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Take care, Rajiv Gandhi told Prabhakaran. Even gave bulletproof vest before Sri Lanka Accord

Prabhakaran entered the accord thinking it would get him Eelam. Jayawardene hoped it would end violence in Lanka. And Rajiv Gandhi had good intentions for the Tamils.

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Colombo was under curfew. Riots had broken out. Spirals of smoke bellowed out of buildings. It was 29 July 1987, and it was clear that Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was not welcome.

The visit was tense: Rajiv had arrived on a two-day trip to sign the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord.

The Indian Prime Minister exhibited “gravitas” and “thoughtful sobriety.” But Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene was reluctant and stressed, and his Prime Minister R. Premadasa was boycotting the accord’s signing. All this while Prabhakaran, the fearsome LTTE leader, was confined to Room 518 at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi — where he allegedly racked up a phone bill running into thousands of rupees making frantic calls.

Only one person seemed happy. As Rajiv and Jayawardene sat talking before lunch, the American Ambassador approached them with a signed fax message congratulating India on the accord — from President Ronald Reagan.

Rajiv was taken aback. The accord was drafted in secret by a team so exclusive that even the PM’s closest aide, Mani Shankar Aiyar, didn’t make the list. Jayawardene had been keeping the Americans informed. 

It was the first of several surprises for Rajiv during a frosty State visit. The second surprise came an hour later, when Jayawardene begged the Indian PM to deploy India’s military in Sri Lanka before the accord was formally signed. 

The Indian delegation dealt with the last surprise just as they were leaving Colombo, during the closing guard of honour. Rajiv Gandhi was hit by a Sri Lankan naval soldier who brought the barrel of his gun down on his shoulder with a loud thwack, narrowly missing breaking his neck. His black and blue bruises took months to heal.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint


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Dramatis personae

It was almost as if Rajiv Gandhi wanted to turn back time and reverse what he perceived to be his mother’s misadventures. The first few years of his premiership was a season of accords: he signed the Longowal Accord with the Akali leader Harchand Singh Longowal and the Assam Accord in 1985, and the Mizo Accord in 1986. 

Next, he wanted to resolve India’s legacy with Sri Lanka.

From the middle of 1986, Rajiv Gandhi had a ‘core group’ to address Sri Lanka — a bunch of advisors who had a ‘genuine desire’ to facilitate a compromise between the Tamil groups and the Sinhalese Sri Lankan government. This desire culminated in the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord. 

The backdrop to the accord is the politics of Tamil Eelam. More immediately, the accord aimed to address two sore points for the Indian and Sri Lankan governments respectively: the Sri Lankan government had been conducting military operations against Tamil militants between January and June 1987 — with Operation Liberation marking its peak in May 1987 — and the Indian government air-dropping supplies to the Tamils during Operation Poomalai in June 1987. 

A final draft, with amendments and annexures approved by both India and Sri Lanka, was ready by 22 July 1987.

None of the members of the group — from minister Natwar Singh to joint secretary Ronen Sen — doubted Rajiv Gandhi’s good intentions. Neither did President Jayawardene.

The ones who did doubt the Indian PM were Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali, the Lankan National Security Minister at the time, were open to India’s diplomatic intervention but fully opposed any Indian military presence. By January 1987, Athulathmudali had launched a military operation against the Tamil militant groups, bringing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to its knees. The offence continued until Indian intervention in June 1987. The same year, Premadasa also snubbed Rajiv Gandhi at the Commonwealth Summit at Harare, reneging on a promise to not badmouth India before the press. 

By the end of 1986, Prabhakaran too was disillusioned with India. While he claimed to love India — and worship former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — he was disappointed by Indian intelligence, who he held responsible for certain LTTE losses.

“This is a quarrel between a mother and a child,” he had reportedly said to then-First Secretary and now BJP minister Hardeep Singh Puri in early July 1987. “It is not possible for the LTTE to exist without India and your prime minister Mrs Gandhi helped us. She made us what we are.”

The success of the accord depended on Prabhakaran’s cooperation, and Rajiv Gandhi wanted him involved. His advisors — including P.V. Narasimha Rao — thought the accord should be signed between the LTTE and the Sri Lankans, and guaranteed by India. But Prabhakaran was suspicious of the Lankan government and did not want the Tigers to be a signatory to the accord. 

Prabhakaran told Puri he would be willing to visit India to discuss the accord, but changed his mind several times. Ultimately, he gave in, and was flown into New Delhi by the Indian government on 24 July, accompanied by Puri. He was reportedly so nervous about the accord that he was vomiting on the flight.

Prabhkaran’s initial objections to the accord — mainly, the referendum and the temporary merging of the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka — were assuaged in Delhi by no less than Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MGR and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, among others.

Ronen Sen, who was present for several of these meetings, told ThePrint that Prabhakaran was ‘emotional’ in asserting that he was a man of honour when he gave his full approval on 28 July. 

Other accounts say Prabhakaran felt pressured into accepting the accord. “I feel like committing suicide!” he reportedly said to an Indian Tamil MP, V Gopalasamy. “We have been betrayed by the government of India, by Rajiv Gandhi. I have been stabbed in the back.” 

Armed with the LTTE’s consent — and with Prabhakaran safely kept away from trouble— the Indian delegation flew to Colombo on 29 July 1987.

Prabhakaran entered the accord thinking it would get him Eelam. Jayawardene entered it hoping it would end the violence in Sri Lanka’s north and east. And Rajiv Gandhi entered it with good intentions for the Tamils.

All of them would be disappointed.

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The operation before the accord

India had largely stayed out of direct involvement in domestic Sri Lankan politics until June 1987 — the bulk of its role was within Indian borders, and included the funding and training of the LTTE.

Things changed on the night of 3 June 1987.

Natwar Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, was summoned at 11pm for a meeting at the Prime Minister’s house. He reached at midnight, where Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Sri Lanka core group’ was already assembled.

“What’s happening, Prime Minister?” he asked Rajiv, who was seated next to him. “We’re dropping food stuffs to Jaffna,” came the reply.

India was preparing to step in and send food to Tamil populations, alleging starvation. Earlier that day, the government had sent fishing boats with 38 tonnes of food. Now, the government was preparing to call in the Indian Air Force. 

“Have you informed Sri Lanka?” asked a shocked Singh. The response was no, and the PM’s advisors began to discuss if they should inform the Sri Lankan government. 

Operation Poomalai (Floral garland), as the airdrop came to be known, was happening — whether the diplomats liked it or not. Rajiv Gandhi said the Indian Air Force would take off the next afternoon, at 2pm on 4 June. Singh checked his watch. It was already 2am.

Another version of events — J.N. Dixit’s book Assignment Colombo — says Singh was aware that the airdrop would be taking place by 9pm on 3 June, and that he would call to inform Dixit, the High Commissioner in Colombo, about the exact time of the airdrop.

Sure enough, Singh called Dixit at 4am on 4 June, and estimated the airdrop to take place between 3pm and 5pm. Dixit went to inform the Sri Lankan foreign minister the next morning.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Singh summoned the Sri Lankan High Commissioner Bernard Tilakeratne on the morning of 4 June to inform him of Rajiv Gandhi’s plan. Tilakeratne didn’t have the time to inform President Jayawardene properly: Singh let him call the President from his own office. Jayawardene ‘let him have it,’ according to Singh. The Sri Lankans only had a 35-minute notice. 

Operation Poomalai was also indicative of the confused, often conflicted decisions taken by Rajiv Gandhi’s core Sri Lanka group.                                 

The story is so complicated that everyone remembers different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Thirty-five years later, piecing it together doesn’t fully reveal a clear picture. There are just too many gaps in the memories of retired bureaucrats, politicians and military persons.

The only thing they seem to agree on is that Rajiv Gandhi was let down by the promise of legacy — a legacy he later paid for with his life.

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The Indian confusion

While the year 1987 was crucial to Indo-Sri Lankan relations, a back-channel to address the growing ethnic conflict through diplomats and the Research and Analysis Wing had been open since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s time.

“Far too many agencies were dealing with Sri Lanka,” said Natwar Singh. And they were working in silos.

Several members of these different Indian agencies, however, appeared to agree on one thing —that the intervention was flawed.

“Officials of the IB, R&AW and the Q branch of the Tamil Nadu police, who had worked closely with the militant groups, particularly the LTTE, resented the accord because it was worked out by the Indian MEA and the PMO…Until the last moment, the Indian intelligence agencies, which intimately knew the behaviour, the characters and features of these groups sitting in New Delhi, were not consulted; the intelligence people knew that the accord would be a flop,” wrote Rohan Gunaratna in his 1993 book Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka. Gunaratna is a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and was previously a research assistant to Jayawardene.

President Jayawardene had very little support for the agreement. His son even made a last-ditch attempt to reopen the agreement’s clauses days before it was to be signed. 

The President asked once again on 27 July if the signing could be postponed. But the risk of backing out of the agreement was high: it would mean Indian support for Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE, and a serious threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

There was never any expectation that India would undertake a large-scale military intervention. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) might have gone on to become the emblem of the accord, but it was never its essence. 

“The despatch of Indian forces to Sri Lankan resulted from compelling political circumstances in Sri Lanka and the fact should be clearly on record that Indian armed forces did not go into a small neighbouring country with aggressive or acquisitive motivations,” writes J.N. Dixit. “The initiative which took them to a difficult, complex and thankless task came entirely from the Sri Lankan Government led by President Jayawardene.”

“Lots of things went wrong,” said journalist M.R. Narayan Swamy, who wrote the book Tigers of Lanka, and a biography of Prabhakaran, Inside an Elusive Mind. “Everyone was a frog in the well. It’s easy to blame other agencies, but the situation was so complicated. Anyone who categorically gives a reason for what went wrong is either a divine being or a liar.” 

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The signing of the accord 

High tea on the lawns of the Sri Lanka President’ house the day the accord was signed was a frosty affair.

There were many empty seats at the reception — including former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s, who wrote a terse letter to Rajiv Gandhi explaining her absence, according to Dixit’s book Assignment Colombo.

Rajiv Gandhi reportedly noted that Bandaranaike had not hesitated to ask former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for military intervention in the ’70s to counteract violence by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Sri Lanka’s Left-wing party. 

By the time the accord was supposed to be signed at 3:30pm, protests had deteriorated into riots across Colombo. Right after lunch, Jayawardene sent word to Rajiv Gandhi through J.N. Dixit that he wanted Indian military help.

Gandhi responded immediately: he would need Jayawardene’s request in writing, and he could fulfill it only after the accord was signed. They met at 3 pm, and Gandhi told Jayawardene that the IPKF was being sent on special request.

Ninety minutes later, he had given instructions for the despatch of Indian Army units. By dinner time, Indian troops were in the air, hurtling towards Jaffna.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

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The Tamil Tigers react 

In Jaffna, the signing of the Peace Accord was met with widespread Tamil celebration. The IPKF was welcomed with garlands, frenzied hugs and kisses, with Tamils cheering on the soldiers.

The complete opposite was unfolding in Colombo. Thirty-eight people died in violent protests, $140 million were lost in damages, and the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party branded the agreement a ‘betrayal’. 

The Tamils’ euphoria, however, was short lived. When Prabhakaran returned to the island nation on 2 August, he had told Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, the mission’s overall commander, that he would personally hand over his heaviest machine gun. The speech he made two days later before a massive audience, including IPKF officers and Sri Lankan diplomats, seemed like a hardening of his pro-India stance.

Everybody bought it. Krishnaswamy Sundarji, the Chief of Army Staff, allegedly said during one of the core group meetings that he would “conquer Sri Lanka in three weeks”. But the IPKF did no conquering: instead, it was mired in a years-long war it was not prepared for.

The IPKF was told by LTTE-sympathetic Tamil group EROS that a “war was pending” — the Tigers were getting weapons by sea and procuring food and polythene supplies behind its back. On the other hand, rival groups – TELO, EPRLF, PLOT, ENDLF – saw the signing of the accord as an opportunity to grow stronger because the LTTE had agreed to lay down their arms.

The stage for a showdown was set by October 1987, according to journalist Narayan Swamy’s Tigers of Lanka. The LTTE was fighting with its Tamil rivals; Jayawardene revoked amnesty given to the LTTE; the Tigers recanted their surrender of arms; the Indian media demanded that the Tigers be brought to heel “at any cost”; the Lankans didn’t want the IKPF, and the war intensified.

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Tigers turn their tails

Over the next few months, Prabhakaran went back on his word and turned against the Indians. The Tigers were now fighting the IPKF for Eelam.

The LTTE also began to dominate the dissemination of news from the region, leading to a skewed understanding of the IPKF’s role in the region. Tamilians in India were influenced by the LTTE’s version of events. G. Parthasarthy, who at the time was the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, took it upon himself to turn the media commentary around.

He had two aircraft carry journalists from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna to see the situation under escort, held daily press briefings, and even moved a television tower so that reporters in Jaffna could access Doordarshan.

Meanwhile, Prabhakaran was telling confidantes that he had no faith in the accord and would push IPKF further into quicksand. To an Indian journalist, he said he would be “play politics” to provoke the IPKF to attack Sri Lankan Tamil civilians.

“I will tank the accord,” Prabhakaran told an Indian reporter, according to Tigers of Lanka. “And I will do it in such a way that they won’t know I’m tightening the screws.” 

When the news reached J.N. Dixit in Colombo, the pipe-smoking diplomat said, “Tell him, India is ready.”

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Trials and tribulations in Tamil Nadu

Sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils had been building in Tamil Nadu since the ’70s, well before the Sinhalese massacre of Tamils in July 1983 — and Tamil Nadu was strategically important for Indira Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi’s stance on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was decidedly pro-Tamil. She had a notoriously sour relationship with Jayawardene, not least because she intervened when the Tamil-Sinhala conflict spilled onto Tamil Nadu’s shores. Her son, on the other hand, was keen to stay in the Sri Lankan government’s good books.

While the central government debated its approach, Tamil Nadu politicians were always clear on where they stood.

In 1987, when violence between the LTTE and Sri Lankan Army peaked before India intervened, MGR as chief minister had even sent Rs 4 crore to fund Prabhakaran. The issue was a pawn in a larger political game, wielded expertly in Tamil Nadu by political rivals MGR and Karunanidhi.

But MGR was in complete support of the accord, according to diplomat G. Parthasarthy. As chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MGR was under tremendous pressure to assist the LTTE. But his relationship with Rajiv Gandhi was so close that he was willing to go along with the larger national interest, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar.

Parthasarthy met MGR twice in Baltimore — where the latter was going through medical treatment — to discuss the LTTE and ensure Tamil Nadu’s support for the IPKF. “Please tell the Prime Minister I understand, and that I will do what is necessary,” said MGR in response. 

After MGR died in December 1987, his political rival Karunanidhi took up the mantle. He allowed LTTE to smuggle fuels and medicines to Jaffna, and even let an LTTE assassination in Chennai go unaddressed. His inaction eventually led to his government in Tamil Nadu being dismissed in 1991 by Chandrasekhar. 

“The farce of Karunanidhi becoming a great champion of the LTTE was political opportunism at its worst,” said Parthasarthy. 

Tamilians who supported the LTTE were also raging, influenced by LTTE propaganda. Branding the accord as one “between a criminal and a betrayer,” Tamil politicians like Vaiko criticised Rajiv Gandhi’s diplomacy and called the accord an empty shell — an attempt to “kill the living spirit of Eelam.” 

“But what sins have the LTTE committed? They are being hunted. What sins have they committed against the Government of India? Did Prabhakaran shake hands with the assassins of Mrs Indira Gandhi?” lamented Vaiko. 

Vaiko was also unrelenting toward the IPKF’s violence in Sri Lanka against Tamil civilians. “One day or other, these dastardly crimes committed by the IPKF would be exposed to the, world, in the same way as the crimes of the Nazi army personnel were dealt with at Nuremberg!” he said in 1988.

Even 35 years later, Prabhakaran is used as a rallying point for the Tamil cause in Tamil Nadu. A poster by the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi party, featuring Prabhakaran, is set up outside Pondicherry, marking the accord’s anniversary.

Photo by Vandana Menon | ThePrint

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Narrowly avoiding ‘India’s Vietnam’

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had few local allies. Pro-Sinhala and pro-Tamil groups turned against the IPKF after initially trying to use their arrival to advance their own goals, according to Lt Gen A.S. Kalkat (retd) who was in charge of overseeing the military operations weeks after the accord was signed.

According to Col (retd) Vivek Chadha, who served in the IPKF in Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1990 as part of the 8 Maratha Light Infantry, the peacekeeping effort suffered from the overnight nature of the force’s deployment and an unclear chain of command.

“The deployment was very evidently done overnight. Normally, a lot of preparation activity is required when you move forces into a particular area, from specific maps to arrangements made for assistance. You can’t go in blind, or afford to have negligible intelligence of the area…For any armed force, there’s a regular chain of command. There was a lack of clarity as to where [the likes of Kalkat and other senior officers] fell in that chain,” Chadha said, citing his own experience and the written account of a Maratha Light Infantry battalion that preceded him.

Within a year of IPKF setting foot on Sri Lankan soil, the local Tamil populations that had once welcomed the force were living with suspicion and fear. The IPKF would impose strict curfews and conduct regular searches for Tiger members or informants based on local tip offs, especially in the northern province.

By 1990, both India and Sri Lanka had new heads of state. Premadasa had succeeded Jayawardene as President, and his fundamental opposition to the IPKF continued. The new Indian Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, agreed. 

“The president told Wanasinghe, the Sri Lankan Army Chief, to tell me that IPKF must leave Sri Lankan shores within 48 hours or some impossible time. Otherwise he would order the Sri Lankan army to attack the IPKF,” Kalkat said, adding that he received a call from Mehrotra concerning a letter from Premadasa in “officialese” stating the same warning. 

Kalkat was caught between taking orders from people without a full picture of the situation, and calling the shots on the ground.

“I told them I’m not prepared to have a Vietnam-like situation with people clinging onto helicopters or like Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal,” he added. “So I will withdraw in phases on my own terms, which Sri Lanka agreed to,” Kalkat said. 

Kalkat co-ordinated the withdrawal of his 80,000 soldiers in March 1990. He was the last member of the IPKF to leave the island country. 

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The ‘dangers of waging peace’

Ultimately, the controversial legacy of the accord included the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.

“The Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord was the only bilateral agreement that led to a constitutional amendment in one of the countries,” said Ronen Sen. “And this was on the understanding of reciprocal actions by us. It was not an unilateral commitment.” 

The 13th amendment demarcated Sinhala and Tamil as joint official languages, with English as the link. It also mandated the setting up of Provincial Councils, decentralising the country’s governance system, despite being opposed by both Sinhalese and Tamil groups.

“One of the things that has been kept alive in this peace accord is the 13th amendment, which is often used as a political tool by both Indian and Sri Lankan governments when they need something from each other,” said veteran foreign correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji. 

The accord’s legacy is tainted by its failure to prevent the violence that ravaged Sri Lanka — a violence that made its way across the Palk Strait in 1991 to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. 

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The let down and its fallout 

“Everyone, from military to intelligence to diplomatic establishment, let Rajiv down and thereby converted an agreement made in good faith into a stupendous failure. Rajiv was engaged in working out conditions for the withdrawal of the IPKF when the government changed, yet he had to pay with his life for the faults of others who had rendered the IPKF mission a tragic farce,” Aiyar said.

“I can put my hands up and say that I could have communicated better,” said Sen. 

The only person who seemed to have communicated his intentions properly was the one who took the fall: Rajiv Gandhi. Ultimately, he was let down by those he trusted — including Prabhakaran. 

The meeting between Gandhi and Prabhakaran in July 1987 was an episode that showed “Prabhakaran’s guile and Rajiv’s trusting innocence” — Aiyar’s words. Everyone from Puri to Dixit to MGR had tried convincing Prabhakaran to accept the peace accord, but it was the meeting with Gandhi that ultimately gave him the confidence to sign the accord. 

Prabhakaran’s reluctant assent was so welcome that Rajiv Gandhi immediately ordered a celebratory dinner. His advisors were appalled that the Prime Minister of India had given a private audience to a man like Prabhakaran. But Gandhi was upbeat about his cooperation and the success of the accord. As he was leaving, Gandhi sent his son Rahul to fetch him something. Rahul returned with Rajiv’s bulletproof jacket. 

Rajiv then put his bulletproof jacket on Prabhakaran’s back, and said with his usual charming smile, “Take care of yourself.”

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