Lakhan Mehrotra, who served as India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka from April 1989 to June 1990, provides some refreshing insights into the complexities of India-Sri Lanka relations. Though brief, his stint in Colombo coincided with a turbulent phase in bilateral ties. The India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) had become a source of discord; the Tigers had found convergence of interests and were negotiating with Colombo; and President Premadasa, never happy with the ISLA, had given New Delhi an ultimatum to withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) by July 1989. Displaying commendable diplomatic acumen, Mehrotra retrieved the situation, got the deadline extended, and saw to it that the last of the IPKF soldiers pulled back before March 31,1990.
The book offers a succinct account of the origins of the ethnic conflict, the Indian involvement in the island's domestic politics, and the perceptions of main actors — Premadasa, J.R. Jayewardene, Gamini Dissanayake, Sirimvao Bandaranaike, Ranjan Wijeratne, Varadharaja Perumal and a host of others. The narrative stands embellished by the lucidity of the author's writing.
Being a student of history, Mehrotra is at his best when he discusses India-Sri Lanka relations against the historical backdrop. For my part, I would describe the dominant characteristic of the ties as, for want of a better term, one of ‘love-hate'. Every aspect of Sri Lanka and its people — demography, polity, religion, language, culture, and so on — bears the Indian imprint. In the course of a visit in 1927, Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Island as India's “daughter state”. However, the asymmetrical equation between the two made the Sinhalese deeply suspicious of India.
The author gives two instances to drive home this point. In April 1971, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, faced with an armed revolt by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), sought external assistance to quell it. And the first to respond was India. The Indian Air Force planes provided security to the Colombo airport, while the Indian Navy shielded the harbour. Contrast this with Colombo's conduct six months later, when the erstwhile East Pakistan was on the boil. It provided transit facilities for the Pakistan Air Force aircraft to carry soldiers and weapons to Dhaka, whereas New Delhi disallowed overflights by Pakistani planes from the west to the east.
Tamil Nadu factor
In more recent times, the induction of the IPKF, on the invitation of President Jayewardene, enabled the Sri Lankan armed forces to withdraw from the north and the east and concentrate on tackling the JVP revolt in the south. In the normal course, this gesture should have earned for India the gratitude of the Sinhalese. But, on the contrary, it was held out as an example of India's hegemonistic designs.
Mehrotra offers an interesting perspective to the Tamil Nadu factor in the ethnic conflict. In the eyes of the Sinhalese leaders, Tamil Nadu is the main villain in the Sri Lankan drama. They believed that, apart from providing sanctuary and support, the State fuelled the war machine. Given this context, Colombo's suggestion that the good offices of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, M. Karunanidhi, be availed of to defuse the situation came as a surprise.
The idea was put forth by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister who visited New Delhi soon after V.P. Singh became Prime Minister. It was suggested that Karunanidhi be prevailed upon, first, to exercise his influence over the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) supremo Prabakaran and get him to stop killing other Tamil groups, and, secondly, to persuade Varadharaja Perumal to dissolve the Provincial Council and hold fresh elections in which the Tigers could participate.
Karunanidhi tried, but in vain. Neither the Tigers nor Perumal would budge from their entrenched positions. Soon after the withdrawal of the IPKF, the differences between Colombo and the Tigers came out into the open and the Second Eelam War commenced. More tragically, Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne became victims to the cult of ‘suicide terrorism'.
Sadly, there are some factual mistakes in the book which could have been avoided with a little more care. To cite a few: The adviser to Karunanidhi was the IAS officer ‘Guhan', not ‘Devan'; the legislation to give citizenship to the stateless people of Indian origin was adopted in 1986, not in 1984; and the name of the political outfit of Indian Tamils was ‘Ceylon Workers Congress', not ‘Tamil National Congress'.