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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 9, February 14, 2009

Peace Prospects in Sri Lanka

Thursday 19 February 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty

The inadvertent remarks by our High Commissioner in Colombo about payment of a good sum to the LTTE leader has not only come as a total surprise but has led to repercussions which are turning out to be highly embarrassing for the government.

High Commissioner Dixit is not only a senior member of our Foreign Service but is known for his maturity and competence. He has handled in the past such difficult assignments as Bangladesh immediately after its liberation in 1972 when he was the Deputy High Commissioner in Dhaka, and Afghanistan in the early years of Soviet intervention, where his assessment of the difficult situation was always taken with seriousness.

In Sri Lanka also he was adroitly handling the Sri Lanka crisis, with single-minded focus on the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. It was therefore surprising that Dixit should have made the faux pas of talking about the money being paid to Prabhakaran in such a casual manner as to suggest that this was the price for the LTTE leader’s consent to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.

Although this point has been sought to be cleared up by the government’s statement in Parliament, the sensitive nature of the issue has touched off many speculations some of which are wide of the mark, bordering on the fantastic. For instance, a theory is being propounded that Dixit’s leakage of Big Money being paid to the LTTE leader was deliberate, so that there would be an outcry in Parliament demanding to know where such huge sums came from. At that stage, the government having been caught in the Bofors kickback controversy would calmly try to explain away that the money from the Bofors deal had been secretly spent for winning over the LTTE militants. This sounds almost like a repeat version of Washington’s Iran-Contra deal. Perhaps the theory itself has been lifted wholesale from that scenario.

There is also another predicament facing the Rajiv Government over the Sri Lanka crisis. In Tamil Nadu, the overwhelming body of opinion is now demanding ceasefire by the Indian Army. This is not only the line of the critics of the Congress-I like Karunanidhi’s DMK, and the Janaki-Veerappan faction of the AIADMK, but even Jayalalitha and her group of the AIADMK, supposed to be the only ally of the Congress-I, have raised the demand for ceasefire in Sri Lanka. More aggressive among the Centre’s critics raise the outright demand for the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka.

The demand for ceasefire in Sri Lanka has been snowballing in other parts of the country as well. More than eight months now, the Indian troops are tied down to only one corner of the island, with little prospect of the present military operations bringing about a settlement. The mismanagement and disarray of the Sri Lanka Government has made the insistence of the Indian demand for the acceptance of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord by the Tamil militants, sound unrealistic, since President Jayawardene has hardly fulfilled his commitments to the accord.

In this context, the Prime Minister’s insistence that the Indian Army’s continued presence in Sri Lanka depended very much on President Jayawardene is rather confusing. New Delhi need not regard that JRJ is its best bet in Sri Lanka, an assessment which seems to be popular in the Rajiv establishment. In his interview to the Japanese newsmen on the eve of his Tokyo visit, the Prime Minister said that President Jayawardene wanted the Indian Army, that “we are helping him to implement” certain clauses of the agreement. It needs to be noted that JRJ has not implemented even those clauses which he could have done; and India has not brought home to him effectively about this default. The overall impression in the country is that Rajiv Gandhi is engaged largely in pulling Jayawardene’s chestnut out of the fire.

From time to time there are also reports of secret negotiations going on between the Tamil militants, including the LTTE and some of the high-ups of the Sri Lanka Government. Sometime ago, two prominent Sri Lanka Ministers were mentioned as trying to strike a deal with the LTTE, with the common objective of raising the demand for the exit of the Indian Army from Sri Lanka. Of the two Ministers involved in these secret parleys, one is Lalit Athulathmudali, known to be a severe critic of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, but the other one, Gamini Dissanayeke, has long been known to be an ardent supporter of the accord. There is also the recent report that President Jayawardene himself has met a Tamil militant leader, though not belonging to the LTTE.

Under the circumstances, New Delhi has realised the urgency of finding a way-out of an awkward jam. It is significant that Minister of State Natwar Singh, speaking to the press on April 11 during his Oman trip, made the significant point that the Indian Government never lost contact with the LTTE. This is the actual position today and it is good that the Minister has prepared the ground for some understanding with the LTTE so that a cessation of hostilities could be achieved in the immediate future. Although New Delhi naturally is tight-lipped and keeping its fingers crossed until an understanding is actually struck with the LTTE, one may safely presume that the cessation of hostilities is not far off. For one thing, the LTTE is badly bruised and is put in a corner. Besides, the Indian side is also assailed with problems and accusations albeit largely unfair, apart from having to incur an expense of reportedly one crore rupees a day for the Indian Army operation in Sri Lanka.

Rajiv Gandhi’s aides are well aware of the danger of large-scale demonstrations demanding ceasefire in Sri Lanka facing him in Tamil Nadu when he goes there for the AICC-I meeting scheduled in the last week of this month. It would, therefore, be an intelligent guess to predict that a move for cessation of hostilities based on an understanding with the LTTE might mature before that. An announcement of peace for Tamils in Sri Lanka would have a dramatic impact on Tamil Nadu politics, and that is precisely what the Prime Minister would like to achieve in the first shot in the election game in that State due to go to polls in June. n

(Mainstream April 16, 1988)

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