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Sidelights on making of India-Sri Lanka Accord 1987: Book Review*

Paper No. 6666     Dated 19-Aug-2020

By Col R Hariharan

*[Haksar on India’s Sri Lanka Policy, authors: Prof V Suryanarayanan and Dr Ashik J Bonofer, 2020, Published by Centre for Asia Studies and Book Venture, Chennai-600035, India. Price: Rs 200]

Professor V Suryanarayanan, one of the country’s leading specialists on South and Southeast Asian studies, along with Dr Ashik Bonofer co-author, has done a signal service by writing the book “Haksar on India’s Sri Lanka Policy”.  Professor Suryanarayanan acknowledges, Sri Lanka is not the major focus of the book, as PN Haksar (1913-1998), one of the leading strategic thinkers of his times, was not associated with India’s Sri Lanka policy; it was in the domain of G Parthasarathy, diplomatic stalwart and contemporary of Haksar.

Prof Suryanarayan quotes from Jairam Ramesh’s book “Intertwined lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi,” ‘Haksar contributed heavily to the making of Indira Gandhi, especially in the first six or seven years of her Prime Ministership…They formed an awesome duo: she with her charismatic appeal, he with intellectual gravitas. Ultimately, she took all the decisions no doubt, but she was heavily influenced by him at every turn.’ The authors draw heavily upon Jairam Ramesh’s book to identify how PN Haksar viewed India’s role in Sri Lanka. Moreover, they have used Professor’s contacts with a large number of policy makers, diplomats, political leaders, academics and analysts of India and Sri Lanka, to provide valuable insights into how India’s Sri Lanka policy was shaped, culminating in the India-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 and its aftermath.

There are many vignettes of information in the book on the main players who shaped India’s Sri Lanka policy. The summing up of India’s Sri Lanka policy during Indira-GP years in page 37 is interesting. “India was determined not to permit a military solution of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. This was adhered to by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. The mediatory-militant supportive policy was based on this assumption.” In hindsight we can say how the self-contradictory policy of mediation on one hand and supporting militants on the other, hardened the stakeholders in evolving a solution. Probably, political expedience of the aftershocks of JR Jayawardane’s misconceived July 1983 pogrom strategy that probably influenced Rajiv Gandhi. Of course, it is debatable. Equally important is the disastrous impact of the Accord that led to India’s passive role in Sri Lanka after its bitter experience in “active” phase of the Accord and the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. They made Tamil militants persona non grata in India. Its direct result was India’s passive support to the elimination of LTTE in Eelam war 2009, removing an external influence affecting India-Sri Lanka relationship.

On both sides of the Palk Strait, the Accord is one of the most maligned bilateral instruments signed between India and Sri Lanka. Even, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) sent to ensure the implementation of the Accord, with a half-baked and back-dated mandate, courted its share of ignominy, even after losing over 1300 soldiers in operations against the LTTE, which no one wanted. Many of us who took part in it are living through its effects to this day, the fall out of skewed policy implementation of those days. 

Many of critics with the benefit of hindsight, say the Accord was conceived in haste, drafted badly and executed poorly. While these comments may have germs of truth, we need to understand the external and internal environment of the time, in which it was conceived. India’s internal political scene was churned up with the passing away of Mrs Indira Gandhi, and the regional security scene was affected by the death throes of Soviet Union, fast losing the Cold War. 

But in 2020, time has come for even the Accord’s worst detractors, including Tamil and Sinhala fringe elements, to recognise its good points. It led to the introduction of the 13th amendment to Sri Lanka Constitution. The Amendment created provincial councils to provide a level of autonomy to Tamils. The Accord also made Sri Lanka recognise Tamil language, identity, culture and areas of habitation.

When the 13th Amendment - the fig leaf of Tamil aspirations - is running the risk of withering away, many Sri Lanka Tamils want India to take action to force Sri Lanka to fulfil Tamil aspirations, by resolving what they call the national question. They seem to miss the semantics of the Sinhala majority who call it the minority ethnic question. The semantic difference is in reality a strident call of the majority for a unitary state; the reality is now Sri Lankan Tamils have to help themselves, before asking India to help them out. They have to come together, evolve a viable strategy relevant to the current political and strategic situation and then seek India’s support in persuading Sri Lanka to deal with the attention it deserves.   

To sum up, after the Rajapaksas have gained two thirds majority in parliament in the recently held general election, Sri Lanka Tamils are facing the bleak prospect of losing even the limited autonomy they gained after the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in 1987. After losing two generations of people in 25 years of fruitless bloody war for realising their dream of independence, Tamils are facing the real world of majority rule.

For them, the book under review provides a useful understanding of the background to the making of Sri Lanka policy in India. They need to understand the complexities of foreign policy making and factor it in their strategy.  

Col R Hariharan, MI specialist on South Asia and insurgency and terrorism, served as head of MI of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-90). Email: Website:

From Director:  The book gives perhaps the most authentic account of what happened in Sri Lanka and the circumstances that led to Indian involvement.