Humanitarian question or Rise
of Hitlerian Style Racism in Tamil Nadu?
Revisiting the scenario of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987
By Bandu de Silva ]
[Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France]
"Sri Lanka needs the
friendship of India but not on any terms and not on by herself being
a party to this obfuscation of realities. It is indeed fundamental to
the task of conciliation, even in other legal contexts, that the conciliator
should not himself be tainted by the dust of conflict between the parties
whom he is trying to bring together." (quoted
in The Island dated 5th June 1987, Part V of a serialised article)
Formerly Professor of Law at Monash University
Later Vice-President International Court of Justice
Closely familiar as I am with the developments in Tamil Nadu around
1987, I have always been alive to the prospects of a similar scenario
arising again. There have been such attempts for over a time especially
since the war over Mavil Aru in the Eastern province dislodged the LTTE
finally leading to the liberation of the Eastern province from the clutches
of the LTTE. The refusal by the Indian Prime Minister Manamohan Singh
and members of his entourage to the SAARC summit in Colombo not so long
ago to meet the new Chief Minister, Chanrakanthan of the Provincial
Council Eastern Province was a clear indication that India's policy
on Sri Lanka is being dictated not by any rational motives but by the
compulsions of continuing to secure the support of Tamil Nadu to keep
the Congress government in power in New Delhi.
The emerging situation today is not novel. The emerging scene in Tamil
Nadu appears to be some what close to a repetition of the pre 1987 scenario
when Tamil militants were provided with haven in Tamil Nadu, provided
with arms training and arms and funds to destabilize the Sri Lankan
state; and continued to exert pressure on New Delhi to follow a course
of brinkmanship in managing relations with neigbouring Sri Lanka. The
disastrous consequences of New Delhi being driven to such a course of
action both through pressure from the then Chief Minister Ramachandran,
the author of the "air-drop idea" as the Washington Times
identified him, but claimed by my old friend and diplomatic colleague
in Beijing, State Minister of External Affairs, Natwar Singh as the
"consensus" idea (J.N.Dixit-Assignment Colombo), and the rather
'undiplomatic' handling of the situation by an inexperienced young Indian
Prime Minister, who was surrounded by a coterie of ambitious officials
(read J.N.Dixit) as the international media implied, were already manifested
in the loss of prestige arising from the humiliation suffered by the
Indian army, fourth powerful army in the world, in the hands of an ill-equipped,
slippers-wearing band of a few thousand-strong LTTE cadres who themselves
used Indian supplied arms, funds and training received in Indian based
camps; the loss of India's then rising leader Rajiv Gandhi of the Nehru-Gandhi
dynasty and the collapse of the Congress rule. The allegation by Dr.Subramaniumsamy,
former Minister of Law repeated through his recent book that some of
the leaders in high places who were behind Rajiv Gandhi murder plot
had not been investigated, have not been answered!
The tenuous situation in Central government politics since then has
emphasized the self-preserving reality of the need to keep India's many
divisive forces together in cohesion. It is a far more serious problem
for India than ordering her relations with a friendly small neigbouring
country into a mutually acceptable course, as pointed out by a number
of international newspapers in 1987 and admitted by India's former High
Commissioner in Colombo, J.N.Dixit.(Dixit" p.111). Dixit says that
the tension that was generated by the Sri Lankan issue "might have
affected the unity and territorial integrity of India itself."
What followed, therefore, despite all the homilies addressed to Sri
Lanka at that time expressing India's friendship and offer of her good
offices as a mediator to resolve the ethnic problem, was the application
of the old Kautilyan policy of hegemony over her neigbours. I have been
commenting, with hindsight, short-lived Gujral doctrine notwithstanding,
about the prospects of a repeat of this situation under an impulsive
leadership including the interpretation I offered on the Indian Security
Advisor, Mr.Narayan's more recent (August 2008) interview with Strait
Times examining it against the past background and considering that
the situation in Tamil Nadu had not changed for better and New Delhi
could not shove off this pressure easily. My remark sub-titled "A
Dangerous Interlude" pointing out that Mr. Narayan's
comments cushioned as they were, with the statement that India was not
interested in preaching to them (GOSL), contained a deeper meaning which
should not be overlooked.(The Island, August onwards). Mr.Narayan alleged
that neither the state nor the Army of Sri Lanka understood the Tamil
He was only giving a different expression to what some of the international
media wrote in 1987 and Dixit confirmed. about the true reasons of India's
"meddling" in Sri Lankan affairs at that time. The respected
French newspaper LE MONDE wrote editorially on June 6, 1987,
that "The young Indian Prime Minister's [Rajiv Gandhi's] reasons
[are] less praiseworthy than he maintains when he speaks of the 'genocide'
of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka,
whose fortunes have in fact
been declining over the past year and more, seems to have succumbed
to the temptation of scoring a cheap victory likely to draw public attention
away from a series of set backs at home, and is responding to the pressure
of millions of Tamils in southern India who sympathise with their fellow
Tamils in Sri Lanka." The reference was to Rajiv Gandhi's decision
to air-drop (bombard) packages covered in canvas bags containing the
logo "Ordnance Factory, Kanpur."
Paul Johnson , Journalist-historian wrote in Los Angeles Times of June
9,1987 that " India is in no position to criticize Sri Lanka
from trying to use its army to suppress a minority resistance movement,
the Indian army is already employed in such tasks, notably, in Punjab
and Assam. India has more minorities than all the other states put together.
Thousands are killed sometimes every year in communal disputes. If India
uses its state power to interfere in the internal problems of neighbouring
states, India exposes, itself to retaliation, which could be devastating.
Indeed India, of all large states, has the most to gain from a general
and scrupulous observance of the rule of law, both internal and external
It is against the above backdrop that a revisit to the 1987 situation
becomes relevant today in order to understand not how we Sri Lankans
perceive the situation of Indo-Sri Lanka relations but how others round
the world saw in 1987. It must be said, however, that they were not
the governments of the countries round the world, except Pakistan, China
and Bangladesh which had criticised the air drop of "aid' as violation
of international law and as an interference in the internal affairs
of the small country (Dixit), but the international media that gave
expressions to the world's profound indignation at the way this small
unarmed country was treated. In contrast to the former Indian High Commissioner's
assertion that international reaction was "mixed" and that
of Western countries was "ambiguous and mildly critical",
the Western media reaction constituted a total expression of outright
public indignation outside Sri Lanka. Dixit tried to camouflage the
situation by saying that these sources acknowledged that the Indian
action was a political necessity. He was simply trying to argue the
case of India's action than discuss the negative response to India.
What the Western media was trying to point out was that India's action
was motivated not by an interest in trying to help solve the Sri Lankan
problem but by India's own internal compulsions to keep the politically
beleaguered Rajiv government in power and her own divisive forces together
and that was not fair and just by a small neighbouring nation and had
to be deplored.
The words used by the international media such as " Rouge India"
(Wall Street Journal), "An Offensive Act by India"
(The Times Editorial), "Running Interference-and Interfering"
(The Washington Times)," Bully India" (Toronto Sun),
"Bully-Boy India" (Ottawa Citizen),"Taste of
Humbug, Risk of Danger" (Paul Jonson, Journalist -Historian
in Los Angeles Times), "Deliberate Provocation" (The
Statesman of India),"Grave Mistake to feed Tamil Guerillas"
(Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung), "Help One can do without"
(The Times Editorial), "Don't Feed the Tigers" (The
Economist) should clearly point to the nature of indignation expressed
by the international community. The Yorkshire Post editorially
commented that it might well be that the Sri Lankan Army went into action
against Tamil (guerilla) strongholds
..prematurely and brutally,
and innocent Tamils could have been among the victims,
is most unwise to accept at face-value reports and propaganda put out
by Sri Lankan secessionists and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. (York
Shire Post, June 3, 1987). Other newspapers too critically commented
on the Indian government accepting exaggerated reports by interested
parties like the LTTE and its supporters in Tamil Nadu even before they
could be independently verified.
This had always been the bogy used by India to interfere in the Sri
Lanka's issue. It is not that a regional power like India with an old
culture behind her should ignore humanitarian issues whether they are
in India or elsewhere , but that when such concern over humanitarian
issues arise from built up and sometimes invented situations by interested
parties and accepted as such due to political pressure that one meets
with a dangerous trend. This situation was highlighted by THE TIMES
which under its editorial of June 6,1987 questioned "
far Sri Lanka's Tamils needed supplies is a question open to debate.
It is hard to believe that they needed them quite so badly. There is
certainly no evidence to suggest it."
The danger is that behind the exaggerations of the humanitarian issue
lie a dangerous trend of re-emergence of a Hitlerian and Milosevic type
of racist inspired chauvinism as aroused by Tamil Nadu politicians to
score political points over competitors and New Delhi is responding
to it for its own reasons as the international media pointed out. That
has remained undisclosed.
THE TIMES of June 3,1987 wrote again editorially under the title
" HELP ONE CAN DO WITHOUT" : " There can be no
peace in Sri Lanka until the Tamil terrorists have been beaten. This
is the correct conclusion of the government in Colombo.
the Indian government to enter this fray by offering this help to the
Tamils is provocative and myopic.
.Its food and medical supplies
would not be for terrorists but for victims of the fighting
there are always means of helping, and this does not sound like one
of them." On the other hand, Patrice Claude, special envoy of 'Le
Monde' and Richard Enrich of 'Washington Times' both whom
were among the seven foreign journalists who were on board one of the
six Antanov 32 transporters which dropped packages over Jaffna peninsula
on 4th June 1987, were not sure of what was contained in the already
sealed packages bearing the marks " Ordances Factory, Kanpur"
on their canvass covers. They wrote that despite the Indian Foreign
Ministry's later claims, no journalist could check the contents of packages.
(Patrice Claude's report titled " L'operation "Misericorde"
in Le Monde of June 6,1987). Both of them also wrote that the Antanov
opened its cargo hatch minutes before reaching Jaffna and the packages
fell on the Tiger held areas of Kokuvil and Chunakkam! That there
had been motives of supporting the LTTE with "logistics" is
made clear by High Commissioner Dixit when he told Minister Lalith Athulatmudali
while conveying to him that India would not allow the capture of Jaffna
also telling him that if Indian advice was not heeded, "India would
provide logistic support to the LTTE.(Dixit,p.98). What more evidence
does one need to understand the real motives of India in the Sri Lankan
issue except that it was guided by hegemonic principles and logistic
support to the LTTE while pretending to mediate?
As those who watched international television as well as 'Duradarshan'
(I watched it on French television), the over-six-foot tall air force
Javans who were paraded before Premier Rajiv Gandhi soon after the intrusion
into Sri Lankan air space were seen explaining their exploit - not the
'Mercy Mission' but violating Sri Lanka's air space without facing any
opposition, as the political editor of a leading French Daily (he had
spent a week at a training centre near Meenambikai airport earlier)
who watched the "air -drop" together with me remarked to me!
Patrice Claude, Le Monde's special envoy in New Delhi cynically wrote
it was a " Mercy Mission under the protection of Mirage 2000!"
The pilot when questioned why four mirages went past their transporter
had said it was for the protection of the journalists but he had also
told the journalists that Sri Lanka had no air defence! But a little
over half an hour earlier, Indian State Minister of External Affairs,
Natwar Singh, had told Sri Lankan High Commissioner, B.P.Tilakaratna,
that "the mirage fighters will return fire if "air borne
threat was mounted." Indian High commissioner Dixit had been
more forthcoming when he informed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister A.C.S.Hameed
that if the Sri Lankan government refused to accept "the Indian
request, the Indian fighter aircraft had necessary clearance to take
retaliatory action against the "Sri Lankan Air Force, air bases
and ground forces." (Diixit p.104).He also recorded that ''air
bases in southern India were kept in full alert from 1600 hrs. onwards
to respond to any violent reaction from the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The question that might arise is if Minister Natwar Singh gave two
different massages to the two diplomats of the two countries? Instructions
to Dixit which he conveyed to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, was that
the fighter planes would not only "retaliate" if any air borne
threat was mounted or ground fire was directed at the aircraft"
but retaliatory action would be taken against the Sri Lankan air
force, air bases and ground forces." That should make the Indian
government's intentions on that occasion quite clear.
If the Indian air force knew that Sri Lanka had no air defence, why
was that show so much of force? So was it a " Mercy Mission"
as the foreign journalists questioned and Dixit's implied about
motives that one is left with? Or, was it a camouflaged arms delivery
accompanying some food and medicines, 25 tons in all, as one could surmise
with this evidence as the journalists were raising? Could the term "Parippu
drop" which the Sri Lankan media used to ridicule what the international
media called "Humbug" and "Farce" have been
planted among them to divert attention from the "Ordnance Factory"
logo on the packages and the Indian government's intention to provide
"logistic" support to the LTTE as Dixit recorded? (Dixit,p.98).
So it was not surprising that the European Parliament in its Resolution
adopted on June 18, 1987, concluded that "the Government of
India in dispatching fighter-escorted transport aircraft, to drop humanitarian
aid to the Tamil population of the city of Jaffna, without accepting
the offer of the modalities of sending aid, constitutes a serious violation
of Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and have served to undermine relations
between India and its partner in SAAARC."
THE TIMES concluded that it was "aid one could do without."
"This (India trying to damp down its over-heated relationship
with Sri Lanka) should not allow it to escape international condemnation
of its action."
for India to infringe Sri Lanka's air
space was to bully its tiny neighbor, nor treat it as a friend. To draw
a parallel, it was as if the United States had showered food on west
Belfast while the British army was conducting an operation against the
"How far Sri Lanka's Tamils needed supplies is a question
open to debate. It is hard to believe that they needed them quite so
badly. There is certainly no evidence to suggest it.
Relavance of 1987 to Today's Situation
That is a question relevant to the boisterous scenario now created
in Tamil Nadu over the humanitarian situation in the Vanni and for the
Indian government to remonstrate again when the Sri Lankan security
forces are poised to take over Kilinochchi just as it was on the eve
of the Sri Lankan army was on the verge of capturing the town of Jaffna.
In 1987, practically all foreign media observed that India's intervention
in Sri Lanka was motivated not by the situation in Sri Lanka but by
her internal problems. They also observed that New Delhi had accepted
exaggerated versions of the humanitarian situation as The Times remarked
editorially under the caption" Aid One Could Do Without"
and went on to ask, as I quoted earlier, "How far Sri Lanka's Tamils
needed supplies is a question open to debate. It is hard to believe
that they needed them quite so badly. There is certainly no evidence
to suggest it."
In identifying these problems the emphasis in each newspaper differs
slightly but most of them refer to India's problem with Tamil Nadu.
For instance, The Time's Editorial, looking for immediate causes,
observed that the intervention in Sri Lanka was dictated by the necessity
of winning the election in the state of Haryana; while the Wall Street
Journal, going deeper and wider analysis, observed that saber-rattling
might strike Mr.Gandhi as a proven way to divert attention from his
rising domestic problems which included riots in Punjab, poor election
showing, by the Congress, grumbling among India's own Tamils in Tamil
Nadu, unrest among the Gurkhas, quarrels in the Cabinet, and economic
reforms stalled by the bureaucracy and special interests. The Washington
Times, concentrating on the more specifically, remarked that Rajiv
Gandhi mindful of the fissiparous tendencies in his inherited democracy,
was bending to the will of Mr.Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu; and that the
idea to bombard with humanitarian aid was Mr. Ramachanndra's idea. (Minister
Natwar Singh had explained it as the consensus reached evidently on
Ramachandran's proposal). It said that it (humanitarian aid) was "a
powerful symbol but also a lie". The idea of providing logistic
support to the LTTE had been uppermost in the Indian government's mind
as stated by High Commissioner Dixit to Minister Lalith Athulathmudali.
The Economist too placed emphasis on the Tamil Nadu factor.
Dixit giving reasons for the immediate cause of the decision to air-drop
aid packages without Sri Lankan government's consent, quoted Minister
Natwar Singh that it was because of the "overall consensus that
Sri Lanka's deliberate violence against Tamil civilians had to be stopped
and that Sri Lanka's "defiance" of India's mediatory efforts
which it had used as a convenience should be neutralised".(Dixit,p.106).
This was a clear indication that a hegemonic stature had been developed
by the Indian government in dealing with her small neighbor. Dixit himself
called the "air drop" a " drastic" action.(Dixit,p.106).
Justifying the Indian Government's action Dixit points out that the
tension it (Sri Lankan government's war is his reference though he couches
in different form- p.111) might have affected the unity and territorial
integrity of India itself. So, this is acknowledgement on the part of
Indian policy makers themselves what motives were really behind India's
intervention in the Sri Lankan internal issue in the 1980s and that
the international media analysis as well as Sri Lanka government's perception
were correct. Dixit's quotation of Congressman, Steven Solaz, Chairman
of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and Pacific,
summing up that 'he could conceive of extraordinary circumstances where
humanitarian considerations are so great that the principle of humanitarian
recue had to take precedence over the principle of non-interference,
goes to confirm this. This idea attributed to Solaz is the precursor
of what has been sophisticated as today's R2P. That was certainly, a
big power perception which the U.S. too has often used for intervention.
But, Solaz regretted that India had not worked out her relief operations
in cooperation with the Sri Lankan government.
More importantly, it is the Indian government's position in 1987
that it would not allow the capture of Jaffna conveyed to Minister Athulathmudali
that should be relevant to a discussion of today's situation when the
security forces are poised to capture Killinochchi which is the LTTE's
present administrative centre. It is right at this point that the Indian
government's position is seen hardening.
India's present day response
The circumstances in Sri Lanka today are much different though that
of Tamil Nadu remains the same as it was in 1987 and New Delhi's positions
is transforming from ambiguity -wanting to see the LTTE beaten but not
ousted - (see International Crisis Group's analysis in its Asia Report
on Sri Lanka, No.146 issued in February 2008) to veering towards the
Tamil Nadu position as it turned out finally in 1987. The Manmohan Singh
government which has just survived a crucial no confidence motion and
even earned allegations of bribery to win over support, would not be
prepared to lose the support of political parties represented by Karunanidhi
and his coalition supporters. But it is also caught up in the difficult
situation of not being able to condone terrorism. LTTE terrorism has
foreboding and ominous signs for India, which country is faced with
divisive forces that no country in the region faces (Paul Johnson) and
already facing terrorism in Assam, Mizoram, Kashmir and Orissa and other
Tamil Nadu government's position vis-à-vis the LTTE remains
the same as it was in 1987 though constrained by reason of emotions
over Rajiv Gandhi killing and the former Law Minister, Dr.Subramaiumswamy's
accusations over people in high places not having been brought to book
over the Rajiv Gandhi murder, and the holding back by the New Delhi
government of tacit Tamil Nadu support to the LTTE. However, the attempt
by Tamil Nadu government to exploit the humanitarian bogy once again
by pointing to a humanitarian situation as it was in 1987 over Jaffna,
seems to be now catching up in New Delhi as seen from the hardening
of rhetoric from the latter as was seen from Mr.Narayan's interview
with the Strait Times and the more recent demarche' through the Sri
Lankan High Commission in New Delhi, first by Mr. Narayan himself and
subsequently by Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee and more than one
direct communication from the Indian Prime Minister to the Sri Lankan
One must give more credit to the present Indian leadership than to
those who held power in the 1980s, who may see that it is far more important
for India to safeguard her new image as a regional super power and making
efforts to become a world power to balance with her already dominant
position as a cultural colossus, built up since the hegemonic days of
the Gandhian dynasty so much so to be able to sign an Agreement with
the U.S. on cooperation in the field of advanced use of nuclear energy
for peaceful purposes and with aspirations to become a permanent member
of the U.N. Security Council, than meddling in the Sri Lankan issue
except to offer a helping hand -not a hegemonic role as the Gandhis
tried - or rendering a hand to Tamil Nadu racism. These are far more
vital consideration for India now. India cannot throw away these gains
and prospects of further gains to placate a state like Tamil Nadu pursuing
an embarrassing racist agenda which could also have serious repercussions
on India's own unity one day, however precarious the government's political
fortunes are at the present time may be.
Though we understand the real issues India is facing because of the
Tamil Nadu factor, we cannot, living in geographical proximity to the
big neighbour altogether ignore her own problems. It behooves on both
Sri Lanka and Indian governments to tackle the situation created by
Tamil Nadu in a way not to disturb a balanced relationship between the
two countries. As such, we cannot treat the Indian government's recent
manifestations simply as attempts to placate Tamil Nadu whose Chief
Minister and supporters are demanding positive action to stop the Sri
Lankan security forces from capturing Killinochchi. Perhaps, they may
be expecting a highly theatrical act which will serve to please opinion
in Tamil Nadu while at the same time delivering a message to the Sri
Lankan government sufficient enough to stop its military campaign against
the LTTE. It can be expected that Mr. Krunanidhi, who knows the weakness
of the central government today, would not be satisfied until New Delhi
took a drastic step as it in 1987, like forcibly air-dropping 'aid'
to the LTTE (whether it was food, medicine or logistic support) which
was allegedly undertaken at the instigation of former Chief Minister
Ramachandran as was exposed by Washington Times in June 1987.
One problem for New Delhi, even if it wanted to take a more drastic
step quoting the humanitarian situation is that there is no situation
in the Vanni today as it was claimed to have existed in Jaffna peninsula
in 1987 which situation has been questioned by the international media
as we saw above. At that time, there was, however, an embargo on most
essential goods and some medicines. Presently, food and medicines have
been reaching the LTTE held areas as the U.N. organisations like the
WBF, INGOS and NGO which operated behind the LTTE controlled areas knew;
and know as they are still carrying on the operations from government
controlled Vavuniya town. In other words, the alleged, may be true to
a large extent, 1987 situation does not exist today in the Vanni. The
attempt now is to create such a situation by the LTTE holding back the
civilians and through its most recent move to stop the movement of 50
food transport vehicles carrying the UN. Logo from proceeding to the
area by firing artillery shells at the convoy. This is where the attention
of the Indian government and the international community should be directed.
Has any one taken up the issue- the U.N. or any one, though the Security
Council seems to be considering the situation in Afghanistan and putting
the blame on Al Ouida and Taliban as the India's own representative,
Ambassador, Nirupn Sen did addressing the U.N.
There cannot also be allegations of civilian deaths as it was alleged
over heavily populated Jaffna peninsula as the air force is using sophisticated
modern technological knowledge to target LTTE installations more accurately
avoiding civilian areas. As President Rajapaksa assured the Indian Prime
Minister during direct communications, the security forces are under
strict instructions to avoid civilian casualties while executing the
war against terrorists.
As such, there cannot be accusations today of 'deliberate violence
against Tamil civilians' which as Minister Natwar Singh claimed in 1987,
"had to be stopped". So, today, the reasons have to be invented
using the military action against the LTTE as the pretext. In a war,
co-lateral damage is inevitable and this is taking place in unprecedented
proportions in Afghanistan in the war against Taliban. But even there
the element of exaggeration is quite high as the allied statements show.
But, today, unlike in 1987, India could rely on the INGOS and NGOs who
have been displaced from the LTTE held areas recently in view of the
insecurity of their operations behind the fighting lines. That in addition
to some of them having been found in open collusion with the LTTE as
the evidence of their admission that equipment and heavy vehicles have
been taken over by the LTTE and there was no prospects recovery. It
is by using these heavy earth moving equipment that the LTTE been able
to build earthen dams as long as 28 miles in length and deep trenches
of such length. The displaced INGOS and NGOS are furious but their operations
are carried out from government held areas in Vavuniya. As such, these
organizations have perversely tried to create an international opinion
about the humanitarian situation. None have pointed the finger at the
LTTE which is the cause of the plight of the civilians who are being
held back by the LTTE to highlight the humanitarian issue while they
are also being used as human shields against military onslaught by d
It is refreshing note to find the leaders of the two countries are
in direct communication besides other diplomatic initiatives. The Indian
government's position, as Indian reports point to, seems to be to separate
the "rights and welfare of the Tamils" from "the ongoing
hostilities against the LTTE" as reportedly the view of the Indian
Prime Minister. India is looking for a solution beyond conflict. This
is where the government appears to be slow. The developments taking
place in the Eastern Province since its liberation from the LTTE should
be a pointer to what to expect in the north too after it is liberated
from the clutches of the LTTE. The problem, however, is the identification
by Tamil Nadu the concern for humanitarian situation of the Tamils with
that of the LTTE.
20 / 10 /2008