By Col. R. Hariharan
Extracts of my answers to questions raised by media on the India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987 in the last two days are given below.
The Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardane Accord completes 25 years on July 29, 1987. Many now feel it represents a total diplomatic failure of India. As one who was present in Sri Lanka when Indian forces were operating from 1987 to 90, what are your comments?
Not all, but some of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora consider it as India’s diplomatic failure. The Agreement represented a strategic rather than a mere diplomatic initiative. The Agreement was signed after India arm-twisted Sri Lanka President JR Jayawardane to sign it.
He had little option but to do so as no external help was forthcoming particularly after India carried out Operation Poomalai when Indian air force planes dropped much needed food supplies to a beleaguered Jaffna. This showed India would not hesitate to use force if Sri Lanka ignored Indian concerns. This action probably kindled Sri Lanka Tamil expectations that India would to re-enact another Bangladesh in Sri Lanka and create independent Tamil Eelam. The Agreement not only underwrote India’s support for united Sri Lanka but also defused the fight for independent Eelam by creating space for Sri Lankan initiative to provide a measure of autonomy for Tamils; so sections of Sri Lanka Tamils were miffed with India.
The Agreement had two parts – one relating to the Cold War environment of that time when the U.S. was trying to make a foray in Sri Lanka at a time when Soviet Union was fighting insurgency war in Afghanistan, an ally of India. The other part related to ensuring Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka get their rights on par with Sinhala majority.
The Agreement did prevent Sri Lanka from providing any foothold for the U.S. However, it failed in finding a permanent solution to the Tamil issue, though it paved the way for the creation of Northeast Province when the 13thamendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution was introduced. There was an element of ambiguity in the Agreement as it required a referendum to be held to ratify the merger of North and East on a permanent basis. And verbal promises were said to have been made by both sides which were not implemented. When political leadership with no faith in the Agreement came to power in both the countries, the Agreement was downgraded to a MoU (memorandum of understanding).
The Agreement was signed between two countries to decide the political future of Tamil minority, whose representatives were not a party to the Agreement. So it lacked ownership of Tamils. Tamil militant groups and Tamil political parties of Sri Lanka depended upon India’s good will to carry forward their struggle. So they had little choice but to accept the Agreement regardless of their own views. Even TULF which had close political connections in India agreed to the Agreement though it had some reservations. Similarly though the three major militant groups –TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE – went along with the Indian government, Prabhakaran had to be persuaded to accept it. He was suspicious of India’s intentions. MGR’s influence with him came in handy in getting him to join others. In the case of Sinhala majority, President Jayawardane simply road-rolled the objections without allowing time for the people to dispassionately to study and understand it.
Looking back at it now, I feel Jayawardane probably expected objections to the Agreement snowballing in Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka army was also said to be unhappy. That is why probably he wanted Indian forces in Sri Lanka to discourage any threat to him. In the bargain he also used them to fight the LTTE relieving his responsibility. It gave him freedom to handle JVP opposition. So Sri Lanka also contributed to the partial failure of the Agreement.
Overall, the Agreement was hastily conceived by leaders on both sides for using it as a means to their own ends rather than a common cause.
If Indian army had assessed the situation on the ground why did it not take any initiative to make a success of the Agreement?
Indian army is an instrument of Indian government. It had only a limited mandate to “guarantee and enforce cessation of hostilities” between Sri Lanka army and Tamil militants so that Sri Lanka can take action to give a degree of autonomy to Tamils as visualized in the Agreement.
Prabhakaran’s Suthumalai speech on his return to Sri Lanka gave indications that he was not going to toe the Indian line. When the LTTE made only a token surrender of arms – handing over unserviceable and obsolete weapons – it started sending strong signals of its reluctance to fall in line with other Tamil militant groups giving up their arms.
Though initially we did not expect the LTTE to take up arms, later when it started killing other Tamil militant group cadres and dragged its feet on the interim administration, it was clear that the Agreement could be jeopardized.
However, Indian intelligence agencies – not military intelligence – providing interface with militants were probably confident that they could persuade Prabhakaran to accept the Agreement. And they could have advised the government to give some concession to LTTE and save Prabhakaran’s face to make it easy for him to come to terms with reality.They had clearly underestimated Prabhakaran’s obduracy. This is only my conjecture.
But one thing is clear – no one had factored LTTE turning out to be a major obstruction for the success of the Agreement. This is where everyone including the Indian government, intelligence agencies and the army failed to understand Prabhakaran’s singular fixation on leading the militant pack to create Tamil Eelam and make no compromises. (Of course, later he had no qualms about colluding with Sri Lanka President Premadasa to send Indian army out, Eelam or no Eelam.
Is there a possibility of reviving the Agreement? Is there any life left in the Agreement?
The Agreement is very much in vogue but not very active. Thanks to the Agreement, 13th amendment to the Constitution came about and that led to the creation of provincial councils providing some level of autonomy for the people. Though not fully implemented, the 13th amendment is probably the only instrument available to Tamils to continue their five-decade long political struggle particularly after LTTE armed struggle was put to an end in May 2009.
However, it is for India to decide on activating the Agreement and if necessary amend it in scope and content so that both India and Sri Lanka achieve a win-win situation and end the Tamil question once and for all by providing a solution acceptable to all parties. But can India do it?
Despite three years of peace, Tamils in Sri Lanka have unattended problems and Sri Lanka needs our help to speed up the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war ravaged Northern Province. That can come through only if there is greater political understanding between India and Sri Lanka to provide a fair deal to Tamils. Mrs Indira Gandhi was there for Bangladesh initiative in 1971 and Rajiv took the plunge in Sri Lanka in 1987. But now I see no national leader in India with enough dynamism to take up this challenge. That is pity as the Agreement may well be making its way to the archives.
(Col. R. Hariharan a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence)