In November 1986, the SAARC Summit was to be held in Bangalore. Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene were the most sought after leaders at the summit. The unwritten rule followed at summits is that bilateral issues are not raised. At the opening session, all Heads of State speak and controversy is avoided. [...]

Sunday Times 2

Natwar exposes Rajiv’s dealings with LTTE


In November 1986, the SAARC Summit was to be held in Bangalore.

Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene were the most sought after leaders at the summit. The unwritten rule followed at summits is that bilateral issues are not raised. At the opening session, all Heads of State speak and controversy is avoided. We managed to get hold of a copy of Jayewardene’s speech, which was a severe indictment of our Sri Lanka policy. We conveyed our misgivings to him and he assured us that he would delete the portions which we found objectionable.

On the podium, President Jayewardene announced that he was so moved by the welcome he had received in the land of Gandhi and Nehru that he would speak from the heart. He then proceeded to attack India’s support to Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka and invoked the Panchsheel Treaty Agreement signed between Nehru and Chou En- lai, which spoke of non interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Rajiv wisely decided not to respond. At the end of the first day, he instructed P. Chidambaram and me to meet the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G Ramachandran, who had brought with him Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). M.G Ramachandran, who was not comfortable with English, brought with him one of his ministers to act as interpreter, also named Ramachandran. Prabhakaran, too, did not speak English. He had brought with him Anton Balasingham as his interpreter. Balasingham was a crypto communist, the sort of man one could neither ignore nor trust.

My first impression of Prabhakaran was not favourable. He was short, strongly built and stubborn with a one-track mind. He was committed to the idea of Eelam and would not let go of it. I told him that India was fully acquainted with the just demands of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Prime Minister had spoken to President Jayewardene candidly of the grievances of the Tamils. India was opposed to Eelam and supported Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Talking to Prabhakaran was an exhausting experience. I told him that there could come a time when he would have to face the combined might of the Indian and Sri Lankan armies. He was obdurate. His response to my scarcely veiled threat was: ‘I shall never give up Eelam even if I am to die for it.’ Frankly, at that time, I underestimated the depth of his fanatical determination.

We had kept Prabhakaran’s presence in Bangalore a secret but somehow, President Jayewardene got to know. ‘Rajiv, hand him over to me. I shall hang him in Jaffna, where he shot dead the Mayor who was a Tamilian,’ he threatened.

For some reason, Rajiv was in a great hurry to find a solution for the ethnic problems in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was his successful handling of the Punjab and Assam crises which had given him confidence. However, Rajiv Gandhi was not familiar with the history of the ethnic problems in Sri Lanka. It is my firm belief that Presidents and Prime Ministers should not get involved in the nitty-gritties of negotiations. They neither have the time nor the expertise for it. As the weeks went by, I got the impression that Jayewardene was getting the better of Rajiv Gandhi.

In the next few months after the summit, Minister of State P. Chidambaram and I made several trips to Sri Lanka. On the way, we made it a point to visit M.G. Ramachandran, a former film star who, apart from being head of the government, had a huge personal following in the state. It was widely alleged that he covertly supported and financed the L.T.T.E and their cadres were being given military training in Tamil Nadu. He also considered Jaffna an extension of Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi realized that we had to keep MGR on board and he was right in doing so, because to bypass so formidable a Chief Minister would only add to our problems.
The most important trip that Chidambaram and I made was on 19 December 1986. ….

The Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, did not participate in the meetings called by his president during our stay in Colombo. Not only that, he refused to meet us. During our visit, the December 19th proposals were accepted by both sides and became a point of reference for future negotiations. On our return to Delhi we told the Prime Minister that the Sri Lankan leadership was a house divided. Prime Minister Premadasa and Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali were on one side and Minister of Lands, Land Development and Mahaweli Development Gamini Dissanayake and Minister D’Silva were with the President. My assessment of Jayewardene was, on the whole, favourable. He spoke well and was never in a hurry. A devout Buddhist, he never raised his voice and was always calm. But there was a negative side — he was clever and shifty, and it was difficult to pin him down.

The December 19 proposals were conveyed to M.G Ramachandran. Our intelligence agencies were keeping track of Prabhakaran and his henchmen. 1986 ended with uncertainties and the dim prospect of a conflict-free Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan economy was haemorrhaging on account of the conflict between the government and the LTTE.

Chidambaram and I made a couple more visits to Colombo. We also met Prabhakaran in Chennai, in the office of the Chief Minister, when we went to convey the December 19th proposals to M.G Ramachandran. MGR, without informing us, had gifted 40 million rupees to the LTTE. All rules and regulations had been flouted but Rajiv Gandhi was unable to do anything about this. MGR’s vision was confined to Tamil Nadu. To make matters worse, our intelligence agencies were at sixes and sevens. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Israel were fishing in the turbulent waters of Sri Lanka. The Israelis were training Sri Lankan commandos; at the same time, they were also training our commandos. Only they could achieve this. The Commonwealth Secretary General suggested that some Commonwealth countries could mediate to bring about a solution. We discouraged him as we did not wish to internationalize the Sri Lankan situation.

In May 1987, a crisis developed. Jayewardene was persuaded by Lalith Athulathmudali that the time was ripe for operation ‘Liberation’. Jaffna was cordoned off and even essential supplies were prevented from getting to the city. To make matters worse, On 27 May Jayewardene announced, ‘This time, the fight is a fight to the finish.’ Rajiv Gandhi was troubled at this outburst and conveyed his displeasure through our High Commission. On 28 May the Prime Minister warned Sri Lanka that India would intervene to safeguard the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils. This was ignored. Meanwhile, the situation in Jaffna was deteriorating and essential commodities were running short. The Jaffna peninsula was on the verge of a humanitarian tragedy. Rajiv decided to send essential food and medical supplies by sea on 2 June 1987. P.V. Narasimha Rao and I were asked to draft a statement conveying India’s intentions to the Sri Lankan authorities. The glaring fact was that Sri Lanka had not asked for humanitarian aid and not only were we forcing their hand, we would also be violating the maritime boundaries of a friendly country. The flotilla arrived in Jaffna waters on a given date. The Sri Lankan Navy stopped the Indian boats and asked them to return, which they did. We had instructed the commander of the flotilla to avoid confrontation. The Prime Minister did not take kindly to this and decided to take stern action. A meeting was called at 7 Race Course Road. I was also asked to attend. I arrived a few minutes late and the meeting had already begun.

It was being attended by senior Cabinet Ministers, Defence Chiefs, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, RAW officials and the Foreign Secretary. After listening to the proceedings for about ten minutes, I began to feel uneasy. I realized that something extraordinary was being discussed. I asked the PM, ‘What action do we have in mind?’ His reply increased my disquiet — he had decided to airdrop humanitarian aid over Jaffna. I enquired if we had informed the Sri Lankan government. A member of the Cabinet almost shouted at me, ‘Natwarji, what are you saying? Why should we inform the Sri Lankans?’

‘Because Sri Lanka is an independent sovereign nation and a member of the United Nations, the NAM and the Commonwealth. It is also our close and friendly neighbour. It is not a hostile country. If we were to send planes to drop humanitarian supplies into Jaffna, we would be violating Sri Lanka’s air space,’ I replied. I asked if we had informed our Permanent Representative at the UN, Chinmaya- Gharekhan, about this decision. This had not been done either. I said that it was imperative for us to do so to make sure that the Security Council did not meet to discuss Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka at that time was a member of the Security Council.) I had no doubt that most of the Security Council members would sympathize with Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister agreed that I must speak to Chinmaya, a mature and level-headed diplomat. I told him we had in mind. He was appalled. I told him that no meeting of the Security Council should be held to discuss this. He delivered; no meeting was called. I asked the Prime Minister if we had informed the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi, Bernard Tilakaratne. The Prime Minister said I should ask him to see me at South Block at noon.

Bernard was, as usual, his ebullient self. When I broke the news to him, he slumped in his chair. He asked me when the airdrop would take place. I told him that it would be sometime between 2.30 and 3.30 p.m. I asked him to speak to his President. He said he could not get through in time. ‘Use my phone,’ I said. He spoke to his President in Sinhalese. I could not follow what was being said, but I heard the President’s voice loud and clear. He sounded enraged about not being informed earlier.

I informed J.N. Dixit in Colombo and gave him the time of the airdrop. Two planes were to fly in, one carrying aid and the other representatives of the media. I made sure that the aid items were loaded into the first plane in the presence of the media, who might otherwise report that India was dropping arms meant for the LTTE.

The airdrop was eventually completed on 4 June 1987 by cargo aircraft escorted by fighter airplanes. The Sri Lankan reaction to this demonstration of military might was one of shock, anger and outrage. We had violated an independent nation’s airspace. The government of Sri Lanka had not asked for aid……

There had always been a suspicion that a reluctant LTTE had been cajoled into accepting the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in late July-early August 1987 through some secret deal. In April 1988, it was revealed that the Indian government had agreed to provide the LTTE with a substantial amount of money in return for their support for the agreement. An enterprising Indian journalist broke the news through the London Observer. The source of the leak was traced back to the Indian High Commission in Colombo, and to Dixit himself. The timing had a great deal to do with a new peace initiative with the LTTE, in which RAW took the lead. The leak was seen as an attempt to muddy the waters.

The fact is that the LTTE had extracted a monetary payment from the Indian government before they expressed their willingness to accept the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was a political reality. Eventually only the first instalment was paid, but that was because within three months of agreement signing the accord, the IPKF was at war with the LTTE in Jaffna.

As the months rolled by, the agreement began falling apart. Jayewardene retired in late 1988. Premadasa took over and gradually dismantled Jayewardene’s policies. He and Rajiv were like chalk and cheese.

In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi lost the Lok Sabha elections. V.P. Singh succeeded him as Prime Minister. V. P. Singh and President Premadasa of Sri Lanka agreed that the IPKF should be withdrawn from Sri Lanka. From the very beginning, the Sri Lanka ethnic issue was mishandled and ended as a complete failure.

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