14th December 1997

Rajiv wanted LTTE to continue

India's volatile politics before and after his assassination

By N. Ram

Editor, Frontline

That a tendentious, bi-ased, politically moti-vated, self-contradictory interim report of a commission of inquiry dealing with events that took place in the decade 1981-1991 has served as the instrument to destabilise India's Central Government is an expression of the volatility of national politics today. The implosions the report initially set off within the Congress (I) and the resultant calculations, miscalculations and confusions form the stuff of tragicomedy.

The basic political truth is that in a situation where the polity is divided three ways and no one has (or is likely to have in the near future) a real mandate to rule India, the party that used to be top dog in national politics finds life outside government difficult to bear. So it constantly looks to seize the main chance. However, the main chance-for the second time within nine months-has turned out to be a mirage.

The Congress(I) seems to have learnt no lesson at all from its experience of targeting, and bringing about the collapse of, the first United Front Ministry - for no sensible reason. On the incompetent (and long-expected) findings of the Jain Commission about the circumstances that were responsible for the horrendous assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE squad at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, the Congress (I), and its many leaders and factions, have worked themselves into a great mental haze.

Their loyalty to Rajiv Gandhi's memory would be touching were it not mixed in with so much inconsistency, unfairness and selfserving ambition. Early on during the makings of this crisis, the party seemed to be on a high, convinced that this was its main chance for the conceivable future and specifically that the assassinated leader's widow, the reluctant Sonia Gandhi, would turn out to be a deus ex machina. The game plan was always vague and ill-formed.

It was in Sonia Gandhi's hushed name that various 'loyalists' and sycophants recklessly raised the stakes, compelling a supline Sitaram Kesri to mime a declaration of war that brought down the United Front Government. But Sonia is apparently unwilling to step out in the great Indian political bazaar and take the enormous risk the game plan calls for. She knows that she is nothing if not vulnerable given her inexperience, the backlog of Bofors and various Congress (I) scandals, inner-party factionalism and the BJP's 'Rome versus Ram' communal innuendo.

Had a wave been generated in favour of the Congress (I) by the Jain commission findings, it might have been quite different. But Sonia's unwillingness is reinforced by the knowledge (confirmed by public opinion polls) that public opinion in Tamil Nadu and round the country has refused to swallow the Jain commission's interim findings. Indeed popular opinion seems overwhelmingly to blame the congress (I) for provoking the crisis. After initial vacillations and despite certain divisions, the United Front managed to handle the blackmail from the party by whose leave it stayed in government with sobriety and dignity. Rejecting the demand for the expulsion of the DMK from the coalition government (on account of what the LTTE did between 1981 and May 21, 1991, a decade during which the DMK was in power for a mere two years), defending V. P. Singh's conduct as Prime Minister (vis - a- vis Rajiv Gandhi's security) and holding the blackmailer accountable for the consequences was the only honourable way.

The 17 volumes of the Jain Commission's interim report provide much background material of use and interest to students of India's honourably motivated but schizoid and failed post-1983 encounter with Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. The schizoid character of national policy, which took shape under the Indira Gandhi government and was inherited and developed by the Rajiv Gandhi administration, lay in this:

On the one hand, the policy promoted a moderate and just negotiated political solution offering substantial autonomy for the Sri Lankan Tamils in a consolidated region of historical habitation within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. This was the positive aspect of the policy.

On the other hand the Indian policy provided sanctuary to, armed, trained and funded the Sri Lankan militant groups - and especially the LTTE. (The Jain Commission report is perhaps the first official or quasi-official admission of this open secret.) This was done under the impression that the militant activities would be able to put pressure on the negotiating process and could be controlled by the Government of India to achieve the first objective.

In the elaboration and pursuit of this policy, the Indira and Rajiv Gandhi governments got active help from the AIADMK State government headed by M. G. Ramachandran (MGR),who was known to be close to the LTTE supremo, V. Prabhakaran. The record also shows that following MGR's death and the DMK's return to power in Tamil Nadu in January 1989, the Rajiv government turned to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for help, especially in mediation with the LTTE.

The Jain Commission took it upon itself to document and analyse India's post -1981 Sri Lanka policy in its entirety. The material it offers is all about the profound contradiction within the policy, which ended tragically for all the moderate and democratic elements involved. But in the face of all the evidence, it is necessary for Jain's agenda to assert that "there was no dual policy of the Central Government"; that the policy was "consistent" and perfectly sound; that the training given to the various militant groups on Indian soil was "essentially for self-defence and not for launching military operations"; and that neither the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Central governments nor the MGR State government can in any way be held responsible for the environment, circumstances and events that led to the Sriperumbudur tragedy. Jain's selectivity, contempt for evidence and logic, and approach to causation are breathtaking.

Jain's basic thesis is that any support to the LTTE and other militant groups from 1981 to October 1987 was all right since what was supported was not "anti-national"; but any softness or support to the LTTE after it began fighting the Indian Army in Sri Lanka amounted to aiding and abetting "anti-national" activities that culminated in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. In pursuing his agenda within this framework, he contradicts himself many times over; glosses over what MGR did before and after the hostilities broke out; glosses over Rajiv Gandhi's very soft and compromising dealings with the LTTE in the Post-October 1987 period and especially in early 1991; and makes a mess of his pseudo-judicial report.

Secret contacts

Sri Lankan readers will be specially interested in what the Jain Commission, on the strength of the official material it examined, has been able to confirm about Rajiv Gandhi's contradictory and compromising policy towards the LTTE after hostilities broke out with the IPKF in October 1987. Jain, of course, defends Rajiv ardently and finds his policy consistent but that is immaterial.

The bare unvarnished factual record shows that the central Government allowed the LTTE and other militant groups to have a presence as well as activities in Tamil Nadu - post-hostilities.

Indeed S. S. Sidhu, the Advisor to the Tamil Nadu Governor during 1988, a year of President's Rule in the State, complained in writing about this "contradictory" stand taken by the Central Government. The release from prison of 157 LTTE militants, who had been detained under the National Security Act, and the astonishing courtesy of flying them out in Indian Air Force planes to set them free in Jaffna says it all.

Why was the LTTE not banned in India after it began to fight the Indian Army in Sri Lanka? Former Prime Minister V. P. Singh has raised this question tellingly in his detailed response to the Jain commission's tendentious reconstruction of recent history.

The basic answer lies in the honourable but contradictory and schinoid nature of official Indian policy between 1983 and 1989 - and in Rajiv Gandhi's personal thinking and approach after he lost power in late 1989.

In June 1990, soon after hostilities broke out between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, Rajiv Gandhi spoke his mind to me while we were waiting for proceedings to begin at a large committee meeting in New Delhi presided over by Prime Minister V. P. Singh. Rajiv was very upset with President R. Premadasa's policy and felt that "genocide" was being committed against the Sri Lankan Tamils, with India unable to do anything about it. He clearly sympathised with the LTTE at this juncture.

He complained to me that the V. P. Singh government's policy, which had involved a speedier than planned de-induction of the IPKF under an abrasive demand made by Premadasa, meant that "everything is being pulled out" and nothing was being left behind in the North and East of Sri Lanka. I remarked to Rajiv that while I too had been a believer in his Sri Lanka policy, one had to face realities: the policy had not produced the expected results and public opinion in India would not support any further activism or costly involvement in Sri Lanka. I added that even if he had been returned to power, in all likelihood he would have followed the same course as V.P. Singh's government.

I mention this only to show that Rajiv Gandhi's two meetings with LTTE emissaries or sympathisers in March 1991, before he was brutally liquidated by an LTTE squad at Sriperumbudur, did not come entirely as a shock to us when news about these secret meetings was published in the press soon after the assassination. Some of us knew about Rajiv's new thinking on the subject of the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Tamil militants. Still, nothing prepared us for the compromising detail that emerged in the documentation served up by the Jain Commission about these meetings.

Rajiv met Kasi Anandan, an admitted central committee member of an LTTE front, the People's Front of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In New Delhi on March 5, 1991. Anandan handed over to Rajiv a formal letter dated March 4, 1991 which began: "I present to you the greetings of Mr. V. Prabhakaran our leader.'' In his letter, Anandan expressed the hope that "this meeting will mark the beginning of a cordial and friendly relationship between you and our movement" and also that "the communication gap between the Government of India and LTTE (could) be effectively bridged and links properly established."

But the point of greatest interest and poignancy was Rajiv's response according to Kasi Anandan, who is still resident in Madras (Chennai). To make clear the context, let me quote fully from the official record of Anandan's interrogation on July 7, 1991 by the Special Investigation Team of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigating the assassination (this fascinating document is offered as Annexure M- 90 in Volume XIV of the Jain Commission's Interim Report):

"N. At the meeting Kasi Anandan emphasized the need for bridging the gap that had developed between LTTE and Rajiv Gandhi and sought the Congress (I) leader's support in the past. He also handed over a written letter to Rajiv Gandhi in this regard.

"O. Rajiv Gandhi appreciated the stand of LTTE and admitted that a wrong approach had been made in the past to solve the Tamil problem. He wanted LTTE to continue the struggle and assured help. Nevertheless, he asked Kasi Anandan to get a letter from Prabhakaran as to what the LTTE Chief expected of him (Rajiv Gandhi).

"P. Kasi Anandan duly conveyed the message to Kittu in London. But there was no response thereafter."

The Jain Commission report confirms that a subsequent meeting took place in New Delhi between Rajiv Gandhi and the London-based Arjuna Sittampalam, a Sri Lankan Tamil, Rajiv took to be an LTTE sympathiser if not emissary. This is further evidence that the former Indian Prime Minister, who was hoping to return to power in the May 1991 general election, was eager to establish good relations with the LTTE and its leader—even after the IPKF experience in Sri Lanka.

As we summed up this chapter in our cover story in Frontline (December 12, 1997): "The former Prime Minister was deeply suspicious of President Premadasa's approach to India and, on the rebound, sought to move closer to the LTTE in the period preceding the treacherous assassination.''

Prabhakaran's answer arrived on the night of May 21, 1991—at Sriperumbudur.

What lies ahead

Against a backdrop of tragi-comedy, it is reassuring that the performance of the institutions of democracy in India has been creditable and reliable. In particular, the roles of a constitutionally circumscribed but not quite ceremonial President and the Election Commission have come in for much public appreciation.

Conducting a general election in India presents a type and scale of challenge that perhaps no other country in the world faces. Recent experience demonstrates that a multi-member Election Commission is clearly better for free, fair and tension-free elections than a single-member body that is in the habit of grandstanding. The present three-member Election Commission has provided every indication that it is on top of the situation— and that it is possible to be firm, objective and reform-minded without going over the top.

During the last phase of the recent crisis, the focus shifted to the role of the President, the exemplary K.R. Narayanan. His objectivity, fairness and well-informed responses have served the system well and made him a very popular figure.

The only constitutionally proper— and beneficial-role the President can play in the Indian system of Parliamentary democracy is to play by the book. The book assigns him a very high formal role, but wisely circumscribes his substantive powers to the point of not giving him any at all. It is not open to the President to overrule "advice" relating to any subject coming form a Council of Ministers that has not lost its legitimacy in terms of publicly known Lok Sabha arithmetic.

It is not the constitutional business of the Indian Head of State to plump for some mythical 'stability' against the odds. Such action has, of course, been suggested by those who are constantly calling for an extra-constitutional presidential push to the idea of 'national government' or getting Members of Parliament to bypass the party system and elect a Prime Minister on the floor of Parliament.

In short, the high office of the President of India cannot be converted into any kind of escape mechanism, let alone a deus ex machina.

This noted, as a political commentator I look forward, with a number of secular and progressive concerns but not without optimism, to the coming electoral season. I share the stoicism of those who believe that the 1998 general election will be "yet another way station in the evolution of the Indian polity towards a more genuinely democratic and federal structure."

It is early days for the campaign but I would like to share an insight passed on to us by a professional pollster. The voter turn-out at the national level and in various battleground States, he tells us, will make a considerable difference to the outcome of this general election. And the lower the turn-out at the national level, the better it will be for the BJP. With the Congress (I) apparently not seriously in the race to form the next elected government in New Delhi, it is my hope that the people of India, by turning out enthusiastically to cast their votes, will ensure a democratic and secular outcome.

(Eight of the volumes are accessible on Internet at the address: http://www. india-today. com/jain).

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