by S. Venkat Narayan
NEW DELHI, August 4: In July 1989, then Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa had threatened to go to war with India if it did not withdraw the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) by the end of that month.
He issued the threat when BG Deshmukh, then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Special Envoy met him in Colombo on July 12 and 13 to discuss the IPKF’s withdrawal from the island.
Premadasa told Deshmukh that, if India did not offer some formula that he could accept and announce to his people, it could cost him dearly and end his political career.
At one stage during the tense discussions, Premadasa even threatened that he would commit suicide if his request for the IPKF to cease its operations against the LTTE was not met before July 29.
These disclossures were made here last weekend at a seminar on India-Sri Lanka relations at the Indian Institute of Social Sciences by Lakhan Lal Mehrotra, who was Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka during those critical days.
Premadasa, who was simultaneously facing an armed revolt by the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) in the south and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the NorthEast, was desperate to get India to withdraw the IPKF. He provided arms and money to the LTTE to fight the IPKF.
Premadasa bluntly told Deshmukh that he was prepared to go to any length to get the IPKF out, and that he would not care if the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was abrogated by Sri Lankan Parliament and relations with India got ruptured.
According to Mehrotra, Premadasa told Deshmukh that he wanted India to announced the IPKF withdrawal on July 29—-the second anniversary of the Indo – Lanka Agreement. The president said he would declare the IPKF an “occupation force,” which could sully India’s fair name.
Deshmukh responded by saying India could take care of its reputation, and Premadasa should not worry about it. The envoy said the IPKF withdrawal could be completed by the middle of 1990—-a whole year after the president’s deadline.
Things got so tense and bad during Premadasa’s meeting with Mehrotra on July 28 that the president warned that if the withdrawals did not commence the next day, he would abrogate Indo-Lanka Agreement and break off diplomatic relations with India.
Mehrotra, a gentle and soft-spoken diplomat, listened to Premadasa’s angry fulminations and said it was the President’s prerogative to decide as he chose. If he decided to resolve the issue through negotiations, the Indian envoy was at his disposal. “However, if the President wants war, he will have it.”
Recounting the incident in his book “My Days in Sri Lanka,” Mehrotra writes: “As soon as I said that, I saw the President’s beaming face drop suddenly and his confident look disappear.”
Premadasa then sent his Minister of State for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne to New Delhi for discussions with Rajiv Gandhi, his External Affairs Minister PV Narasimha Rao, Defence Minister KC Pant and a host of senior officials to work out a phased withdrawal of IPKF personnel.
The IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka on 30 July 1987—-a day after the India-Sri Lanka Agreement was signed in Colombo on 29 July 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardene—-primarily to disarm several Tamil armed groups who were waging a guerrilla war for Eelam, or a separate country for Tamils in the NorthEast.
Sent at Jaywardene’s specific request, the IPKF was expected to disarm the militant Tamil separatist groups and go back to India in a matter of weeks.
The IPKF succeeded in disarming many of the groups, but the LTTE refused to lay down arms and fought with it. As a result, the IPKF ended up spending 32 months, during which it suffered heavy casualties: 1,165 dead and 3,011 injured—-mostly maimed for life. At one point of time, it had about 60,000 to 80,000 troops on the ground.
In the event, the IPKF’s presence became a major political issue in the island. During his presidential election campaign, Premadasa had proclaimed that he would ensure the IPKF withdrawal forthwith if he was voted to power.
The last Indian peace-keeper sailed out of the island on 24 March 1990, by when Gandhi’s Congress Party lost a general election and Vishwanath Pratap Singh was India’s new Prime Minister and Inder Kumar Gujral the External Affairs Minister.
Gandhi was assassinated at an election rally at Sriperambudur near Chennai on the night of 21 May 1991. And Premadasa was himself assassinated by the LTTE at a May Day rally in Colombo on 1 May 1993.
And on 18 May 2009, LTTE’s founder-leader Velupillai Prabhakaran himself was killed along with his top commanders by the Sri Lankan seucirty forces on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon at Mullivaikkal. courtesy: Sunday Island