Former Indian Foreign Secretary Jyotindre Nath Dixit, High Commissioner in Colombo from 1985 to 1989 revealed dramatic secrets regarding the controversial Indo- Sri Lanka Accord in a recently published book titled 'Assignment Colombo'. He said Mr. Jayewardene had nursed reservations about the Accord till two days before it was signed and it was the veiled Indian warning that virtually forced him to do so. Excerpts from the chapter Signing of the Agreement — The tense theatrics
After protracted negotiations, marked by alternating scenarios of hope and de- spair, the stage was at last set for Rajiv Gandhi's arrival in Colombo on July 29 to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. It would, however, be relevant to dwell here on the internal high-level discussions held in the Government of India which led to the Agreement and India's decision to guarantee the implementation of the solutions stipulated by political and, if necessary, military means.
I was present in most of these crucial discussions held between July 5 and 24. Rajiv Gandhi veered round to the view that a solution to the ethnic problem of Sri Lanka, maintenance of the unity and territorial integrity of the island nation and the protection of India's geo-strategic interests, which were getting affected by the ethnic crisis, could be ensured only by India taking on direct responsibility for structuring an agreement with the Sri Lankan Government with the consent of the Tamils there and by being a direct guarantor for the implementation of the Agreement.
My advice to him after the failure of our initiatives at the Bangalore SAARC summit was that India's purely mediatory efforts were not likely to succeed. I was of the view that India had to shift its role from that of a mediator to a peace-maker and the guarantor of such peace if the crisis in Sri Lanka was to be resolved. It was also my considered opinion that the LTTE's insistence on the creation of a separate Tamil State in Sri Lanka, based on ethnic, linguistic and religious considerations, would have far-reaching negative implications for India's unity and territorial integrity too.
Rajiv Gandhi's decision to go ahead with the Agreement was based on the predications inherent in the advice given by the Research and Analysis Wing and the Army Chief and by me from the High Commission in Colombo. My senior colleagues in Delhi who had doubts had generally come round to the view that even if there were some uncertainties, the risk of signing the Agreement was worth taking. The basic point to be remembered was that during the entire month of July before the Agreement was signed there was no expectation that India would have to undertake a large-scale military intervention in Sri Lanka to enforce the Agreement.
Jayewardene continued to nurse reservations about the Agreement till two days before it was signed. First, because of the resistance he was facing from his more influential cabinet colleagues led by Premadasa. Secondly, because of the agitational opposition he anticipated from the SLFP led by Mrs. Bandaranaike and the resurgent JVP. Thirdly, he did not have any genuine desire for a political compromise.
Left to himself, he would have preferred the military option. Ultimately, he decided to sign the Agreement only because he was given clear indications that if he did not join the endeavour for a political compromise and insisted on military operation, India would totally pull back from its mediatory role and that the general support of India, particularly the Tamil Nadu public, would be available to the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamils. Objectively speaking, he was faced with the choice of either preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka or causing the break-up of the nation through a prolonged civil war. He rightly felt that keeping the country intact should be his overriding consideration.
T.N. Seshan, the then Secretary in charge of Security in India, arrived in Colombo on July 28 to oversee the final arrangements for Rajiv Gandhi's visit. The programme was that Rajiv Gandhi would arrive in Colombo on July 29 at 10.30 a.m. He was to meet President Jayewardene between 11.30 and 12. The Agreement was to be signed at 3.30 p.m. Rajiv Gandhi was to leave for Delhi at 11.30 a.m. on July 30.
Assessing the law and order situation and the anti-Tamil fanaticism of the Sinhalese, Seshan ruled out Rajiv Gandhi's stay at the High Commissioner's residence, from where he would have had to travel by car to the Presidential Palace, a distance of about six to seven kilometres.
An hour-to-hour assessment of the political and security situation was being conveyed to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister's office in India. A tense aspect of the developments from July 27 to the morning of July 29 was that communication between the Indian High Commission and the Sri Lankan foreign office and the Presidential Secretariat became sporadic because of the riots.
By the night of July 28, the riots had spread to the whole of the West, Central and Southern Sri Lanka. Suggestions were made to Rajiv Gandhi that he might consider postponing the visit for a few weeks, but he was clear that once he had taken the difficult decision he must not be seen as lacking in courage of conviction. Nor should he be seen as letting down Jayewardene who himself had taken extreme risks in deciding to sign the Agreement.
Rajiv Gandhi took off from Delhi, as scheduled, early in the morning and landed at the Katunayake airport in Colombo at 10 a.m.
He was accompanied by Cabinet Ministers Narasimha Rao, N.D. Tiwari, Minister of State Natwar Singh and Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon. Officers concerned from the Ministry of External Affairs and a large Press party accompanied the Prime Minister on the special aircraft. Two additional aircraft brought the bullet-proof cars and Indian security personnel.
Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi had an half-hour meeting at 3 o'clock before proceeding together to the Agreement-signing ceremony. Jayewardene told Rajiv Gandhi that he desired the Indian peacekeeping force to be located in Jaffna and the east as early as possible. He also requested Rajiv Gandhi to provide aircraft to fly Sri Lankan troops out of Jaffna to other parts of the country. Jayewardene said that he had convened an urgent meeting of the Sri Lankan National Security Council and that his request was based on a unanimous decision of the Council obtained in advance.
The Agreement was signed at 3.30 p.m. Half an hour later, Jayewardene's Secretary Menikdiwela handed over to me a letter embodying Jayewardene's oral request conveyed earlier. Rajiv went through the letter and directed Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon to send a reply, indicating acceptance of the request. The response was drafted by Ronen Sen, Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister's office, and myself. The Foreign Secretary modified it suitably. K.P.S. Menon's letter accepting Jayewardene's request was handed over to Menikdiwela by 5 p.m.
At their meeting in the evening, Rajiv Gandhi told Jayewardene that Indian Air Force planes had commenced the ferrying operations. Rajiv Gandhi also asked for Jayewardene's agreement for location of about 6000 Indian troops in Jaffna to ensure the ceasefire, the surrender of arms and maintenance of peace. Jayewardene agreed.
In the hour-and-a-half he had before going back for the private dinner being hosted for him by Jayewardene, Rajiv Gandhi conveyed instructions for the prompt despatch of Indian army units to Jaffna. The decision to airlift Indian army units to Sri Lanka was in many ways unexpected. Army Headquarters, India, had to locate an army formation in the country close enough to Sri Lanka to be flown out on immediate duty. Chief of Army Staff General K. Sundarji's choice fell on the 54 Mountain Division located at Hyderabad and commanded by Major-General Harkirat Singh. The first units from this Division commenced flying out to Jaffna in the early hours of July 30, under Harkirat Singh's command. The deployment of the Division in Jaffna somewhat below its full strength was completed by the middle of August. The advance units of the Division had started landing at Palaly Airport in Jaffna from 6.30 a.m. Additional units came by ship to Kankesanthurai and from August 2, Indian units commenced landing at Trincomalee with the approval of Jayewardene.
Rajiv Gandhi was to depart from Colombo around 10.30 a.m. We had received reports that resentment and disaffection against the accord had reached new heights. We felt that Rajiv Gandhi should avoid physical proximity with Sri Lankan armed forces personnel during the departure ceremonies.
When Rajiv Gandhi returned from his morning meeting with Jayewardene, some of us made the suggestion that he should just take the salute of the guard of honour from the dais and not inspect the troops lined up because of two reasons.
First, we were not quite sure whether the guns being held by the soldiers in the combined guard of honour were really without ammunition. Secondly, the guard of honour was arranged in an area which had buildings from where the Prime Minister could be targeted. Rajiv Gandhi dismissed our suggestion saying that he would not be seen as being afraid.
We proceeded to the ceremony which evolved into a tense drama and barely escaped becoming a national tragedy for India. Rajiv mounted the saluting dais, the two national anthems were played, the combined guard presented arms and the Prime Minister proceeded to inspect the guard of honour accompanied by the Chief of Naval Staff of Sri Lanka. As Rajiv was going to get into his car immediately after inspecting the guard with a brief farewell to Jayewardene, members of the delegation and other officials were asked to proceed to their respective cars in advance and get into them so that the carcade could proceed to the Galle Face beach helipads.
Hardeep Puri and I walked down the lane where the cars were parked, as Rajiv Gandhi commenced his walk down the red carpet adjacent to the front row of the guard. We had walked out about 30 yards down the lane when we heard a commotion behind us. A couple of Sinhalese with their lungis tied up above their knees were running away from the Square where the guard of honour was being held, with fear and panic writ large on their faces. One of them was shouting something in Tamil. I asked him what had happened. He said something had happened to the Prime Minister of India and there was going to be shooting. My Private Secretary T.D. Aggarwal came running down the street after the Sinhalese with equal panic to tell me: "The Prime Minister has been hit or he was shot at by one of the soldiers in the guard of honour."
Hardeep and I rushed back to find Rajiv Gandhi calmly standing with Sonia Gandhi beside him, looking tense and not conversing with Jayewardene as his official limousine was being lined up for his departure. I found a very distraught Gamini Dissanayake standing near the VIP group.
To my anxious query, he replied that he did not exactly know what happened, but some member of the guard of honour had apparently fallen out of line and disturbed the Prime Minister's inspection. By this time Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi had got into their cars and the cars started moving down.
I approached Jayewardene and asked him what the commotion was about. He looked me coolly in the eye and said: "Nothing serious. Rajiv Gandhi tripped a little and slightly lost his balance as he was reaching the last group of soldiers in the guard of honour." As we rushed back to our cars, an Indian TV journalist told me that one of the Sri Lankan soldiers had tried to hit Rajiv Gandhi with his rifle butt, as he was reaching the end of front rows of the guard. I was quite tense as the cavalcade had to pass through Sri Lankan military personnel for about two kilometres before reaching the helicopters.
None of us knew whether it was an isolated act of violence or whether it was a well organised conspiracy, whether Rajiv Gandhi would be attacked again by army personnel lining the route or in the helicopter. One thing I noticed was the palpable tension in Sonia Gandhi's face before she got into the car, though her demeanour was one of total control. The convoy moved at its normal pace despite the tension.
The only change in the programme was that the couple of helicopters carrying Rajiv Gandhi's security personnel went ahead, taking Chidambaram and Seshan to the airport in advance. They had witnessed the incident and wanted to be absolutely sure that Rajiv Gandhi's special aircraft was totally sanitised before he arrived for the take-off.
I met Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel at the foot of the ramp of the aircraft. He was a little more forthcoming to my natural question. He said that some Sri Lankan soldier from the guard of honour had tried to "push" Rajiv Gandhi.
On getting into the aircraft I found Sonia Gandhi seated in tense quietude. I walked up to Rajiv Gandhi and apologised for not reaching in time to bid him farewell. I put the burning question to the one person who could give the correct answer. Rajiv Gandhi had taken off his Bandgala and was in the act of removing his bullet proof vest when I brought up the incident. He smiled ruefully and said "What is all this nonsensical speculation. Of course, I was hit." He pulled down his shirt and vest from his shoulder and said "Mani, have a look."
There were big blue welts a little away from the base of his neck and on the shoulder blade and on the flesh at the back of his shoulder. He put back his shirt, shook me by the hand and said: "Don't worry. You and your colleagues have done a difficult job wonderfully. Such things keep happening."
I came down the plane in a daze. On my return, I made detailed inquiries about the incident, and found out that a Naval rating in the front row of the guard had reversed his rifle, held it by its barrel and swung it with full strength at the base of Rajiv Gandhi's neck with the intention of breaking his neck and the spinal cord. It was Rajiv's excellent side vision and agility which saved him. He apparently detected the unusual movement, saw the rifle being swung and moved away deflecting the blow to less vulnerable portions of his neck and shoulder. The Sri Lankan Chief of Naval Staff had dropped his sword and grappled with the assailant, pinning him down.
The news that Rajiv Gandhi had been attacked became public by midday. President Venkataraman's apt comment on "the dangers of waging peace" put the official seal on the information about this attempted but failed murder. I found Jayewardene's obfuscatory remark curious. He would have perhaps held on to his version of the incident but for the fact that the entire incident was captured, second by second, by the television cameras, particularly of Asia News International. I remained tense for days after the incident, ruminating on the danger to the Prime Minister that I had contributed to by endorsing his decision to come to Sri Lanka. The incident in many ways presaged the faulty progress of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, despite all the good intentions with which it was signed by Rajiv Gandhi.
The book is co–published by Vijitha Yapa Bookshop and priced Rs. 499.
Continue to Plus page 10 * People