A Decade of Confrontation: Sri Lanka and India in the 1980s by John Gooneratne Stamford Lake Publication Sri Lanka, 2000
Sri Lanka’s side of the story on the turbulent relations between India and Sri Lanka, is now told in John Gooneratne’s A Decade of Confrontation—Sri Lanka and India in the 1980s. Although half a decade too late, it is the most compelling and authoritative account of the confrontation to come out of Colombo. The book traces the rise of Tamil militancy, Sri Lanka’s failure to contain it, India’s propensity to fish in troubled waters which culminated in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA), the intervention by IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), and the inevitable but tragic collapse of the accord.
Gooneratne’s book was released around the time Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka was facing one of the worst politico-military crisis in the Jaffna peninsula in May 2000, nearly 10 years after forcing the IPKF to an ignominious retreat from the island. The crowning irony was that the very Buddhist clergy which had demanded the expulsion of the IPKF, was pleading now for its return.
In his book, Goonaratne has carefully opened old wounds and rubbed salt on some of them. His chronicling of facts and events, is fairly accurate though some of his analysis and interpretation may not be palatable to some Indians. That is also why the book is welcome—as it gives the view from the other side of the hill, or strait.
The chapter on the genesis and growth of militancy records that while Tamil demands upto 1972 were “rights-oriented”, later, the focus shifted from autonomy to separatism. It was the Vaddukoddai resolution of 14 May 1976 that first called for Eelam. Gooneratne also points to another significant historic fact—that of TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) securing the second highest number of seats (even more than SLFP—the Bandaranaikes’ Sri Lanka Freedom Party) in the 1977 general elections, and Amirthalingam becoming the leader of the opposition in a Parliament swamped by the UNP (United Nationalist Party). The failure to secure political redressal forced the TULF to include in its manifesto the Tamil people’s determination to liberate themselves from Sinhalese domination, and to establish Eelam by peaceful means or otherwise.
Some advocates of Eelam at the time had hoped that as in the case of Bangladesh’s 1971, India would help in the liberation struggle. The ethnic conflict, says the author, came to India’s doorstep after the July 1983 riots. It triggered the chain of events that led to the intervention by India. India’s vision of the Monroe Doctrine, is skillfully described. The 1980s was a time when new Delhi was indulging in the flexing of its military muscles so as to be acknowledged as a regional power. Therefore the answer to the question posed by the author, whether it was “opportunity” or “willingness” on the part of India that forced it into Sri Lanka, is, “both”.
President Jayewardene sought military assistance from many countries. “We are prepared to even align ourselves with the devil to fight terrorism,” he had said. The US and the UK favoured an Indian role in Sri Lanka, tacitly certifying India as the regional power. The US also set up an Israeli interest section at its embassy in Colombo, which, along with the British Keany Meany services, helped train the Sri Lankan military in counter-terrorism. The other countries that helped Jayawardene militarily were China and Pakistan.
Events have now taken a U-turn. In the 1980s, India was all too keen to intervene, and did. What made it do so was to safeguard its national security interests relating to the VOA radio relay facility north of Colombo, to protect its oil tank farms in Trincomalee, and naval base and harbour, as also to facilitate in the transfer of autonomy to the Tamils. Exactly a decade later, in May 2000, New Delhi refused, point blank to provide military assistance to Sri Lanka. Instead, it arranged for Israel, among other countries, to do so.
The Indian Tamils’ support for militancy in the island has diluted considerably, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, which is a banned organisation in India. The Tamil diaspora is now the single biggest factor that sustains the LTTE in its war in the island’s north. The comparison in the book of the “spillover” effect of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka with the one in Bangladesh which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan, is well made, though in the latter case, the cost of India going to war was estimated to be less than feeding ten million refugees. There are now new dangers to Tamil Nadu from the influx of not just Tamil refugees which has for the moment been controlled to a trickle, but also because of the possible weaponisation of southern India –if Jaffna peninsula were to fall into LTTE hands.
The most provocative part of Goonaratne’s book is the chapter, “Denouement—ISLA”, with such obvious subtitles as “India Invades Sri Lanka”, “Railroading the ISLA”, “Do’s And Don’t’s of ISLA”, “Misadventure of IPKF”, “India Lays Down for Sri Lanka The ABCs Of Foreign Policy” and so on. Gooneratne does an impressive demolition job of the accord from start to finish with persuasive arguments, culminating, however, in an overkill: India’s Sikkimisation of Sri Lanka. By no stretch of imagination is Sri Lanka historically in the same league for India as Nepal and Bhutan, not to speak of Sikkim.
The author contends that the IPKF misadventure would not have been that, had it been allowed to complete its mission, and had Premadasa not indulged in duplicity by secretly arming the LITE. No anti-insurgency campaign can be completed in just two years, especially when operations are undermined by the host government. The list of IPKF achievements is long, not the least, in restoring sanity and normalcy in the north-east and conducting three violence-free elections with an unprecedented turnout in four months where none had been held for two decades. The glitches in implementation of the accord were due to the failure of coercive diplomacy, and not because of the IPKF.
The author has noted that India’s intervention was not totally fruitless because the ISLA did secure all of its political, military and strategic objectives. Unless one has got it wrong, this is the most questionable assessment of all—as the accord was not allowed to blossom. For this reviewer, the last sentence in the book is the most telling: “The eighties could also be seen as a period where there were lessons to be learnt for both India and Sri Lanka.” Judging by the crisis that gripped both Delhi and Colombo earlier this year, and the manner in which events are unfolding now, neither country seems to have learnt these lessons.