Thomas Abraham: India’s envoy who spoke for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

Thomas Abraham.

Thomas Abraham.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

He was a true well-wisher of the island nation, respecting its geopolitical integrity.

Even as The Hindu was printing Meera Srinivasan’s dispatch from Colombo about Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe handing over ‘India-built’ houses to 400 tea plantation worker families of Tamil origin in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, life ebbed out of the architect of India’s ameliorative attention to that segment of Sri Lanka’s population.

Veteran diplomat Thomas Abraham, who died at age 91 on August 12, 2018 in his ancestral home in the sea-board village of Kadapra, Kerala, was India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka from 1978 to 1982.

Nehruvian diplomat

He was a quintessentially Nehruvian diplomat, having joined the Indian Foreign Service in the golden dawn of our first Prime Minister’s first innings, and representing Morarji Desai’s post-Emergency government gave him little pleasure, personal or professional. “Delhi does not understand the south of India,” he often bemoaned to some us working under him in his Colombo office or (as in my case) in its outpost among the plantation workers in the hill-town of Kandy. “Delhi sees no difference,” he would say, “between the Jaffna Tamil whose ancestors came here over a millennium ago bearing arms and the plantation Tamil whose forbears came just over a century ago, bearing an indentured labourer’s ticket.” And he would then remind us of Nehru’s famous statement, when told of Colombo’s ideas for the Tamil labourers’ repatriation: “These people are or should be citizens of Ceylon.” A five-year stay is enough for an Indian to apply for permanent absorption in any European country, he said, “But look at these plantation workers… They have been here for more than a century, toiling and moiling for Ceylon, helping it earn precious foreign exchange through tea exports and now they are to be sent back to India, to a country where they have no roots left, no land, no work… Sent back, virtually, to destitution, for no fault of theirs except for being were lured by the prospect of a better wage. Atrocious!”

Till Nehru lived, Abraham maintained, no one could pressure him to accept their repatriation, “but once he was gone, India capitulated. (Lal Bahadur) Shastri could not say ‘No’ to Sirimavo and signed the Indo-Ceylon Agreement in 1964 for repatriation.” Lamenting Delhi’s north-centrism Abraham would say “Thank God, South Block has this good luck: a sound south Indian, Eric Gonsalves, in charge of its Sri Lanka policy”.

Diplomats can have their opinions and interpretations of history but as diplomats they have to implement policy and Thomas Abraham did that, impeccably. The agreement on repatriation was a fact and he, like his predecessors, did all he could do carry it out in letter and spirit but with a nuance: “ Every Tamil family being repatriated under the agreement must get its full due in terms of gratuities, provident funds, wage arrears and until they have got those, they will not budge… And they will, as prospective Indian citizens of India, countenance no harassment , no humiliation… They have the rights of any Indian passport holder and we will protect those rights.” In co-extensive time, he told Delhi and Madras that the rehabilitation of the repatriates was not to be left “to the tender mercies of cash-grabbers and middlemen in Dhanushkodi or Rameshwaram but should be monitored closely by the authorities.”

Colombo heard him

On more than one occasion, when ethnic riots broke out in the hill region, India’s plenipotentiary came into his own. He said to Colombo unequivocally that prospective Indian citizens and some who had already become Indian citizens in the highlands cannot be menaced. And Colombo heard him, with President Jayewardene personally reassuring him that nothing untoward would be allowed to happen. And though he made no secret of his historical interpretation of the Shastri-Sirimavo pact, the Grand Old Lady and he enjoyed the most cordial of relations.

Thomas Abraham: India’s envoy who spoke for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

Why and how did Colombo respond so positively to Abraham? For this reason that Colombo also knew that in him, India-Sri Lanka relations had a true friend, Sri Lanka itself a true well-wisher and one who believed with all his mind and heart in India’s declared policy, that Sri Lanka’s geo-political integrity was sacrosanct. He said in Jaffna, on a visit to the island’s Tamil hinterland, that India was and always will be sensitive to the aspirations of its Tamils but only within the island’s indivisibility. Saying this in Jaffna, right beside the Nallur Temple, was no small matter.

Soft-spokenness in a diplomat is about manner. Frankness in a diplomat is about substance.

Two outstanding future Foreign Secretaries of India worked under, and could be said to have been, in less or more degree, moulded by Abraham in Colombo at the time – Ranjan Mathai and Nirupama Rao, who has described him as “one of our wisest and most principled diplomats”.

History buff

Abraham’s strong style came from having been born to a family of Syrian Christians that had been at the forefront of the national movement. The Madurai-based nationalist George Joseph (1887-1938), a close friend and colleague of K. Kamaraj was his uncle and a great influence. Abraham spent formative time with Joseph in and around Madurai, Tamil becoming virtually his alternate mother tongue.

Generating trust was a corollary of his outspoken-ness, as with Kamaraj in India and Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew when Abraham headed India’s mission there. Lee refers to his conversations with Abraham in his The Singapore Story and Sunanda K. Datta-Ray gives more than a clue about it in his Looking East to Look West. One of Abraham’s closest friends was P.N. Haksar, from much before PNH became all-important in the earlier phase of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership. Jairam Ramesh gives crucial vignettes of this relationship in his just-published biography of PNH. Through PNH, Mrs. Gandhi sounded Abraham for responsibilities post-retirement, including (predictably) governorships, all of which Abraham declined. “One has to put a stop to office-holding, I say,” he replied when I (predictably) asked him why he said no.

History fascinated Abraham, South and Southeast Asia’s particularly. China was an attraction, the writer Han Suyin becoming a close friend during his ambassadorship in Berne. This was due in no small part to his being married to the extraordinary and extraordinarily under-stated historian, Meera Abraham. He was a friend of the historian Sarvepalli Gopal, with whom he shared also a an instinctive commitment to Nehruvian secularism. “I have lost all hope,” he said to me in a recent phone call, “about India’s future as a secular Republic.” And then asked the uncomfortable question, “ Do you see any hope?” I said we cannot lose hope and pointed to recent indications of democratic consolidation. “I don’t know… I hope you are right… People like me and my community… the minorities… those who feel religion is one’s own private business and the Indian state should have nothing to do with it… We are completely demoralised… I see no hope… Anyway I will not live to see a return to the Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar ideal… Okay now… I am tired and must turn in.”

RIP, Ayya.

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Printable version | Jul 4, 2020 7:15:22 AM |

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