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)
Justice C.G.Weeramantry
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 mind better.

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….."

Re-visiting 1987

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, …but Mr.Gandhi 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.

Humanitarian Issue

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 "….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."

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. ….. For 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……But 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. (p.106).

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 IRA. …"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. (Dixit,p.98).

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 places.

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 President.

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 security forces.

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

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