May 30, 2020
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The Team That Failed

An honest account of the contradictions in India's Lanka mission

The Team That Failed
Assignment Colombo
By J.N. Dixit
Konark Publishers Pages: 393; Rs 400
INDIA'S former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit, who was also India's high commissioner in Sri Lanka from April 1985 to April 1989, deserves to be commended for presenting the first authentic version on the most critical phase of India's Sri Lanka policy. First-hand accounts by IPKF generals did not look at this policy in its totality. But Dixit's narrative of India's involvement in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is bold and balanced, his assessment of related events and individuals is detailed, informative and insightful, despite a few factual slips. And where needed, the author is unsparing in his criticism of self and superiors. From the point of view of historians, scholars and analysts, this book is a valuable 'source material' and, like Y.D. Gundevia's Out -side the Archives, will rank in the category of the best among the memoirs written by India's former foreign secretaries.

The main thrust of Dixit's argument is that India's overall policy towards Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict—being governed by the concern for Sri Lankan Tamils' legitimate rights and interests, the Sri Lankan State's stakes in its unity and territorial integrity and India's vital internal and regional security interests—was correct. However, its implementation was faulty and unimaginative.

There was much continuity in the basic parametres of India's Sri Lankan policy which evolved from Mrs Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi. Both rejected the option for Tamil Eelam and the break-up of Sri Lanka and both pursued India's mediatory efforts to help Sri Lanka solve its ethnic conflict amicably. Mrs Gandhi's decision to give the Tamil militants material assistance, Dixit points out, was a means of controlling the extent of their militancy and keeping them under India's influence. The author's contention that Mrs Gandhi should have dealt with the Jayewardene regime through political and diplomatic methods is in conflict with his repeated assertion in the book that the Jayewardene regime was adamant in not accommodating Tamil grievances. Even Rajiv Gandhi had to abandon his 'political and diplomatic' approach and take recourse to the use of force in June 1987.

The landmarks of India's Sri Lanka policy were the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987, and the role of the IPKF in implementing this agreement. Dixit gives a blow-by-blow account of the events related to these landmarks. He is justified in saying that the July 1987 agreement was based on sound tenets, and that the IPKF played a positive role in Sri Lanka even at considerable cost and sacrifice. And yet, the agreement failed as the "collective judgement of the Indian establishment" that guided the overall policy "in retrospect was inaccurate and overoptimistic". And because, "there was no cohesion in operational aspects of Indian policies and harmonious coordination between different agencies of the Government of India." Dixit's narrative underlines Rajiv Gandhi's excessive reliance on intelligence agencies and bureaucratic apparatus. Rajiv Gandhi's decision-making style was in marked contrast with those of Mrs Gandhi and President Jayewardene, both of whom relied considerably upon political associates and cabinet colleagues. But the author fudges some critical issues. Why was Narasimha Rao's advice that India should not rush into the agreement and make the LTTE sign it, not pursued? How did LTTE decide to send a message through N. Ram of The Hindu, expressing their desire for a political compromise? From where did the provision of IPKF creep into the agreement? Knowing that Prema-dasa was not committed to the agreement, why did India support his presidential candidature? Clear answers to these may throw new light on aspects of the agreement.

Dixit's Assignment Colombo has an important message for future Indian policy in similar crises, namely that a 'soft' state, in order to successfully embark on 'hard' policy, has to gear itself properly for the challenge. India had done so in 1971 in the context of the emergence of Bangladesh. The Sri Lan-kan situation was even more complex because the unity and territorial integrity of the island state had to be preserved. Rajiv Gandhi's India did not quite match up to the difficulties. Accordingly, the inherent contradictions and vulnerabilities of the 'soft' Indian state were exposed, in the form of conflicts, incompatibilities and divergent operational relations among the various governmental agencies of the military-/security, foreign policy, intelligence and political establishments. Even the conflict-ual play of political forces of the Centre and a differently oriented Tamil Nadu could not be harmonised or contained—the LTTE continued to receive support from Tamil Nadu even during the IPKF operations.

Dixit is honest in detailing these contradictions and admitting that he was a member of the team that failed. One would expect post-Rajiv regimes to learn from this failure, but have they? It also remains to be seen if vested Sinhala interests in Sri Lanka would learn from the last 15 years of conflict, and let president Kumaratunga succeed in winning peace where her predecessors failed.

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