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December 1, 1997


Ashok Mitra

A commission, before it proceeded to draw up criminal proceedings against others, must recommend Indira Gandhi's posthumous prosecution

Even absurdity must have its limits.The early 1980s are yet to be altogether history, Indira Gandhi was the nation’s prime minister. She knew her mind. For whatever reason, she had taken a liking for Velupillai Prabhakaran and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A special dispensation was granted by her to the LTTE which has not been granted till now even to any of the state governments in this country.

Prabhakaran was permitted to set up a clandestine transmitting station from where exhortatory messages were constantly beamed across to Tamil insurgents hiding in Sri Lanka’s northern jungles.The constitutional grey line, whether the right of transmission from Indian shores could be accorded to foreign parties, was brushed aside. The cost of installing the transmission station was borne in entirety by the Government of India. Indira Gandhi in fact did much more for the LTTE.

Under her specific instructions, transit camps were set up by the Research and Analysis Wing in a number of locations in Tamil Nadu. Apart from arranging camping facilities to Tamil rebel contingents visiting in search of both arms and instructions in the use of arms, Indira Gandhi actually asked RAW to help out the LTTE with financial accommodation.

The government of Tamil Nadu -- never mind whether it was M G Ramachandaran or M Karunanidhi who happened to be the incumbent chief minister -- was requested by the Centre to turn a Nelson’s eye to LTTE activities: it was our holy duty – so it was implicitly understood – to provide operational bases on Indian soil for the fighting Tigers.

Karunanidhi or MGR, whoever was in charge of the state administration, would receive confidential messages from New Delhi and the state’s coffers for the LTTE. Sri Lankan Tamils were considered as flesh of our flesh. Given the record of our own freedom struggle, it was inconceivable that our government would not express solidarity for the LTTE cause and adopt measure to further that cause without breaching diplomatic formalities.

This attitude began to change only when the LTTE started its ruthless policy of systematic assassination of the top leadership of other insurgent groups in Sri Lanka. There was revulsion at the brutal killings the LTTE engaged in, and facilities granted to Prabhakaran and his men were gradually withdrawn. Sympathy for the Tamil emigrants seeking a place under the sun in Sri Lanka nonetheless did not quite wither away. Call it her stratagem or her vision, her foreign policy -- Indira Gandhi was insistent -- must in all seasons pack a fund of goodwill for the global underdogs wherever they might be. Sri Lanka, of course, was right next door. A subjective element additionally influenced her attitude toward the LTTE.

The Bandarnaike family was regarded as ideological kin by the Nehru-Gandhis; in contrast, the Senanayakes, given their explicit pro-Western views in international affairs, were looked upon with some distrust. So in case the LTTE were organising a harrowing time for the Senanayake regime, why not sit back and enjoy the scenario?

None of this is quite obliterated history. The records of what took place barely 13 or 14 years ago are not yet extant. Each of the assertions in the foregoing paragraphs is verifiable. If a commission of enquiry wants to be even marginally objective in its eagerness to trace the genesis of pro-LTTE sentiments in the country, it must begin with Indira Gandhi. To be logically consistent, such a commission of enquiry, before it proceeded to draw up criminal proceedings against others, must recommend her posthumous prosecution.

The qualitative shift ushered in India’s policy toward Sri Lanka brought about by Indira Gandhi’s successor, her elder son, had – it can be argued -- ideological motivation. India’s young prime minister was hostile to the Nehruvian framework of non-alignment and support for the global underdogs. Where Sri Lanka was concerned, our new Indian prime minister could not quite put up with the Bandaranaikes, the Senanayakes, distinguished by their class snobbery and overt pro-Western views, were more attractive company. The Bandaranaike progeny went to Paris for advanced studies and lapped up Trotskyite literature; the Senanayakes, prim and standoffish, stuck to cricket. They won the instant admiration of Indira Gandhi’s elder son installed as head of the Indian government on his mother’s assassination.

Events escalated, the young prime minister took little time to formulate his grand design to emerge as the guiding star in South Asian skies. He looked around for a chum to help him along. The Senanayakes were willing to fill in the slot, but strictly on an exchange basis. First things first: the Indian prime minister, before he sets out on other adventures, must liquidate the nuisance of the LTTE insurgency. Indira Gandhi’s son agreed with alacrity, and the Indo-Sri Lanka Treaty was singed with pomp and glee in 1987. But a blunder was committed in the process.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, it was assumed, was one of Indira Gandhi’s hired retinues who would do whatever he was ordered to do by her son. Prabhakaran, the Indian prime minister discovered to his consternation and anger, was of sterner stuff. An ugly squabble ensued, leading to the landing of the Indian expeditionary force in Sri Lanka. The Indian government undertook to accomplish what the Senanayake regime and its predecessors had failed to accomplish: the extermination of the LTTE rebellion.

If you happened to be a Sri Lankan Tamil, it was only natural that the exploits of the Indian expeditionary force would evoke outrage and abhorrence. Indian army personnel met their semi-Waterloo in the Jaffna quagmire and had to be withdrawn, mission unfulfilled, within two years.The bitterness, however, persisted. Whether Indira Gandhi’s elder son, the former prime minister, was done to death by a LTTE suicide squad is yet to be legally established. But even if this were to turn out to be true, why must we still fail to acknowledge the other reality that, in the aftermath of the Indo-Sri Lanka Treaty of 1987, it was perfectly natural for ideologically motivated young Tamils to plan and execute the former Indian prime minister’s gory death?

The lurid act was and remains condemnable on all accounts; that is still no reason why we should stay away from a cool and detached analysis of the process of the minds of those who plotted the killing. Is it also not time that the officially-sponsored violently disapproving attitude toward the LTTE, rampant in India since 1991, undergoes a revision!

To be candid for an ordinary citizen of Tamil Nadu, it is not irrational to nurture some sympathy for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. It is possible to speculate that, who knows, had the tragedy of the Indo-Sri Lanka Treaty and the acts Indian yahoos perpetrated in Sri Lanka not taken place, our government would have been in a position to mediate effectively between the LTTE and the Bandranaike daughter following her emergence as Sri Lanka’s elected leader.

Once the frenzy of the first few days was over, even the most irrational elements in Indian society ceased to swear vengeance against the Sikh community for Indira Gandhi’s heinous murder. Why should the cause of the Tamil settlers in Sri Lanka then continue to be anathema to us? And is it not ridiculous for Indira Gandhi’s party to pick on the DMK for fixing the responsibility for her son's assassination?

If some faulty finding is decided as the necessity of the day, it should begin at the beginning. It should begin with Indira Gandhi herself… Judges do go astray; sometimes they are commandeered to go astray. But a democratic polity, if it is to be true to its credentials, must not yield to the antics of those who are currently playing to the gallery.

Ashok Mitra

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