The author of the book, Lakhan Mehrotra, who was posted as India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka from April 1989 to June 1990, provides some stimulating insights into the complexities of India-Sri Lanka relations. In fact, during his tenure as India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ambassador Mehrotra found the country bitterly torn by the conflict between its Sinhala majority and sizeable Tamil minority. The 254-page book, which contains 23 chapters, touches on the ancient beginnings of that conflict, briefly follows on its evolution during the last century until it reached its peak in the 1980s, and then takes us in detail through the author’s own experiences there for nearly two year after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement was signed and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had been inducted. LTTE was fighting the IPKF tooth and nail instead of surrendering arms while President Premadasa considered the presence of an Indian military contingent on his nation’s soil as an affront to its sovereignty, issued ultimatums for it to quit, threatened military action against it if it did not by July 29, 1989, and brought the two nations to the brink of a military disaster. Keeping all this perspectives coherently, 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, the writer is at his best when he discusses India-Sri Lanka relations against the historical backdrop. In one chapter, the book 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 VP Singh became Prime Minister. It was suggested that Karunanidhi be prevailed upon, first, to exercise his influence over the LTTE. But LTTE breached the faith–for peace so eagerly sought was an illusion.
The author describes in detail the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and Sri Lanka’s invitation to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to assist the government. He rightly states that the problem that arose over the effective functioning of the IPKF was due to Premadasa’s opposition to the Accord. President Premadasa made a dramatic announcement on June 1, 1989, stating that within a day or two he would request Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to withdraw IPKF by July end. The book dealt with great incisive and insightful details. The President was aware that the national sentiments at that time generally was with him. High Commissioner’s intensive consultations with the political wizards of Sri Lanka, the warring factions in the country’s Northeast, and the governments in New Delhi and Colombo from their highest level down helped bring the two sides to the negotiating table with the signing of the July 28, Joint Communique. After protracted negotiations between the two governments, IPKF’s phased deinduction was completed in March 1990 with due recognition on Sri Lanka’s part of its sacrifices to preserve the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. It is history that has never been told before.
By Ashok Kumar