Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Gujral factor

War on terror revisited : Part 99

By Shamindra Ferdinando

 JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe signing the Condolence Book opened in the Indian High Commission in Colombo on the sad demise of Inder Kumar Gujral, Former Prime Minister of India, who passed away on Nov. 30, 2012.
The JVP in June 1989 ordered all Indians to leave the country or face the consequences. It was nothing but a foolish propaganda effort in the wake of President Premadasa’s demand for the IPKF’s withdrawal by July 29, 1989. The then Indian High Commission spokesperson Ms Primrose Sharma explained the measures taken by India to ensure the safety and security of the diplomatic staff. The majority of the diplomatic and non-diplomatic staff moved to Colombo hotels, with the police and security forces providing security (Security forces on full alert-The Island June 15, 1989).

 One-time Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral died on Nov. 12, 2012 in a hospital at Gurgaon near New Delhi, aged 92. Gujral was India’s 12th premier, heading a United Front coalition government (April 1997 to March 1998). He held the external affairs portfolio twice, first from 1989-1990 and again in 1996-1997.

The much discussed Gujral Doctrine took shape during his second stint as India’s External Affairs Minister, though his influence in changing Indian foreign policy towards Sri Lanka in 1989 could never be disputed. If not for Gujral, the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa would have found himself in a catastrophic situation. Gujral advocated the withdrawal of the IPKF.

The defeat of the then Premier Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress at the Nov. 1989 general election and the formation of the National Front government, with Gujral as its external affairs couldn’t have come at a better time for President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Had the Congress regained power, India wouldn’t have complied with President Premadasa’s demand and he would have had to face a powerful hostile power. This, against the backdrop of Premadasa’s hostility towards India in general and the Gandhis in particular, would have placed Sri Lanka in an extremely difficult position.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit in his memoirs, titled Makers of Indian Foreign Policy, faulted Gujral’s strategies. In a chapter captioned ‘A Pacifist and an Optimist’, Dixit, New Delhi’s top diplomat in Colombo during the deployment of the IPKF declared, "I.K. Gujral was appreciated for his idealism and commitment to peace. But he was overoptimistic and was willing to make compromises with other countries in a one-sided manner." Commenting on Gujral’s response to President Premadasa’s demand to withdraw the IPKF, Dixit said that the then External Affairs Minister was of the opinion that India should not have got involved in a mediatory role in Sri Lanka. According to Dixit, Gujral was also strongly opposed to training and arming of what Dixit described as Tamil separatist groups and the deployment of Indian armed forces in Sri Lanka. "Gujral did not accept the argument that if India had not got actively interested in trying to resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, it might have had to face a separatist movement in Tamil Nadu. He was also of the view that India’s military involvement and political mediation in Sri Lanka was against the basic principles of nonalignment and the stipulations of international law. He orchestrated a 180 degree turn in India’s Sri Lanka policy. There were segments of Indian public opinion which welcomed his decision as a statesman-like action, restoring India’s foreign policy on the right track and regaining the moral high ground which it had apparently lost in Sri Lanka."

Dixit said that others felt that the decision taken by Premier V. P. Singh and Gujral caused the dismantling of the ILA, leading to the failure of what he described as the disintegration of the experiment of Tamil self-government in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

President’s shocking move

Having won the Nov. 19, 1988 presidential election, President Premadasa set the stage for a fresh confrontation with India, at the Jan. 2, 1989 inauguration of his presidency. In spite of his hostility towards, India, no one expected him to demand the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), in a bid to facilitate resumption of direct talks with the LTTE.

The demand was made on the morning of April 13, 1989. Addressing a small gathering at Chittawiwekaasramaya, a temple situated near the Independent Television Network (ITN) head office, President Premadasa called for the withdrawal of the IPKF within three months (on or before July 29, 1989, the second anniversary of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Agreement). The announcement was made after President Premadasa had declared a unilateral ceasefire throughout the country to coincide with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. The IPKF, too, reluctantly agreed to suspend operations in the temporarily merged North-East Province, in accordance with President Premadasa’s move. During the weeklong ceasefire, violence claimed the lives of 110 persons.

India/IPKF would never have suspected President Premadasa’s plan to call for the IPKF’s withdrawal in the wake of the temporary ceasefire. The President was hastily responding to the LTTE declaration that it wouldn’t suspend operations until the IPKF quit Sri Lanka. On the instructions of President Premadasa, the then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne invited the LTTE to direct talks. The LTTE’s International Secretariat in London accepted the invitation on April 15, 1989. The stage was set for what came to be known as the Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon.

Premadasa’s ill-fated strategy paved the way for the transformation of the LTTE from essentially a terrorist organisation to a force with a distinctive conventional military capability.

Although President Premadasa always talked of restoration of normalcy in the North as well as South through consultation, consensus and compromise, the UNP leader never practised what he preached. He did not trust anyone and none dared to discourage him from challenging India. Fear of losing access to the President’s private residence, Sucharitha made politicians and officials alike go with his thinking. The President felt that that he would be free to deal with the LTTE and the JVP once he got rid of the IPKF. He obviously considered the IPKF the biggest obstacle to his presidency. An angry India was blunt in its response. President Premadasa was told the IPKF wouldn’t be pulled out. In spite of President Premadasa pushing the Indian High Commission in Colombo as well as Premier Gandhi for de-induction of the IPKF, India remained noncommittal.

Balasinghams in Colombo

Former Veerakesari staffer turned former British High Commission employee Anton Stanislaus Balasingham arrived at the Katunayake International Airport (KIA) on April 26, 1989. He was accompanied by his second wife, Australian born Adele. On the instructions of President Premadasa, Air Lanka flew them from Heathrow to KIA at the government’s expense. Balasingham was representing the LTTE as its theoretician. The SLAF flew them to Colombo for a meeting with Presidential Secretary K.H. J. Wijedasa (Balasingham arrives here for talks-The Island April 27, 1989).

At the behest of President Premadasa, the SLAF airlifted the LTTE delegation from the Vanni to join the Balasinghams for their first formal meeting with the government at the Colombo Hilton on May 5, 1989. However, President Rajapaksa met the LTTE delegation at Sucharitha on the evening of the previous day. They discussed the crisis caused by the Indian intervention, deployment of the IPKF, formation of a militia loyal to the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF)-run PC administration in the North-East and the ‘colonisation of predominately Tamil areas’ under the auspices of the Mahaweli Authority.

The LTTE conveniently forgot the circumstances that had led to the Indian intervention in June 1987. India intervened when the Sri Lankan Army was advancing on two flanks after having liberated Vadamaratchchy in the last week of May 1987.

President Premadasa went out of his way to appease the LTTE. On his instructions, the government facilitated the return of Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathani, daughter Duwarka and son Charles Anthony from Europe. Their fourth child Balachandran was born in the Vanni East.

Premadasa leads talks

Premadasa declared that the IPKF should be confined to their barracks in case its withdrawal couldn’t be completed. India ignored Premadasa’s call. As part of measures to undermine Premadasa’s administration, India formed a militia under the political leadership of the EPRLF to face the Premadasa-Prabhakaran axis. The so-called Citizen’s Volunteer Force (CVF) was transformed into the Tamil National Army (TNA). The IPKF didn’t realise that the TNA couldn’t match the LTTE.

In the immediate aftermath of V. P Singh’s triumph, Premadasa’s sent State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, to explore the possibility of expediting the IPKF pull out. External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral as expected gave an assurance that India would pull out her forces.

Premadasa handpicked his team for negotiations with the LTTE. He kept Messers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake out of the secret process. A. C. S. Hameed (Minister of Higher Education and UNP Chairman), Ranil Wickremesinghe (Minister of Industries). Ranjan Wijeratne (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Sirisena Cooray (Minister of Housing and Construction), U. B. Wijekoon (Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Provincial Councils), P. Dayaratne (Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaveli Development) took part in the first round of talks held at the Colombo Hilton and Galadari Hotel (May 4-May 30, 1989).

The second round (June 16-July 2, 1989) was also held in Colombo. Premadasa included Festus Perera (Minister of Power and Energy) and A. R Mansoor (Minister of Trade and Shipping) in the delegation.

The third round was held in November 1989 at Sucharitha with the participation of Premadasa, Hameed and Ranjan Wijeratne. Among the officials present were Defence Secretary Sepala Attygalle, presidential secretary K. H. J Wijedasa, Foreign Secretary Bernard Tillekaratne and International Affairs Advisor Bradman Weerakoon. Prabhakaran’s deputy, Gopalsamy Mahendraraja aka Mahattaya joined the third round. The LTTE delegation included Balasingham and Yogiratnam Yogi.

Felix Dias Abeysinghe, a former Elections Department chief who drafted routine press releases issued after the meetings was also present. But there was no press release after the third round.

Did Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, Defence Secretary General (rtd.) Sepala Attygalle and presidential security advisor General (rtd.) Cyril Ranatunga resist Premadasa’s strategy?

At the behest of the President, the army provided arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE to carry out attacks on the IPKF and the Tamil groups loyal to India. The LTTE also received funds from the Treasury.

The President directed the army to provide tactical support to the LTTE to carry out operations against the TNA.

EPRLF fights back

In the run-up to President Premadasa’s call for the IPKF’s withdrawal, the embattled Chief Minister of the North-East Provincial, Council Varatharaja Perumal called for far reaching constitutional reforms to devolve powers to the provinces. Having met Indian Premier Gandhi and President Premadasa, Perumal called a media briefing on the morning of April 7, 1989 in Colombo to explain the urgent need for tangible action on the part of India and Sri Lanka. Perumal declared that the EPRLF expected Premier Gandhi to take up the issue with President Premadasa. Responding to a query, Perumal strongly defended his decision to call the provincial administration the government of the Northern and Eastern Provinces (Perumal says he asked for India’s help––The Island April 8, 1989).

On April 17, 1989, the EPRLF warned the Sinhalese living in Welikanda area to leave or face the consequences. Despite threats, some villagers lodged complaints with the Welikanda police, though law enforcement officers couldn’t interfere with the EPRLF (‘Quit or die’ threat to Welikada settlers––The Island April 21, 1989).

IPKF engineers protests

in B’caloa

Having decided to ignore President’s Premadasa’s vacation order, the IPKF mobilised thousands of people in Batticaloa against Premadasa’s call. Protesters handed over petitions to the IPKF demanding the continued presence of the Indian forces and the speedy devolution of powers to Perumal’s provincial council (Demos in Batticaloa calling for IPKF to stay-The Island June 13, 1989). The ENDLF (breakaway PLOTE faction), TELO and EPRLF led the protests. The Sri Lankan military remained in barracks.

The IPKF and the EPRLF administration went to the extent of escorting senior government officials from their residences to the Batticaloa Kachcheri to prevent the LTTE from disrupting civil administration.

India indicated in no uncertain terms that President Premadasa’s deadline wasn’t acceptable. Until the change of government in Nov. 1989, India remained committed to an Indian military presence, regardless of the President’s call.