Prabhakaran’s uncompromising stand on Tamil Eelam co-existed with a willingness to use any means
A festering ethnic problem, a seemingly endless armed conflict, diplomatic machinations driven solely by contemporary concerns with little regard for long-term effects, an ill-thought-out military intervention foredoomed to failure, subverted agreements, a difficult peace process, a senseless, no-holds barred war and a brutal denouement that left thousands of civilians dead and the original question unresolved. Much of this summary of Sri Lanka’s recent history is known, especially the events concerning the six-year peace process, and the way in which it unravelled and led to a bloody climax over a year and a half.
Veteran journalist and Sri Lanka watcher S. Murari’s book is one more addition — and a very useful one at that — to the growing body of literature concerning the conflict, and its biggest virtue is that it does not weigh heavily on the reader by claiming to offer a complex analysis or a polemical re-reading of recent events. Rather, it aspires to an objective narration of all the major events that had a bearing on the political and military course of the conflict and succeeds immensely in that aim. In the course of narration, one gets to know the principal actors, their actions and opinions, the reasons why they acted in a particular way. The course that events took comes across so lucidly that without any elaborate discursive foray into any particular aspect, the reader gains a clear insight into what happened and why.
The author’s familiarity with the subject — a familiarity acquired by innumerable visits to Sri Lanka, including its war zone, over more than two decades — will help the lay reader, who may have only a casual acquaintance with the political history of the conflict, understand the way it played out over the last three decades.
In particular, many who take positions on the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 and the presence of Indian peace-keepers up to 1990 may not have fully grasped the political and strategic dynamics that decided the course of events between the ethnic riots of 1983 and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers in 1991. It is doubtful that anyone would be unclear about this phase of the conflict after going through Murari’s account. It is rich in detail, insightful in narration and covers the period from all angles – the politics of southern Sri Lanka, the rapidity with which India and the main Tamil militant group fell out, the reverberations in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi’s dilemma over how far it could lean on Sri Lanka to find a solution based on devolution of powers without impairing the country’s unity.
Another phase that finds detailed presentation in the book involves failed attempts, especially by Chandrika Kumaratunga during her first term as President, to put together a set of constitutional proposals that will address Tamil aspirations.
The peace talks of 2002-03 under Ranil Wickremesinghe marked a watershed as it sought to bind the LTTE to a long-term, internationally backed framework of negotiations, and the author terms as a missed opportunity the failure of the government to make the Tamil Tigers stay the course after the organisation put down its vision of an interim administration in writing for the first time.
This is no biographical account of Velupillai Prabhakaran, as the title suggests but a narrative of events that dominated the quarter century spanning the period from India’s covert and overt intervention in the early 1980s in Sri Lanka up to the brutal denouement in 2009 that brought an end to the military dimension to the ethnic problem with the protagonist’s death.
Prabhakaran’s uncompromising stand on a separate ‘Tamil Eelam’ coexisted with a willingness to use any means, including what ultimately turned out to be a series of blunders.
Standing out among them is not only the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, through which he lost the goodwill of India and of much of the international community, but also the cynical manner in which the LTTE helped the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president in 2005.
There is not much in the book about the other great historical blunder of Prabhakaran – the hostility towards Muslims that stretched to expelling the entire Muslim population from Jaffna in 1990 and a couple of massacres around the same time in the east.
Another area that the book could have explored in greater detail is the role of the international community, especially the Norwegian facilitators and the team of Nordic monitors.
THE PRABHAKARAN SAGA — The Rise and Fall of an Eelam Warrior: S. Murari; Sage Publications, B1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 425.