June 28, 2020
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Ten Tumultuous Years...

With an accord gone awry and a change in perception, the Tamil question is now an ‘internal’ affair

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Ten Tumultuous Years...

A decade ago on July 29, 1987, Rajiv Gandhi and Julius Richard Jayawardene signed the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, aimed at ending the vicious ethnic violence in the island and fostering good relations. In the process, the Indian Army got embroiled in a bloody two-year war. All players involved in the 1987 drama, with the lone exception of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, are dead: Jayawardene, Rajiv Gandhi and Gamini Dissanayake; opponents including ex-president Premadasa and Lalith Athulad-mudali; Tamil supporters of the accord, TULF leaders A. Amrithalingam and V. Yogeswaran and EPRLF leader Padmanabha. The chief minister of the India-created Northeastern Province, Varatharaja Perumal, is languishing as a refugee in Rajasthan.

Why did the peace attempt boomerang? How did the ‘Tamil Nadu’ factor, a key component in India’s policy towards Lanka, become a non-entity? In 1990, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was withdrawn from Sri Lanka when I.K. Gujral was foreign minister and M. Karunanidhi chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Now, Gujral is back as prime minister (and foreign minister); Karunanidhi is at the helm in Tamil Nadu. Only, perceptions have changed.

In the early ’80s, the plight of Jaffna upset Indian Tamils. But when various armed groups picked on Tamil Nadu to settle their scores, the Indian Tamil started losing interest—an "external" issue was best left alone.

Meanwhile, the ethnic conflict became too militarised for comfort. The failure of both the Indo-Lanka accord and subsequent peace talks between the state and the LTTE indicates that the political means remains subservient to military objectives. In the 10 years after the accord, there have been a spate of assassinations, Premadasa included, and a series of battles and ceasefires.

The 1994 general elections promised a letup. But has Chandrika Kumaratunga cashed in on this massive verdict for peace? Some analysts claim she has squandered the goodwill. Others say that though she reneged on her promises on the domestic front—she launched a war against Jaffna instead of working out a political settlement—her foreign diplomacy has been excellent. Indo-Lanka ties are better than ever before. And Stanley Kalpage, a former Lankan high commissioner in Delhi, is optimistic that "as long as India sticks to the Gujral Doctrine, we do not need to fear the kind of interference seen during the times of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi." As for the Jaffna flare-up, various votaries of war invoke the ‘TINA’ (there is no alternative) factor as the Tigers called off the truce on April 19, 1995. But to blame the Tigers alone for the resurgence of violence is to take the easy way out.

For example, why has Kumaratunga's "war for peace" failed to win the support of Sinhala hardliners towards "devolution"? What prevented her from pushing certain regulations that would have granted greater freedom for Tamils within the legal and constitutional framework? Why did she fail to fulfil her three main electoral pledges—peace, reduction of prices and abolition of the authoritarian Executive Presidency? Sinhala nationalists are against the devolution package because they see in it a "division of the country" and say this would lead to a "betrayal of the Sinhalese nation". Unless the Sinhala majority accepts a solution outside the "unitary state", it is impossible for the peace package to gain any currency among the Tamil fraternity.

AS for India, the IPKF misadventure still rankles. The anti-Indian feeling boomed after June 1987 when Indian Air Force planes dropped food in Jaffna to pressure Colombo. The 1987 accord, signed weeks later, caused widespread riots in the island and the Indian high commissioner in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, was nicknamed ‘The Viceroy’. In July ’89, then Lankan president Premadasa had to wangle a phased IPKF withdrawal out of the Indian authorities. A section of Indian analysts, of course, feels Sri Lanka would have been ‘dismembered’ but for the IPKF mission.

Steering clear of all controversy, the Gujral government has adopted a hands-off approach. With Karunanidhi’s DMK being part of the United Front, and the disenchantment in Tamil Nadu over the ethnic crisis, the Gujral doctrine of a "benign big neighbour" has gained widespread acceptance in Sri Lanka and in international circles.

In the past decade, there has been a complete reversal of roles: from a villain, Sri Lanka has gained the image of a hapless government fighting terrorism; from being freedom fighters, the LTTE is now a ruthless militant group that denies the rights of its own people; from being a big brother who could determine the fate of a tiny neigh-bour, India has become a passive onlooker.

The tragedy is this has only exacerbated the suffering of the Lankan Tamil. Says a senior TULF leader: "There is consensus that the war must stop. There is consensus that there must be negotiations for peace. There is consensus that the international community has a role in it. But, there is never going to be consensus about how to go about these things and the war may well go on for another decade". A grim picture indeed.

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