Amiable Nirupama visits a different Lanka
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama
Rao was visiting Colombo this week, and the
announcement was greeted with the typical
speculation that surfaces whenever an Indian
dignitary of high rank visits this country. ‘What is
the motive’, is the usual question.
That uneasiness is understandable. India, larger
than this island nation in size, population and
economic strength, has in recent times, been viewed
with suspicion in this country, and that is not
because of historical stories of the Ramayana
In the early ’70s, when two female
political heirs, Sirima Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka
and Indira Gandhi in India, ruled the two countries,
Indo-Lanka relations were at its best. The personal
chemistry between the two ladies, no doubt,
contributed greatly to this.
When J.R. Jayewardene assumed office in mid-1977,
Indira Gandhi too, had been ousted from power. The
two new elder statesmen, Jayewardene and Morarji
Desai continued the Indo-Lanka bond, but, by early
January 1980, Gandhi had returned to power,
signalling an about turn in bilateral relations.
Jayewardene’s patronising attitude towards Gandhi,
and his perception that she was first and foremost a
friend of his main rival Sirima Bandaranaike, no
doubt contributed, but the Indian Premier only
aggravated the issue by tacitly providing support
for Tamil militancy on Indian soil.
It was all downhill from then on in
Indo-Lanka relations. Nevertheless, Colombo could
not keep New Delhi out of the equation, and Indian
mediation on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue, personified
by the likes of Gopalaswamy Parathasarathy, Romesh
Bandhari and Jyotindra Nath Dixit, continued.
By 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had succeeded
his mother Indira, but little had changed in terms
of the Indian attitude towards Sri Lanka’s ethnic
question. To be fair by New Delhi, it had to always
weigh the Tamil Nadu factor, vis-à-vis its own
electoral politics, especially when shaky coalitions
were in government.
Perhaps the nadir of bilateral relations came when
India air-dropped ‘parippu’, when the Sri Lankan
military was poised to make significant gains in
their battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE). It was a signal to Colombo that New
Delhi’s intentions had to be respected.
Jayewardene buckled under this
pressure, called off the military offensive and
invited Rajiv Gandhi to Colombo, to sign a hastily
drafted Indo-Lanka Accord. Gandhi was nearly killed,
when he was assaulted by a naval rating at a guard
of honour, but the provincial councils thus
introduced, stand to this day.
Soon, under the terms of the Accord, Indian troops
were in the North and East. It was an uneasy time,
with an insurrection in the North and in the South.
Ranasinghe Premadasa’s advent to power saw the
Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) being virtually
frog marched back to India.
Since then, tensions between the two nations have
eased somewhat, despite the periodic escalation of
the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka. A not
insignificant factor for this was the assassination
of Rajiv Gandhi, on the orders of LTTE leader
That, set in the context of global
ire against terrorism in the wake of the 9/11
attacks in the United States, and India’s own
battles against terrorism, saw a paradigm shift in
New Delhi’s attitude towards the Sri Lankan
conflict. It may have supported the Tamil cause, but
it no longer supported terrorism or the LTTE.
The acid test came in the final Eelam War. It is now
no secret that Velupillai Prabhakaran was holed up
in the Nanthikadal lagoon- when he could have
escaped, to try and live to fight another day-
because he hoped that other countries, notably
India, would intervene and force a halt to the Sri
Lankan military offensive.
That did not happen, despite the
ruling Congress party being subjected to immense
pressure, because of elections in Tamil Nadu. For
this, due credit must be given to Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, as well his foreign policy advisors
and New Delhi’s representatives in Colombo.
Sri Lankans who waited with bated
breath for yet another ‘parippu’ invasion from
across the Palk Straits, are grateful that India
allowed it to prosecute the war against terror to a
finish. Thus, Foreign Secretary Rao’s visit does not
deserve a sinister interpretation or undue
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has succeeded in
establishing excellent relations with India at a
crucial hour, a task at which some of his more
astute predecessors failed. He has also publicly
expressed Sri Lanka’s gratitude to India for its
non-interference, as well as naval support in the
final Eelam War.
We expect Foreign Secretary Rao to
impress upon the Sri Lankan government the need to
evolve a political solution that meets the
aspirations of all communities in this country. But
New Delhi, no doubt, understands that such radical
change cannot be undertaken amidst the hurly burly
Yet, a gentle reminder from New Delhi is not
unwelcome. And Nirupama Rao will surely appreciate
that the Sri Lanka she visits now is quite different
from the uncertain, terror ridden country that she
left four years ago, to be New Delhi’s envoy in
Beijing. India can heave a sigh of relief because of
that. So can we.