The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran brought back a flood of memories. If history is to determine the day when India’s pre-eminence in all of South Asia began its decline, it would be November 17, 1986. Prabhakaran, the founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, would be one of the characters who set in motion a process that brought about this decline. And if history is to fix the responsibility on a single individual for triggering the onset of that decline, it would be P. Chidambaram, who was then the naïve minister of state for internal security in Rajiv Gandhi’s government.
On November 17, 1986, the curtain rose on the second summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Bangalore. Prabhakaran was flown in by the Indian government from his LTTE base in Chennai in the hope that under Indian auspices, he would find a meeting ground with the high-level Sri Lankan delegation at the SAARC summit led by the then president, J.R. Jayewardene. A four-member team of Indian officials, led by the then minister of state for external affairs, Natwar Singh, burnt the midnight oil in an effort to persuade Prabhakaran to agree to what Jayewardene was offering the Tamils, at least half way. But Prabhakaran was adamant, and would agree to nothing. He was flown back to Chennai without the breakthrough that India wanted.
Rajiv Gandhi was still the highly motivated, hands-on prime minister who sought quick results. He had broken with his mother’s Sri Lanka policy and wanted to moderate, and gradually end, Indian support for the Tamils on the island. Rajiv was taken in by the glib talker that Jayewardene was. The consequences of how Jayewardene, the “fox” as he was known for his cunning, trapped Rajiv into getting India embroiled on the island through the Indian Peace Keeping Force are now history.
Rajiv was petulant that his efforts at mediation in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict had been frustrated by Prabhakaran in Bangalore, according to conversations that this columnist has had with the dramatis personae of the IPKF saga then and over the years. This was the fourth time that the LTTE leader had stood steadfast against the government in Colombo and Rajiv’s new Sri Lanka policy: he had done it twice before in Thimpu, at meetings orchestrated by New Delhi, and once in Chennai.
It was then that Chidambaram, who was part of Rajiv’s inner circle, proceeded to transform his prime minister’s annoyance into action. To send Prabhakaran a message that he cannot get a free lunch from India, Chidambaram’s ministry directed the Tamil Nadu police to confiscate all the communication equipment at their bases in the state that the LTTE was using to contact its cadre in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran proved to be more politically savvy than either Rajiv or Chidambaram. He went on a highly publicized fast in Chennai, which evoked much sympathy among Indian Tamils.
Caught unawares, Chidambaram then foolishly issued a statement that the seizure of the communication equipment by the Tamil Nadu police was done without consulting his ministry, which, in fact, had initiated the action, according to an account of the incident by J.N. Dixit, then India’s high commissioner in Colombo, in his book, Assignment Colombo.
It was at this point that M.G. Ramachandran, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, proved that he was more than a match for both Rajiv and Chidambaram. He had gone along with the broad contours of Rajiv’s new Sri Lanka policy and cooperated with the young prime minister whom he liked. But Chidambaram’s statement blaming the Tamil Nadu police was a bolt from the blue. It had the potential of handing over a pro-Sri-Lankan-Tamil vote-bank in the southern state to MGR’s rival, M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. MGR simply returned all the communication equipment his police had seized to the LTTE.
Prabhakaran realized after this incident that he could no longer rely on India if he were to expand his operations against Colombo. Within a month, he began moving his operational base out of Chennai to Jaffna, according to intelligence dossiers that this columnist has seen of that period. Gradually, India began to lose control and influence on the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.
Would the history of southern South Asia have been different if India had not attempted to force Prabhakaran into compromises he was not yet willing to consider? Would Prabhakaran have been compelled to move to Jaffna and engage in desperate acts if Chidambaram had not initiated the seizure of his vital communications equipment? Would India then have had greater influence on Prabhakaran, and perhaps even prevented Rajiv’s assassination? The prospects for historians with one of the most fascinating periods of Tamil ethnic churning in South Asia are tantalizing indeed.
There is a remarkable account in Dixit’s book about the “viceroy” — as Dixit was known in Colombo — telling the Sri Lankan president that “India would not watch idly Tamil civilians being oppressed by Sri Lanka’s security forces in Jaffna or in the eastern province”. The account continues to the point where a high commissioner warns a head of state to “consider the implications” of his prime minister’s statement on Sri Lanka. Dixit reflected the pre-eminence that India always enjoyed not in Colombo alone, but in Kathmandu, Male, Thimpu and, to a lesser extent, in Dhaka and Kabul.
The next generation of Indians will only be able to look wistfully back on those glorious days when India was not just important in South Asia but the single most important factor in regional security and diplomacy. Once Rajiv decided that what he considered fair play was more important than realpolitik, there was no stopping the slide for Indian strategic interests, beginning in Sri Lanka and spreading elsewhere in South Asia. This columnist knows of a successor to Dixit having been made to wait in the ante-room of the Sri Lankan president’s office for four hours — despite having a confirmed appointment — before the president would see the high commissioner. The president was making a point. The high commissioner’s wait merely reflected the realities of India’s waning influence.
In 1986, India completely stopped all assistance to Tamil groups in Sri Lanka. But that did not help bring peace to the island. Nor did it increase goodwill for India, either from the Sinhalese or from the Tamils on the island. More important, it set in motion a process by which India’s foothold in Sri Lanka was first reduced to a toehold before even that was lost. In 1990, the former Mossad agent, Victor J. Ostrovsky, published a best-selling account of his years with the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. The book has bizarre details of how Mossad simultaneously trained both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army’s special forces.
Forced to the wall, once India stopped dealing with them at least five years before Rajiv was assassinated, the Sri Lankan Tamils took help from wherever they could get it. Many of the world’s notorious terrorist gangs aided the LTTE in return for money or for other quid pro quo. At the same time, the Sinhalese turned to the Pakistanis for arms and for training for the Sri Lankan army.
In recent years, led by the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, revenge became a substitute for India’s Sri Lanka policy: revenge for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, revenge against Sri Lankan Tamils for exposing and getting the better of the Intelligence Bureau during the years when Narayanan led it, revenge for the successful penetration of the Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence agency, whose plans for Sri Lanka were known on the island and in Washington even before the prime minister’s office on Raisina Hill was briefed about them.
In the coming years, India will have to pay a heavy price for having abdicated any semblance of a Sri Lanka policy. China, which helped fund and train the effort to defeat the LTTE more than anyone else, will soon get its proverbial pound of flesh when it completes the construction of a billion-dollar port in the Sri Lankan fishing spot of Hambantota which will be used to service and refuel Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean. Of more immediate concern for Narayanan’s successor, however, will be the task of dealing with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who are certain to flock to India once Colombo begins colonizing former Tamil areas, now that the LTTE has been eliminated.