By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Gen VK Singh’s forthright critique on Tuesday, 14th April (Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s day) in Raipur, India, of the IPKF experience and his shocking revelation that Prabhakaran was let off the hook on orders from above on more than one occasion when the IPKF had information on his whereabouts, prompts a reconsideration of those years.
The line that the IPKF could have finished and was indeed finishing the job of defeating the LTTE when President Premadasa peremptorily got it to leave –a view shared by many ignorant Sri Lankan commentators and public personalities– is given the lie by India’s Union Minister of State for External Affairs General VK Singh’s testimony of the tangled web that the IPKF got into.
President Premadasa certainly wasn’t the higher authority who gave the IPKF orders to let Prabhakaran off the hook, when they knew his whereabouts. He wasn’t even President when it first happened. It was the “achievement” of MG Ramachandran crying to Rajiv Gandhi, and higher ups (some who were Prabahakaran’s ethnic, but not caste, kin) in the Indian establishment’s covert wing, arguing strongly against those such as Dixit and Kalkat who wanted to finish off Prabhakaran.
Having been a participant-observer, and as a political scientist turned analyst, the basic lesson I draw can be summed up as follows:
Third party efforts at conflict resolution must not depend solely or primarily on those states which have ethnic constituencies, indigenous or immigrant, drawn from only one of the belligerents. Though such states may be the ones to be automatically drawn in and most strongly motivated to play a role with its attendant risks, such embedded lobbies of co-ethnics in a zero sum situation will vitiate attempts at conflict resolution, because the intermediary will not be perceived as a neutral umpire, and there will be a backlash. Ideally the mediating/intervening state should have, in its make-up, no correlative reflecting the conflict, or should fairly evenly represent all the belligerent communities, or should be a regional coalition of states which collectively neutralizes the profile of unevenness in the composition of any one state.
That’s at the more reflective, conceptual level, and with the benefit of hindsight. But what happened, in terms of ‘real history’, on the ground?
The Indo-Lanka Accord plunged into crisis soon after it was signed, on the political and military fronts and in the Northern and Southern theatres. In short, the crisis was total. The obvious reasons were the fierce resistance of the LTTE and the growing revolt of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The two were objectively interactive. Had the LTTE resistance either not taken place or been swiftly overcome, then the Sinhala backlash could have been contained by the coalition of pro-Accord forces of Centre-Right and Left. Conversely, had the JVP uprising been capable of suppression as swiftly as it had been in 1971, the IPKF could have been permitted to take longer to fulfill its task, and perhaps more importantly, the devolutionary process could have been speeded up at the Colombo end as the Indians and the Tamil parties wanted.
As it happened, the LTTE’s resistance and political lobbying in Tamil Nadu had brought the Tamil Nadu factor back into the act in a major way, constituting an interest that Rajiv Gandhi who had to face elections could not ignore. Delhi therefore felt it had to measure its military response in some manner with the quantum of devolution it could have said to be extracting from Colombo. It had to be seen to be getting something for the Tamil people of the North-East. What is more, it had to be seen to strive for a deal that would eventually be acceptable to and encompass the LTTE; and it had to tell the state government in Tamil Nadu with some credibility that it was not fighting to eliminate the LTTE but only to drive it to the negotiating table. This was not only for their benefit but also for those influential Tamils in Jaffna, Colombo and in the West who had access to the Indians from the days of the joint diplomatic/propaganda campaign on human rights waged against the Government of Sri Lanka. The Indian line was no facade. It was the actual policy within which the military operation against the Tigers was carried out.
This policy was also fostered by the brilliant deception operation carried out by the Tigers who deployed Kittu (Prabhakaran’s former deputy and LTTE’s Commander of Jaffna) to convince the RAW of this—which he did with great success probably because he was given to believe it himself. That deception operation consisted of a protracted negotiation over the specific detailed conditions which could bring the Tigers around.
The Indians were fighting a limited war against the LTTE, while Prabhakaran was fighting a total war against them. Furthermore, the Indians were fighting such a limited war exactly at the time that only a total war strategy could have secured a victory swiftly enough, or could have shown sufficiently manifest progress towards victory, to have pacified the Accord’s Southern flank. Premadasa and Chandrika made the same mistake as India. Ranil simply appeased the Tigers. It took the clarity and political will of Mahinda Rajapaksa to opt for a (quasi) total war strategy aimed at winning the war and eliminating Prabhakaran.
In 1987 the Sinhalese were being asked not only to swallow the Accord and the large scale military presence of an army of its historic foe, but to swallow this without clear signs of a compensatory trade-off. In other words, it did not look as though the Tigers were being eliminated.
It also meant that the IPKF was not making sufficient progress to make their stay an assuredly short one. The initial behaviour of the IPKF in the Eastern Province, which included the shooting of a Buddhist monk in Trincomalee in the context of a demonstration, and standing aside while over 200 Sinhalese were burned to death by the Tigers in Batticaloa after the Pulendran suicide, had generated deep hostility towards the IPKF in the Sinhala areas. J R Jayewardene was therefore being put under great pressure by the Indians in making concessions to the Tamils—or, if you prefer, delivering on his promises concerning ‘residual matters’—precisely at a time that he could least appear to do so.
Similarly and simultaneously, JRJ was asking the Indians for a visibly full-blooded offensive to eliminate the Tigers at a time that the Indians could not be seen among the Tamils to be doing so—and certainly not without the progress on the devolution front, that Jayewardene could not possibly make. It was not just a single ‘Catch 22,’ but a whole set of them, interlocking with each other.
The Indians grossly mismanaged their relations with the Sri Lankan military—thereby depriving themselves of much needed intelligence on matters such as the size and composition of the Tiger arsenal.
The Indians hardly ever utilized tactical air power in a close support role. The Indians used helicopters only for troop transport purposes. Their MI-24s helicopter gunships were hardly ever used. They had only a few and none were procured for the Sri Lankan theater, which would have been easy to do, with their Soviet connection.
India failed to recognize that while the Sri Lankan government side put up a stone wall at Thimpu in ’85, a considerable degree of flexibility had set in as the year 1986 wore on. This was due partly to education by circumstances, partly to Indian input and partly to the interaction with the Lankan Left, led by Vijaya Kumaratunga, in the Political Parties Conference (PPC) of mid’86. Indeed, after the PPC, there was a definite shift in the Sri Lanka Government (SLG) position and the real possibility of a settlement of the issue.
This space and its potentials were closed off by two factors: (a) the decisively timed military actions–usually aimed at unarmed Sinhala civilians–of the LTTE, which generated understandably, a Lankan military response and (b) the escalating pressures emanating from New Delhi.
In ’86-’87 the SLG stance was increasingly reasonable, the landmarks being the November SAARC Summit in Bangalore, the Dec 19th (’86) Chidambaram Natwar Singh Mission and the Feb 17th ’87 position. But it was as if Delhi’s responses were propelled by a determination to escalate demands, escalate pressures, deny the SLG space and drive it repeatedly to the wall, until it was literally ready to sign on the dotted line of what turned out to be the Indo Lanka Accord.
India had adequate advance warning of what was coming. It could have anticipated the LTTE’s behavior and prepared to coercively neutralize it. Already in April-May ’86 when the LTTE slaughtered the TELO, it launched an agitprop campaign accusing the latter of being “an agent of India”. An evaluation of this propaganda alone would have revealed to Delhi what the Tigers actual attitude to it was, as well as how the LTTE perceived itself. Delhi not only allowed the elimination of one of its main assets, the TELO and its leader Sabaratnam, to go on unsanctioned – and this despite the Tigers explicit promise to Delhi not to kill him it also ignored the evidence concerning the LTTE’s project. It was specious to claim as Delhi did, that it had no way of knowing or predicting Prabhakaran’s aggressive non-adherence to the Accord. The writing was almost literally on the wall a year earlier. The clash was predictable and could therefore have been won. The calamity was predictable and therefore avoidable.
*The writer was a Minister in the North-Eastern Provincial Council 1988-1989