Looking back at the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene sign the historic Indo-Sri Lanka accord in Colombo on July 29, 1987. File photo  

It is 23 years since the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was signed on July 29, 1987. The agreement is popularly referred to as the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord, after its architects — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayewardene.

Unfortunately, the event is today remembered only for its unpleasant fallout after India unwittingly got entangled in a counter-insurgency war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 1987 to 1990. After sacrificing the lives of over 1,200 of its soldiers, India felt cheated when President Ranasinghe Premadasa joined hands with the LTTE to send the Indian troops out of Sri Lanka before they had completed their job.

But India had an even worse experience after the troops were pulled out: in 1991, an LTTE suicide-bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi at the venue of a public meeting near Chennai. The killing, masterminded by LTTE chief V. Prabakaran, had more than a symbolic impact. It ended the popular support Tamil militants had enjoyed in Tamil Nadu. India scaled down its active involvement in Sri Lanka, and adopted a passive approach to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. Prabakaran's strategic blunder ultimately cost him his life: Sri Lanka, helped by India, crushed the LTTE in the fourth round of the war in 2009.

The Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord was perhaps too ambitious in its scope as it sought to collectively address all the three contentious issues between India and Sri Lanka: strategic interests, people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka and Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka. Its success depended on sustained political support from both the countries. So the Accord got sidelined when political leaders who were unhappy with the Accord came to power in both countries almost at the same time. As a result, the Tamil minorities, who had put their faith in it, were in limbo. These unsavoury developments have clouded the understanding of the positive aspects of the Accord. After all, it was the Accord that enabled Sri Lankan Tamils to gain recognition for some of their demands in Sri Lankan politics and in the Sri Lankan Constitution.

The Accord was unique as it marked a new beginning with respect to India's articulation of power, never exercised after India's war with Pakistan in 1971 that helped the birth of Bangladesh. India's Sri Lanka operation was more complex than the Bangladesh war on a few counts. The operation had to be carried out in an island-nation; this imposed severe strategic constraints. It was an unconventional war waged against a Tamil insurgent group with strong connections in Tamil Nadu. And, India's vague articulation of its military intervention in support of the Accord triggered an emotional backlash against it in both countries.

The focus of the Accord, signed in the waning years of the Cold War era, was undoubtedly strategic. It aimed to keep Americans from gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka. This was a departure from India's traditional policy that was fixated largely on two issues — the status of people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, and the Tamil minority's quest for democratic rights. India's new-found articulation of military power in Sri Lanka, though halting and probably unintentional, sent a strong message to its neighbours and global powers. This was further reinforced in 1989 when India sent a military contingent in response to a request from the government of Maldives — another island neighbour — and crushed an attempted coup there.

India's military intervention also demonstrated the country's readiness to fulfil its commitments to its neighbours. Significantly, it delineated India's strategic zone of influence in the Indian Ocean region. Since then, India has expanded its real-time naval capability. This was seen during the December 2004 tsunami strike: an Indian naval ship was at the scene on the Sri Lankan coast within a matter of hours to bring succour to the affected people.

India's strategic strength in this part of Indian Ocean is now recognised by the major powers. Perhaps this influenced the U.S. decision to build its strategic security relationship with India. India's keenness to find a lasting solution to Sri Lanka's Tamil issue was again demonstrated during the international peace process in Sri Lanka in 2002. Though India was not actively involved in it, the sponsor-nations, notably the U.S. and Norway, regularly sought India's counsel during the implementation phase. It is a pity that India failed to use its influence to ensure the success of the peace process.

India's military foray into Sri Lanka also proved to be a unique learning experience for the Indian armed forces in conducting operations across the seas. It brought home the nitty-gritty of joint operations command for smooth overseas operations. Carrying out counter-insurgency operations that had political ramifications both at home and abroad highlighted the limitations of New Delhi's decision-making process. The absence of a structure at the top to coordinate political and security decision-making did affect India's campaign. These lessons have greater relevance for India now as global and South Asian regional strategic security architectures change rapidly.

India had consistently affirmed its support for a unified Sri Lanka and opposition to the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. At the same time, India was sympathetic to the Tamil quest for equitable rights in Sri Lanka. Even the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord had its roots in India's effort to give form and substance to it. The strong sympathy of the people of Tamil Nadu for their brethren in Sri Lanka was an important factor in shaping India's policy on this issue. Sri Lanka had to reckon with this factor in its strategic calculus in its three military campaigns against the Tamil militant group.

However, India's benign Sri Lanka posture after its ill-fated military intervention and gory aftermath enabled Sri Lanka to build bridges with India. Wisely, India also did not allow the frictions of the intervening decades to come in the way and reciprocated Sri Lanka's efforts. Both countries have adopted a win-win strategy to build upon the positives of their relationship. These efforts culminated in the signing of India's first-ever free trade agreement with Sri Lanka in 2000. As a result, India-Sri Lanka relations now have a unique status in South Asia.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President in 2005; his campaign focus was on defeating the LTTE and crushing Tamil separatism. The advantages of close relations with India came in handy when he decided to clip the LTTE's wings after the peace process of 2002 failed to make progress even in three years. Though India was not a significant arms-supplier during Eelam War 2006, it had helped train the Sri Lankan armed forces and provided valuable intelligence inputs on the LTTE's intricate international logistic and support network. Sri Lanka managed to dismantle this apparatus and crippled the Tigers, paving the way for their defeat. More than all this, the governments in New Delhi and Chennai together managed the tricky fallout of the Eelam war in Tamil Nadu and saw to it that things did not get out of hand. This thwarted the efforts of the pro-LTTE parties and supporters in Tamil Nadu to create a pro-Tiger upsurge.

As a result, the LTTE could neither use Tamil Nadu as a logistic and support base nor influence India's political decisions during the war. India's own bitter experience with the LTTE probably shaped its public posture during Sri Lanka's war. At the same time, perhaps India realised that it would be untenable to allow the LTTE, which had grown into one of the world's strongest insurgent groups, to operate as a loose cannon in its strategic neighbourhood. This was perhaps one of the reasons for India's hands-off attitude as the Sri Lankan Army relentlessly pursued and ultimately crushed the LTTE.

Unfortunately, India was unable to significantly influence the Sri Lankan government in the aftermath of war. Even a year after the war ended, a political solution to meet the Tamil minority's demands has not been evolved. Normal life has not been restored to a sizeable population affected by the war in the Northern Province. They are yet to recover from the trauma of war as the pace of reconstruction is not consistent with their colossal needs.

It is people, not treaties, which make relations between nations meaningful. Unless India makes a difference in the lives of the people of both countries, its relations with Sri Lanka will not address the broader aspects of strategic security. This is the important takeaway as we look at the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord after over two decades.

(Colonel (retired) R. Hariharan, a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)

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