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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

Casual Amateurishness

Sunday 1 December 2013, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Perhaps never before a foreign-affairs issue has been so badly mishandled as the sudden deportation of three Lanka Tamil leaders from India by the Rajiv Gandhi Government. It has been an amazing piece of thoughtlessness on the part of the government to have gone in for such a step without pausing to weigh its consequences, pro and con.

What is further intriguing is that the Foreign Office does not seem to take the responsibility for having initiated it. While it will certainly be a matter worth investigating—at least to get an idea of how the present Establishment operates—the fact of the matter is that no matter whoever has suggested the step or carried it out, it is the Prime Minister and Prime Minister alone who will have to take upon himself the onus of this very unwise step in the eyes of the public both at home and abroad.

At one stage it was thought that the move to expel the three Tamil militant leaders was initiated by the Foreign Secretary since it had come to be known that Romesh Bhandari had a rather heated exchange with some of the members of the Tamil delegation at Thimphu at the moment of the adjournment of the second roiund of talks there last week between the Sri Lankan Government delegation and the team of leaders representing different sections of Tamil opinion in the island. It was however later on made out that the Foreign Secretary did not advise the deportation. The inevitable conclusion follows that in that event this directive has gone out from the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Prime Minister’s Office moves only when the Prime Minister himself directs it to do so. At least, that is what the public thinks how things are run at the Centre.

Foreign affairs by its very nature is a complex subject for any government to handle. It is not just a question of meeting heads of governments, delivering post-prandial speeches, holding press conferences and appending signatures to joint declarations. It needs in-depth knowledge of thorny issues, whose complexities have accumulated over years and decades. The very idea of solving problems by cutting the Gordian Knot is a myth and one suspects if Alexander the Great himself could benefit by cutting it since he could not rule over Asia as the prophecy had promised him.

The result of this patently rash step on the part of New Delhi is that public opinion all over the country has been scandalised by it, and not only in Tamil Nadu as some of the Establishment boys seem to belittle it. The shock came as a violation of human rights, since the granting of political asylum is an accepted norm of Indian democracy. Neither Nehru, nor Lal Bahadur Shastri nor Indira Gandhi ever deviated from it. The only exception was Morarji Desai when he pushed Kader Siddiqi out of his hide-out on the border forcing him to flee into Bangladesh. The actual order for deportation has never been issued against any political refugee in India since independence.

As for Tamil Nadu, the expulsion of the three Tamil militant leaders has touched off one of the biggest protest demonstrations since independence and for the first time there appeared slogans with the call ‘Down with Rajiv Gandhi’. It will be small consolation for the Establishment to dismiss the Tamil Nadu demonstrations as only the handiwork of the DMK leader Karunanidhi. In fact, to credit the DMK with all that has happened in Tamil Nadu in the last few days—from stoppage of trains to mass meetings and huge pro-cessions—would be making it more popular in the public eye than its strength would warrant. Let it be noted that Karunanidhi since the beginning of the Lanka crisis has been demanding that the persecution of Tamils in
the island should be raised in international forums, particularly in the UN, but Indira Gandhi’s government could ward off, if not scotch, the demand by demonstrating its earnestness to the Tamil sufferings by providing hospitality and shelter to the refugees fleeing from persecution in Sri Lanka, and at the same time patiently trying to persuade Colombo to settle the ethnic problem through political negotiations instead of through repression and Army action.

What is the ground for New Delhi to be extra-careful about Tamil sensitivity? The answer is simple and it should not be difficult for any intelligent observer to understand: the fate of the Tamil minority population in Sri Lanka is a matter of constant concern for the people in Tamil Nadu in particular. The organic link manifests itself through emotional attachment. Any government in New Delhi which, in the eyes of the Tamil people, ignores or underplays the problem of the Lankan Tamils is bound to lose its credibility in Tamil Nadu itself.

The problem of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is therefore multi-dimensional for India. Indira Gandhi understood this point as soon as the violent anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in Sri Lanka in July 1983. She not only permitted an estimated one lakh Tamil refugees to come in from Sri Lanka—as any civilised government would have done as a matter of human rights for political fugitives from ethnic persecution—but took up their case with the Lankan Government itself.

It was mainly through painstaking efforts by the Indira Government offering its good offices—through the Parthasarathi mission—that an All-Party Round Table could be called in December 1984 at Colombo in which despite provocations the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) seriously engaged itself to hammer out a reasonable settlement. Out of these confabulations emerged what has come to be known as Annexure C (elected regional councils in the northern and eastern provinces with substan-tial powers). But the Jayawardene Government playing Jekyll and Hyde backtracked and the conference approach ended in a bitter deadlock. Followed the large-scale anti-Tamil offensive of 1984-85 the target this time being the traditional Tamil homelands in the northern and eastern provinces.

Meanwhile the Lankan security forces have been revamped with the help of the former British SAS personnel known for their brutal record as also by bringing in Israel’s Shin Bet agency. The offensive of the security forces this time has been to strike terror in the Tamil population in which thousands of innocent people were killed or maimed, many more left homeless and persecuted. Today Sri Lanka
has become the happy hunting ground of mercenaries from the West while Sinhala terror commandos have been receiving training from various outside agencies, including the US and Pakistan.

As the refugee influx posed a serious problem for India and tension naturally mounted in Tamil Nadu, Rajiv Gandhi’s summit with the Sri Lankan President in June held out the prospect of Colombo offering a quantum of autonomy to the Tamil regions which would be in line with what the States in India enjoy in relation to the Centre. It was on the basis of this understanding and also the maintenance of ceasefire that India could persuade the various Tamil militant groups to join, along with the TULF, in peaceful negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government delegation at the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. But when the conference opened, the Lankan official delegation had nothing more to offer than District Councils with some powers—a position which had already been rejected at the All-Party Conference in December 1984. This provoked the Tamil militant groups to reiterate their original demands which included the recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality with the right of self-determination. At this point the Indian Foreign Secretary’s intervention led to the adjournment of the conference thereby preventing its total collapse.

When the second round of Thimpu talks opened this month, the Lankan side had little substantial to offer while the ceasefire was violated by the security forces with impunity—which Rajiv Gandhi himself had to publicly criticise. This Sri Lankan provocation would have totally destroyed the prospect of further talks but for another intervention by the Indian Foreign Secretary, which in a very precarious manner has kept up the prospect of further talks. At the moment, the special emissary from Colombo, Hector Jayawardene, has been drawn into threadbare discussions in New Delhi to hammer out an official Lankan stand which might help to persuade the Tamil militants to return to the conference table. Hector Jayawar-dene seems to be engaged in filibustering, as one newspaper, not hostile to Colombo, has invested him and his team with the qualification of having made “a fine art of again and again presenting rejected goods in brand new packaging”.

It was in this background that the deportation orders were served on three Tamil militant leaders. At a time when India may be called upon to patiently persuade the Tamil side to consider positively whatever could emerge from New Delhi’s talks with Hector Jayawardene, it was obviously a tactical blunder on the part of the government to go in for this precipitate action, since it could hamper its power of persuasion—without the least streak of bullying or hectoring—to get the Tamil groups to return to the conference table provided of course the Hector parleys produce something tangible.

It is argued in some circles in New Delhi that the three deported Tamil leaders are the hardliners in the militant camp and therefore their exclusion would not be undesirable. This is strange logic, for the government’s deportation orders have invested the three with a halo which otherwise they could not possibly have acquired. If they were taking a hard line, it could be combated not by the Government of India but by other Tamil leaders using their influence on the Tamil populace.

The impression has gained ground that the three Tamil leaders were deported with a view to placating the Sri Lankan Government. In fact, the Lankan National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, has almost confirmed this impression by his statement on the episode. No doubt the Jayawardene Government has long been pressing for such a step—and it is not difficult to understand why it has been keen on it. For, it knows that only by such a step it can drive a wedge between New Delhi and the Tamil leaders—an objective which it has long been trying to reach.

In New Delhi, there prevails a theory that among all the Sinhala leaders, President J.R. Jayawardene alone would be amenable to deliver the goods. This myth has been sedulously cultivated by JRJ himself from the very first round of the crisis in July 1983. With more than one Indian emissary, he pleaded his helplessness while feigning sympathy for the Tamil minority and its grievances. During Indira Gandhi’s time, while such pleas were politely listened to, New Delhi’s approach was never based on such an assessment of the Lankan political scene. On this count, there appears to be good ground for believing that a slightly different approach is being followed today, the prevailing impression being that JRJ is India’s best bet in Sri Lanka. The Lankan side has tried to hoodwink the Indian side by JRA’s constant theme that he is but a prisoner of circumstances, a ready prey for hawks and vultures. It is true that Sirimavo Bandaranaike did not seem to agree to take a positive stand on the Tamil crisis, despite her personal regard for Indira Gandhi. This is largely because Sirimavo has been fighting her own battle against the Jayawardene Government and has made support to any settlement proposal conditional upon her civic rights being restored.

It would be safer for New Delhi to see through Jayawardene’s mask. Few in the Establishment seem to remember that in 1957, it was the same JRJ who had launched a tearing campaign against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreement which agreed to set up regional councils and amicably meet the Tamil demands of those days. The Lankan President is periodically keeping up the pretence of negotiations mainly to gain time to consolidate his political position and reinforce his security forces with a view to strike terror on the Tamil minority. His latest fulminations that he was prepared to go to war on the Tamil issue is indicative of his undependability, to say the least. The Lankan President has to be judged by his record and on this count one can see how he has stepped up military operations to strike terror on the Tamil population in the north and east, forcing them into silence in the strategic area around the Trincomalee harbour, while trying to change the demographic pattern by forcible eviction of Tamils and settling Sinhalas in their place. One wonders if any deal with Washington over Trincomalee is in the offing.

It is difficult to take seriously Jayawardene’s promise of devoluion of powers, since the presidential system he has set up is for absolute power being held at the top. The entire crisis has been exploited by him not only for massive military spending to put down the militants, Tamil or otherwise, but also to whip up a frenzied propaganda against the Tamil minority and against India through complete control over the media to the point of threatening to throttle the proprietors of the more moderate section of the press.

It is not difficult for New Delhi to carefully assess the situation prevailing in Sri Lanka. Not only has the Foreign Office at its disposal the useful exercises on this theme carried out in the past, but it has also an alert and competent mission in Colombo whose assessments and reports should have been the main staple for the formulation of policy and tactics at the Centre. One wonders if adequate attention is paid by the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister on such an approach.

It is important for Rajiv Gandhi to handle the Sri Lankan crisis with care and diligence. This is not a mere question of handling refugees from a neighbouring country. With it is linked up the question of political stability in a major State in India. If by the mishandling of the Lankan crisis destabilisation grips Tamil Nadu, it will definitely be a severe blow to India’s integrity.

Aneurin Bevan had denounced Anthony Eden’s mishandling of the Suez crisis branding it as “casual amateurishness”. No right-thinking person in India today would like Rajiv Gandhi to land in a Suez-type disaster, but he owes it to the nation to abjure casual amateurishness and go in for serious, careful handling of difficult challenges in foreign affairs—learning from the country’s past experience while applying the lessons from it with utmost caution, relying on in-depth assessment rather than on impulsive moves for dramatic effect. 

(Mainstream, August 31, 1985)

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