It is sad that 40 years after it was signed to end the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka and a decade after the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’, someone still should have to talk about the Rajiv Gandhi -Jayewardene Accord of 1987, whose aim was to end the strife and de-escalate the war for good. What instead the nation and the neighbourhood witnessed was an unstoppable, no-holds-barred LTTE war.
“Our journey continues, we need the Accord, we need to ensure that the ‘spirit’ of the Accord is implemented and India must do its duty to ensure the same. It is India’s duty and India cannot get away from that duty,” The Hindu quoted Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan as saying recently. He was speaking at the launch of the Tamil book on the subject, ‘Or Inapprachchanaiyum, Or Oppandhamum’ (‘An Ethnic Issue and an Accord’), authored by T Ramakrishnan, an Associate Editor in the Chennai-based newspaper group.
It is interesting and ironical at the same time to see a veteran Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) moderate leader like Sampanthan now talking about the ‘spirit’ of the Accord which was facilitated and signed by slain Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who also gave his life for the same. Sampanthan is the sole living testimony from the high-power leadership of the forgotten Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), whose truncated and unrecognizable form remains while he himself went on to head the TNA, a creation of the LTTE.
Soon after the Accord was finalized, and signed later on, in Colombo, the TULF, which was a major party to the tripartite negotiations, criticized the same. Unacknowledged, the TULF’s reservations owed mostly to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s opposing the Accord, starting with the very spirit of it. In a way, India signing the Accord where it did not have a direct locus standi also owed mostly to apprehensions that if TULF as the rightful moderate voice of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, that it could then trigger an LTTE insistence on being made a more direct party to the process than itself. By then, Tamil politics in Sri Lanka had reached a stage where the moderates had to say whatever the terror-outfit said, louder and shriller, if it had to be heard by their own constituency back home. When the LTTE and Prabhakaran thus opposed the Accord after allowing themselves to be convinced by the Indian Government and PM Gandhi, that too after ‘surrendering arms’ to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), in turn called in under the very same Accord, to ensure the safety and security of the Tamils in the aftermath of ‘Pogrom-1983’, the TULF’s voice became even more louder.
All those moderate voices would all be drowned, when the LTTE took up arms against the IPKF on the one hand, and assassinated senior TULF leaders like Appapillai Amirthalingam. A stage would soon be reached when Sampanthan would ditch the TULF and go on to head the TNA, a creature of the LTTE – though post-LTTE, to be fair to them all, they have regained their original respectability, nerve and verse to a very substantial degree.
But at the very signing of the Accord, the more ‘legitimate voice’ of the Tamils’ opposition came from the TULF. The TULF was heard better and clearer than the LTTE and such other militant groups in New Delhi and Colombo, and even in the community’s ‘socio-cultural capital’ of Jaffna. For Sampanthan, thus, to talk about India now having to work to implement the spirit of the Accord after remaining the sole surviving signatory to the TULF’s original reservations to the same in 1987 should cause eyebrows to raise.
Yet, to be fair to the TNA of now and Sampanthan, they all have to continue to stick to their moderate line on the ethnic issue. What more, they have also won a series of elections since the conclusion of the war in the Tamil areas of the island-nation by huge margins, showing that the larger Tamil constituency has attested to their line of ‘moderate persuasion’ of the majority Sinhala polity and the larger Sri Lankan State.
“Tamils have no intention of dividing the country,” The Hindu report on his speech at the book-launch quoted Sampanthan as saying. “They wanted to live with respect and dignity in an undivided country, where their rights are acknowledged,” he was quoted as saying. In an obvious reference to the deadlocked/forgotten ‘new Constitution’ process in the country that has been drowned in the din and dust of the months-long political crisis, especially engulfing the Coalition Government, Sampanthan had this to say: If Sri Lanka’s leaders failed to negotiate with all the people to evolve an acceptable political solution, “we will not hesitate to do, what we must do, to get a just solution”.
Sampanthan also had possibly this clarification to offer, “We are not saying India alone can solve this, our demand is for a political solution to evolve in this country, with the consensus and support of all the people of this country.” It reads as simple and straight as it looks, but then years and decades of the post Independence Sri Lankan experience has shown that it is anything but that. And Sampanthan’s qualified caution that the Tamils “will do what we must do” may be an indication where they still want to posit India, and not where India wants to posit itself in the context of the unresolved ‘ethnic issue’ in his country.
https://www.orfonline.org/research/south-asia-weekly-report-vol-xi-issue-19/ (The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)