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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 37, New Delhi, August 29, 2020

When Haksar was Proved Right on Sri Lanka | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 28 August 2020, by M R Narayan Swamy

Book Title: Haksar on India’s Sri Lanka Policy; Authors: V. Suryanarayan and Ashik J. Bonofer; Publishers: Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai, and Bookventure; Pages: 96; Price: Rs 200

This is a slim but informed and, if I may say so, an accidental book. It would not have been written but for the recently published letters from the late P.N. Haksar to Thomas Abraham, a highly respected diplomat, on the Sri Lankan conflict in the 1980s. For one who was once very close to Indira Gandhi, Haksar took a stand totally divergent from that of the Prime Minister and her Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, G. Parthasarathy. The letters are a small part of Jairam Ramesh’s well researched 2018 book on Haksar and Indira Gandhi. But they form the crux of this study.

Parmeshwar Narain Haksar (1913-98) was an erudite scholar, diplomat and administrator who helped to politically mould Indira Gandhi in the first six or seven years as Prime Minister, a period which included the birth of Bangladesh. Although Haksar was sidelined later, the scholar in him continued to live on.

Haksar was perhaps the first of his stature to realize that India had blundered by taking Tamil militants from the fractured island under its wings even as it insisted on talks between the moderate TULF and Colombo within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. When massive anti-Tamil violence erupted in Colombo in July 1983, inflaming passions in Tamil Nadu which Indira Gandhi could not ignore, Haksar wanted Thomas Abraham to be made the Special Envoy to Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister instead chose Parthasarathy, a Tamil, although Abraham knew Sri Lanka well.

In a letter to Abraham on September 30, 1983, Haksar complained – referring to Parthasarathy – that the “public image is of a Tamilian missionary speaking for Tamilians and on behalf of Tamilians.” This may have been good for domestic politics in India, but “I am not sure whether anyone has worked out in detail the consequences of promoting Eelam.”

If you look at history with the wisdom of hindsight, this was knowledge at its best – as far as India’s then still evolving Sri Lanka policy was concerned.

Two months later, on November 2, Haksar proved (again in hindsight) that his assessment of the situation was on the dot though he was out of power. He moaned that the noises India was making are not “Indian” concerns but “narrowly Tamilian”. He told Abraham that even if the Sri Lankans en masse were against India, “it is not in our interest to make it appear so.” And he was aghast that “the Eelam boys” were gloating that the next time there is a massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka, India shall occupy parts of the island as the Turks did in Cyprus.

Haksar’s disenchantment with New Delhi on Sri Lanka continued even in 1985 when he told Abraham (December 25) that his first instinct was not too wrong that India should not get involved at all as a mediator between the Tamils and Colombo. He strongly favoured that India should appear at all times to be well-wishers of all the inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

With the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Parthasarathy faded away from the political scene and whatever little he had achieved as a point of discussion was dumped. Rajiv Gandhi may have been friendly to Sri Lanka compared to his mother but the fact that India continued to provide sanctuary to Tamil militants and even armed and trained them covertly did not endear New Delhi to Sri Lankans.

For one who was far removed from the emotive politics of Tamil Nadu, Haksar turned out to be right on Sri Lanka, in every sense of the term. In a letter to Abraham on January 21, 1988, Haksar opened his heart: “I have a peculiar sense of satisfaction when I contemplate the whole mess in Sri Lanka. I had advised Indira Gandhi, if you recall, that India should not assume a mediatory role and certainly not under the ‘Tamil flag’ (read Parthasarathy).” He said the Sri Lankan disaster was compounded by New Delhi’s “pathetic reliance on M.G. Ramachandran and the LTTE. Our intelligence had no clue whatsoever.”

By the time this 1988 letter was written, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated, Parthasarathy had gone into oblivion, MGR was dead, hundreds of Indian soldiers had been killed and more would die while the LTTE was only three years away from Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

The book examines other aspects of India’s Sri Lanka policy not directly related to Haksar. It argues that the Indian government needs to take the interests and sensibilities of contiguous Indian states while dealing with foreign policy in the immediate neighbourhood. West Bengal under Jyoti Basu is cited as an example. I am not sure if this is sound. Indeed, there are those who say that India’s Sri Lankan policy got derailed precisely because it weaved Tamil Nadu too solidly into its strategic planning.

The book’s authors also feel that given the volatile nature of our neighbourhood, India cannot rule out the possibility of its armed forces being deployed again abroad to promote Indian interests. After the Sri Lanka fiasco, one prays that this does not happen. A quick go-and-return military operation like it happened in the Maldives is one thing; deployment with no time limit is another.

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