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Mainstream, VOL L, No 33, August 4, 2012

Light and Dark | Measuring up to Crisis

Thursday 9 August 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Twentyfive years ago, on July 29, 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement came into force. This Agreement, signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayawardene, was aimed at restoring peace in Sri Lanka, ameliorating the condition of Tamils there and bringing about a lasting solution to the ethnic problem in the island-state. However, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), sent to Sri Lanka soon after the signing of the Agreement, eventually got bogged down in an armed conflict with the LTTE, the most organised of the Tamil militant groups operating in the north and the east of the country, in order to enforce the peace accord. With heavy casualties on both sides, the IPKF was withdrawn due to a conspiracy of circumstances in March 1990 at a time when there were changes of government in both countries. On this occasion we are reproducing here two editorials by N.C., a firm critic of the manner in which the accord was implemented by the Government of India—one written after the signing of the Agreement in 1987, and the other after the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990.


Light and Dark

The agreement that Rajiv Gandhi signed on July 29 with President Jayawardene has undou-btedly been an important landmark in this country’s relations not only with Sri Lanka but with other countries in our neighbourhood as well.
The fact that the Sri Lanka Government felt it necessary to seek the support and assistance of India to solve a crisis, which is essentially its internal concern, is a development of far-reaching import. India certainly has had a stake in the settlement of the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka. Apart from the ethnic affinity of the Tamils in Sri Lanka with the much bigger segment of Tamil population in India, one has to take into account that over 1,35,000 refugees from the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka have taken shelter in this country. Nor has India’s role in helping to settle the four-year old crisis at any stage been seriously questioned.

There were, of course, ups and downs in this strenuous excursion into this complex problem, which has throughout had a domestic as well as an international aspect. If President Jayawardene conceded terms on July 29, which even one year ago he could not summon up courage to discuss, this was in a large measure due to the fiasco of his policy to smother resistance by military means—though the battered Tamil region could not be overrun by the Sinhala security forces—which, in its train, brought about a severe economic crisis. It was certainly a touch-and-go situation for the Sri Lankan President personally, as there was a wide rift within his own government. Side by side, the mounting public pressure on New Delhi to intervene when the Sri Lankan security forces began bombing the Tamil region compelled the Rajiv Government, in the first instance, to resort to air-dropping of relief material over Jaffna in June, followed by a no-nonsense approach towards helping the Tamil militants’ resistance.

All these factors, laced with consummate diplomacy by India’s envoy in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, brought about the agreement, which Jayawardene signed with Rajiv Gandhi in the curfew-bound Colombo—an omimous setting underlining the fragility of the Jayawardene regime itself. It is this sombre background to the July 29 accord, which raises misgivings about the durability of the Jayawardene administration, with which the fate of the accord is intimately bound. Only an objective assessment of the balance of forces inside Sri Lanka can provide the answer to the question that in the event of a major convulsion within Sri Lanka, would Jayawardene’s successor or replacement honour the accord at all? What is India’s equation with the Sinhala forces opposed to Jayawardene?

This question, in its turn, has an important bearing on that aspect of the Rajiv-Jayawardene accord which had imposed certain responsibilities for its implementation on India. More pointedly, on has to ask about the role of the Indian Army on the Sri Lankan soil. It is not a neutral peace-keeping force like the one sent by India to Korea or Middle East. Here, one of the parties to the dispute, namely the Tamils, have agreed to come in only because of the induction of Indian troops; in other words, it is by all counts a partisan force, more pointedly being regarded as such by the Sinhalas as well as the Tamils. If there is turmoil in Sri Lanka, what would be the reaction of different sections of the Sri Lankan population towards the Indian armed personnel in such a crisis? Would that lead to a quicksand situation, which may permit the Indian forces neither to advance nor to retreat? It would be necessary to guard against the danger of antagonising the Sinhala section of the population with our legitimate interest in the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. As for the Tamils, while the return of arms has so far been accomplished, one has to work out the future of the Tamil militants in the changed situation. All this once again brings out the urgency of our policy-makers undertaking a careful assessment of the Sri Lankan politics today, the balance of forces within the country, the impact on Sri Lanka of outside forces, both adversary and friendly towards India.

At the present moment, there may be complacency in New Delhi on this score since the US authorities have made known their support for the accord—President Reagan took less than twentyfour hours of the signing of the accord to convey his fulsome congratulations to Rajiv. It is important to note that the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, in his speech on his return to Jaffna, while making references to India added that “a superpower has fixed the fate of the Tamils”—the obvious reference being to the USA.

One has, therefore, to take into account the US assessment of the Sri Lankan crisis, both short-term and long-term. The letters exchanged between Jayawardene and Rajiv may suggest a hands-off-Sri-Lanka signal by the two neighbouring countries towards outside powers, particularly on the question of Trincomalee and foreign broadcasting installations. However, Jayawardene seemed to have made short shrift of such an approach by immediately seeking help from the US. UK, China and Pakistan in search of stability in Sri Lanka. Besides, Jayawardene can let US warships come to Trincomalee as part of their expedition to the Persian Gulf claming that this could not affect Indian interests. Such loopholes are not to be ignored when dealing with a customer of Jayawardene’s reputation. If one of the factors facilitating the accord is Washington’s support for it—Jayawardene has never concealed his pro-US bias—then New Delhi will have to take care of its relations with the USA as a factor that is likely to influence the course of Indo-Lanka relations. With India’s continuing concern over the US resolve to over-arm Pakistan—US Under-Secretary Armacost, as expected, during his recent visit to New Delhi, having had nothing to offer by way of assuaging India’s anxiety on that score—and also persistent US vetoing of the UN Conference for making the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, will the Indo-Sri Lanka accord be dependent on India’s approach to the USA’s policy in this region or the other way round? Can the tail wag the dog at all?

All these are not meant to belittle the importance of the Indo-Lanka accord but to underline the issues and problems that have to be negotiated in carrying it out. It is not going to be a one-shot achievement, its follow-up will pose challenges, which are formidable demanding the highest level of statesmanship, a quality which has hardly been in evidence in the last two years of the Rajiv regime in New Delhi. While the accord deserves the widest publicity as a triumph of sanity as well as diplomacy, it would be short-sighted to gloss over the problems thrown up by it, which only wise statesmanship can tackle.

Viewed in this background, one is a little concerned at the type of elated excitement extolling the accord as almost a twentieth century miracle. One can understand the anxiety in the Rajiv camp to cash in on the Colombo accord to offset the slump it has suffered over the Bofors and Bachchans—but a measured, sensible approach without reckless hyperboles pays in the long run more than making almost a glory-return celebration out of it. This is a point which sober minds in the government and Congress-I should bear in mind while projecting the campaign over the accord, as is being planned by the three Media Committees set up for the purpose—two within the government, one to be chaired by the Information Minister of State, Ajit Panja, for domestic publicity, and the other, under Natwar Singh, for external publicity; and a third one under AICC General Secretary, R.L. Bhatia, for the Congress-I party campaign to boost the sagging morale of party ranks over the corruption charges.

Adding to all this is the temptation of the Congress-I to score over political opponents which has taken the rather dangerous form of recklessly branding all and sundry as having been inspired by the CIA. It was extraordinary that in a Rajya Sabha debate on the danger of destabilisation via the CIA, the Home Minister approvingly quoted a piece purported to expose the CIA game in India in a well-known weekly, whose authenticity itself has become a matter of controversy. What is intriguing is that so far the Government of India is not known to have taken up this specific matter with the US Administration. There is nothing to show that this was raised with US Under-Secretary of State Armacost during his recent visit to New Delhi.

It is natural for any government to make the most out of any situation or any story to run down its critics and opponents. But to play this game recklessly may land it in a dangerous situation. Trying to collect kudos at home by heroic rhetoric against the CIA and be nice to the American officials when dealing with them, is a double-speak exercise which does not pay even in the short run. Boomerang in politics is a deadly game.

Meanwhile, severe drought has scorched the good earth over greater part of the country and shortage of water, and shortage of power are threatening the very modest targets of the Seventh Plan. Instead of an all-out mobilisation of parties and the people on an emergency footing, we are presented with the very impressive achievement of the government having set up a Cabinet Committee on drought to be presided over by the Prime Minister himself. Amen!

(‘Editor’s Notebook’, Mainstream, August 8, 1987)

Measuring up to Crisis

One does not really know if there is anything to do with the conjunction of stars that makes Bangalore on monsoon eve the theatre where issues of national concern have a tendency to come into focus.

It was at Bangalore that in 1965 the AICC session saw Morarji Desai attack Lal Bahadur Shastri’s leadership which later on turned out to be one of the factors that led the Pakistan authorities to conclude that the ruling Congress party in India had become divided and therefore the right moment to mount the military offensive that ended up in the Indo-Pak war. It was again at Bangalore four years later in the same season in 1969 that the AICC was served with Indira Gandhi’s famous “stray thoughts” that led to open rift with the Syndicate and finally to the split in the Congress. Bangalore had also been the witness to Devraj Urs helping to bring about the political rehabilitation of the Congress after the 1977 electoral debacle, and eleven years later was born the Janata Dal in the very same city.

With such a history to its credit, one wonders if with the convergence of political big-wigs in the city, another turning point in the destiny of this country is about to be reached. Devi Lal is undergoing treatment in a clinic and his daily bulletin brings fatwas which almost beat in recklessness the most intemperate among the Grand Moghuls. Inevitably Chandra Shekhar has turned up there, and so has Ramakrishna Hegde enmeshed in the telephone tapping and land deal controversies. Are the confabulations at Bangalore preparing the blueprint for the ouster of the Vishwanath Paratap Singh Government? One wonders if even the highest paid astrologer in the country can venture a definite answer to this question.

Indian political developments however have reached the threshold of a crisis and this can hardly be averted by petty intrigues and pompous platitudes even if they are sanitised by Devi Lal’s nursing home wisdom. What is disturbing for the entire nation is that our political leaders, irrespective of their party labels, do not seem to care to take into account the dimension of the crisis that threatens to overtake the country. Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s plea for a national government has at least indicated his personal understanding that the problems facing the country today need to be tackled through the united effort of all, and that no party, however well-entrenched in Parliament, can handle these singlehanded. The fact that such a suggestion for a national government was promptly shot down by most of the major parties has brought out, what they have frankly stated, that they do not think that the nation is facing an extraordinary situation demanding extraordinary measures. In other words, our political leaders seem to hold in all honesty that the problems facing the country can be dealt with by the normal process of governance. Some of them even accused V.P. Singh of trying to hide his bankruptcy of leadership by raising the slogan of a national government. Not unexpectedly, he has withdrawn the suggestion of a national government.

By dismissing the very idea of a national government, however, one does not get rid of the problems that face the nation, problems which have been getting more and more intractable. All of these problems have come to the present government as the heirloom left behind by the previous government—which of course does not mean that the present government bears no responsibility for the sorry state of things today. It too has been contributing its quota of mismanagement of these formidable problems. Even a brief situation report on each of such problems brings out the dimension of the coming crisis.

For weeks now, India has become a mute onlooker of the terrible carnage that has been going on in Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi and his aides have been accusing the present government of inaction, the more pugnacious among them have bitingly contrasted Rajiv’s assertive diplomacy that packed off thousands of Indian jawans to Sri Lanka, with the supine inertia of the V.P. Singh Government. A simple statement of facts however can debunk such blithe spirits.

The manner in which the Rajiv Government had mishandled the Lanka crisis led to the grotesque situation in which our jawans, instead of protecting the Tamils, were wholly engaged in fighting and decimating the strongest Tamil militant detachment in the island to the delectation of the Lankan authorities, and when the very same Tamil group opened negotiations with the new administration in Colombo, we were left with no alibi but having to agree to withdraw our forces from the island. The last-minute plea made by the Rajiv Government that the devolution of powers to the north-east must come before the withdrawal of the Indian Army contingents was unceremoniously turned down by the Premadasa administration, making it absolutely clear that the devolution of powers pertained to an internal arrangement and could by no means be made a condition precedent for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the island. Let it also be recalled that it was the Rajiv Government which had to bow to the demand for our troops to quit the island and the only point of difference between Colombo and New Delhi was the time-table for withdrawal.
What the National Front Government actually did was nothing more than advance the schedule of the Indian armed forces’ withdrawal by a few weeks—nothing more, nothing less. If for argument’s sake, New Delhi decides to faithfully follow what Rajiv Gandhi did in 1987, let the unpalatable truth be squarely faced that today there will be opposition not merely from Colombo but perhaps more forcefully from the most determined among the Tamil militant groups, namely, the LTTE, who can rightfully claim that it is the only substantive force in resisting Sinhala armed operation against the Tamils in the north-east—the more so today than in 1987. Such has been the poetic justice of Rajiv’s Lanka policy.

Let us take another aspect of the same problem. The ghastly killing of a band of leading EPRLF leaders in Madras has naturally shocked all sections of Indian public. The LTTE is suspected to have been responsible for this dastardly act as part of its policy of exterminating all rival Tamil groups in Lanka. The Rajiv entourage has blamed the Tamil Nadu Government and indirectly the Central Government for this tragedy. No doubt the Karunanidhi Government has to share the blame, but what one has to take into account is that the LTTE had enjoyed the patronage of the Tamil Nadu Government even when Rajiv was the Prime Minister. M.G. Ramachandran not only personally supported the LTTE leaders but blatantly sanctioned State Government funds for the activity of the LTTE, the very group which the Indian Army under Rajiv tried to smash up for more than two years and did not succeed. And to the same MGR was awarded the Bharat Ratna by the Rajiv Raj.

All this points to one and only one conclusion —that is, that the complex Sri Lankan Tamil problem needs to be taken up by all parties in concert and not piecemeal as a convenient issue with which to blame or beat each other. Vishwanath Pratap Singh and his supporters would be equally guilty of scoring debating points against their political adversary if they resort to the plea that the present government could do nothing in Sri Lanka because of the mess left behind by the Rajiv Government. That would be as much a grievous neglect of a national responsibility as any irresponsible stand or statement by Rajiv Gandhi’s camp in palming off the onus of the crisis over the Lankan Tamils on to the present National Front Government.
It is the same story with all the major problems that beset the country today—Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and the disturbing eruption of communalism in the country. Each and every one of these problems has taken the shape they have when they were handled by the previous government. Most of them in fact could be traced to the neglect and mishandling they were treated with under Indira Gandhi. Not one of these has been the handiwork of the present National Front Government. And not one of them can be effectively dealt with without the active involvement of all the major political formations in the country. The Rajiv Congress will have no solution for them by taking an attitude of untouchability towards the National Front, nor can the Left handle them by non-cooperating with the BJP, nor the BJP without the cooperation of the Left.

Even in the handling of the fast deteriorating economic situation, neither the government nor any other party can afford to take any unilateral initiative. The working out of the economic strategy for the Eighth Plan has made this abundantly clear.

The Approach Paper of the Plan, prepared by the Planning Commission, has been the product of mature deliberations, bringing out both the hard work and wise outlook of the present team at the Yojana Bhawan, no matter whatever unbalanced and unbecoming remarks Devi Lal may be choosing to shower upon it. The strength of the Approach Paper could be gauged at the National Development Council where Chief Ministers from all States—not only those from the National Front, nor only those from its allies but even from the Congress-I—endorsed the strategy underlying it, and this was reflected in the Prime Minister’s concluding remarks at the Council meeting.

While the government got the kudos for evolving such a unified approach to the Eighth Plan, just about the same time there was a move to push through an industrial policy which was hastily placed before Parliament on the very last day of the Budget session. This was the product of a handful of people, officers and Ministers, who are out to subvert the strategy of self-reliance in the approach to the Eighth Plan. The crux of the dispute is the degree of opening up the country’s economy to the powerful transnational corporations. It was almost a sub rosa operation, bypassing not only the Planning Commission but a good section of the government itself, not to speak of Parliament and the public.

The strong uproar against the proposed industrial policy has provoked a very necessary national debate on the issue, very necessary for evolving a nationally accepted approach to such issues of urgency as the permissive scale of entry of foreign capital into our country, the areas where it can be permitted and welcome, and how to balance the imperatives of modernising our economy with the necessary commitment to self-reliance.

This is an issue where those who had held responsible positions under the Rajiv Government can gainfully contribute if they discard the temptation of sniping at it, hoping thereby to discredit the present government but actually resorting to disservice to the nation’s interest. It is certainly welcome that the indictment of the new industrial policy has come from within the ruling Janata Dal, in which Chandra Shekhar has been in the forefront. It is only to be hoped that Vishwanath Pratap Singh and his ministerial colleagues will pay heed to this strong criticism of the new industrial policy and thereby honestly return to the approach to the Eighth Plan.
This way alone can an effective national consensus emerge in working out a much-needed economic strategy in a fast-changing world situation.
Turbulent times demand new thinking.

(‘Editor’s Notebook’, Mainstream, June 30, 1990)

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