SPECIAL REPORT : Part 283August 13, 2019, 7:13 pm
Modi has paid tribute to the victims of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, visiting St. Anthony’s church targeted by suicide bombers.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka should examine whether the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) suicide bombing campaign helped India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win the recently concluded general election. The NTJ struck amidst India’s staggered general election that began on April11 and continued till May 19.
Did the NTJ operation influence the Indian electorate? Sri Lanka cannot afford not to examine every possibility to prevent the NTJ, or its affiliates, undertaking fresh terror projects. Who is the mastermind behind the devastating attacks which caused irreparable damage to the national economy? In other words, who really provided the wherewithal to the perceived leader of the terror project Zahran Hashim?
The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), probing Easter Sunday attacks, didn’t inquire into external factors in the presence of the media. However, the PSC had an opportunity to seek the opinion of those who provided evidence in camera as regards external factors. Perhaps, the PSC never bothered to vigorously inquire into external factors or it lacked the mandate or the capacity to do so.
The PSC consists of its Chairman Ananda Kumarasiri (UNP/Moneragala District), Ravi Karunanayake (UNP/Colombo), Dr. Rajitha Senaratne (UNP/Kalutara), Ashu Marasinghe (UNP National List), Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (UNP National List), LSSPer Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne (UNP National List), M.A. Sumanthiran (TNA/Jaffna District) and Rauff Hakeem (UNP/Kandy District).
The government proscribed the NTJ, on May 13, 2019 - 23 days after the Easter carnage. The Jama’athe Milla’athe Ibrahim (JMI) and the Willayath As Seylani (WAS), were also banned in terms of regulation 75(1) of the emergency regulations.
The NTJ struck between the second and the third phases of the Indian elections. The first phase, conducted on April 11, covered 91 constituencies in 20 States. The second (95 constituencies in 13 States) and the third (117 constituencies in 15 States) were held on April 18 and April 23, respectively. The remaining four phases were held on April 29 (71 constituencies in 09 States), May 06 (51 constituencies in 07 States), May 12 (59 constituencies in 07 States) and May 19 (59 constituencies in 08 States).
Counting began on May 23. Modi scored a resounding win. His triumph plunged his political opponents into crisis.
India provided specific information as regards the impending terror attacks, to Sri Lanka, on April 04, about a week before the first phase. India identified its High Commission, in Colombo, as one of the NTJ targets. During the PSC proceedings, the Commandant of the elite Special Task Force, DIG M.R. Latiff, in response to a query, revealed that he provided security to the Indian High Commission on April 10, consequent to a warning received the previous day.
Latiff is on record as having told the PSC, on July 25, the Indian High Commission appreciated security provided by the STF. Did NTJ refrain from attacking the Indian High Commission due to the deployment of the STF? What was the status of STF security? Did the STF deployment cover India House?
Sri Lanka, in deepening political turmoil, is yet to really inquire into the Easter Sunday operation. Incumbent political leadership and those seeking to regain power, at any cost, seem obviously blind to security threats. The PSC proceedings revealed negligence on the part of the political leadership, law enforcement authorities, intelligence services and the Attorney General’s Department. The PSC proceedings also revealed as to how the Finance Ministry weakened the Central Bank vis-a-vis its regulatory powers in respect of foreign financial transactions. However, so far no effort has been made to inquire into possible external factors. Did the planners of the NTJ operation take into consideration the Indian election?
Further scrutiny is required on the NTJ bomber’s failure to detonate himself in the five-star Taj Samudra, owned by Taj Asia, a joint venture between India’s Tata and Cinnovation, a firm owned by Nepali entrepreneur Binod Chaudhary. The hotel is operated by Taj Resorts.
It would be pertinent to examine the selection of targets - four in Colombo, one in Negombo and one in Batticaloa. The PSC never bothered to probe as to why the NTJ deliberately targeted a church in Batticaloa and the Tamil service at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade. Over 60 Tamils perished in Batticaloa and Kochchikade bombings. Over 100 received injuries. The deliberate targeting of the Sri Lankan Tamil community was even ignored by the largest Tamil coalition led by Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK). Its spokesman and Jaffna District lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, a Christian, went to the extent of justifying the Easter Sunday carnage. President’s Counsel Sumanthiran did so at a public event held on April 29 at the BMICH. Why did the NTJ target both Sinhala and Tamil communities?
Why did the NTJ select a church in Batticaloa, especially against the backdrop of Kattankudy, the focal point in the whole operation, also situated in the Batticaloa district? Interestingly, the original target in Batticaloa had been St. Mary’s Cathedral, a church far bigger than the Zion Church, a little distance away. The bomber triggered the blast at the main entrance to the Zion church after he was prevented from entering the premises by a suspicious devotee, R. Ramesh. Had the bomber reached St. Mary’s Church before the service ended on that fateful day or allowed to enter Zion Church, many more Tamils would have perished.
The blast, inside St. Sebastian Church, claimed the lives of over 100 people. It was the worst of the six blasts because the assassin triggered the blast in the main wing of the church. The writer’s godmother, Nalini de Livera and her husband, Claude, seated on the left side of the front row, survived the blast. One small iron ball, which entered Claude de Livera’s shoulder, didn’t cause serious injury. But, the loss of lives would have been much more if the bomber entered the church before the end of service. At the time of the blast, Chaminda Priyadarshana, a member of the Katana Pradeshiya Sabha, was delivering a vote of thanks at the end of service. The blast took place after a significant number of people left the church.
2019 Indian general election
Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to condemn the Sri Lanka attacks. The Indian leader condemned the Easter Sunday attacks on the same day - two days before the Islamic State claimed responsibility. However, no less a person than Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne, the senior officer in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), declared, before the PSC, that there was no evidence to link Islamic State thereby contradicted the much publicized government claims. Seneviratne appeared before the PSC on July 24.
Addressing an election rally in the Western State of Rajasthan, hours after the serial blasts in Sri Lanka, Narendra Modi played politics with the issue. The media quoted Modi as having said the electorate should give him a second term as only he could beat the terrorists threatening India.
"Should terrorism be finished or not?," he asked. "Who can do this? Can you think of any name aside from Modi? Can anybody else do this?"
"In our neighbouring Sri Lanka, terrorists have played a bloody game. They killed innocent people," Modi said.
At another rally, in Rajasthan, also on Sunday, Modi again mentioned the attacks in Sri Lanka and said that India, too, continues to suffer because of militants.
"India has now ended its policy of getting scared of Pakistan’s threats," Modi said, "‘We have a nuclear button, we have a nuclear button’ they used to say."
"What do we have then?" he said, to cheers from the crowd.
The Easter Sunday carnage certainly influenced a section of the Indian electorate.
Modi directly blamed Muslims for the Sri Lanka attacks.
Having comfortably secured a second term, Modi visited Colombo, on June 09, on his way to the Maldives. President Maithripala Sirisena is on record as having said that he requested Modi to visit in the wake of many countries issuing travel advisories. During his four-hour stop over, Modi visited St. Anthony’s church, where many Tamils perished.
A week after Modi’s visit, Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Sandhu assured the prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters India’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s security.
The Indian High Commission issued the following statement, following Sandhu’s visit to Kandy: "High Commissioner of India Taranjit Singh Sandhu paid respects at Sri Dalada Maligawa and received the blessings of the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Mahanayake Thera of Malwatte Chapter and Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Mahanayake Thera of Asgiriya Chapter in Kandy on May 17.
"High Commissioner conveyed greetings on the auspicious occasion of Vesak to the Most Venerable Mahanayake Theras and recalled the visit of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka for the International Vesak Day celebration in 2017 and the exposition of the sacred Sarnath Relics in Sri Lanka in 2018.
"High Commissioner also discussed the prevailing security situation with the Most Venerable Mahanayake theras and offered India’s full support to Sri Lanka in dealing with the common threat of Jihadi terrorism.
"Both the Mahanayake Theras deeply appreciated India’s unconditional and strong support for Sri Lanka, including in the security sphere.
"High Commissioner Sandhu also reviewed the progress of the Kandyan Dancing School, being constructed with Government of India’s assistance of around 150 million SLR at the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy (SIBA) campus in Pallekele, Kandy."
It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to assume Zahran carried out Easter Sunday attacks on his own. Zahran couldn’t have handled the logistics alone. Zahran was used by those who exploited the political chaos in Sri Lanka. In fact, the NTJ operation caused much more harm to the Muslim community, in Sri Lanka, than any other post-independence event.
The NTJ launched its project on Nov 30, 2018 in Vavunativu, Batticaloa, by killing two policemen - a Sinhalese and a Tamil. The NTJ operation got underway at a time President Maithripala Sirisena, backed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, was struggling to take control of parliament in the wake of an unexpected UNP fightback, following the sacking of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. Zahran’s bosses definitely took the local political scene into consideration before the launch of their despicable project. Zahran or his NTJ never demanded anything from the government or voiced concerns over their grievances, although his group backed Maithripala Sirisena at the last presidential election in January 2015 and the UNP at the parliamentary election, eight months later. The UNP allowed Zahran a free run in and around Kattankudy. Matara District lawmaker Sagala Ratnayake held the law and order portfolio at that time and was one of those summoned by the PSC. Zahran must have attracted the attention of some interested party, hell-bent on subverting Sri Lanka or causing mayhem here for their own advantage. They had never been short of cash. Of the bombers, two belonged to one of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest families. Who really motivated them? What were they promised in return for blasting themselves into thousand pieces? Sri Lanka introduced suicide bombers to the world in the ‘80s. New Delhi wouldn’t have expected one of the terrorist groups - the LTTE-trained by India, to destabilize Sri Lanka with its formidable suicide squad. The operation was meant to pave the way for the Indian Army to be deployment here. New Delhi deployed troops here in July 1987. India withdrew its Army in March 1990. India finally paid a huge price for its intervention here in the early ‘80s.
Dixit faults Indira Gandhi over
intervention in Lanka
One time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo and National Security Advisor J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs, titled ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy,’ launched in 2004, revealed as to why India intervened in Sri Lanka. The writer received a copy of Dixit’s memoirs during a visit organized by the Indian High Commission in Colombo, to New Delhi, in August 2006. Dixit faulted the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in respect of the controversial Indian decision on Sri Lanka. The NTJ, in its first operation, achieved what the LTTE couldn’t during its war against Sri Lanka. The NTJ carried out near simultaneous suicide bombings, in six different locations, with two bombers targeting Shangri-La. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section from Dixit memoirs titled ‘An Indocentric Practitioner of Realpolitik’ therein the veteran diplomat praised Gandhi for transforming India from an idealistic player into a force to be reckoned with. But, at the end, Dixit blamed Gandhi in respect of two matters. "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 that she could not 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. In both cases, her decisions were relevant at the point of time they were taken. History will judge her as a political leader who safeguarded Indian national interests with determination and farsightedness."
That chapter also dealt with as to how India reacted to the then JRJ close ties with the US, Israel and Pakistan in a world dominated by two superpowers - the US and the Soviet Union. China hadn’t been a key factor at that time, though the People’s Republic is now threatening US supremacy. Today, India is firmly in the US Camp, along with Japan, trying to cope up with rapid Chinese expansion. Sri Lanka has become a sort of battleground.
A massive heart attack claimed the life of Dixit, in 2005, a year after the book launch. Sri Lanka never bothered to re-examine Indian intervention here afresh following the shocking admission. Dixit’s revelation challenged the assertion that India intervened here following the July 1983 violence directed against the Tamil community. But what really happened was India provided the required expertise to terrorists to wipe out an army patrol in Jaffna. The Jaffna incident was meant to trigger a Sinhala backlash.
Mahieash Johnney, in his splendid ‘Get Real’ on Derana 24X7 asked guest attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena as to how Indian Intelligence services knew much more about Zahran’s plot than local agencies. Gunawardena, a former Director General of the Government Information Department, and a media advisor to Premier Wickremesinghe, was asked whether he believed foreign Intelligence Services, including Indian presence here. Gunawardena rejected foreign intelligence services presence here whereas the writer, also a guest on that programme, explained operations undertaken by external powers.
Former Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, MP, recently blamed the Easter Sunday attacks on the yahapalana government handing over the strategic Hambantota port to China, in Dec 2017. Lawmaker Rajapakse explained as to how the Chinese move on Hambantota port angered foreign powers, particularly the US. UNP Colombo District MP Rajapakse warned of dire consequences unless the government took appropriate action to rescind the agreement. The lawmaker asserted that the agreement could be revoked on the basis of it being a grave threat to Sri Lanka due to constant external interventions. Rajapakse said so addressing the media at the Sri Lanka Foundation. The President’s Counsel warned those battling China would cause mayhem in Sri Lanka. A section of the Sinhala print and electronic media ignored Rajapakse’s statement. Others didn’t provide sufficient coverage. The statement didn’t receive the attention it really deserved. Those who issue statements at the drop of a hat, and at temples, churches et al, did not bother to comment on the explosive statement. The PSC, too, ignored Rajapakse’s statement though it summoned lawmaker Dayasiri Jayasekera in the wake of him publicly alleging the suicide bomber, tasked to hit Taj Samdura, refrained from doing so due to the presence of some person or persons.
Rajapakse should be asked to substantiate his serious accusations, made against the backdrop of US push for signing of SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). The US is also seeking to finalize a five-year grant of $ 480 million meant to accelerate economic growth. The US approved the grant four days after the Easter carnage as Sri Lanka was struggling to cope up with mass hysteria. The US wants SOFA to follow ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) signed in early August 2017. The inking of the agreement took place with the blessings of President Maithripala Sirisena, who presented it to the cabinet in his capacity as the Defence Minister. The US-Sri Lanka military-to-military partnership should be studied taking into consideration the Japan-Sri Lanka Comprehensive Partnership, inked in Oct 2015, and overall US-Japan-India-Australia coalition taking on China.
The 2019 presidential election in Sri Lanka will be of pivotal importance to power blocs competing for regional and global dominance. The US roles, in 2010 and 2015 presidential elections, in now in the public domain. No less a person than US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the US funding in support of the common candidate at the 2015 presidential. Wiki Leaks exposed the US role in forming the UNP - led coalition at the 2010 presidential election, also in support of the then common candidate. What would the US do at the 2019 presidential poll as political parties battle it out with the country in deep turmoil due to an unstable parliament?