanka. However, fearing long-term Indian intentions in the island, the Sri Lankan government persuaded the V.P. Singh regime to withdraw Indian troops from the north and east of the country.

Most military analysts in Colombo believe the LTTE assassinated Rajiv fearing that if he returned to power, he would ensure that troops were sent back to fight the LTTE, or else pressurise Colombo to implement the 1987 accord, or both.

The 'revelations' of the Jain Commission—that India trained, armed and financed the rebel groups from '83 to '87—was information that has long been well known in Sri Lanka, despite the constant denials by India. However, most analysts feel the commission has whitewashed the involvement of the Congress and singled out the DMK as its target. "The report seems to be biased.... The fact is, it was the Congress and the AIADMK of MGR that were in power in the Centre and in Tamil Nadu during this period," says Victor Ivan.

Sri Lankan Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, who was a key cabinet minister during that time and later became prime minister, agrees. "Firstly it (the report) gives new insight into the Indo-Lanka relationship which was strained to such an extent in that period that it nearly led to a conflict between the two countries. It establishes the fact that some of the groups were trained in India through the RAW. This was done during Indira Gandhi's regime and this was a policy that was followed not only outside but also within India. Rajiv Gandhi inherited the problem and was unable to find a way out."

"In Sri Lanka, it's well-known that certain Indian politicians have had close links with the LTTE. In this respect, the Jain report contains no great surprises. Perhaps there is a certain amount of satisfaction in some quarters that this is now a matter of public record in India as well," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

And some spillover resentment too. Vijitha Rohana, the Sri Lankan naval rating who had attacked Rajiv in 1987 during the inspection of the guard of honour in Colombo, floated a political party after completing eight years in prison. The party, which won a solitary seat in the polls, has demanded that India recompense Sri Lanka to the tune of Rs 1,500 crore—for damages caused by India's intervention in its affairs.

 How far will the past determine the future? Not too much, apparently. Sri Lankan commentators are unanimous that the revelations will not undermine the current close bilateral ties. "Fortunately, this is a chapter that both countries have put behind them. Though we still suffer for some of those bad decisions, the present leaders of India also have had to learn lessons from it. The repercussions would be more in India, especially because of the attempt to utilise the report to change the government. It will result in other political parties pointing fingers at the Congress. Tamils of Tamil Nadu have been held responsible for the murder of Rajiv Gandhi. As a result of this, Tamil nationalism will come to the forefront in Tamil Nadu," says Ranil Wickramasinghe.

RAJIV'S assassination at Sriperumbudur by suspected LTTE cadres was the turning point in Indo-Lanka relations. The V.P. Singh government had done wonders to repair the bitter relations between the two countries from the early '80s but the assassination decisively changed India's, and more importantly, Tamil Nadu's perception of the LTTE. For the first time since the Tamil insurgency began in the late '70s, India and Sri Lanka were both all out to get the LTTE. "That was decisive in terms of both countries wanting to wipe out the LTTE. One of the main contentious issues have been resolved," says Saravanamuttu.

Yet, despite all the glee, there remains one strong negative impact for Sri Lanka from the Jain report: its effect on the financial markets. "The fallout from the report is negative in terms of the stockmarkets of the subcontinent, because the political uncertainty in India would drive the investors away even from this region. Unlike east Asia, the economic fundamentals in this region are positive and there was hope that, despite the east Asian problem, markets here would perform better next year. But the political uncertainty in India would affect prospects," says an economic analyst in Colombo. But the bottomline remains underscored as he adds: "Personally I think it is a bloody good thing. We have been paying a huge price with the ethnic war. It is high time India paid the price as well".

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