Rajiv Gandhi was a true friend of Tamils

New Delhi, Aug 3 (ANI): After watching the movie Madras Cafe last weekend, my mind went back to the days when I had an opportunity to watch from close quarters the steps taken by the Government of India in the eighties to help the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister of the country, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, he sought to improve India's relations with her neighbours, particularly Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Relations with Sri Lanka were strained, as India had to give shelter to thousands of Tamil refugees fleeing from Jaffna. Among the Tamils in Sri Lanka were two groups: the ethnic Tamils and those who went there as tea garden workers. The ethnic Tamils had started an insurgent movement, which had sympathy in Tamil Nadu.

India had agreed to look after the tea garden workers when they returned from Sri Lanka. As far as the ethnic Tamils were concerned, Rajiv Gandhi decided to negotiate on their behalf with the Sri Lankan Government headed by President Jayawardene. Successive governments in Sri Lanka were not sincere in their approach to give due share of power to the Tamils.

The violence in Sri Lanka came to a crisis, when the government, headed by President Jayawardene, ordered a blockade of Jaffna. India then sent a fleet of fishing boats with food supplies to Jaffna. When these fishing boats were turned back from Sri Lankan waters, India decided to airdrop food supplies. The Indian Air Force fighters escorted the transport aircraft.

During the SAARC summit in Bangalore in 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to persuade President Jayawardene that he should agree to give autonomy to the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka.

The outcome was the India-Sri Lanka agreement. India sent a peace keeping force to Sri Lanka (IPKF) to take over arms surrendered by the insurgent groups, the strongest being the one led by V. Prabhakaran, who headed the LTTE.

The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 29, 1987 envisaged an autonomous Tamil province within a united Sri Lankan State. India expected the LTTE to disarm its militants and the Sri Lankan Government was to take steps to establish an Interim Administrative Council for the northern and eastern parts of the country.

The Government of India also took a plane load of journalists to cover the handing over ceremony by the LTTE. We soon realized that the LTTE did not hand over any arms. There was an uneasy peace.

The Public Relations Officers who went to cover the activities of the IPKF and the correspondents of the All India Radio told me that the Tamils of Jaffna, Batticaloa and Trincomalee expected India to support them in their fight for a rightful share of power in Sri Lanka.

There was controversy over the composition of the Administrative Council as also the devolution of powers. Meanwhile, seventeen LTTE personnel who were travelling in a boat in Sri Lankan waters were arrested and kept at Palali. When Sri Lanka decided to take them from Palali in the north to Colombo for trial, the LTTE personnel committed suicide and violence erupted. Some IPKF units were also targeted by the LTTE

The IPKF had to take action against the LTTE.

The Tamil press in Sri Lanka became increasingly critical of the IPKF operations. Rajiv Gandhi directed the Information Ministry to devise special programmes over All India Radio and Doordarshan to explain to the people of Tamil Nadu the objectives of the India- Sri Lanka Accord and the need for IPKF operations. India also established a television transmitter in northern Sri Lanka to enable people there to have access to Doordarshan programmes.

By early 1989, the IPKF was successful in confining the LTTE to the countryside in the Vavunia jungles and would have been able to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to devolve powers to the Tamils in the north. But the political scene in Sri Lanka changed. In the elections held in December l988, Jayawardene was defeated and R. Premadasa was elected President.

President Premadasa asked for a review of the India Sri Lanka agreement. Simultaneously, he established links with the LTTE .He lifted the ban on the LTTE and invited them for discussions in Colombo.

In June 1989, President Premadasa asked for a complete withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka. In response, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi pointed out that while some elements of the IPKF had been withdrawn, the Sri Lankan Government had not implemented the assurances given under Indo Sri Lankan Agreement, especially the devolution of powers to the Provincial Councils, so that the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils could be met.

The scene in India also changed when Rajiv Gandhi lost elections in December 1989. The V P Singh Government, which succeeded, agreed to the withdrawal of the IPKF. The influence of the LTTE on the Tamil Nadu Government was such that contingents of the IPKF could not be ceremoniously received when they returned from Sri Lanka.

There was a distinct possibility that Rajiv Gandhi would head a Congress Government following the dissolution of short lived governments of V P Singh and Chandrashekar and the holding of national elections in 1991. In one of the interviews, Rajiv Gandhi stated that if he is re-elected, he would consider re-implementing the India Sri Lanka agreement. Was it the spark that made the LTTE send a suicide squad to Tamil Nadu?

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber Thanmozi Rajaratnam, alias Dhanu on May 21 l991.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi made it difficult for successive Govenments in India-the NDA or the UPA -- to ensure the implementation of the India-Sri Lanka Accord.

In Rajiv Gandhi's death, Sri Lankan Tamils lost a good friend. By I. Ramamohan Rao (ANI)

I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer. Govt. of India. He may be contacted at raoramamohan@hotmail.com

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