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Another Book Review: An Absorbing Account of Indian Involvement in Sri Lanka

Paper No. 6670                     Dated 23-Aug-2020
By M. R. Sivaraman, IAS (Retd.)
(V. Suryanarayan and Ashik Bonofer, Haksar on India’s Sri Lanka Policy (Bookventure,, Chennai, 2020) (F 2, Surya Castle, 30, West Road, West C I T Road, Chennai600 035), pages 96. {Price Rs.200/-$ 4.99)
In reviewing this book one has to consider the immense scholarship of the authors in particular of Prof.Suryanarayan who has spent his lifetime in not only studying everything that has been happening In Sri Lanka but has also interacted with some of the principal actors in the drama of the epochal events that have shaped the country as it exists today and its love-hate relationship with India. In conclusion the book has a message “given the complexities of South Asia, where linguistic, religious, and ethnic identities cut across the border, we are faced with a unique problem. We cannot extricate foreign policy from the domestic politics of neighbouring countries. ………..Taking these factors into consideration India must fashion its neighbourhood policy”
The question that immediately comes to mind is that any such policy cannot be continuing but based on the governments and their policies that affect the minorities. The policy would also tend to get affected by which political party is in power in India. The second point the authors have made is the importance of taking into confidence the state governments which are contiguous to the neighbouring states. This would further complicate matters as different parties come to power in these states with their own ideas and outlook. Altogether neighbourhood foreign policy has to be dynamic, helpful to the needs of the neighbouring states and non- intrusive,  the focus being India’s own internal and security needs.
The authors have two heroes, Haksar former Advisor to Mrs Indira Gandhi and  Thomas Abraham who was India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka. They had a negative view on G. Parthasarathy who was appointed as a special envoy to Sri Lanka. The book does not bring out clearly why the duo did not like GP as he had not supported a separate Tamil Eelam but only delegation of more powers to the District Development Councils after a discussion with all relevant groups including the then President of Sri Lanka. Secondly, why was Haksar corresponding with Thomas Abraham on Sri Lankan matters when he had ceased to be the High Commissioner, perhaps both were on the same page that India should not interfere in what was a purely Sri Lankan problem.
Indira Gandhi driven by local Tamil Nadu pressure wanted to sail in two boats arming the militants to fight the Sri Lankan government and at the same time trying to broker a deal between the militant Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan Govt. It is not clear whether either of them made their views on Sri Lanka clear to Mrs Indira Gandhi. One can understand that Haksar could not do it as he had left the Government by then but Abraham was still in the MEA. The authors have quoted Haksar’s letter to Abraham of 2 Nov 1983 wherein he anguishes “As it is not my custom to speak unless spoken to, I keep whatever I might have to say strictly to myself or share it with you. It serves no useful purpose to be a
volunteer, more specially when one’s approach is so very different from those driving the chariot of the Indian State.”(page 33)The authors have rightly pointed out “ The confusion that India was supporting the cause of a separate State of Tamil  Eelam was the direct consequence of India’s mediatory -militant supportive policy.” (page 34) If this was the perception amongst the pro -Eelam lobby then probably one could fault  Thomas Abraham of not having conveyed their clear views to a Prime Minister who might have been seriously on a wrong track. .The authors have questioned Haksar’s thinking that GP being a Tamilian could not be expected by following an Indian Policy.
The background for the book may be the correspondence between Haksar and Abraham but the authors have pegged their narrative on the whole spectrum of  Indo Sri Lanka militancy intertwined issues in the context of horrendous crimes against the Tamils and equally the brutal killings in Sri Lanka orchestrated by the militant groups. The authors have questioned the wisdom of the Sirimavo  Bandaranayke  India Agreements on the exchange of people of Indian origin which the authors term it as converting people of Indian origin into  “ merchandise”.
At a subsequent time, one could perceive how immature was Rajiv Gandhi in sending Indian troops to Sri Lanka to fight the same Tamils they were trying to protect. The authors have pointed out how he was manipulated by the then President of Sri Lanka into doing that. It was indeed ironical that Premadasa who followed Jayewardene wanted the Indian troops to quit while he clandestinely armed the LTTE to fight the Indian troops.
If anyone wants to have lessons in foreign policy and also in dealing with militancy Sri Lanka provides a classic example of how matters can go out of control if contradictory objectives are pursued at the same time. In the case of Sri Lanka, it was one great mess as all the main actors were running around as they had no heads to think. This book brings out this situation in Sri Lanka of that period clearly.
Have the wounds healed between the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka and the Government and the majority there the answer can only be a distinct NO.
Perhaps the authors should attempt another book on the post-LTTE Sri Lanka and the crisis amongst the Tamil groups who can at best be described as headless chicken without a unified approach to what they want and how to go about it with the government assuring them that a separate homeland for the Tamils was not on their menu of discussions and will not be at any time.
(M R Sivaraman  IAS (Retd.) is former Revenue Secretary to the Government of India.)