Sri Lanka - Settlement by Persuasion
The Overseas Hindustan Times, 11 July 1987
one individual formulates and decides Government's policy. There are always
in depth internal consultations and discussions. There are several inputs
before decisions are taken. Any individual entrusted with a task does so on
directions... it has been made clear at all times to Sri Lanka, that India's
national compulsions cannot also be set aside. In any final reckoning these
would prevail over anything else...Besides being a neighbour and
non-aligned, Sri Lanka is a small island strategically located in the Indian
Ocean having harbours on which some outsiders have their eyes. Continued
strife and disorder only weakens Sri Lanka and makes itself vulnerable to
foreign interference, presence and even involvement. None of these can suit
The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is the must discussed and
debated international issue in India today. Several articles have appeared
in the Press. There are many assessments and interpretations oŁ India's
policy. There have also been assessments and conclusions in some of which my
own role has also been mentioned. As I was very deeply involved in this
issue for roughly 12 months I have succumbed to persistent pressures to give
my personal views. This article should therefore, be considered purely as a
personal one and not in any capacity which I currently occupy.
No one individual formulates and decides Government's policy. There are
always in depth internal consultations and discussions. There are several
inputs before decisions are taken. Any individual entrusted with a task does
so on directions. On the Sri Lanka issue our objectives and the framework
within which it has been our endeavour to work for a politically negotiated
issue, have remained the same.
These were conceived and defined in 1983 itself and have continued since
then. If there has been any difference, it has been more in regard to the
approaches we have had to adopt from time to time as nothing remains
permanent. Even an approach or method needs to be modified with changed
circumstances and situations without it being interpreted as a change of
At the same time there are also some very pertinent factors we have to bear
in mind while determining how we must deal with an issue or commenting upon
the handling of a delicate matter such as this.
First and foremost, we are dealing with an issue relating to a sovereign
independent State. It also happens to be a neighbour and non-aligned.
Further, the ethnic problem is a purely internal problem of Sri Lanka. India
has become a concerned party not because of our actions but because of the
internal situation in Sri Lanka. We have been the recipients of the fall-out
of the disturbances in Sri Lanka. We have over a 140,000 refugees.
The Tamil population in Sri Lanka are the victims of the disturbances. What
therefore happens in Sri Lanka and to the Tamil community has its own
repercussions in Tamil Nadu and the rest of our country.
Whether we desire it or not, without India's good offices there can be no
hope of any political settlement. There has been a clear realisation in this
regard from the very beginning. At the same time for the same
considerations, it has been made clear at all times to Sri Lanka, that
India's national compulsions cannot also be set aside. In any final
reckoning these would prevail over anything else.
Our role of good offices started with Mr G. Parthasarathy and has continued
since then. In determining the manner in which we must play our role, we
have always had to remember that we are dealing with an internal problem of
a sovereign State. It has, therefore, necessitated great statesmanship, tact
and discretion. This issue is not one which lends itself to a treatment as
we may do on a domestic issue.
What then has been the objective we have sought to achieve and the framework
within which this is possible'? Quite clearly we would like to have a
peaceful settlement, within the framework of Sri Lanka's unity and
territorial integrity, which would be acceptable to all concerned.
Besides being a neighbour and non-aligned, Sri Lanka is a
small island strategically located in the Indian Ocean having harbours on
which some outsiders have their eyes. Continued strife and disorder only
weakens Sri Lanka and makes itself vulnerable to foreign interference,
presence and even involvement. None of these can suit India.
At the same time we have to oppose any attempts to find a
military solution. Besides entailing needless loss of life and destruction
of property, a military solution work against the attempts to find a
political solution and also contributes to instability and insecurity with
its own international ramifications. The solution must also therefore be
such as would be durable and provide the basis for creating an environment
within which the different communities and ethnic groups can live together
as Sri Lankan citizens enjoying equal rights and opportunities in its widest
The realities of life also have to be borne in mind. There is a democratic
set-up in Sri Lanka. The major community are Sinhalese with 74 per cent of
the population. There are limitations to the extent to which the Government
of Sri Lanka can go in the search of a political settlement as it would have
to carry the majority of the population with it.
There have been two clear dimensions in our dealing with the
ethnic problem. The first is the effort to find a satisfactory political
solution acceptable to all concerned. The second has been the military one.
While they are different, yet, both impinge on each other.
As a result of the sustained and persistent efforts negotiated by Mr G.
Parthasarathy a short conceptual paper termed as
Annexure `C' was jointly drawn up. This provided a broad framework
within which details of a political solution could then be worked out. It
was agreed that this paper along with others would be considered at an
"All-Party Conference" (APC) to which the Tamil side led by the TULF was
also invited. The APC had only one session in December 1984. It was a
failure and collapsed. The Annexure 'C' was
rejected by the Sinhalese side.
The TULF walked out. The two sides have varying interpretations as to
who was at fault.
This was the first attempt at direct negotiations between the concerned Sri
Lankan parties, both Sinhalese and Tamil. In the beginning of 1985 the
atmosphere was very gloomy. All kinds of accusations and charges were being
hurled against India of direct interference, being partisan, exerting strong
arm tactics, and the like. This was immediately after the 1984 elections.
Soon thereafter I became the Foreign Secretary.
The first effort, therefore, was to clear the air and create an atmosphere
within which we could sensibly and objectively restart the process of
seeking a political solution. There was a visit by Mr Lalith Athulathmudali
to New Delhi in February 1986. This was followed by visits by me to Colombo.
President Jayewardane then came to New Delhi for talks with the Prime
Minister. It was at that time that an agreement was reached on some basic
ingredients of a political solution and how we should go about arriving at
it. It was accepted by the two leaders that there was no alternative to a
political solution. The military path had to be abandoned. No final solution
would emerge without the agreements of TULF and the militant groups.
As a consequence of this meeting, for the first time, an informal
understanding was reached regarding a ceasefire. President Jayewardane also
agreed that his representatives would meet face to face with the Tamil
militants at Thimpu.
The Thimpu talks were the second attempt at a direct dialogue with the
Sri Lanka Tamils without India's involvement. Unfortunately, the ceasefire
never took place. Incidents took place prior to the talks which totally
fouled up the atmosphere. There were no discussions at all on the
substantive side relating to a political settlement.
From then onwards there was continuing contact between representatives of
India and Sri Lanka in trying to evolve detailed formulations which could be
such as to provide a good basis for a next round of direct talks between the
concerned Sri Lankan parties - Sinhalese, and Tamil. These discussions were
principally undertaken by me with periodic contacts between the Prime
Minister and President Jayewardane. These went through varying stages. By
May 1986 which was the last time I was involved in these discussions we had
been able to persuade Sri Lanka to agree to formulations which we felt
provided some hope. These contained provisions which went well beyond what
was conceived in the Annexure `C'.
The third attempt at direct talks was when a TULF delegation visited Colombo
in the second half of last year. These did not end in failure. They did not,
however, also result in any final settlement. As of today we now have some
very detailed formulations which include the
December 19 Proposals. There appears to be a widespread feeling that
these proposals are now a good basis for direct negotiations.
I would now like to comment upon some criticisms which have found expression
in newspapers and periodicals. The first is that we have been very soft with
President Jayewardane and Sri Lanka. Bearing in mind that we are dealing
with a Head of State of a sovereign country in regard to an issue which is a
domestic one but in regard to which we also have concerns, how should anyone
conduct the negotiations involved?
Are these to be done in an atmosphere of confrontation, with the holding out
of threats and with the exertion of pressure? Or, should these be conducted
by creating goodwill, through persuasion, by making the other realise and
appreciate that it is in the interest of all concerned and particularly Sri
Lanka that a political solution be found? The latter path was adopted.
The same has also been the approach with the Sri Lankan Tamil groups. We
have remained in constant touch. During my tenure I recall countless hours
being spent with the TULF and the Tamil militant groups. I met them
collectively and individually. Throughout, as far as I know, we had an
excellent rapport and relationship.I have personally always found that the
art of gentle but firm persuasion, the use of proper argument, the evoking
of right feelings and reactions are the best way to achieve results. This is
exactly what I did in other issues in which I was involved.
Much has been said about Thimpu: That it was ill-conceived, it was a
blunder, it was a failure. In fact Thimpu was quite to the contrary. It was
a major milestone. Representatives of the Sri Lankan Government met face to
face with representatives of militant groups who are openly advocating
True, the Thimpu talks led to no results. To that extent, certainly they
were a failure. But, even the APC of December 1984 had collapsed and was a
failure. Would we term the failure of the APC as India's failure:' No one
has ever said so. India was not involved. In Thimpu, India was not
involved. These were direct talks between the Sri Lankan Government and
the representatives of 'Tamil groups. We should bear this in mind as there
have been no direct meetings in which Indian representatives have been
There is a military dimension. Very regrettably this has been a constant
feature ever since
1983 riots. All efforts including international pressures and even
Sri Lanka's security force's activities in the Human Rights Commission
have had little impact on how Sri Lankan forces have behaved. This is a
dimension which has caused the greatest anguish and negated all the positive
movements on the political side. It is this area which needs to be addressed
immediately. Killings and destruction only widen the credibility gap. If a
political solution is to emerge, it has to be buttressed by confidence and
trust between the two communities. The major responsibility for this lies on
the Sri Lankan Government.
Yet, it is perhaps not totally correct to conclude that Sri Lanka is bent
upon finding a military solution-that it does not seek a political
solution-that it is hell bent upon crushing the Tamil community. Some of
these are perhaps true. But we must have an answer to some of the other
developments which have taken place and how we can reconcile these with the
assertion that Sri Lanka has been buying time so as to equip itself to
pursue the military option.
If Sri Lanka wished to buy time and was only contemplating the military
option, would it have made the types of concessions that it has'? It would
have been very easy to go along with building up a facade of attempting to
find a political solution, but, making only cosmetic efforts with no
substantive content. They did not do so. They have in fact made some very
meaningful concessions which have already evoked severe criticism in Sri
Our policy towards Sri Lanka has indeed been a very positive, well
thought-out and a well pursued policy. It is one of the most intractable
issues not lending itself to any easy or immediate solution. Critics are
always in a good position as they need only find fault and not offer any
alternative approaches or solution. Anyone would greatly welcome good ideas
and constructive criticism. There may be aspects which have not been thought
of. There may be an approach which may be more productive. This article may
stimulate such an exchange which could be a good input for the policy