Tuesday, 20 December 2016

‘Sri Lanka, an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off Indian coast’




By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1997-2000) Shivshankar Menon, in his recently (Oct, 2016) launched memoirs, Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy, indicated that New Delhi had reason to desire a change of government, in Sri Lanka, due to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa going back on his pledge in respect of Sri Lanka-China relations.

Menon accused former President Rajapaksa of breaking his solemn pledge, in May 2014, five years after the successful conclusion of the conflict. Obviously, the former President had earned the wrath of India for following a path which New Delhi believed threatened its security interests. Menon declaration that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off the Indian coast underscored New Delhi’s severe concerns in respect of the country being too close to China.

However, Menon, who had been India’s National Security Advisory, from January, 2011, to May, 2014, refrained from revealing a specific incident/or incidents which revealed Sri Lanka’s duplicity in May 2014. The incumbent Ajit Doval succeeded Menon.

Having commented on the conduct of former President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Menon accused Sri Lanka of reneging on bilateral understanding with India. Menon directly alleged that the former President received Chinese funds for his political campaigns, and projects. The veteran diplomat didn’t indicate when the war-winning President first received Chinese funding.

However, some experts interpreted that Menon was only commenting on the period during which he held the post of National Security Advisor. They asserted, therefore it would be wrong to ascertain that Menon felt the previous government had reneged on the promise given to New Delhi. They asserted that perhaps 80 per cent of the Chapter on Sri Lanka was positive. Even the reference to Chinese money could be considered as funds made available for infrastructure development projects.

Sri Lanka reneges promise

The writer felt the need to examine allegations in the wake of the Rajapaksa brothers referring to Menon’s memoirs, in recent conversations with him.

Let me report verbatim the relevant section from the Chapter on Sri Lanka, titled ‘Force works’: "I found that as Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya, had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interests, one that was compatible with ours. Immediately after the war, he reassured the Indian troika (National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon) about the nature of Sri Lanka’s defence relationship with China, and helped Indian companies re-enter the reconstruction of Colombo. Security was Gotabhaya’s sole preoccupation, which made him sensitive to India’s concerns, while his brother Mahinda was much more compliant with Chinese demands, having built a political machine on Chinese money. The basic assurances that Gotabhaya and, more reluctantly, Mahinda Rajapaksa gave us were that India’s security interests would be respected and that there would be no surprises in Sri Lanka’s relations with China. In detailed conversations I was assured that there wouldn’t be no permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and that Sri Lanka would look to India for most of its military training and intelligence needs. These assurances were respected, in practice, by the Sri Lankans, until May 2014. At no stage exclusivity sought or promised. And realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity."

Sri Lanka troika comprised Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa. The two groups worked closely throughout eelam war IV (Aug. 2006 – May 2009). Menon stated: "Troika made decision making easy and quick, but the decisions, once made, were also final and hard to change."

Menon conveniently forgot that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have transformed her ceremonial Army to a fighting force with the support of China, Pakistan and Israel if not for Indian intervention in early 80s. Sri Lanka had no option but to rapidly modify and expand the military, with China providing a range of armaments, including artillery, mortars, assault rifles, state-of-the art radar, transport aircraft, gun boats, larger vessels, armoured fighting vehicles, shoulder fired missiles and jets et al.

Origins of terrorism in Sri Lanka

Having wrongly described the first major LTTE attack, on the Army, in July 1983, as an ambush of an SLA checkpoint in Jaffna, Menon asserted that India’s premier external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had intervened in Sri Lanka, in Aug, 1983, thereby cleared India of giving the required expertise to the LTTE to undertake the first major operation (wiping out Army patrol at Thinnaveli/Thirunelveli, Jaffna).

What had been called an ambush of a SLA checkpoint was in fact a coordinated attack on a mobile patrol at Tinnaveli/Tirunelveli resulting in the deaths of 13 soldiers. The Army had never experienced such an attack in the Jaffna peninsula, or any other northern or eastern district. The LTTE couldn’t have acquired such an expertise on its own under any circumstances. The attack triggered the war. Having tried to absolve India of causing the war in Sri Lanka, Menon accused Sri Lanka ORGANIZED (emphasis mine) nationwide campaign against Tamils. Menon stated: "In July, 1983, the reaction to an ambush of an SLA checkpoint, near Tirunelveli, was an organized pogrom and massacre of Tamils across the country during what came to be called Black July. Anywhere between 400 to 3,000 Tamils were killed. The start of the civil war is dated to those events. Two decades of discrimination against the Tamils had been followed by PREPLANNED (emphasis mine) violence."

Obviously, Menon wanted to ensure that India was cleared of triggering the war here. The former Indian Foreign Secretary is comfortable in propagating the lie that India had intervened only in the wake of the organized and preplanned violence, countrywide, that caused hundreds if not thousands of deaths. Sri Lanka should be grateful to Menon for not alleging that the Army mounted an attack on its own to unleash ORGANISED and PREPLANNED violence on Tamils.

TN, Centre in destabilisation plot

Indians seem reluctant to speak in one voice in respect of the origins of war in Sri Lanka. Retired Air Marshal Bharat Kumar in Operation Pawan: Role of Air power with IPKF, contradicted Menon’s assertion that India had intervened, in Aug, 1983, a month after Black July, 1983. Air Marshal Kumar claimed that Tamil Nadu had commenced providing weapons training to Tamil youth immediately after Black July, 1983, whereas the RAW launched its own project in 1984. Kumar’s claim that Tamil Nadu leaders had rejected India’s call to rein in Tamil groups is ridiculous. Kumar stated: "Since the Central government could not afford Tamil Nadu ‘invading’ Sri Lanka, various intelligence agencies also got into the act from 1984 onward. It was better that the Indian state got involved in Sri Lanka rather than the Tamil Nadu government because of obvious repercussions." The retired Air Marshal’s claim regarding so-called Tamil Nadu invasion of Sri Lanka in the 80s and justification of India causing massive death and destruction in Sri Lanka in the wake of Tamil Nadu involvement here is foolish. Had India known Tamil Nadu establishing terrorist training bases within territory coming under its control, the Center should have intervened there. Kumar’s justification of India’s intervention in Sri Lanka is pathetic and the writer had never come across such absurd argument.

There should be a full disclosure of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka without any further delay. India cannot continue to lie regarding origins of the war as Sri Lanka battled accountability issues.

Menon’s one-time boss Foreign Secretary (1991-1994) the late Jyotindra Nath Dixit, who had been Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (85 to 89) in his memoirs, Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha genuinely dealt with the contentious issue. Sri Lanka leaders didn’t even bother to examine his comments in spite of their high value.

Dixit’s version

The Chapter titled An Indocentric Practitioner of Realpolitik thoroughly discussed the Indian intervention against the backdrop of Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US led Western powers as well as recurring conflicts with China and Pakistan. India had been among those countries supportive of the Soviet Union. Dixit had the guts to admit that Indian intervention in Sri Lanka was inevitable due to what he called Sri Lanka’s evolving security connections with the US, Pakistan and Israel. Dixit emphasized that Indian intervention hadn’t been entirely prompted by successive governments ill-treating Tamils. Dixit asserted: "It would be relevant to analyze India’s motivations and actions vis-a-vis Sri Lanka in the larger perspective of the international and regional strategic environment obtaining between 1980 and 1984."

Dixit was appointed National Security Advisor in May 2004. The veteran diplomat published his memoirs as the National Security Advisor. Dixit died in January, 2005.

Dixit alleged that President JR Jayewardene had established significant defence and intelligence contacts with the US, Pakistan and Israel. Unfortunately, Dixit ignored the fact that Sri Lanka had no option but to obtain foreign assistance to counter growing threat posed by terrorists. Having praised the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi for transforming India from what he called an idealistic player into a force to be reckoned with, Dixit faulted her over the directive to destabilize Sri Lanka. The top Indian diplomat unflinchingly acknowledged what no other Indian had dared to acknowledge so far. Dixit stated: "The two foreign policy decisions on which she could be faulted are her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticism of these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was she couldn’t openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. These aspirations were legitimate in the context of nearly 50 years of Sinhalese discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils."

Menon in his memoirs referred to India fearing Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka spreading to Tamil Nadu and foreign powers using Sri Lanka. Having acknowledged that the RAW had been tasked to monitor armed groups since 70s, Menon discussed the developments over the years before admitting the project’s failure. Menon explained how the LTTE assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on the night of May 21, 1991, during an election rally in Tamil Nadu, prompted India to support Sri Lanka’s military efforts. D.R. Kaartikeyan and Radhavinod Raju exhaustively dealt with the killing in The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: The Investigation. Menon asserted that India couldn’t bear being accused of coming to the rescue of the LTTE responsible for Gandhi’s murder.

Menon discussed gradual escalation of fighting in the Northern Province, Indian food drop, subsequent deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987-March 1990) under the Indo-Lanka accord, President Ranasinghe’s Premadasa’s partnership with the LTTE to oust the Indian Army and the LTTE taking control of the Northern Province at the onset of the eelam war II. However, Menon, avoided reference to India’s bid to establish a Tamil National Army comprising members of groups sponsored by India before Indian Army quit Sri Lanka. There had been no reference to Indian trained PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) making an abortive bid to seize power in the Maldives in early November 1988. Indian forces thwarted the attempt made by sea borne PLOTE cadres on behalf of Maldivian businessman Luthufee.

According to Menon, there had been an understanding between India and the US regarding Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.

Last phase and post-war


Menon dealt with midnight visits to Colombo with the then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Indian Air Force Embraer jet to keep abreast of latest battlefield and political developments. Following discussions, there had been agreement on suspension of air strikes and artillery attacks as well as the safe passage for civilians. However, Sri Lanka had indicated in no uncertain terms that taking LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran alive hadn’t been an option as the Army advanced on the Vanni east front. According to Menon, the Army top brass had been confident by, mid January, 2009, that the LTTE could be finished off. Menon’s comment on US-Norway operation to save Prabhakaran should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s determination to eradicate the LTTE. The US-Norway project had envisaged paving the way for a negotiated exile for Prabhakaran. Menon stated: "...Norway and US were attempting to secure a ceasefire, to negotiate exile for Prabhakaran, and to explore other exit strategies that would effectively keep the LTTE alive to fight another day, politically or militarily."

The US effort was surprising as the sole superpower provided specific intelligence to Sri Lanka Navy to hunt down four LTTE floating arsenals in 2007. In addition to that, the US upgraded Fast Attack Craft (FACs) thereby giving tremendous boost to the Sri Lanka navy.

Menon on Mahinda and Sarath

Menon discussed India’s unsuccessful efforts to convince war-winning President Rajapaksa to reach out to the defeated Tamil community with devolution of political power and democratic ways and means, restoration of human rights and most importantly in former Indian Foreign Secretary’s own words ‘a sense of dignity to victor and vanquished in his country.’ Having condemned the former President for not utilising post-war opportunity, Menon acknowledged the difficulties experienced by the former President due to the absence of acceptable Tamil political leadership. Menon quoted the former President as having said that there was no one he could work with on the Tamil side. Menon acknowledged that the former President had been right to some extent. Menon stated: "Such Tamil politicians as had survived the war in the Tamil National Alliance were either complict with or indebted to the LTTE and the most radical elements in the Diaspora."

Menon couldn’t be unaware of incumbent TNA MP Dharmalingham Siddarthan accusing the RAW of killing two Jaffna district TULF members of parliament, including his father. Although most of the prominent Tamil politicians had been killed by the LTTE, the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization) is alleged to have shot dead two TULF MPs, Dharmalingam and Alalasundaram, in August, 1985. And, at that time, it was speculated that they were assassinated on the orders of Indian intelligence operatives who handled the TELO. They were assassinated a year before the LTTE wiped out TELO. The Sri Lankan police never cracked that case. In fact, they had not solved subsequent cases of political assassinations either. Siddarthan is on record as having told the writer, in 1997, that the RAW ordered Aug 1985 assassinations. There should be a comprehensive study on Indian intervention in Sri Lanka beginning 70s.

Menon roundly condemned the former President for depending on Douglas Devananda, instead of promoting, what he called, a moderate Tamil leadership. It would be pertinent to ask Menon, or those who found fault with the former President, whether they could name some moderate Tamil politicians.

Menon also accused the former President of deploying 14 out of 21 Army Divisions in the Northern Province after the conclusion of the war. The author described the northern deployment as an occupying force. Sri Lanka never raised so many fighting Divisions during the conflict. There had been four Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula at the height of the war. Of them, two later had joined the Vanni battle, in January, 2009, in support of three newly raised Divisions namely 57, 58 and 59 in addition to two or three Task Forces also deployed in the Vanni. Unfortunately, for some inexcusable reason Menon had propagated a lie over seven years after the conclusion of the war. In spite of the Army presence, in the Jaffna peninsula, being drastically removed within three years after the conflict, those with vested interests continued to propagate lies. India and the Tamil community have never acknowledged that the LTTE defeat automatically cleared land for people. By the time, the former President sought a third term, in January, 2015, six years after the war, military presence in the Vanni, too, had been reduced. Today, 12 Divisions are deployed in the northern theatre with the Jaffna peninsula home to three formations.

India’s second major postwar issue, according to Menon, had been civil-military balance after the conclusion of the war. Having expressed concern over the growing power of the Army, the former National Security Advisor of India expressed relief that war-winning Army Chief had been removed. Menon stated: "The other postwar issue that worried India was the civil military-balance after 26 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. This was solved expeditiously, if unconventionally, by sacking and imprisoning Army Chief Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka’s political ambitions were the real motive behind Rajapaksa’s actions, but the effect of removing him was to take out of politics the victorious and domineering Army, which had got used to playing a role in national politics."