Upul Joseph Fernando
India entertains misgivings about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promised election to the Northern Provincial Council in September this year. At the same time, it is also pinning its hopes on a possible Tamil National Alliance (TNA) victory, if the elections are held, hopeful that such a victory would garner the crucial Tamil Nadu votes, which in turn would ensure an electoral victory for the Congress Party in the 2014 Indian elections. In such a scenario, India will surely be in the box seat, claiming the allegiance of Tamil Nadu for its success in influencing Mahinda Rajapaksa to establish a Provincial Council in the North, by way of a viable solution to the ethnic problem.
The Congress-led Government can thus wash its hands off the vexing ethnic problem in Sri Lanka and pontificate to Tamil Nadu politicians about the need to preserve what the Indian Government won for them, and work towards augmenting their gains in the future. India thus would be absolved of any shortcomings arising from any act of commission and omission, as alleged by South Indian Tamils, and would be able to regain their trust. Then the Congress Government can hold the 2014 elections, perhaps somewhat in advance, to gain an easy electoral victory. A masterly tactical move if it comes to pass, courtesy Mahinda Rajapaksa obliging the Indians. However, whether Rajapksa would oblige the Indians still remains an unknown factor.
Stirring up protests
Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by him were in the forefront of the movement stirring up anti-accord protests. The day before the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987, a satyagraha was held in front of the Bo Tree in Pettah, where Mahinda Rajapaksa was a prominent figure among the other leaders present. He was not even an MP at that time. Rohan Guneratne, in his book ‘Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’ has the following narrative of the events that day.
“On 24 July 1987, in a handbill issued from her private residence at No. 66, Rosmead Place, Colombo 7, Mrs. Bandaranaike called on the patriotic people of Sri Lanka to meet at the Railway Station at Fort, Colombo, on Tuesday, 28 July at 8.00 a.m. for a ‘prayer meeting.’ (This meeting was originally to be held at the Vihara Maha Devi Park). The MSV arranged a Sanga Sabha at the Vidyalankara Pirivena under the Chairmanship of the Ven. Palipane Chandananda, Ven. Dr. Wimalaratane, Ven. Sobhitha, Ven. Ananda and Ven. Ittanpane Dhammalankara, organized the meeting. The SLFP had called on their members of the Buddhist clergy through their electoral organizers in support of this meeting. On behalf of the SLFP, there were bhikkhus from as far as Ambalangoda, Ratgama, Galle, Attanagalle, etc. The plan of action was spelled out by Ven. Sobhitha. He called the people to hoist black flags, apply pressure on Members of Parliament to vote against the Accord, conduct Bodhi poojas, toll temple bells, gather people and inform them of the ill effects of the Accord. They also planned to perform a satyagraha on 28 July 1987, at 8.00 a.m. at the Maligakanda Maha Bodhi Viharaya. As the hours went by, the younger bhikkhus including the Ven. Tharapeliya Ratanajothi of the Deshapremi Sishya Viyaparaya and the Inter University Bhikkhu Federation made vitriolic speeches deploring the tame speeches of others. Ven. Ananda stimulated this further by urging a ‘fast unto death’ and another stated, “Lives must be sacrificed in the course of this protest.
“Ultimately, without assembling at the passive temple grounds on 28 July, the people decided to assemble near the Bo Tree in Pettah, so that they could solicit the support of the workers. Present at this meeting from 3.00 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. were Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Anura Bandaranaike, Lakshman Jayakody, Anuruddha Ratwatte, A.C. Gooneratne and Sadha Sakalasuriya of the SLFP and Dinesh Gunawardene of the MEP.
“28 July 1987, the day before the signing of the Accord, was significant. At 8.30 a.m. Ven. Sobitha and Ven. Ananda arrived at the Pettah Bo Tree and were joined by Lakshman Jayakody, Haleem Ishak, Anil Munasinghe, Richard Pathirana, Maithripala Senanayake, Ananda Dassanayake, Somasara Dassanayake, C.V. Gooneratne, Dr. Neville Fernando and many others of the SLFP. At 9.00 a.m., Mrs. Bandaranaike and her son Anura, joined them. Soon after that, the assembly began to turn violent. They started by obstructing traffic and later went on to set fire to public property and public conveyances. The police opened fire. Then the mob went in the direction of Fort and on their way, caused damage to a large number of government institutions, including the Ministry of Teaching Hospitals. Mobs committing violence also converged on the city of Colombo from the directions of Kelaniya, Nugegoda and Panadura.
“The Army and Police managed to disperse them at Peliyagoda, Dehiwala Bridge, Kirulapona, Pamankada Bridge, Ayurvedic Hospital Junction, Borella, etc. Despite the island-wide curfew on 29 July 1987, violence began to spread to other areas. Matara, Galle, Hambantota, Kalutara, Mt. Lavinia, Nugegoda, Kandy, Ratnapura and Polonnaruwa were very much affected.
“JVP activists moved to strategic areas and ensured that the UNP anti-Accord groups caused maximum damage and destruction. To a large extent, the SLFP and the MEP supporters were manipulated by the JVP. A report forwarded to President Jayewardene by the Ministry of Defence stated, “The SLFP stalwart Mahinda Rajapaksa referred to the infiltration of the SLFP by the JVP with Henry Silva, the Superintendent of Police, Colombo North. He had stated to wit, ‘Para ballo mekata avilla weda upset karala yanna.” This meant, “Bloody dogs have come here to upset the programme.”
Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP were always unwavering in their opposition to the Accord and the Provincial Council System imposed on Sri Lanka by the Indians. On 26 May 1989, Mahinda came down hard on the Accord and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in a parliamentary debate as recorded here:
“The UNP has never wanted to solve the problems of the minorities. When the minorities were sitting in Parliament the UNP took steps to get them out. They lost their democratic right to voice their opinions. Then the UNP thought it could send the Army to wipe out the Tamils in the North and thereby solve this problem.
“At the time the UNP was waging an all out war, there were threats from India and it is because the UNP was afraid of the Indians that they did whatever they wanted. This government (UNP) was willing to dance to the drum beat of the Indians. That is why they brought in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, not because they sincerely wanted to solve the minority issue.
“Now the Americans are putting pressure on them. Now the government wants to sell the Trincomalee Harbour to someone and find money. That is why the UNP is trying to bring the Indo-Lanka Accord and pretend that it will solve the problems of the minorities.”
“Your J.R. Jayewardene represented capitalism in this country. This is why he was called Yankee Dicky. Today what has happened? It did not stop there. He brought the Indian Army – the IPKF here. Because of that we had problems in the country. They brought the IPKF saying it was to solve the problems in the North and the situation created in the North by the suppression of the Northern people, by killing them by violating their human rights and by killing the Tamils and Muslims; this same situation the government created in the South also.
“In late 1987 there were increasing allegations that members of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) deployed in the North and East as part of the July peace accord were responsible for rape and other acts of brutality against Tamil civilians.”
“This IPKF that you brought as (Saama Hamudawa) a peace keeping force to the country, to the North and East, are engaged in raping the innocent women in those areas, in what the report says.
“Yes they have turned out to be a Kaama Hamudawa instead. An army of lust, not an army of peace. Maybe they are doing this so that Indian nationals could be born in the north and east of this country. They are killing and raping in the North. And in the South what is happening…?”
“Several armed Tamil groups continued their fight for a separate state, killing military and police officials and also hundreds of unarmed Sinhalese civilians.”
A paradigm shift
The hard-line position the SLFP and Mahinda Rajapaksa took against the Accord and Provincial Councils, underwent a paradigm shift after Chandrika Kumaratunga arrived from England where she had lived after Vijaya’s assassination, and rejoined the SLFP. She was instrumental in changing the Party’s stubborn rejection of the Provincial Councils and devolution of power to the periphery. She, in fact, made it part of the SLFP policy as envisaged by Vijaya in his Mahajana Pakshaya Policy.
However, when Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005, with the help of the JVP and JHU who joined him in 1987 to whip up protests against the Accord and Provincial Councils, he once again revived the opposition to them as an unofficial policy of the government, while overtly subscribing to a policy of devolution of power to the periphery through Provincial Councils. After the war victory, the wave of nationalistic fervour which swept through the country made it possible for him to create this position.
He may not be able to change this position, especially now. He would not want to be seen as changing his position as Chandrika did before him. He knows very well that he has a strong affinity with, and the support of, the nationalist faction in the SLFP. He will not do anything to lose that.
By such reckoning, it is not far off the mark to think that India’s wish to compel Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold elections in the North, thereby making way for the TNA to grab power and pacify Tamil Nadu, thus improving the Congress Party’s electoral fortunes in 2014, may after all, prove to be wishful thinking.