WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka
Out Of Bondage – The Thondaman Story
|Chapter 8 : Thonda Joins The Cabinet|
|Will You Join Six days after his 66th birthday, at the auspicious hour of 10.05 a.m., on 6 September 1978, Thondaman was sworn in as a Cabinet Minister by President Jayewardene. He thus became the first person of Indian stock to enter the Cabinet in independent Sri Lanka. |
In the First State Council, long before independence, another minister had been appointed from the people of Indian origin. But Peri Sundaram was elected in a different era, when a majority of Indian Tamils laborers enjoyed equality in everything including voting rights. Thondaman's appointment was in a different era, when majority of Indian Tamils labored under severe disabilities, inclusive of the basic human right of citizenship.
That evening, reporting on Thondaman's swearing - in ceremony, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation's commentator said, "This is a small step for Mr.Thondaman, but a giant leap for the people whom he leads."
Ascending the marble steps of President's House to take oaths as a Cabinet Minister was indeed only a small step in Thondaman's life; the inveterate pilgrim whose foot - prints had been firmly imprinted on every pathway in the central hills. This small step fell his way almost casually.
On August 2 that year, in the course of a chat with Thondaman, President Jayewardene outlined his plan to appoint district ministers as a means of taking the administration closer to the people. There were to be 25 district ministers, which meant one for seven members in parliament. Then he said: "I have spoken about it to Amrithalingham. If the TULF agrees they will get three district ministers."
The TULF had not told Thondaman about this. So Thondaman met the TULF leaders, Amrithalingham, Sivasithamparam and Kathirvelpillai, that evening and told them what Jayewardene had spoken of to him. Amrithalingham said they were considering Jayewardene's offer, but had not come to any conclusion. "If you decide to accept the offer one of them should be given to Thondaman," Thondaman told Amrithalingham.
The next day President Jayewardene asked Thondaman, whether he had talked with Amrithalingham. Thondaman told him of their conversation.
"Will you join?" President Jayewardene asked. "What is the use of joining as a district minister?" Thondaman replied.
"If I invite you will you join the Cabinet?
"I am inviting you. Will you join?" President Jayewardene persisted.
"If you invite me I will. But there are a few hitches."
"What are they?"
Thondaman explained that he could not be bound by UNP policies on citizenship and labor. He owed his position to the CWC and the CWC's policy was to get citizenship for the stateless and better working conditions for estate labor.
"If you will allow me to follow my own policy in these two matters, I will have no hesitation in joining the cabinet," Thondaman said.
President Jayewardene readily agreed. He said Thondaman was free to follow his own policy in these two concerns. He then asked Thondaman for his preference in the subjects to be allocated to him. Thondaman mentioned four: small industries, handicrafts, dairy farming and rural development. President Jayewardene said Mrs. Wimala Kannangara would be hurt, if he took rural development from her and agreed to the other three.
Thondaman asked for two weeks to get the approval of the CWC working committee.
He informed the CWC and the TULF of the offer. The TULF leaders met Thondaman at his Colombo residence and Amrithalingham said he had no objection to Thondaman joining the government. They then discussed the CWC - TULF relationship. They agreed on a flexible approach and Amrithalingham asked Thondaman to continue working for the welfare of the Tamil people, whether from the north, east or the plantations.
Thondaman summoned the meeting of the executive council for 5 September 1978. At that meeting some members expressed misgivings. Thondaman dispelled their doubts with his explanation. He argued that a strong willed Sinhala leader with vision was needed to solve the stateless problem. President Jayewardene was such a leader and his hand should be strengthened. He added that being in the opposition eternally would never help the plantation Tamils to solve their problems. "We should get inside and work for our betterment," he said.
The executive council unanimously accepted Thondaman's stand - point and adopted a resolution authorizing him to join the cabinet.
The resolution said: The executive committee of the CWC, conscious of the fact that the people of Indian origin, the bulk of whom are plantation workers, have been effectively denied participation in the mainstream of national life and in all avenues of human development for the past thirty years by the disfranchisement and other acts of discrimination by successive governments, reiterates that the isolation of and the discrimination both in law and practice against this community should end forthwith, thus removing the impediments in the path of this community's integration with the rest of society.
"The executive committee notes with satisfaction the active participation of the CWC political wing in the deliberations of the Select Committee for the Revision of the Constitution and the support given to the Bill in the National State Assembly.
"While acknowledging that the new constitution has not sufficiently met all the hopes and aspirations of the minorities, the executive council recognizes the fact that as far as the stateless persons are concerned, new constitution is an improvement and step forward, and for the first time it affords the people of Indian origin the opportunity to come into the mainstream of national life.
"In this context, the invitation extended by His Excellency J. R. Jayewardene to the CWC political wing to join the cabinet is a step in the right direction.
"The executive council, therefore, resolves to authorize and direct the political wing to co - operate and meaningfully participate in the government of His Excellency J. R. Jayewardene and accept the invitation to serve in the cabinet."
After the swearing - in ceremony at President's House, Thondaman went to the CWC office where he was given a reception. Sellasamy garlanded him with a massive garland. Thondaman said he had joined the Cabinet not for personal glory but to use his position to achieve the betterment of the plantation Tamils.
At 2 p.m., he went to Parliament. He was greeted with applause. He crossed over from his seat in the opposition ranks and sat in the front bench with the government. After question hour, Speaker Anandatissa de Alwis invited him to make a statement. Thondaman said his joining the Cabinet was the happy harbinger of communal harmony and mutual development.
He said he was glad that he had participated in the Select Committee set up to draft the new constitution, where he had convinced the government of the many problems facing the so - called stateless personas.
"I was able to make the government understand their problems and a number of amendments moved by me were accepted, the most important of which was the granting of fundamental rights to stateless persons."
Thondaman decided to join the cabinet because, by and large, President Jayewardene had honored his pre-election pledges. He honored the pledge he made to the TULF members who had met him at Thondaman's flat by including a special section, "Problems of Tamil-speaking People", in the UNP election manifesto.
That section read, "The United National Party accepts the position that there are numerous problems confronting the Tamil - speaking people. The lack of solution to these problems has made the Tamil-speaking people support even a movement for the creation of a separate state. In the interests of national integration and unity so necessary for the economic development of the whole country the party feels such problems should be solved without loss of time. The party, when it comes to power, will take all steps to remedy their grievances in such fields as:
3. Use of the Tamil language.
4. Employment in public and semi - public corporations.
"We will summon an All Party Conference as stated earlier and implement its decisions."
Though the UNP included this special section, Jayewardene wanted the TULF and the CWC to keep the agreement a secret, until the last day of the election campaign. That was to deny the SLFP the opportunity to raise the communal cry.
The general election was held on 21 July 1977. The UNP made a clean sweep of it by winning a historic five-sixth majority with 140 seats in the 168 - member parliament. The SLFP was reduced to eight seats. The TULF secured the second highest number 18 seats. The CWC won one seat and the other seat went to an independent. The Jayewardene government took office on July 23.
The TULF parliamentary group met at the Vavuniya Town Hall on July 30. Thondaman was present too. Amrithalingham suggested that Thondaman be elected Leader of the Opposition. Thondaman declined the offer. He said he was the sole representative of the plantation Tamils and to accept that position would not be fair by them. Amirthalingham's name was then proposed by M. Sivasithamparam, seconded by P. Ganeshalingam. M.Sivasithamparam was elected vice-president of the TULF parliamentary group.
The relationship between the UNP government and the TULF began to sour within a year. The monthly meetings between the Cabinet and the TULF leadership proved a futile exercise. Decisions taken at those meetings were not implemented and the TULF grew increasingly disillusioned. Amrithalingham summed up TULF feeling thus, "They serve us nice short-eats and tea. They also talk very nicely. That is all."
With the start of constitution-making relations turned bitter. The TULF boycotted the constituent assembly. Thondaman, however, stayed with the government, attended meetings of the government parliamentary group and took an active part in constitution drafting.
Thondaman got the help of leading Tamil constitutional lawyers in this task. He submitted a detailed memorandum on language, citizenship and human rights to the constitutional committee. He also made oral submissions. Through his efforts Tamil was given the status of a national language. The right to correspond with the government in Tamil and receive a reply in Tamil was also won by his efforts. He persuaded the government to do away with the distinction between registered citizens and citizens by descent. He also got the plantation workers the right to vote at local government elections. He had a clause guaranteeing fundamental rights to stateless persons for ten years embodied in the constitution.
Thondaman also played an important role as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, to which he was elected in August 1977. During the single year he served in that capacity, he strive to improve public accounting and auditing systems. He criticized the massive wastage prevalent in the public service and wanted public officers to be made more accountable.
Soosaithasan who succeeded Thondaman in that post said that the CWC leader was a hard taskmaster. His questions often made government officers quake. Yet he was very kind to them and treated them with respect.
His contribution to the Indian Tamil community and to Sir Lanka became more marked after he joined the Cabinet. "I have been called upon to share a great responsibility and I will not shirk it," he said in a statement issued after he assumed office.
On his way to Nuwara Eliya Thondaman called on the Mahanayakes of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters. Both Mahanayakes said, they were pleased to bless him. The Ven. Palipane, the head of the Malwatte Chapter said: "We must not forget that, even though we belong to different races and different faiths we are children of Sri Lanka."
Thondaman replied that he was always aware of it and had worked tirelessly for Sri Lanka. "My people toil daily, from dawn to dusk, for the prosperity of Sri Lanka. They want to live and die in Sri Lanka. They should be allowed to work for Sri Lanka as equal citizens."
At Nuwara Eliya he was given a grand reception. They garlanded him with tea leaves and he said, "You all know that I am a minister. You might have seen how the police escorted me to this ground. I am your representative. I am honored because I am your representative. That means the honor is actually given to you. Everyone must regard himself the actual Minister. That must make you more hardworking, more responsible."
A few days later Thondaman gifted a silver plated bell to the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The bell was borne in a colorful procession of dancers, drummers and elephants, led by the Maligawa tusker Raja. Thondaman, Sellasamy and Annamalai marched at the head of the procession. The Education Minister and Diyawadena Nilame, Nissanka Wijeyaratne, received Thondaman at the entrance of the Maligawa. After paying homage to the Tooth Relic Thondaman said, "Hindus worship Buddha as the reincarnation of Vishnu. To Hindus, Buddhism is not an alien religion."
On his return to Colombo, he called a meeting of all his staff. He told them, "I am a trade unionist who believes in hard work and results. I will look after you. I will be accessible to you. I want all of you to work hard. I want results, not excuses."
In the field of dairy farming he adopted the slogan "Drink More Milk and "Eat Less Beef." He found the cattle population had been diminishing over the years. He took steps to arrest the decline and upgrade their quality. He promoted the Cattle Breeders' Association and encouraged fodder production. Poultry and pig breeding were also encouraged under him.
He took a great interest in small industries and handicrafts. He advised these sectors to organize themselves into co-operatives and upgrade their products to attract the growing global market. He organized a design centre, handicraft competitions and awards, set up handicraft cooperatives and arranged for participation in international fairs.
From the very start, Thondaman paid special attention to milk production and distribution. On 18 September 1979, he presided over a meeting of the Milk Board, officials. A pressman told the minister that the milk-booth located at the Fort railway station, milk was not available after 2 p.m.
"How do you know?" Asked an officer clearly showing his irritation.
"I went there myself," the pressman replied.
"It must have happened only on that day," the officer said.
"No. It happens every day."
"How do you know?"
When the official tried to bully the pressman, Thondaman intervened. "Don't cross - examine him. This is a mistake you people make. When a vital information is given, you waste time in cross-examining the informant, instead of acting right away. Informants are doing a service."
Thondaman had always a good rapport with the press. He treated pressmen well, made himself always accessible to them. He is one of the few political leaders who had made the full use of pressmen. He also used them to get feedback on public reactions.
Thondaman handled pressmen very tactfully. One day in 1980, CWC Vice-President Jaya Peri Sundaram turned aggressive on pressmen during a press conference. He was annoyed over a comment carried in a newspaper. He called for the paper's representative and started an argument. Thondaman intervened. "Jaya," he said, " You are entitled to express your views and the pressman his. If you want him to respect your views you must also respect his." That ended the confrontation.
Education of Plantation Children
Since assuming Cabinet office, Thondaman showed interest in the education of plantation children. He agitated for the government take-over of the estate schools.
Those schools had been started in the second half of the 19th century by the estate kankanis and missionaries. They set up two types of schools: one for the children of estate officials and the other for the children of laborers. The better schools imparted a regular education, preparing the students for public examinations. The schools for laborers' children taught them to read and write and imparted religious knowledge.
It was in 1907, that the government for the first time showed interest in the education of estate workers' children. It was in that year that, estate owners were compelled to give all children between 6 and 10 years education through their mother tongue. In 1920, legislation was passed for the appointment of qualified teachers. The minimum qualification for teachers was initially the Junior School Certificate. Later it was raised to the General Certificate of Education – Ordinary Level, (GCE - OL), with three credit passes. When the SLFP government decided to take over schools in 1962, estate schools were left untouched.
When Thondaman became the Minister, he impressed on the Education Minister Nissanka Wijeyaratne, the need to take over the estate schools. The Tamil Unit in the Education Ministry headed by the Director of Education Lakshmana Iyer was given the task of studying the question. He conducted a survey and found that the estate schools were inadequately staffed and lacking minimum facilities. Classrooms were too few and all the subjects were not taught, extra-curricular activities were not undertaken, proper drinking water and toilet facilities were not provided and the teachers were not trained. Lakshmana Iyer took remedial action.
The schools were taken over in two phases. The first phase commenced in 1977 and the second in July 1980. Under the first phase 404 schools with about 600 teachers were taken over and under the second phase 366 schools and another 600 teachers were brought under the government control.
From 1977 Thondaman used almost the entirety of the Rs. 2.5 million vote he received yearly under the decentralized budget, to improve school buildings. He later persuaded the government to provide an additional Rs. 20 million a year, which also he spent on providing school buildings.
Meanwhile ethnic relations were steadily deteriorating. The militant groups were gaining strength among the Lankan Tamils, especially in Jaffna. They had started attacking the army and tension was building up. Industries Minister Cyril Mathew was increasingly taking the role of Sinhala protector and frequently come out openly against the TULF. The earlier partnership between the government and the TULF had completely broken down and Thondaman took upon himself the role of mediator. From his earlier role as champion of Tamil causes he switched to that of mediator.
It proved a most difficult part to play. In April 1982, two days prior to the Nuwara Eliya sessions of the CWC, I questioned Thondaman about his new role.
"Had it been thrust on you by the changed circumstances?" I asked.
"Partly by circumstances and partly by design," he answered.
He added, "I am seeing to it that, I don't loose credibility with the Tamils, as well as with the Sinhalese. I keep my credibility with the Tamils by showing that I am not a government bogey man. I follow my own policy and say what I feel is correct. And I keep my credibility with the Sinhalese by making them realize that, I hold first the interest of Sri Lanka."
The year 1981, provided two instances to exhibit his defiant independent stand . The first was the debate on the no-confidence motion against Leader of the Opposition, Amrithalingham. The government MPs supported the motion. A government MP also said Amrithalingham should be publicly hanged at Galle Face Green.
Thondaman opposed the motion and spoke against it. That won him the admiration of the Tamil public the TULF MP for Mannar M.P, Soosaithasan told the press, "Thondaman is the only Tamil Minister in the Cabinet who looked after the Tamils." The other Tamil Minister K. W. Devanayagam supported the motion and voted with the government.
The second instance was during the August riots of that year. Although up-country Tamils was not involved in the activities of the Tamil militants, violence was unleashed against them, using certain incidents in the north as a pretext. Tamil estate laborers in the Ratnapura and Balangoda districts were attacked and driven from their homes.
Thondaman and Sellasamy met President Jayewardene at his Ward Place home on 17 August 1981. Deputy Defence Minister T. B. Werapitiya, Defence Secretary Col. C. P. Dharmapala, Coordinating Secretary - General Sepala Attygalla and inspector- General of Police Ana Seneviratne, were there.
Thondaman was blunt and firm. He told President Jayewardene, "Sir, mobs are attacking Tamils in the up-country. The situation should be brought under control without delay. Already many valuable lives have been lost and millions of rupees worth of property."
He then reminded President Jayewardene of his assurance the previous week that he would see to it that no disturbance took place. "Things have worsened since then. Mobs are going about attacking people. Plantation workers are being singled and killed. We have evidence that hooligans are covertly enjoying the patronage of powerful personalities."
He added, "If you cannot put an end to mob rule, say so. Then the people themselves will take necessary precautions for the safety and security of both persons and property.
"The time has now come. The people have exhausted their patience. We want an end to this reign of terror by thugs."
President Jayewardene said he was carefully studying the reports and would take all steps to ensure law and order.
Thondaman also issued a strong statement: “Unless the government brought mob violence under control, he will be forced to tell his people to adopt necessary measures for self-protection.
His meeting with the President and his statement to the press jolted the government into action. A state of emergency was declared and the security forces were prodded into action. That helped to restore normalcy.
Thondaman invited President Jayewardene to tour Ratnapura and Balangoda districts, the worst affected areas. The president was distressed by the damage the rioters had caused. Addressing a meeting of Tamil refugees, he said he was ashamed that the people who had caused these miseries were Sinhala Buddhists.
"They are animals. They have behaved worse than animals. They have caused suffering to hundreds of innocent people," he declared.
In September 1981 Thondaman visited Europe. On his way back he visited Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, he was told of the massive processions and hartal conducted both by the ruling Anna David Munster Kazhaham (ADMK) and the opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhaham. Thondaman thanked the Tamil Nadu parties for their concern and support, but advised them not to use the sufferings of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka to gain political benefit for themselves.”
On his return to Colombo on September 22, he met the press at his Ministry office. He made two points. The first was, "The August 1981 riots has damaged the image of Sri Lanka." The second, "In India - in Tamil Nadu particularly, there is great deal of feeling and concern."
Thondaman also played an important role in the creation of District Development Councils. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam of the TULF, took an active part in preparing the report of the Special Committee on the District Development Councils, and was in constant touch with him.
The CWC contested the DDC elections with the UNP. Thondaman urged, without success, the UNP not to contest the TULF in the Northern and Eastern provinces. He viewed with disfavor the visit of Ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake to the north to campaign against the TULF. After the election, he repeatedly urged President Jayewardene and the Cabinet to make the DDCs work. The President failed to do so.
The Jaffna DDC chairman, S. Nadaraja, resigned in utter frustration, in July 1983. Thondaman was upset. He told the press, "It is unfortunate Mr. Nadaraja had to resign. This will have tragic consequences." Barely two weeks later the situation did turn tragic. The July 1983 riots completely changed the nature of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.
The CWC had supported the UNP during the 1982 Presidential election and the referendum. Thondaman campaigned hard during the Presidential election. He tried to win TULF support for President Jayewardene. The TULF wavered long and ultimately decided to boycott the presidential election. Thondaman was disappointed. He told me that the TULF lawyers lacked courage and perspective to face problems.
"They haggle over unnecessary details and miss the point," he said. He also called their decision an act of treachery.
Thondaman's enthusiasm in the presidential election earned him the ire of the SLFP candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa. Addressing SLFP organizers of the Central Province Kobbekaduwa said, "Thondaman has been dancing a little too much of late. He was very silent when the government crushed his estate kingdom. Now that he is a Minister he seems to think he is ruling the country. I must repeat what I said during the 1977 election campaign. If I become President I will take action to acquire the 52 acres he is left with and deport him from this country."
Kobbekaduwa had been critical of Thondaman even earlier. Addressing the press conference in 1972, to announce the estate take-over, he said, "Thondaman is an Indian. I will send him to India. We cannot permit him to dictate affairs in Sri Lanka."
This type of attack did not frighten Thondaman from propagating the CWC or organizing his people into a well-knit community. He also had to face a new set of problems. The worst was a growing sense of demoralization and uncertainty among members of the Indian community.
At the Badulla convention in 1982, delegate after delegate voiced this sense of fear. They chorused that they be sent back to India. Thondaman, who was presiding, lost his cool and shouted, "Are you men? What were you doing when you were attacked? Were you plucking coconuts? Why didn't you hit back?"
From then, he took upon himself the task of instilling a fighting spirit in the Indian Tamils. He told them they should not provoke fight or create a situation that would cause a fight, but if attacked they should fight back in self-defence. He told them the story of Arjuna and the advice Krishana gave him. Everyone had the right to fight for his cause, to fight for Truth and Justice. He said he had long been a devotee of Krishna and observed his teachings.
The second problem was within the Jayewardene cabinet. The chauvinistic Sinhala group within the cabinet had got the upper hand and was swaying the government. Thondaman chose to attack them publicly. At the 1982 convention, he made the charge that certain ministers intended to sabotage the Indo-Lanka accords on citizenship. Reporters asked him to identify the ministers but he declined.
In a letter date, 29 March 1983, Thondaman wrote to President Jayewardene on the same issue. He said, "I am disturbed and distressed at trends surfacing even at cabinet level, that do not inspire hope, especially in regard to the solution of problems facing the minority communities.
"If these problems are not resolved during your Excellency's tenure, there is no likelihood of their ever being solved. It was in this belief that I joined Your Excellency's Government, to further strengthen your hand.
"I am sure Your Excellency will recall the meeting held at my residence in 1977, on the eve of the general election, when Your Excellency and the Leader of the TULF exchanged views and identified the problems of the Tamil-speaking people. We were happy that understanding was reflected in the UNP manifesto with the view of resolving these problems once and for all once you came to power.
"But after five years in office it has become clear that whatever steps have been taken are inadequate to solve these problems. This has resulted in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual distrust and suspicion giving a lever to communal elements to make a mockery of the whole issue.
"Needless for me to reiterate to Your Excellency that, this is a matter that needs the serious and immediate attention of the government so that the Tamil-speaking people could be convinced through positive and meaningful action of the bona fides of the government in so far as their interests are concerned.
"I would urge Your Excellency to treat this matter as a national priority, so that this impasse could be ended for all time.
"Another matter which needs equal priority and calls for a solution without further delay is the question of the stateless.
"We are really reassured and heartened to read Your Excellency's statement in New Delhi in regard to the problems of the stateless, especially in the light of the unhelpful views expressed by Hon. A. C. S. Hameed, minister of foreign affairs, during our discussions here on the subject in December last year.
"This problem, as Your Excellency is aware, has been dragging on for 35 years and the mounting suffering of the people who have been deprived of their rights is immeasurable. I have had occasions to bring to Your Excellency's notice the problems they encounter in every day life, even from unexpected sources."
Thondaman's efforts and President Jayewardene's endeavor in the second week of July to make the DDC work were thwarted by the infamous racial riots of July 1983.
The riots broke out on July 24 night, when the bodies of the 13 soldiers killed in a landmine blast in Jaffna, were flown to Colombo to be interred at Kanatte cemetery. The mob that gathered for the funeral gave vent to their feeling by attacking Tamils, torching their houses and other buildings owned by the Tamils. The attacks that started in Borella spread to other parts of Colombo the next morning. By 10 a.m. the situation worsened.
Thondaman drove to the Presidential Secretariat. President Jayewardene was thoroughly shaken. Thondaman urged him to declare a state of emergency. President Jayewardene hesitated. "Will the forces obey my order?" he kept asking. Thondaman felt he had been fed with discouraging reports. Some officials there were physically shivering with fear. Thondaman had to reassure President Jayewardene that, everything was not lost. Ministers Ronnie de Mel and Gamini Dissanayake then joined them. Thondaman spent three hours persuading the President to declare a state of emergency.
Thondaman visited the refugee camps in Colombo and had a rough reception from the inmates. They were all angry that he still continued to be in the Jayewardene government. They shouted and hooted at him. They said the Jayewardene government was engaged in systematic genocide. They added that under the UNP government, there had been three ethnic riots - in 1977, 1981, and 1983. It took a lot of persuasion to calm them.
Indian feeling was also outraged by the riots. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent her foreign minister Narasimha Rao to meet President Jayewardene. President Jayewardene assured him that, he would find a lasting solution to the ethnic problem. When Rao raised the stateless question of the Tamils of the Indian origin, the President replied that Thondaman was in his Cabinet and he would solve that problem with Thondaman's help. "Leave it to me. I will find a solution," he promised Rao.
As normalcy returned, two statements were issued. The first on August 2, was by the CWC and the second on August 15 by Thondaman. The first briefly said, "We do not subscribe to the idea that the recent pogrom is a Sinhala uprising. In our thinking it is the work of well organized groups … It is more unfortunate that those elements of disaster, these goon squads and rabble rousers, have been allowed to parade in the streets freely, causing havoc and inflicting misery of such proportions with impunity.
The statement also thanked the thousands of Sinhalese, who had braved the wrath of marauding mobs to shelter Tamils.
In his statement Thondaman said, the violence against the Tamil minority, which had been a permanent feature of Sri Lanka's political scene for the last three decades, had erupted once again on a large scale and with unprecedented savagery. Organized groups went on rampage, unchecked for nearly a week, destroying and looting property, setting houses and establishments on fire and killing and maiming innocent, defenseless victims while the guardians of law remained inactive and in some instances even encouraged and assisted the rioters.
He also said there was substantive evidence that the events of the last week of July were not a sudden and spontaneous outburst of the Sinhala population against the Tamils. "It appears that a concerted attempt has been made, by means of a carefully laid plan over a long period of time, to destroy the houses and belongings of persons of Indian origin in the professions and in trade. The objective of the exercise appears to deny the community all avenues of progress and condemn them to a permanent state of captive Labour."
The government, instead of pacifying the Tamils who had suffered tried to justify the attacks by saying that they caused provocation. It then tried to pacify the Sinhalese by rushing through Parliament the sixth constitutional amendment, which requires every MP and government servant to swear allegiance to the unitary constitution. Thondaman advised against such a move; warned the government of the likely consequences.
After the debate Thondaman told me that, the biggest mistake the Sinhala leadership was making was to concern itself only with Sinhala opinion. They always forget that Sri Lanka was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, plural society. Therein lay the root cause of Sri Lanka's racial problem.
The TULF refused to take the oath under the sixth amendment and sought refuge in India. They refused to talk to the Colombo government except through India. The sixth amendment was the immediate cause of India's entry into the picture.
Indira Gandhi, who offered India's good offices sent Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, her special advisor on foreign affairs, to Colombo in August to negotiate with President Jayewardene a solution to the ethnic problem. On his very first visit Parthasarathi called on Thondaman at his ministry and had a long discussion on the ethnic crisis. From that day Parthasarathi involved Thondaman in the negotiations.
As the pace of the negotiations quickened, Parthasarathi invited Thondaman to New Delhi. For ten days he had intensive discussions in New Delhi, and in Tamil Nadu. He met Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. In Tamil Nadu he met with Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran and DMK Chief M. Karunanidhi. They were anxious a permanent arrangement made to ensure the safety of the Tamil people.
He also had discussions with the TULF leaders Amrithalingham, Sivasithamparam and Sampanthan. Amrithalingham asked Thondaman to look after the interests of all sections of Tamil representation in the Parliament. Announcing this on his return to Colombo, Thondaman said, "I have now become the sole representative of the Tamils."
Meets PLOTE Leader
Thondaman also met Uma Maheswaran, leader of the militant People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). That meeting created a furor in Sri Lanka.
Thondaman returned to Colombo on October 22 and the next morning, a Sunday, he briefed President Jayewardene on his Indian tour. He told him that India's good offices and Parthasarathi's services should be accepted and used. He also warned him of the intensity of feeling in Tamil Nadu.
Thondaman called a press conference that evening. The Ministry room was packed. He told pressmen of his meetings with the Indian leaders and said, "The people of Tamil Nadu feel intensely about the Tamil problem." He also said, "The feeling in India is that all the successive governments that assumed office after independence have been intent on destroying the Tamils and oppressing them. Now this issue has become the concern of not only of the Tamils and India, but of the world community."
In answer to a question he said, "The people of Tamil Nadu say the Lankan Government shut its eyes to the violence being unleashed against the Tamil people." To another question he answered, "In Tamil Nadu they say that in Sri Lanka people observe sill the previous night and kill the next morning," adverting to the fact that the riots erupted on the day following Poya.
An irate Sinhala reporter asked, "Indian Tamils were not attacked this time. Why are you getting involved?"
Thondaman retorted, "You know Indian Tamils are also Tamils. They are Tamils first and Indian Tamils second. An attack on Tamils is an attack on Indian Tamils also. Who said Indian Tamils were not attacked? All of us know how the riots spread to the hills."
He said it was M.G.Ramachadran's popularity that held the people of Tamil Nadu in check. Otherwise they would overrun Sri Lanka. He said his meeting with Uma Maheswaran was fruitful, and in that meeting, the militant leader had agreed to accept an alternative to Eelam.
Many Sinhalese leaders were not happy about that meeting with Uma Maheswaran. Some of Thondaman's statements made abroad, presenting the Tamil point of view, also irritated the country's extremist Sinhala section. Around noon on 11 November 1983, the Gampaha MP, S. D. Bandaranayake raised this matter in Parliament at adjournment. Quoting a statement Thondaman made in India the previous week, he charged that it was merely one side of the statistical picture of Sri Lanka's ethnic problem.
Replying to that charge, Thondaman said he had thought S. D. Bandaranayake was a friend of the Tamils. It was S.D.Bandaranayake who blocked Jayewardene's Kandy march that he took to oppose the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam pact. Thondaman said, S.D. Bandaranayke stopped the march by using thuggery - and thus became the father of the doctrine of thuggery, violence and stone-throwing. That doctrine had now been developed and perfected in Sri Lanka, he said.
SLFP MP Lakshman Jayakody and S. D. Bandaranayake wanted to know who had perfected the doctrine of thuggery.
Jayakody: He must say who these people are. It can even mean us. The SLFP had nothing to do with the violence.
S. D. Bandaranayake: Are they separatists?
Then, there was a loud uproar, both Thondaman and Bandaranayake shouting at each other. After the commotion subsided, Dinesh Gunewardene remarked that during the shouting he had heard Thondaman say that they were the same people who had briefed S. D. Bandaranayake to ask those questions.
S. D. Bandaranayake: You must name these people. Otherwise resign. You have become the President of the TULF now. You have been planted in the Cabinet by Tamil Nadu separatists.
Deputy Speaker Norman Waidyaratne stated that it was up to the Minister to divulge the names or not. The House could not compel him.
S. D. Bandaranayake: What about the pack of lies you told Indira Gandhi?
Thondaman: The Member for Gampaha should withdraw the word ‘lies.’
S.D. Bandaranayake, I withdraw the word 'lies'
Thondaman: You have claimed that it was the Sinhala people who were being discriminated against. If that is true, who should be blamed? Do you mean to say successive Sinhala governments discriminated against the Sinhalese? If so, you should be ashamed of yourself for you too was part of the government.
Thondaman was invited by Parthasarathi to be present in New Delhi during the Commonwealth Leaders Conference, that opened on 24 November 1983. In his address to the Commonwealth Leaders Conference, President Jayewardene recalled the meeting he had with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and showered praise on them both. He said he was a follower of the Mahatma's nonviolence and of Nehru's non- - alignment.
Thondaman met Indira the next day. He referred to President Jayewardene's speech and said, "President Jayewardene praised your father very much. I hope you are pleased."
Indira was furious. "That old man was not praising my father. He was telling the world that, I am not living up to my father."
The CWC leader conveyed India's reaction to President Jayewardene and the President replied with a eerie smile.
Indira Gandhi impressed on Thondaman, the urgency of working out a permanent solution to the Tamil problem. Narasimha Rao, whom Thondaman met next, also underlined the need for a political settlement.
A series of intense discussions were held in Delhi and on November 31, a day after the Commonwealth parley was over. President Jayewardene and Indira Gandhi had a long discussion. The famous Annexure C, was agreed on at that meeting. There was only one point on which they failed to agree. Indira Gandhi backed the Tamil demand of a merger of the northern and eastern provinces. President Jayewardene opposed it. He argued that the Muslims and Sinhalese together formed the majority in the eastern province and he was worried about their future in a merged north - east province.
Mrs. Gandhi met the TULF leaders, Amrithalingham, Sivasithamparam and Sampanthan, together with Thondaman, to consider the outcome of the talks with President Jayewardene. Amrithalingham accepted the solution, but insisted that he could not face the Tamil people if he failed to obtain a merger. He suggested that, suitable arrangement is incorporated in any agreement, or the Sinhalese areas excluded from the eastern province. For Amparai, the TULF suggested a separate unit, as it had a Muslim majority.
On his way back to Colombo, Thondaman met M. G. Ramachandran and briefed him on the formula worked out in Delhi, asking him to persuade the TULF to accept it. He failed to meet Karunanidhi. "He avoided meeting me," Thondaman told the Madras press.
On his return to Colombo, Thondaman held a press briefing at his Ministry at Kollupitiya. He announced that the gap between the government and Tamil positions had narrowed to a single issue: Merger. “This is not a big issue to allow the country's future to be jeopardized," he said. "Let us rise above sectarian consideration and solve this once and for all."
A Role in Negotiations
He added, "Even if they fail to come to an agreement the negotiations will continue. Mr. Parthasarathi will come here again. After all, the remaining issue is very simple. The TULF argues that the north and the east, recognized as Tamil - speaking for the use of the Tamil language in the courts and the administration should be treated as a separate unit. President Jayewardene is opposed to such a merger. He is worried about the Sinhalese and Muslims in the eastern province."
Thondaman stressed that the TULF should accept the regional council proposal as the first step. "Although it may not be the exact ideal I feel the TULF should accept it as a solution to the vexed ethnic problem."
Thondaman said the TULF suffered from two main defects: lack of negotiating skill and, the absence of a single person with the capacity to decide on behalf of the party. He said, "TULF leaders are good lawyers, but at the same thing cannot be said of their negotiating capacity … The problem with the TULF is that no single person can decide for the whole party."
He contacted Parthasarathi on the phone and persuaded him to meet the TULF leaders and persuade them to accept the formula, which took the shape of -Annexure C.
Annexure C - was a two-paged document that Parthasarathi himself prepared. It contained the consensus that emerged during the five-month long discussions he had with President Jayewardene, his ministers, Thondaman and the TULF leaders. It contained 14 paragraphs and it was agreed that the Colombo government should place the document before an All-Party Conference that it would convene.
The formula, as contained in Annexure C, provided for the formation of a Regional Council for the Northern Province and another Regional Council for the Eastern Province. These councils were to be established by the union of district development councils of each province. The regional councils would be elected and the leader of the party comma
|Chapter 9 : Cabinet Minister Leads A Strike.|
|The Lowest Paid|
In 1984, Thondaman made history as the only Cabinet Minister who led a strike against his own Government and won. The strike that took place during the first ten days of April, also won equal pay for males and females, thus ending the 150 years of gender discrimination.
Plantation workers had always been the lowest paid in the country. When Thondaman's father Karuppaiah came to Ceylon in 1870, the daily wage was meager 13 cents. It was raised to 33 to 37 cents for men and 25 to 29 cents for women, in the latter part of that decade and later, when tea fetched a better price, the number of working days were increased, thus helping the workers to boost their earnings.
In 1929, the Wages Board was set up under the Minimum Wages (Indian Labour) Ordinance and fixed the wage at 45 to 49 cents for men and 36 to 39 cents for women. In 1945, beside the basic wage, the workers were also paid allowances. In April 1984, the total daily wage of a worker was Rs. 18.01 for men and Rs. 15.03 for women.
An agitation had been building up in the plantation sector since 1982, because public and private sectors had been given substantial wage hike during 1977 to 1984. According to the statistics computed by the CWC, a worker in the public sector received a monthly rise of Rs. 361 while the plantation worker had got only Rs. 136.
The CWC took up the matter. In November 1983, it convened a meeting of all plantation trade unions at the Rural Industrial Development Ministry Office, in Kollupitiya. Fourteen other unions sent their representatives. The UNP - controlled Lanka Jathika Estate Workers' Union (LJEWU) did not respond. The meeting decided to agitate for a decent wage increase. They fixed their demand at Rs. 40 a day. That was the wage the government paid its agricultural farm laborers.
The Joint Committee of Plantation Trade Unions gave notice to the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) and the State Plantation Corporation (SPC), biggest owners of the tea and rubber estates, that the workers would go on strike on April 1, if their demand for a wage rise was not granted.
After a cabinet meeting, Thondaman mentioned the matter to President Jayewardene, who expressed his sympathy with the demand. He also told the President of his intention to go to Europe in the last week of March. The President did not comment.
Thondaman left on his tour in the hope that President Jayewardene would find an acceptable solution. Neither the President nor the government acted. Strike commenced on April 1 as planned. That was a Sunday. The actual extent of support for the strike could not be gauged. That evening, President Jayewardene met representatives of the LJEWU led by Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake; the SPC Chairman Denham de Alwis and the JEDB Chairman Pemsit Seneviratne were present. At the talks, the SPC and JEDB agreed to raise the wage (for men and women) to Rs. 21.75 a day.
The Plantation Industry Ministry rushed a communiqué to the papers, radio and television with the request that, it be given maximum publicity. It said pay rise was decided during talks with the LJEWU and that it incorporated the historic decision to give equal pay to men and women. It added that the wage hike would cost the government additional Rs. 429 million. The festival advance had also been raised from Rs. 300 to Rs. 500.
The Joint Committee of Plantation Trade Unions met on April 2 and decided to reject the pay rise. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, President of the LEWU, was vehement that they should reject it. "It's a conspiracy to kill our strike," he thundered.
About six lakhs of workers downed their tools and over fifty percent of the LJEWU also joined them. Sellasamy issued a statement rejecting the government’s offer. He struck to the original demand of Rs. 40 per day.
On Tuesday, third day of the strike, the LJEWU claimed that most of its workers were working and the CWC claimed " one hundred percent success". Thondaman returned that evening. The next morning he attended the parliamentary group meeting where President Jayewardene told the MPs that if government were to agree for the Rs. 40 daily wage demand, it would cost the government an additional Rs. 2,000 million a year. That would be disastrous in the prevailing economic situation. He indicated that he would issue an appeal to the workers to return as the work stoppage was costing the country daily Rs. 60 millions.
The LJEWU president, Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake, issued a statement asking the workers to return, as some of their demands had already been won. He also referred to insinuations already in the air that the strike was politically motivated and aimed at helping the growing Tamil militancy in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
Thondaman attended the weekly Cabinet meeting that morning and took a very firm stand. There was a verbal clash between him and Gamini Dissanayake, in which, strong words, such as "sabotage' were used. President Jayewardene intervened and asked Plantation Industries Minister Montague Jayawickreme to mediate.
Jayawickreme had two rounds of talks the next day, Thursday, the fifth day of the strike. He had two meetings - one with the officials of the JEDB, SPC and the Treasury. The second was with the 15 striking trade unions and the LJEWU.
At the second meeting, the delegation representing the 15 unions submitted an interim two - point demand. CWC Vice - President Jaya Peri Sundaram told the Minister that, what they were demanding as an interim measure was the addition of the legally due cost of living index and price - wage supplement to the prevailing wage of Rs. 16.30 a day. The cost of living index at the rate of 6 cents per point worked out to Rs. 8.04; the minimum price - wage supplement came to Rs. 2.70. These two amounts added to the current daily wage of Rs. 16.30 totaled Rs. 27.04.
Minister Jayewickreme heard this demand and sprang a surprise on the delegation, which comprised Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Sellasamy, S. Nadesan and C. V. Velupillai. He said President Jayewardene wanted the unions to call off the strike for a settlement to be worked out. "Once the strikers resume work a committee will be appointed to look into their demands," Jayawickreme said. This annoyed the trade unions. They told the minister they were not prepared to call off the strike till a settlement was worked out.
Thondaman met President Jayewardene and told him, "We will not call off the strike till a solution is found." He informed the president that Gamini Dissanayake's LJEWU was cracking up and large numbers of his union had joined the strike. President Jayewardene agreed to instruct the Plantation Industries Minister to continue with the negotiations.
Immense pressure was brought on President Jayewardene. The JEDB boss, Pemsit Seneviratne, met the President and convinced him that CWC demands should not be met. He also told the press that the government had taken a firm decision not to yield to the striking unions. Sellasamy told the press that his union's belief was that President Jayewardene was sympathetic to the workers, but accused the UNP - aligned LJEWU of "pressurizing him (The President) for its selfish ends." The LJEWU hit back hard at the CWC, accusing it of following a "cutting the nose to spite the face" policy and said the CWC was bent on damaging the peaceful settlement they had reached.
Thondaman and Sellasamy met President Jayewardene on April 9, Monday, and assured him that the strike was not anti-government. "The CWC is committed to support the government and that commitment stands. We tried to obtain justice for the plantation workers through negotiations. It is after all those avenues failed that we resorted to this last weapon," Thondaman explained.
He also pointed out that legal dues had been denied to plantation workers. What he was interested in, he said, was to get a commitment from the government that they would be met. He promised to call off the strike once that undertaking was given. President Jayewardene undertook to consider those matters.
Thondaman and Sellasamy left that evening for the plantation areas on whirlwind tour. He went from estate to estate, urging the workers to stand firm on the strike. He asked the Sinhala workers not to be misled by communal propaganda. "Whether you are a Sinhalese or Tamil, you are plantation worker. If the wage is increased, them all the workers will benefit. So all plantation workers should be united," he said.
He returned to Colombo on April 10. A meeting had been fixed with President Jayewardene. Gamini Dissanayake was there. The government agreed to increase the daily wage by another two rupees. Thondaman agreed to call off the strike. A joint communiqué was issued that evening announcing the government's decision to raise the daily wage to Rs. 23.75 and the CWC's undertaking to call off the strike.
That strike was a great victory for Thondaman. He told the press, he saw no contradiction in the two roles he was playing - that of Cabinet Minister and trade union leader. "I've never felt or experienced any conflict of any interest, between the two and there will be no conflict, if you know the limits each role imposes on you," he said.
Thondaman knew the limits. He never led the CWC into anti-government agitations, or in any collision course with the government. He used the trade union and the strike weapon to win the rights of the workers, nothing more.
Even in seeking a reasonable solution to the ethnic strife he knew his limitations. "I can go only as far as I do not lose credibility with the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. It is a difficult balancing act," he told me before the All-Party Conference (APC) in December 1983.
Annexure C that was finalized during the Commonwealth summit in New Delhi ran into severe criticism from the Buddhist clergy and President Jayewardene quietly dropped it when he summoned the APC. The TULF and other Tamil groups wanted it to be placed before the APC, as a conference document. Thondaman, who called a conference of all the Tamil groups, offered to place it as a CWC document.
President Jayewardene summoned a meeting of eight political parties on Wednesday, 21 December 1983, to go into the question of summoning an All-Party Conference to discuss the problems concerning ethnic affairs and terrorism. Eight parties invited were the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Ceylon Workers' Congress, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Workers' Congress. The Lanka Samasamaja Party, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party.
On receiving his invitation, Thondaman said the TULF too should be invited. Considering the Tamil problem without the TULF was like playing Hamlet without the Prince. His view was supported by most of the other parties including the SLFP. The meeting decided that the TULF, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Nava Sama Samaja Parties should be invited to the conference. President Jayewardene agreed to invite the TULF but said that since the JVP and the NSSP were proscribed they could not be called.
The Indian High Commissioner G. K. Chhatwal was flown to Madras with the invitation to the TULF. The conference met at the BMICH on 10 January 1984, and continued for six days. It was decided that the conference should enlarge participation and invite religious representatives. That was done mainly to include the Supreme Council of the Maha Sangha that wanted to take part.
The SLFP and MEP, which took part the first two days of the conference, decided to withdraw. After formal presentations of opinion the conference set up two committees in February to consider the grievances of the various communities and to evolve a system of government that would help remove them and to examine the causes of ethnic violence and find ways to eradicate them.
In March, the APC met in plenary session and considered the three matters identified by the committees. The first was the system of government required for devolving power; the second the problem of the stateless and the third ethnic violence and terrorism.
On the most sensitive subject of devolution, there was consensus that power should be devolved from the centre to the district councils. The government took up the position that it would agree to the district councils and no more. The Tamils wanted regional councils. There was a deadlock regarding the unit of devolution.
Maha Sangha Agrees
The stateless problem had an easy passage. The threat at that time was of Indian interference. The Maha Sangha was especially concerned about it. Mahanayakes felt that India would interfere only if Indians were in Sri Lanka. If Indian nationals were sent away and the balance made Lankan citizens, then India would not have any cause or pretext to interfere, the Mahanayakes thought. The result was the resolution they moved on statelessness.
The resolution read, "We should not have a category of persons who call themselves Indian. This can easily be achieved by sending back those who have to be sent back to India, as stated in the Sirima - Shastri Pact and by giving citizenship to the rest. Even though the numbers may be a little more, the Supreme Sangha Council declares that the council is not opposed to their being given citizenship in order to arrive at a solution to this problem."
At the conclusion of the meeting, the press was told to await a statement from the Maha Sangha. Athulathmudali gave a press briefing in the BMICH lobby to announce the Maha Sangha's support to end statelessness. While he was explaining the decision the door opened. A group of bhikkhus, led by the Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Thera, was seen waiting. Athulathmudali went up to them.
"We want to meet the press," the Ven. Pannaseeha Thera said.
"You are welcome to do so," said Athulathmudali and led them to the head table. He took a seat on the side.
The Ven. Pannaseeha Thera made a statement, "We like to address the press on today's decisions. We agreed today to recommend that the government grants citizenship to the 94,000 stateless persons." He then explained their decision. He said India was trying to interfere in Lankan affairs. India would have the right to do so only if Indian citizens were in Sri Lanka. Stateless persons would give India such a pretext. If they made the stateless persons Lankan citizens India would have no ground to interfere in Lankan affairs, the Ven. Madihe Thera said. Thus there was general consensus that a final solution should be found for the stateless problem.
In finding a solution to the ethnic problem, the meeting dragged on till December, without any definite outcome. The TULF had got tired of the whole exercise. It felt that the government was preparing for a military solution. On December 23, Amirthalingham told the press that the proposals were totally unacceptable to the Tamil people. The cabinet considered Amirthalingham's statement on December 26. There was an angry reaction from some of the ministers. Thondaman cautioned them but President Jayewardene decided to discontinue the conference and not to implement to proposals.
The government spokesman, minister Lalith Athulathmudali, summoned a press conference to announce the cabinet decision. When I asked Athulathmudali why they ware discontinuing the conference, he said, "I am in favor of continuing the conference but the people at the top decided otherwise."
Thondaman too was not happy. He told me, "This is a big mistake. The chance of finding an internal solution has been missed. Now India has an opportunity to involve itself directly in the ethnic problem." And so it happened.
Thondaman was also not satisfied with the government's position that terrorism should be eliminated before a solution was worked out. On 27 December 1984 the CWC passed two resolutions on this subject. The first said the CWC believed in a negotiated settlement. The second stated that the CWC rejected the government argument that terrorism should be eliminated before a solution could be worked out.
The Lankan government intensified military operations from January. There were frequent landmine attacks by the Tamil militant groups and a few cases in which Lankan army patrols were ambushed. That led to reprisals and cordon and search operations. Many Tamil families fled to India. Tension began to mount both in the north and east and in Tamil Nadu. Thondaman visited Tamil Nadu in the second week of March and sensed the growing tension there.
On his return, he called on President Jayewardene. The meeting took place on March 15 and he told the President, "The situation in Tamil Nadu is extremely tense. The people are highly agitated. Unless some urgent steps are taken to better the situation things may go out of hand."
He also briefed the President on the meeting he had with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran. He said he had told MGR that, Eelam was meaningless and that MGR shared that view.
Do Not internationalize
Thondaman also summoned a press conference to tell the Lankan people, the actual situation in Tamil Nadu. "I want you to inform the people of Sri Lanka of the intense feeling of resentment in Tamil Nadu, to the military path Colombo is following to solve the Tamil question." He also spoke of the danger of driving the Tamils to Tamil Nadu as refugees.
"I was told that the Lankan army and navy are helping the Tamils to flee to India. They perhaps think their problem will be solved if all the Tamils flee to India. They fail to realize the danger that might flow. India will become involved in the Sri Lanka's problem. By your short-sightedness, do not internationalize what is purely an internal problem," he warned the people through the press.
He also did his best to stem the flow of Tamil refugees to Tamil Nadu. While in India, he told the Tamil Nadu press, "Tamils are coming to Tamil Nadu because you are treating them well. If you stop that favored treatment they will stop coming." He tried to discourage the Tamil Nadu people from giving an enthusiastic welcome and support to Lankan Tamil refugees.
In Sri Lanka he adopted a different line. He told the Lankan press on March 16, "Come what may, Tamils in Sri Lankan should not desert their homes and become refugees in India. They should stay on. Fleeing to India as refugees will only help the extremist Sinhalese who want to reduce the Tamil population in certain areas. You cannot run away and at the same time ask for your rights."
He added, "By saying India should shut its doors to the refugees I am not trying to justify the atrocities or belittle the suffering of the Tamils in the last three months."
He also tried to revive political processes by submitting fresh proposals, which came to be known as the CWC proposals. In essence they amounted to Annexure C. He suggested that the disputed question of merger be settled after the regional councils were made to work.
By this time a significant change had occurred in the New Delhi power structure. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi had been made Prime Minister. Parthasarathi had been pushed aside and the flamboyant Romesh Bhandari was foreign secretary. The youthful pilot - turned Prime Minister was dreaming of good relations with neighboring countries. Rajiv sent Bhandari to Colombo in March 1985 to solve the ethnic problem.
Bhandari met President Jayewardene and ministers Athulathmudali, Dissanayake, Ronnie de Mel, Thondaman and Devanayagam. Thondaman assessed Bhandari immediately. He told him directly that he had not understood the nature of the problem. Then he told President Jayewadene and Minister Athulathmudali that since Bhandari was better disposed towards the Lankan government, they should use that opportunity to work out a solution. They paid no heed.
Thondaman's statements in India and Sri Lanka irked the chauvinistic elements in the government. With the intention of capitalizing on this, the SLFP threatened to move a vote of no - confidence against Thondaman in parliament. President Premadasa, then Prime Minister, immediately announced that the government would defend him. He gave two reasons for that decision. He said, Thondaman was the "most faithful supporter of the UNP" and Thondaman was the "sheet anchor of the government's Tamil policy."
At that time Premadasa was Leader of the House. His office issued a statement explaining why the government had decided to defend Thondaman. It read, "There have been critical observations by some government members at recent internal meetings about Thondaman's utterances in India and Sri Lanka, but no one has criticized him so harshly as to warrant a "no faith" motion by the opposition."
"The ruling UNP recognizes the consistent support Mr. Thondaman has given President J. R. Jayewardene in particular and the UNP in general, from the days of the 'Attanagala meeting'. Moreover, Mr. Thondaman's recent utterances in Tamil Nadu on the Lankan Tamil refugee issue and the Tamil terrorist issue, are highly appreciated within the government. Appropriate gratitude will be shown him at the appropriate time."
Later, Kotmale MP Ananda Dassanayake told a public rally that Thondaman should serve the Sinhalese people also. Thondaman, who was present, replied immediately. He invited Dassanayake to witness the May Day celebration at Bandarawela. "I wish to tell Mr. Dassanayake that there are more than 76,000 Sinhala estate workers who are members of the CWC. They are from Galle, Deniyaya and Avissawella. Although I am a member of the cabinet, I staged a strike to win the legitimate rights of plantation workers. That benefited all estate workers irrespective of race."
Tells India: Get Iinvolved
Romesh Bahandari, when he returned to New Delhi, presented a rosy picture to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, about the possibility of solving the ethnic conflict. In April, Rajiv Gandhi said that he saw a "light at the end of the tunnel." A few days later, on May 7, at a farewell reception the CWC accorded the departing Indian High Commissioner Chhatwal, in Colombo, Thondaman caustically remarked, "The tunnel seems to be never ending and becomes increasingly darker. "
"The PLO, which has used violence in its struggle, has been given recognition by the United Nations - of which both Sri Lanka and India are member states. Is there no way of adopting similar approach in the Lankan situation to end this vast human tragedy?"
He also called for a change of role by India. He said, "India's role as a postmen will not yield result. It must have direct talks with Sri Lanka."
That speech, widely publicized in Sri Lanka, India and other countries, took him to the centre of the controversy. The PLO Ambassador in Colombo, Dr. K. Abdul Rahman, took objection to his comparison of the Tamil militants with the PLO. Lankans were disturbed by his call to the Indian government for a change of role from that of a mediator to a participant.
Aruna Kulatunga of the “Sun” newspaper interviewed Thondaman about this matter. He asked:
"You have called for a new and radical approach towards solving the country's ethnic conflict. Could you explain the nature of the approach that you say should be adopted".
Thondaman replied, "I believe that both Sri Lanka and India should be fully involved in the negotiating process, to achieve any lasting solution to the problem. Right now, India's approach is one of "expressing concern'; and Sri Lanka's that it is an internal matter and no other country should be involved in seeking this solution. This must change. It has been going on far too long now. From the time of the incidents in July 1983 India has been expressing concern at the so-called barbaric and inhuman situation in the country."
But India continued its stand. New Delhi invited a Lankan delegation of lawyers and jurists. The delegation, led by Dr. H. Jayewardene, flew to New Delhi in June 1985 and met with Mr. K. Paraswaram, the Attorney-General of India and others to consider the legal and constitutional aspects of devolving legislative and executive powers to appropriate units in Sri Lanka.
Both sides agreed that, any settlement of the ethnic conflict should be within the parameters of sections 2 and 3 of Sri Lanka's constitution. Section 2 lays down that Sri Lanka is a unitary state and section 3 that sovereignty is with the people and inalienable. Agreement was also reached on the main outline of the structure and powers of the units of devolution.
India Gets Involved
Indian authorities thought sufficient progress had been achieved to bring the two contending parties face to face. Tamil militant groups refused to meet the Lankan delegation in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan preferred to have the meeting outside India. Bhandari suggested the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu as a neutral venue. Two rounds of talks were held in the Himalayan city in July and August between the representatives of the Tamil groups and the Lankan delegation led by Dr. H. W. Jayewardene.
The Tamil groups, which comprised the TULF, LTTE, PLOT, TELO, EROS and EPRLF took a common stand and insisted that four principles should be accepted for the talks to proceed. They were:
1. Recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality.
2. Recognition of an identified Tamil homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity.
3. The right of self - determination of the Tamil nation.
4. The right of full citizenship of all Tamils living in Sri Lanka.
H. W. Jayewardene emphatically rejected these principles. He argued that the first three - distinct nationality, separate homeland and self - determination - taken together, amounted to reaffirmation of the demand for a separate state. The government was not in a position to accept them.
Of the fourth principle, he argued that it was not a matter for the TULF or Tamil militants. He also presented a draft proposal for setting up sub-national units to which powers could be devolved. Though the Tamil groups had indicated areas of agreement, they walked out of the conference charging that the Colombo government had violated the ceasefire agreement.
H. W. Jayewardene then had discussions in New Delhi and a comprehensive paper was prepared covering all issues. Jayewardene also had a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. Thondaman welcomed this agreement and said it denoted a forward movement.
New Delhi passed on the draft agreement to the Tamil groups and it was felt that further clarifications were needed. A three - member delegation, led by H. W. Jayewardene, went to Delhi and had discussions with senior officials of the foreign ministry from September 10 -13. The delegation gave details of how the proposals by the Lankan government would work in actual practice.
On September 30, Bhandari visited Colombo for further discussions. He met Thondaman and urged him to meet the Eelam National Liberation Front in Madras. That group, comprising the LTTE, TELO, EPRLF and EROS, was hesitant to agree to any settlement. Thondaman flew to Madras and met the ENLF leadership. At that meeting, Velupillai Prabhakaran of the LTTE, Sri Sabaratnam of TELO, V. Balakumar of EROS and K. Pathmanaba of the EPRLF were present. Ranjan Mathew of the Indian foreign ministry was there too. Thondaman pressed the necessity of a quick settlement and the urgent need for an end to the sufferings of the Tamil people.
The ENLF delegation went to New Delhi for talks, where Sri Lanka's proposals were discussed in detail. The ENLF leaders told New Delhi they wanted an autonomous Tamil region to be able to give up their struggle for Eelam. Prabhakaran was adamant. He said they would not abandon their struggle unless they got something substantial. The ENLF rejected the Lankan proposals as inadequate.
The TULF was not happy either with the Lankan proposals. Bhandari was annoyed. He asked for some response from the TULF and after three months of hesitation, the TULF on December 1, submitted a detailed memorandum.
By this time the stage had been set for the prayer campaign - the campaign that won for the Indian Tamils the citizenship denied them 38 year ago.
|Chapter 12: The Bond Ruptures|
|Chapter 12: The Bond Ruptures|
Selfish-for the community
November 9, 1988 was a day of triumph for Thondaman. It was on that day that the final act of the long drawn drama of statelessness was ended. On that day, Parliament unanimously enacted the simple seven - clause bill, entitled "Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons (Special Provisions) Act," which conferred Sri Lankan citizenship on every stateless person of Indian origin, lawfully resident in Sri Lanka and who had not applied for Indian citizenship under the Indo- Sri Lankan pacts. The law also allowed the granting of Certificate of Citizenship, if applied for in the prescribed forms, supported by an affidavit.
That was the last major act of the eighth Parliament whose dissolution was delayed to rush this legislation through - the bill brought in to satisfy Thondaman and the CWC, unhappy that the granting of citizenship had not been completed within the 18 - month time frame settled under the January 1986 agreement.
Nearly three years after the agreement, citizenship had been granted only to 233,000 persons of the total 469,000. Even this number of people were granted citizenship, because of the constant pressure Thondaman brought to bear on the bureaucracy and the special effort made by the administration.
The Commissioner for the Registration of Persons of Indian Origin reorganized the department and recruited more personnel. He revamped administrative and interviews procedures. Applications were reorganized on a district and estate basis. The assistant commissioners went to estates to conduct investigations on the spot.
Thondaman accompanied them and made use of the CWC machinery to get the applicants to face the inquiry. There were many difficulties. Biggest of them all was the problem of tracing the applicants, because, these applications had been made over a quarter century ago and some of the applicants had died and others had switched estates or migrated to other parts of the country, like Vavuniya in the north. In one instance, in one estate in Kalutara, the whereabouts of over 100 families could not be traced.
Thondaman and the CWC were concerned that with the slow pace of registration it might take another quarter - century to complete the granting of citizenship. On 30 March 1987, CWC Assistant Secretary, A. M. D. Rajan told at a public meeting that, if the government failed to grant citizenship within the stipulated 18 months period, the CWC might have to resume its prayer campaign.
The CWC decided on a three - day prayer campaign starting on June 1. Thondaman met President Jayewardene on May 27 and told him that the granting of citizenship had not been completed and impressed on him the urgency of settling the problem. They also discussed the arrests of up-country Tamil youths on the pretext that they were engaged in terrorist activities. President Jayewardene appointed a Cabinet sub-committee, headed by Lalith Athulathmudali, to quicken the citizenship granting process. Thondaman and Hameed were the other members in the sub-committee. Thondaman agreed to call off the prayer campaign and meet President Jayewardene on June 1, to sort out other outstanding problems.
Thondaman was questioned closely by the press about this.
Question: You are always selfish, aren't you?
Things moved a little faster after the appointment of the Cabinet sub-committee, but not sufficient to complete the work soon. Officials blamed the Indian Tamils for not cooperating. Thondaman lost hope of citizenship being granted within reasonable time, so he pressed President Jayewardene to enact a special law granting citizenship to all stateless persons. President Jayewardene, however, wavered, hesitated, yet Thondaman did not lose faith. He bided his time.
The opportunity came in September 1988, just after President Jayewardene had called for the presidential election. Opposition Leader Anura Bandaranaike who addressed an SLFP seminar at the Hatton - Dickoya town hall called upon the CWC to join the SLFP saying that SLFP was not a communal organization and believed in granting citizenship rights to the stateless Tamils after granting the rights of the majority community. He publicly invited the CWC for talks.
Thondaman was in India at that time. Sellasamy informed him of Anura's invitation and Thondaman instructed Sellasamy to explore the matter. A meeting was arranged between Sellasamy and Mrs. Bandaranaike, at which she confirmed Anura's offer and said the SLFP would restore the rights of the stateless.
When Thondaman arrived for the Wednesday Cabinet meeting, the Secretary to the Cabinet, showed him the Communist Party paper “Attha,” which had a report on the Mrs. Bandaranaike - Sellasamy meeting. At the cabinet meeting, Thondaman raised the citizenship issue and declared, "I have tried all these years to find a solution to the stateless problem. I have failed. Now, I have no moral right to continue to be the leader of the plantation Tamils. I am thinking of retiring and handing over to more able youngsters."
Premadasa understood the message. He said if Mrs. Bandaranaike could settle the citizenship problem, "why can't we?" President Jayewardene also appeared willing.
After the cabinet meting, Premadasa went up to Thondaman, "Thonda! The old man is in a mood to agree." He took Thondaman to President Jayewardene and played the trump card, "If Anura can do it, why can't we."
When they left the President's office, Premadasa told Thondaman to submit a draft bill. "Give it to Choksy," he said.
Thondaman acted fast. He summoned a group of lawyers and asked them to prepare the draft. The next day he handed it to K. N. Choksy, the President Counsel. Choksy consulted the Deputy Solicitor-General and wanted many changes introduced. Thondaman refused. He told him, "This is a political bill, to achieve a political purpose. I want it to be enacted as it is. Choksy was hesitant. But Thondaman was firm: "If the government is not going to accept the draft, I can't support the government. Please allow politicians to decide these things. “
The matter dragged on for a few days. Thondaman asked Premadasa what was happening. Premadasa took Thondaman to President Jayewardene. Thondaman showed him the draft and asked that it be enacted before the dissolution of parliament. "Please do something," Premadasa urged the president. He agreed.
The Rural Industrial Development Ministry issued a press release saying that the government would shortly introduce legislation to confer citizenship status to stateless persons. It added that the proposed law would, notwithstanding any other law, grant Sri Lankan citizenship to every person of Indian origin lawfully resident in Sri Lanka provided that person was neither a citizen of Sri Lanka nor an applicant for Indian citizenship.
On 9 November 1988, Minister Lalith Athulathmudali presented the special legislation in parliament. It was passed unanimously. From the opposition, only the Communist Party MP, Dew Gunesekara, voted for the bill. The SLFP and the MEP walked out of the House on some other pretext, thus evading a definite stand. This legislation, taken together with the Registration of Electors (Amendment Bill) passed on 28 April 1988, removed the 40-year-old indignity, that had been heaped on the Indian Tamil community.
"The struggle is not over yet," said Thondaman in an interview he gave me on 24 August 1989. "We have to get the laws implemented; we must have the people registered as citizens. That is a big task." The CWC has been assigned to handle it.
Two minor problems remained: the problem of the 84,000 Indian Tamils who obtained Indian passports, but stay put in Sri Lanka and that of the Temporary Residence Permit (TRP) holders. Thondaman had been negotiating with Sri Lanka and India to resolve these problems. He has suggested that these residual problems should be treated as human problem.
President Jayewardene and Premadasa kept Thondaman on their side, because they knew his “Kingmaker” capability. He won for the UNP eight elections in a row, beginning with the 1982 Presidential election, in which President Jayewardene easily defeated SLFP candidate Hector Kobbekadduwa. The winner and the loser acknowledged the role Thondaman played in that election. The winner President Jayewardene told Thondaman, "I owe my victory to you" and the loser Kobbekadduwa told Virakesari that, Thondaman defeated him. The UNP won the referendum held later that year with Thondaman's vote bank.
Since 1965, Thondaman played an increasingly important role in the national election, but he was kept on the sidelines. "In the 1965 parliamentary election," he told me in an interview, "Dudley asked me to keep our agreement a secret. He told me that it should be announced on the last public meeting so that the SLFP would not use it to tilt the Sinhala votes. In the 1984 Provincial Council elections, he decided to enter the centre stage.
The CWC contested that election in the UNP nomination list. He invited the UNP Sinhala candidates to address the meetings organized by CWC candidates. He told the Tamil voters to cast two of the three preference votes to CWC candidates and the other to the UNP nominee. His supporters heeded his advice, but not the Sinhala voters. He admitted after the election that, his policy of integrating the Tamil and Sinhala voters had failed. "The Sinhalese gained at our expense, " he said.
He decided that the Sinhalese should compensate their gain by offering the Central Province Chief Ministership to the CWC. In a statement he said, CWC had won for the UNP in the Western, Central, Uva and Sabraganuva provinces. In the Nuwara Eliya district, one of the three in the Central province, his son Ramanathan had collected the highest 25,436 preference votes and thus his son Ramanathan should be appointed Chief Minister. Sinhala chauvinism was disturbed.
Chief Ministership Claim for the son
D.B. Wijetunge said he was surprised by Thondaman's claim, "How can Thondaman make such a claim?" he asked President Jayewardene. He summoned a meeting of the UNP Central Province District Committee and urged it to lead a protest delegation to President Jayewardene. He told them that they should not permit a Tamil to be the Chief Minister of the Kandyan territory. President Jayewardene jokingly told the delegation: "The last King of Kandy was not a Sinhalese!"
Thondaman would not relent. He invited me to the hospital-suite where he was resting and gave me an interview in which he said: "What is there to be surprised about my claim. I have based it on the showing of the CWC candidates, who contested in the UNP list. What is there to be horrified in appointing a Tamil to head Provincial Council administration of the Central province? I feel that, by appointing a Tamil, the Sinhalese and the UNP can demonstrate to the whole world that, they have the capacity to rise above narrow ethnic prejudices." In the later part of that statement he dealt a blow at Sinhala chauvinists. He said, "I have heard several times the Sinhala leadership preaching to India to behave like a beneficial elder brother. Appointing a Tamil the Chief Minister of the Central Province, will give them a chance to show the world that they are capable of behaving like a good elder brother."
Thondaman's claim for Chief Ministership put President Jayewardene in a quandary. He sent UNP Chairman Ranjan Wijeratne to hold talks with Thondaman. Wijeratne persuaded Thondaman to accept a Ministry in the Board of Ministers. "You name the ministry and it will be given," Wijeratne told him. Thondaman asked for the Ministry of Education, Rural Industrial Development and Employment. It was given to Ramanathan. Thondaman explained, "I asked for the education ministry because, that is the area in which my people are backward. If we improve their educational standard they will look after themselves."
The Sunday Island newspaper, interviewed Thondaman on the refusal of the UNP to grant his demand for Chief Ministership.
Question: Are you disappointed?
Thondaman: I am never disappointed. I have always been an optimist. If you are a pessimist you are always a failure in life.
Question: Your comment about UNP's refusal?
Thondaman: The UNP and the Sinhala community have lost a golden opportunity to show the world their greatness.
In the December 1988 Presidential election, Thondaman campaigned very hard for the UNP candidate Premadasa. He declared that he would deliver to him a million votes. "Premadasa is a friend of the minorities. He is a leader who is prepared to treat the minority communities with respect. He is also a leader who understands the plight of the common man, especially that of the workers. He is also sympathetic towards the plantation labour," he said in his speeches.
As soon as the results were announced, Premadasa thanked Thondaman and publicly, and acknowledged that his victory was mainly due to the support of the minority communities. Thondaman issued a statement thanking the CWC members for helping him to keep his words, and said: "We played a vital role in the Presidential election. The CWC has made a major contribution to the country by helping to elect Mr. Premadasa as the new President."
The next election in which Thondaman played a crucial role was the Parliamentary election of February 1989. President Premadasa summoned Thondaman soon after the presidential election and told him about his intention to dissolve Parliament and hold a fresh election. "I need your full support," he said. "My hundred percent support is with you," Thondaman replied. President Premadasa persuaded Thondaman not to contest saying that he needed his full energies to campaign around the country. The UNP agreed to give the CWC two places in the national list. The CWC fielded its candidates in the UNP list: two in Nuwara Eliya and one each in Kandy, Colombo, Badulla and Ratnapura districts.
Thondaman calculated that through this type of continued involvement with the UNP, his goal of national peace and integration could be achieved. In his election speech at Nuwara Eliya he said, "The CWC joined the UNP to preserve peace and unity in the country. It also joined the UNP because it was through the UNP the plantation workers regained their votes and other rights and benefits."
The CWC vote bank helped the UNP to make a clean sweep of the Central, Uva and Sabragamuva provinces. President Premadasa also kept his part of the agreement and appointed Thondaman to the Cabinet and P. P. Devaraj as the Minister of State for Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs. Thondaman was first given the Textiles and Rural Industrial Development portfolio. A year later, when the Cabinet was reshuffled, Textiles was removed and Tourism added. President Premadasa explained, "He (Thondaman) knows to promote Sri Lanka abroad. That's why I gave him the subject of tourism to him … I have not changed the subject of Rural Industrial Development, because he had brought a reawakening in rural industry." Thondaman had been the minister for rural industrial development since he was appointed to the cabinet in 1978.
Asking Sinhalese to contest on CWC list
In the local government election of May 1991, Thondaman took a further step to strengthen the UNP - CWC unity and to bring the Sinhalese and the plantation Tamils closer. He told President Premadasa that he wanted the CWC to contest two Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Nuwara Eliya district and the president asked him to speak to Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunga, who was in charge of the Central Province election committee. Thondaman told Wijetunga that the CWC wanted to contest Nuwara Eliya and Ambegamuwa pradeshiya sabhas.
"How can that be," protested Wijetunga. "UNP cannot abandon those pradeshiya sabhas," he added.
"I am not asking the UNP to abandon those pradeshiya sabhas. I am only asking the UNP to contest on the CWC list. That will also show that the CWC is not being asked to play a second fiddle," Thondaman explained.
"How can you ask the Sinhalese to contest on the CWC list?" Wijetunga questioned.
"When Tamils are contesting on the UNP lists. Why can't Sinhalese contest on CWC lists?" Thondaman countered.
"They are two different things," Wijetunga replied.
Thondaman told him firmly, "We of the CWC have decided to contest the two pradeshiya sabhas under our own symbol. If UNP Sinhalese is prepared to contest in our list, we are ready to accommodate them. If they are not prepared, we may have to reconsider the entire agreement. It is the CWC which decides its policies and not you."
Wijetunga took up the dispute with President Premadasa who told him, "They are contesting in our lists in many local bodies. What is wrong in our contesting in their list only in two pradeshiya sabhas."
The CWC contested those two pradeshiya sabhas under its own Cockerel symbol and won convincingly. Many CWC candidates who contested in the UNP list in other local bodies also won and the CWC vote bank enabled the UNP to win many local bodies.
Thondaman addressed the newly elected CWC local body members in Kandy. He told them, "You are a batch of privileged persons. You are the elected representatives of a people who had been denied their basic rights for about four decades. You must realize two things. You are the representatives of the people. Every decision you take and every act you perform, should be in consonance with the will of the people who elected you. You must also remember that, you have been elected not because of your own popularity, but because you were nominated by the CWC," He asked them to work hard and earn respect for themselves and their community.
The last of the elections was the Provincial Council elections of 17 May 1993, held just 17 days after the assassination of President Premadasa. The nomination lists for the elections were prepared when President Premadasa was alive and the CWC was allocated more places. At the election the CWC candidates performed well, with 11 elected for the Central Province, 3 for the Western, 3 for Sabragamuva and 2 for Uva. The CWC votes helped the UNP to retain the three hill country provincial councils. The North Central Provincial Council was the only provincial council the UNP was able to win on its own. It lost the Western, North Western and Southern provincial councils to the SLFP - led People's Alliance. Thondaman was inundated with congratulatory telephone calls as the results of the Central, Sabragamuva and Uva polls were announced.
Their relationship was very close after the role Thondaman played in defeating the famous impeachment plot, the biggest plot in Sri Lankan parliamentary history. The plot originated in November 1990, when Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Sirimavo Bandaranaike met in London and shared their common hatred for President Premadasa. They agreed that something should be done to topple President Premadasa from power and stopped short of any concrete plan of action.
The matter was revived in June 1991, at a late hour meeting at Lalith Athulathmudali's Kollupitiya home, when he and Dissanayake considered the strategy of defeating the government on a money bill. By that time, Premadasa had alienated sufficient number of UNP parliamentarians and ministers. He had also angered Speaker M. H. Mohammed by his refusal to appoint his son, Hussain, as the Mayor of Colombo. He had also started to sideline Mohammed. Athulathmudali and Dissanayake decided that night, to approach Mrs. Bandaranaike through a mediator.
The mediator called on Mrs. Bandaranaike on July I morning and she responded enthusiastically. This resulted in Athulathmudali modifying his earlier plan of outvoting the government on a money bill into moving a motion of no confidence. The motion was to be moved by the opposition and the government supporters were to vote with the opposition, thus overthrowing the Premadasa’s administration.
Mrs. Bandaranaike undertook to collect the signatures of opposition members and Athulathmudali and Dissanayake shared the responsibility of obtaining the signatures of UNP members. Mrs. Bandaranaike kept her word and collected the signatures of all opposition MPs except that of Stanley Tilakaratne, on the morning of August 27. Dissanayake too collected his quota of 15 UNP MPs and Mohammed obtained the signatures of some Tamil and Muslim MPs. Athulathmudali went with his quota of signatures to the secret meeting that night at a common place with Mrs. Bandaranaike, Dissanayake and Mohammed. At that meeting the letter entertaining the impeachment motion was drafted and kept ready. Mohammed hosted a tea party to some of the UNP MPs who signed the impeachment motion on August 28. Mohammed served cakes himself and announced that the Premadasa era will be over in a few days.
Mohammed sent the letter entertaining the motion at 7 p.m. on Wednesday August 28 to the Presidential Secretariat and it was delivered to the President, while he was presiding at the cabinet meeting. Premadasa was shocked, but he did not show it. He read the Speaker's letter to the Cabinet and got the Cabinet to pass a vote of confidence in him. Athulathmudali and another prime mover of the impeachment motion, G.M. Premachandra voted for the confidence motion. Thondaman voted with the others. Helping Premadasa
Premadasa acted fast. He prorogued parliament for a month and summoned a meeting of the government parliamentarians. All but Athulathmudali, Premachandra and the seven of their supporters attended that meeting. Premadasa got the parliamentary group to pass a resolution expressing confidence in him and forwarded that to the Speaker. He also videoed all those MPs and arranged that be shown on television. He got the MPs photographed and got them printed in the state-controlled newspapers. He arranged for all government MPs, 116 in all, to go in a procession to Speaker Mohammed's chamber in parliament and tell him in person that they supported the president. Thondaman was one of them. He went to Mohammed and shook his hands and told him: "I wish to meet you later." Mohammed looked up. Thondaman said, "Majority of the MPs are with the President. The impeachment motion does not have the necessary 50 percent support. Please give some thought to that." "We'll meet." Mohammed agreed to meet Thondaman the next morning.
Thondaman met Mohammed in the Speaker's chamber. Thondaman started the conversation from where he left on the previous day. "The entire problem rests in the number of MPs supporting the impeachment motion. Whatever the number that signed the motion is immaterial now. Now, the question is whether majority of the MPs are with Premadasa or not. Yesterday more than half the number of MP's had told you that they are with Premadasa. Why don't you accept that as a fact and de-entertain the motion." Mohammed started thinking deeply and Thondaman waited for a few seconds.
Then he told Mohammed, "I am proud of you. People of the minority communities are proud of you. You have taken an action that had shaken the all-powerful Presidents of this country. You have created history. You must also create history by de-entertaining the motion. You must now accept the fact that majority of the MPs are with Premadasa. By accepting the impeachment motion you were fair by the opposition. Now by accepting the new development you will be fair by the government. You will go down in history as a fair Speaker."
Thondaman then worked on Mohammed's sensitivities. He told him, "Premadasa is one of the leaders who understand the problems of the minority communities. We must help him when he needs it most."
Mohammed relented. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"I will not ask anything unfair," Thondaman said. "All I want you to do is to accept the fact that majority of MPs are on Premadasa's side. I want you to do only that."
Mohammed who had been under heavy pressure from the Muslim business community and from some envoys of the Arab countries, finally agreed to act accordingly.
He wrote a note saying that he would de-entertain the impeachment motion. He handed over the undated note to Thondaman, who took it to his flat. Thondaman telephoned President Premadasa and told him of Mohammed's letter and that Mohammed would act on it on his return from New Delhi where he was attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference. "I've made the arrangement. You need not worry," Thondaman told Premadasa.
From that moment, President Premadasa who was shaken badly regained confidence. His strategy changed from the defensive to the offensive. But, the opposition too stepped up its attack. President Premadasa wanted to thwart that. On September 3 around 11'o clock in the night, Thondaman heard the calling bell of his flat ringing. He was awakened and told that President Premadasa was there to meet him. UNP general Secretary Sirisena Cooray and lawyer K.N.Choksy were also with him. The President was apologetic. He told Thondaman of a rumour he had heard of a planned press conference in which Mohamed would be made to announce and explain his decision to entertain the impeachment motion.
"That would make things difficult," President Premadasa said.
Choksy said: We must preempt their move. If Mohammed tells the press that he stood by his decision to entertain the impeachment motion then the note he gave you will lose validity.
President Premadasa wanted to see Mohammed's note. Thondaman showed him. The three looked at it and took it away.
Next day's “Observer “ broke the news that Speaker Mohammed had decided to de-entertain the impeachment motion quoting official sources. Mohammed who returned from New Delhi the previous evening was upset. He rang Thondaman and asked him why he released the story to the press. Thondaman explained what happened and told Mohammed, "It is also for the good. Now, you send the official letter to the President." Mohammed did so. The communication stated that he was de-entertaining the impeachment motion, as it did not have the sufficient number of signatures.
The Opposition was naturally wild and an SLFP Member Parliament Mahinda Rajapakse, told the “Sunday Times” that he had evidence that it was Thondaman who carried the important note in which Speaker Mohammed indicated his rejection of the impeachment motion to President Premadasa. Rajapakse charged that Thondaman had seen Mohammed with some Sinhala and Muslim businessmen. Thondaman denied that. He said he went alone and did not deny his carrying an important note. He defended Mohammed saying, "Speaker did the right thing, after 116 members of the government parliamentary group pledged loyalty and full support to President Premadasa."
Opposition moved a no-confidence motion against Mohammed on September 10. Thondaman spoke in defence of Mohammed. The entire opposition jointly tried to shout him down. He argued that what Mohammed did was correct. When he was satisfied that the required number of signatures were there he entertained the impeachment motion and when it was established that the required number of MPs were not backing it, he de-entertained it. The opposition argument that the Speaker entertained the motion originally because the required number of signatures was there was correct. The opposition position that he should not have de-entertained it because he had entertained it was wrong. He did the correct thing when it was physically shown that, 116 MPs was not backing the motion. He said the motion required the support of at least 113 MPs to be accepted by parliament. "Actually, he was helpful, as a fair and reasonable Speaker, to the opposition. Otherwise you would have tasted a humiliating defeat," he said.
Anura Bandaranaike: Helpful to collect signatures?
Thondaman: In whatever form you have taken advantage of it. You have been shrewd enough. As far as I am concerned, I have never done anything secretly like you… I have worked for 50 years and I am not frightened of anybody. I know some people are intimidating me. Sir John Kotelawela once said, "If anybody strikes his property will be confiscated." The concept of confiscation of property originated because of me. Even that did not stop me. I will do whatever is right for my people. I will always do openly and publicly and I am prepared to face whatever the consequences. I ask you, even today, have you the support of half the number of members of parliament?
H. M. Azwer: No.
Thondaman: I ask you. Did you get that? The required number of numbers is 113.
Thondaman: I have not come here just to shout and go … I am not one of those dancers. I never go to the UNP conferences. I have my own reservations and act independently. You people say all sorts of things, accusations, this and that and shout. I want you to understand this. Even today you don't have half the number of members.
Anura Bandaranaike: With great respect, may I ask a question. If what you are saying is correct, that half the number of members was not produced, then the Speaker should never have entertained the impeachment motion.
Thondaman: The Speaker accepted because he had been lenient to you. The Speaker has been very lenient to you, the opposition.
Anura Bandaranaike: In fairness to the Honourable Speaker I do not think he would have entertained the motion without the proper number of signatures.
Thondaman: Speaker was trying to help you and allow the Opposition to enjoy the benefits of their democratic right. Besides, you produced signatures and not the MPs in person. When he found that you were not able to produce the persons whose signatures you say you had collected he rejected the motion.
There was interruption and some opposition members shouted that Thondaman should get out.
Thondaman: I am prepared to sacrifice. If you want me to go I am prepared to say salam and get out.
Anura Bandaranaike:You are a very independent person. You can afford to be independent because you have 400,000 votes in your party. All these poor members.
Thondaman: They are not poor.
Anura Bandaranaike: I always called you the kingmaker of Sri Lanka. Thondaman: There are no kings now. Even at this stage I ask the opposition to drop this motion. I am an outsider. I am an independent person. I am not an UNPer. I am also not a SLFPer or a member of the opposition. If you insist on this motion and expose each other then the people will laugh at all of you.
The no-confidence motion against Speaker Mohammed was defeated.
Thondaman was far from happy about the way things were moving with regard to the ethnic problem. The Thimpu talks in mid-1985, had failed and the TULF took over three months to present alternative proposals to those agreed on at New Delhi between Indian and Lankan officials. Sri Lanka immediately rejected the TULF proposals as going far beyond the New Delhi agreement and argued that in fact they were a revival of the Eeelam demand.
All Party Conference
At the beginning of 1986, when Thondaman was busy with the prayer campaign and later with the Talawakelle incidents, there was a lull in ethnic negotiations. The Colombo government was paying more attention to military operations. Thondaman felt he should get the negotiating process restarted. On 17 April 1986, in a press statement, he urged Rajiv Gandhi to revive negotiations.
"There are two proposals on the table. The government of India should study both and indicate to Sri Lanka the gaps to be filled and areas that should be improved." He also urged the TULF and President Jayewardene to adopt an attitude of give and take. This reactivated the negotiating process. Dixit then took over and consulted Thondaman on 18 May 1986 for a formula on law and order, the thorny problem.
On 25 June 1986 President Jayewardene reconvened the All party Conference, to win approval for the Lankan proposal. The TULF decided to boycott it and wrote to Thondaman to do the same. Thondaman rejected that plea. He said, "I am not going to accept the TULF request. A boycott has never worked. There are some TULF politicians who are not prepared to learn anything from history. I appeal to them to give up this negative attitude."
The government agreed to amend the constitution for that purpose and to devolve legislative, executive and financial powers to the provincial councils. Also, that the provincial councils should be elected bodies.
President Jayewardene submitted all these proposals in his opening speech. He concluded by saying: "Today we open a new chapter, for this is a decisive phase in the achievement of a political solution. We have to bring into this process so many groups - the citizens of Sri Lanka, the Government of India and all foreign governments interested in our welfare. Sri Lanka is a multiracial, multi - religious country. Let past suspicions of the different groups now be forgotten to secure a better future for all."
Thondaman wanted to keep up the momentum. He told the press: "We are now very close to a solution. We must not let this opportunity to slip. We must keep pressing. For us to snatch a deal, a unified Tamil leadership is essential. We cannot have so many different groups and hope to achieve a solution," he said on June 26. On July 2 he met President Jayewardene and they had a two - hour discussion on ways and means of making the latest proposals acceptable to the Tamils. Thondaman impressed on the President the need to work out some institutional arrangement for the northern and eastern provincial councils to work together.
India then brought P.Chidamparam, Minister of State for Home, Pensions, Personnel and Public Grievances, into the picture. He had a meeting with the Tamil militant groups in Madras and with the Sri Lanka government. He conveyed in Colombo, the Tamil demand for the merger of the northern and eastern provinces and insisted on a suitable proposals via media. Sri Lanka adopted Thondaman's suggestion and agreed to work out a suitable institutional arrangement for provincial councils - especially in the north and east - to consult with each other and act in co - ordination on matters of mutual interest and concern.
That paved the way for a detailed discussion between the TULF delegation and the government on the subjects of devolution and land settlement. It was a lengthy and detailed discussion and most of the details were worked out. The TULF delegation and Dixit consulted Thondaman at every stage.
While the talks were on in Colombo, Thondaman had a 20-minute meeting with Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi on July 25. He stressed two things: that negotiations should not be allowed t drag on; and the hand of the TULF should be strengthened. He also said the on - going negotiations between the TULF and the Sri Lanka government were a positive development.
Later he told the media that Gandhi appeared hopeful and that India would probably step up its efforts to achieve a political settlement. On his way to Colombo he met Andhra Chief Minister Rama Rao and MGR. He advised them that they should accept the TULF as the representatives of the Tamils and strengthen their hand to enable them to negotiate with authority.
At a press conference in Madras he expressed this point more forcefully. He said, "The Indian government and Tamil Nadu accept the TULF as the representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils. The militants are fighters. They have said they will accept what the Tamil people accept. Their role is to fight. They should leave negotiations to the TULF. They are the elected representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamils. They know what the people will accept."
He added that if the militants declared their objectives the TULF could negotiate towards that end.
"Speaking in general terms will not help."
Thondaman said India was prepared to underwrite any agreement that emerged during the on-going negotiations in Colombo. "India has to come in as a guarantor because the Tamils are not prepared to trust the Sinhala leadership. They have been let down by both SLFP and UNP. They don't want that to happen again," he said.
The Sri Lanka - TULF talks helped to resolve most of the thorny problems including law and order and land settlement. TULF was not satisfied. It wanted improvements in a few areas such as the powers of the governor, state land, and procedure regarding dissolution of the provincial council and setting up the provincial police service. Finally, the main Tamil demand for merger of the northern and eastern provinces remained unresolved.
India sent its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Natwar Singh and Chidamparam to Colombo for discussions with President Jayewardene. They broke journey in Madras for consultations with Tamil militant groups and the TULF. The Tamil groups stuck to their merger demand. They rejected outright Colombo's proposal to divide the Eastern Province into Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala areas and merge the Tamil areas with the Northern Province. The TULF suggested delinking the Sinhala areas in the Eastern Province and merging the rest with the north The LTTE opposed it altogether.
The Indian ministers had two days of discussions in which Thondaman played an important role. From those discussions emerged what was later termed the, December 19 proposals, which said the Amparai electoral district would be delinked from the Eastern Province and a provincial council established for the rest of the territory, which would constitute the new Eastern Province. Institutional linkage between the northern and eastern provinces, which were earlier worked out, would be further refined. Sri Lanka also agreed to consider, at a later stage, a constitutional arrangement to bring the two provinces together; and to consider creation of the office of Vice - President
The LTTE rejected the proposals as inadequate and not meeting the aspirations of the Tamil people. It opposed the delinking of the Amparai district.
Rajiv Tightens Stand
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka government also attempted to wriggle out of the December 19 proposal. The Muslim MPs were encouraged to oppose it. On 26 December 1986 Sri Lanka's High Commissioner Bernard Tilakaratne called on Foreign Secretary A. P. Venkateswaran and conveyed the Lankan government's reservations about the proposal. Colombo's message did not amount to a formal withdrawal of the offer but indicated second thoughts. India was taken aback by Colombo's backtracking and even annoyed because the entire negotiating process had been grounded.
Thondaman was disappointed and voiced his feelings to President Jayewardene and Athulathmudali. Making use of the LTTE's declaration that it was going to take over some functions of the civil administration in Jaffna the government stopped the supply of petroleum to the peninsula saying it wanted to immobilize LTTE vehicles. Two days later, on 5 January 1987, the supply of aluminum was suspended.
Rajiv Gandhi expressed concern and held special meetings of the political affairs committee of the Indian Cabinet. The Indian External Affairs Ministry Secretary, Venkateswaran, then conveyed India's concern about the presence in Sri Lanka of foreign mercenaries, which Sri Lanka denied. On January 12 Minister Gamini Dissanayake tried to stop the slide by assuring India that, President Jayewardene stood by the December 19 proposals. But, after army excesses at Kokkadicholai and other places, Rajiv Gandhi sent a strong message on February 9 that read:
1. As far as the current military operations against Tamil civilians continue and other discriminatory measures like economic and communication blockades affecting civilians exist India is not in a position to resume discussions with Tamil militants. While this is for the present, India remains willing to resume the peace process if and when these actions are withdrawn.
2. India is firmly of the view that the Government of Sri Lanka as a basis and only a starting point for further negotiations should affirm the proposals, which emerged on December 19 after Mr. Natwar Singh’s and Mr. Chidambaram’s visit to Colombo. India is also of the view that the final framework of a solution based on these proposals can only be forged when the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil side come together for negotiations.
3. If the government of Sri Lanka continues the economic blockade and military operations against Tamils, prospects of violence will increase. India's assessment is that the conflict will be prolonged and will escalate.
On February 13, President Jayewardene handed to Indian High Commissioner Dixit the following reply:
The response to the Government of India's message being given below is predicated on the clear understanding that all further discussion to be held, or solutions to be evolved, shall be within the framework of the independence, territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka
1. If the armed separatists (LTTE) agree to cease armed violent operations and related military preparations and desist from any activity aimed at setting up or interfering with the legal administration of the area, and this is announced by them; the Government of Sri Lanka will ensure that the armed forces will not carry out any further military operations in the area during this period.
2. When hostilities cease, in terms of para 1 above, the embargo (on the movement of certain commodities) now in force in the Jaffna peninsula will be lifted.
If the LTTE is prepared to attend talks with the representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka towards a peaceful solution of the ethnic problem, appropriate talks may be held in New Delhi with the assistance of the representatives of the Indian government. The Government of Sri Lanka expects the Government of India to underwrite the implementation of any agreement reached. Upon the armed separatists giving up their arms, a vital step for strengthening the administration, a general amnesty will be given to them by the President of Sri Lanka.
3. When talks towards a peaceful solution to the ethnic problem commences, the Government of Sri Lanka will release those persons now held in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, who have no charges against them.
4. In all these proceedings, the mediator role and the good offices of the government of India is acknowledge and the government of Sri Lanka reaffirms that the results of the discussions held so far, including the proposals of December 19, 1986, will be the basis for evolving a durable solution.
5. The Government of Sri Lanka is agreeable to an early date being fixed for negotiations.
6. The Sri Lanka government has never carried out military operations against civilians nor ever will.
Thondaman was distressed about this development. He urged the government to lift the economic blockade of Jaffna and restart negotiations. He told the press that the government should not permit the situation to deteriorate. He warned that antagonizing India would lead to disastrous consequences. When India called on Sri Lanka to halt military action Thondaman welcomed it. The government reacted angrily.
On 4 March 1987, the Cabinet decided to opt for a military action. Thondaman cautioned against it but the majority favored it. Two days later, on March 6, the government parliamentary group endorsed the resolution that called for military action. Harendra Corea who said the parliamentary group supported the government's effort to defend sovereignty moved the resolution. The group also supported the government's decision to reject India's call to halt military action unilaterally.
Thondaman was alone in opposing military action. He warned the government of the inherent dangers. He warned that a military adventure would leave room for India to intervene.
But when he went to Madras he defended the government decision. The press asked him his opinion about the government parliamentary group's resolution. He replied: "What else do you expect the Sri Lanka government to do? No country in the world would tolerate it if a section of its people took up arms and declared a particular part of its territory its own."
On his return to Colombo on March 14 he again warned the Sri Lanka government of the dangers of the military option. He said feeling in India had hardened. On March 13 at the 29th convention of the CWC in Kandy he said, "The Sri Lankan Tamil problem has assumed international dimension and I warn the government to act with caution." President Jayewardene, the chief guest, smiled.
The government was in no mood to listen. The Habarana killings of Sinhala bus passengers, the Pettah and Maradana bomb explosions that killed more than 200 people, angered the government. The Rs 50 million (Indian) that MGR gave the LTTE provoked the Sri Lanka government to launch its Vadamarachchi operation on 28 May 1987. Rajiv reacted with the one - sentence message: "Military solutions will never work." On June 3 a flotilla of 19 boats with food relief and media personnel travelled from Dhanusakodi towards Jaffna. The Sri Lankan navy stopped it as it entered the Lankan waters and was persuaded to return. The following day, June 4, Indian air force planes air - dropped relief to Jaffna.
Of the air - drop, Thondaman told “Time” magazine: "India was always thought of as being a vegetable. The perception in Sri Lanka was always that India would only bark and not bite." That was exactly the assessment in government top circles. A few days before the air - drop when foreign correspondents pointed to an Indian statement expressing concern about Sri Lanka's recourse to military action President Jayewardene had retorted, "They can only express concern."
Thondaman did not play any role in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Indo - Sri Lanka. Peace Accord on 29 July 1987. But he has been a strong supporter of the accord, but never a blind supporter. He was critical of some of India of India's actions.
He felt India should have involved the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups in the negotiations. When Dileepan staged his fast and when Jaffna Tamils demonstrated against the Indian army, claiming a bigger role for the LTTE in the proposed interim administration of the north and east, Thondaman said "I thought Pirabhakaran was only a fighter but now I see in him a democratic leader." He was disappointed when Pirabhakaran fought the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). He said Pirabhakaran had made a fatal error and weakened the Tamil cause. "He should have made use of the Indians and not allowed JR to make use of them," he said.
"It was because of Indian pressure that the Tamils were able extract the provincial council formula from the Sri Lankan government," he said and added, "Tamils could have benefited more if they had struck to India. The LTTE must realize that it is only through India intervention that more rights could be won."
He appealed repeatedly to the LTTE to co - operate with India. "The Tamils of Sri Lanka cannot afford to forget the goodwill of India and the LTTE should not do anything that would be considered ungrateful," he said.
He told the press in Tamil Nadu on 27 August 1988 that a realistic approach was needed to implement the Indo - Lanka accord. "The Lankan Tamils wanted Indian intervention and India is interested in ensuring peace in the Tamil - speaking areas. It would be useful for both sides to arrive at an amicable political solution," he said.
He also pressed the Sri Lanka government to proclaim the merger of the northern and eastern provinces and hold elections so that people of those provinces could elect their own administration.
He argued that the merger would, in the long run, be more beneficial to the Sinhala people than to the Tamils. He said: "If the merger does not take place there will be nothing to prevent the people of the north from declaring Eelam overnight, ignoring the central government, since over 95 per cent of the people there are Tamils. On the other hand, if the merger of the north and east is made, then the other communities in the east can ensure that such a unilateral decision is not taken - and even if it is, the central government can annul it on the ground that the declaration of Eelam was not a unanimous act."
Once the merger was proclaimed and elections held in the North - East Province, Thondaman was the first to devolve power to the provincial administration as stipulated in the 13th amendment to the constitution. The North - East Province chief minister Annamalai Varatharaja Perumal announced this publicly and praised Thondaman for his statesmanship.
|Chapter 13: Chapater 13: A War Averted|
|Chapater 13: A War Averted |
If not for Thondaman's efforts, Sri Lanka and India might have fought a war on 29 July 1989. That calamity was averted by an urgent midnight message Thondaman transmitted to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi through the Indian High Commission in Colombo on July 27.
That urgent message was 'faxed' after the three-hour special Cabinet meeting held at the Cabinet office, in Colombo that evening.
War clouds had gathered on the horizon when the Cabinet met at 7 p.m. The Defense Ministry had prepared the draft of the ultimatum President Ranasinghe Premadasa had decided to issue to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the next day, July 28. In his ultimatum, the President wanted the Indians to withdraw from Sri Lanka on July 29. If that was not possible, to withdraw to barracks and negotiate the logistics of withdrawal with the Sri Lankan security forces, who would take control of law and order functions in the North-East province. The president also wanted the IPKF to cease hostilities against the LTTE and to cooperate with the committee Sri Lanka would appoint to monitor cessation of hostilities.
The Defence Ministry had decided to deliver the ultimatum at 3 p.m. on July 28. The order was to be taken by a senior army officer by helicopter to Trincomalee and given personally to IPKF commander Lt. Gen. Amajit Singh Kalkat. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka had boosted its troop strength in the camps of the North - East Province.
The Indians too were preparing for the confrontation. Rajiv Gandhi had informed the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house of Parliament, on July 18, that India would not withdraw and Colombo had to take responsibility for the consequences, if Lankan forces were ordered out of the barracks, to which they were confined in terms of the peace accord signed on 29 July 1987.
Lt. Gen Kalkat himself repeated that warning on the evening of July 27, a few hours before the crisis Cabinet meeting. He told Indian journalists, that the IPKF would attack, if Lankan soldiers came out of barracks.
He said, "My mandate includes the provision of security and peace for all in the North-East Province and to keep the Lankan forces in their barracks. Any change in the mandate by force and my soldiers will reply to it. Ongoing operations against the LTTE will continue despite Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne's demand for a unilateral ceasefire. We will not tolerate any violence and the IPKF is fully prepared to meet any eventuality."
He also charged that, Colombo had sent additional troops to the Lankan security forces' camps in the North - East Province. He said 2000 additional soldiers had been moved to Vavuniya. He had ordered the Indian troops to take defensive positions outside the airports in the North-East Province. Indian troops had also been placed around the Lankan camps: Indian naval movement was reported at Karainagar Naval Base. The aircraft carrier 'INS Virat' had had been moved close to Sri Lanka, just 24 kilometers from Colombo. Four air force squadrons with Mirage and MIG 235 were moved to South - India. A contingent of 120 crack air force commandos were airlifted to Ratmalana and kept at India House, the official residence of the Indian High Commissioner. The Indian High Commission staff had been moved to Hotel Taj Samudra.
It was in this tense and confrontational setting that the special cabinet meeting was held on July 27. The air was heavy with a sense of uncertainty as the Ministers assembled in the British built old Senate building and sat round the oval table. No way out of a Sri Lanka-India confrontation seemed possible.
President Premadasa, who presided, briefed the Ministers on the talks Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne had with Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehrotra in the past three days. He informed them that the talks had failed. India had refused to accept the two conditions he had stipulated for Sri Lanka to accept the Indian invitation for talks in New Delhi. Indian Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao extended the invitation to Sri Lankan Deputy Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, when they met at Harare, the Zambian capital, in May. The President then informed the Ministers of his decision to issue the IPKF with an ultimatum. He read out the draft, clause by clause. He paused at the end of each clause for comments. There was no comment on the first two clauses: the order to the IPKF to withdraw by July 29 and the order to the IPKF to stay in barracks till they withdraw.
To the third clause - of ceasing hostilities against the LTTE - Minister of Agriculture Lalith Athulathmudali suggested a change. He said it should be 'suspension of hostilities' rather than 'cessation of hostilities'. The President accepted it and the other suggestion that the section on the monitoring committee be dropped.
The meeting had almost come to an end. The President had obtained the concurrence of the cabinet for the ultimatum to the IPKF. Thondaman was uneasy. He looked around him, all were silent. Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunge than leaned towards him and said, "Thonda! Something should be done to avert a confrontation." Thondaman nodded assent. He had already decided to speak against the ultimatum.
He started with the least offensive argument, an argument acceptable to all. He spoke of the traditional friendship between Sri Lanka and India. He spoke of the religious and cultural ties between the peoples of the two countries. He spoke of Buddhism and Hinduism and their spread from India to Sri Lanka. "Sir, I am a Hindu and you are a Buddhist. Both religions came from India. Both religions preach non-violence. We must try and prevent a war between the two countries," he argued. The response was expectant.
He then spoke of his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi two weeks earlier and said Gandhi was full of goodwill towards Sri Lanka and President Premadasa. "Gandhi was keen to resolve the conflict through negotiations. I know, Sir, that you too have immense goodwill towards India and Rajiv. I know you too are anxious to resolve the conflict through negotiation. So why don't both of you talk?"
President Premadasa replied that he was always ready to talk, but the Indians should accept him as commander-in-chief of all the forces on Lankan soil and take orders from him.
Premadasa Gets Angry
Thondaman argued that Sri Lanka should not insist on such conditions. "The JVP is not taking orders from you, sir." He argued that even in that last moment they should try to avoid a confrontation.
President Premadasa lost his cool. "Do you want me to fall at the feet of the Indians?" he asked angrily.
Thondaman replied, "No sir, you should not do that. I'll never agree to your doing that. What I say is that we must talk to them, instead of fighting them. After all, they have invited us for talks - why not accept without pre-conditions?"
He then spoke of the futility of fighting a powerful country like India. A war with India would hurt both countries but especially Sri Lanka, he said.
Athulathmudali took the argument from there. He said the President's position that the IPKF should withdraw was correct. It was also valid from a strict legalistic standpoint. India's position of linking the devolution process to the IPKF withdrawal was week - but Sri Lanka could not fight India without doing herself the greater injury. Negotiation was the best remedy.
Plantation Industries Minister Gamini Dissanayake also supported Thondaman's plea for negotiation without pre - conditions. He argued eloquently about the danger of fighting a big country. He said tension between the two countries had reached high pitch and stressed that it should be defused before something 'untoward' happened.
Tension had in fact been building since June 1, when President Premadasa declared at a religious ceremony at the Chittavivekaramaya Buddhist temple at Battaramulla, on the outskirts of Colombo, that the IPKF should leave Sri Lanka on July 29. At that meting, the President had first thanked India and Prime Minister Gandhi for sending the IPKF to help keep peace in Sri Lanka's north and east. He thanked the IPKF for the tremendous sacrifices it had made. He said the IPKF was sent to the country on the invitation of former President Junius Jayewardene and the accord implied that the Indian forces would be withdrawn at the request of the Lankan president.
Invitation to send Indian troops was sent to Rajiv Gandhi by Jayewardene in accordance with 2.16(C) of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord that reads: In the event that the Government of Sri Lanka requests the Government of India to afford military assistance to implement these proposals the Government of India will cooperate by giving to the Government of Sri Lanka such military assistance as and when requested.
In fact President Jayewardene requested Indian military assistance even before the pact was signed. The opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led massive demonstration that morning to prevent the signing of the accord in Colombo by Rajiv and Jayewardene. The president declared curfew and asked India to send troops to take over the law and order function of the northern and eastern provinces and airlift the Sri Lankan soldiers to Colombo. Indian air force acted quickly. It flew into Jaffna Indian troops and transported the Sri Lankan soldiers from Jaffna to Colombo.
President Premadasa said, "The end of July, 1989, will mark two years since the IPKF came to Sri Lanka. Therefore, I will request the Indian government to try as far as possible to complete the withdrawal of the entirety of the IPKF troops by the end of July. I should like to see the last of the IPKF troops leaving Sri Lanka by the end of July. There are about 45,000 IPKF troops in Sri Lanka today; therefore it is not possible to withdraw them in a day or two. They have to leave by ship. I believe therefore that if the troop withdrawal is expedited it should be possible to complete withdrawal by the end of July."
President Premadasa gave two reasons for his request: The IPKF pull-out would help create conducive conditions for an internal settlement of the problems that had led groups to resort to violence and it would help Sri Lanka to host the SAARC summit with dignity and self - respect.
At that time New Delhi and Colombo had already been negotiating a speedier troop withdrawal. The withdrawal had started on January 2, when over 1,000 soldiers, their arms and ammunition, were shipped from Trincomalee. The then Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit at a hastily called press briefing on New Year's Day announced the withdrawal. Dixit said the withdrawal was India's present to President Premadasa, who was to be sworn in as the new President the next day, January 2, in Kandy. He said it was a voluntary decision by India to show her goodwill and to demonstrate her anxiety to pull out her troops as soon as possible.
India pulled out 3,000 soldiers and their armaments in the first week of January and followed up with a further withdrawal of 7,000 men in April. Dixit had also told Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne that they intended to withdraw more troops in June and the bulk by December, leaving only nine divisions-about 9,000 soldiers. He had insisted that the central government should devolve adequate powers to the North-East Provincial Council, to make it viable and effective.
The withdrawal of the IPKF had been talked about in government circles in the last week of May. It came up because of the agitation mounted by the Sinhala extremist group the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The President was concerned that the JVP was using the IPKF presence as a patriotic issue, to spread its own influence.
This concern was first expressed at the Cabinet meeting of May 24. President Premadasa said the withdrawal of the IPKF would take the wind out of the JVP sail. He asked the Ministers to submit notes on how the IPKF issue should be handled. He told them the LTTE, with which he had been talking, also wanted the withdrawal of the IPKF.
The issue cropped up again on May 31, at the weekly Cabinet meeting, when the ministers discussed the security situation under "Any Other Business' - Thondaman suggested a fuller discussion and President fixed a meeting of the Political Affaires Committee for the following week. He asked the ministers to come ready with their suggestions and views.
When the May 31 Cabinet meeting ended, Foreign Minister Wijeratne addressed the weekly press conference at the Information Ministry. He was questioned about the IPKF issue. He replied that that matter had cropped up at the Cabinet meeting and it was decided to consider it in detail at the meeting of the Political Affairs Committee. He also disclosed that negotiations were on about the IPKF withdrawal and India had indicated that it would pull out two more battalions by July 25.
Wijeratne told pressmen on a later occasion that Dixit had told him India had been considering a timetable for withdrawal: half the troops by July and the bulk of the rest by December, leaving a nominal strength behind to help the North-East Provincial Council.
Thondaman sent a note to the president on June 2 on how IPKF withdrawal should be handled.
The note read:
1. It has become necessary for a decision to be made on the future of the IPKF in Sri Lanka. Is their continued presence here essential?
2. The IPKF came to this country in July - August 1987 and there is no doubt that they have done much to reduce tension. But there is a stalemate today. And it does not seem that there is anything more the IPKF can do.
3. In these circumstances a parting of ways has become inevitable. It is essential that the parting must be such that Sri Lanka's relations with India are not in any way impaired.
4. I think a proper climate and a suitable atmosphere must be created so that the IPKF withdraw with dignity, under the friendliest auspices - with a great deal of conch blowing and departure tamashas.
5. It is necessary, for this, to keep the following in mind:
(a) India and the IPKF must be profusely thanked for what they have done. There must be fulsome praise.
(b) There must be not the slightest hint that the IPKF was withdrawing under pressure, or because of bad relations between Sri Lanka.
6. Admittedly, a foreign army is an irritant, but the IPKF having been invited by the Sri Lankan Government under an accord, its withdrawal must be so managed and arranged that it must appear to be something mutually agreed on, in another accord - making out that the IPKF has fulfilled all that was necessary under the 1987 accord.
7. Tactfully handled I see no difficulty in creating the necessary scenario for the withdrawal of the IPKF under the friendliest terms.
President Premadasa thanked Thondaman for his advice. His reply, dated June 3, reads:
My dear Minister,
I thank you for your note on the IPKF.
I have noted the contents of it. I am in agreement with you on the strategy outlined by you to ensure the withdrawal of the IPKF.
Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Around noon on June 3, President Premadasa reported to the Political Affairs Committee on his Battaramulla speech saying he would make a formal request for withdrawal within the next two days.
The request was sent that very evening through Foreign Secretary Bernard Tilakaratne. The important sentence in that politely worded seven - paragraph letter is "… I would like all IPKF personnel to be withdrawn from Sri Lanka by July 31st, 1989".
It thanked the IPKF for its sacrifices and reminded the Indian Prime Minister of his promise that the IPKF would be withdrawn if the President of Sri Lanka called for it. It said IPKF presence had become a divisive issue and its pull out would help him to win the trust and confidence of the people of Sri Lanka. The IPKF withdrawal would also help him to host the SAARC summit meeting.
The President's request letter also said he had seen the aide memoir the Indian High Commissioner had delivered that evening which referred to the need for consultations and that Foreign Secretary Tilakaratne would personally clarify matters to Gandhi.
Tilakaratne met Gandhi on June 5 and had an hour-long meting with him. He explained the compulsions on President Premadasa and how an IPKF pull out would help him. Gandhi replied that India had guaranteed the interests of the Tamil people and stressed that devolution of powers had to be speeded up and completed quickly. He also said two months was insufficient to affect a total pull - out.
This meeting was followed by a war of words. On June 14, at Bangalore, Gandhi rejected the call for withdrawal. He said the accord was a bilateral agreement and one party could not abrogate it unilaterally. He also linked withdrawal to devolution of powers to the North - East Provincial Council. He repeated the same stand at Madras the next day.
In Colombo, Wijeratne told a press conference the same day, June 14, that if India so willed, it was capable of withdrawing its entire forces before the July 29 deadline. "You all know how fast they came. They can also go back with the same speed," he said.
Gandhi replied to the request letter on June 20. In that he said the devolution of power to the North-East Provincial Council and IPKF withdrawal should proceed simultaneously. He warned that if the promised autonomy were not given to the Tamils, the claim of some Tamil groups that they could not expect justice within a united Sri Lanka would gain credence. He said a return to the pre - accord situation would be dangerous.
On June 23, speaking at the Gam Udawa opening, President Premadasa repeated his call for the withdrawal of the IPKF and added that if India could not withdraw its forces before July 29 it should keep them within barracks.
Meanwhile, the government began talks with the LTTE. On June 29, the LTTE announced cessation of hostilities with the Lankan forces. President Premadasa immediately telexed Gandhi about the LTTE announcement and asked him to ensure that the IPKF ceased hostilities against the LTTE.
The next day, June 30, he replied to Gandhi's letter of June 20. He rejected the argument that the troop withdrawal and the devolution process were linked. He said the government was doing everything possible to speed up the process of devolution. He referred to the on-going talks with the LTTE and claimed the IPKF presence was hindering any solution to the ethnic problem.
Gandhi replied immediately through the high commission in Colombo. The peace accord, he said, had provided for the cessation of hostilities between the LTTE and the Lankan armed forces by ensuring that the Lankan forces were confined to barracks.
President Premadasa replied contesting that assertion. After the accord, he argued, 148 Lankan police and service personnel had been killed and 80 wounded; 481 civilians were killed and 115 injured and the Indian armed forces had been unable to prevent those killings.
Aware that the situation was warming up, Thondaman asked for a private meeting with President Premadasa. In that meeting, he impressed on the Lankan President the absolute necessity of handling the matter more diplomatically. The President readily agreed with him. He pulled out a printed copy of the Battaramulla speech and read out several extracts from it to Thondaman. So, hadn't he thanked the Indians for their help, as Thondaman advised? Hadn't he been very courteous? He suggested that they await Gandhi's reply to his letter of June 30.
On July 5, President Premadasa wrote again saying the LTTE's cessation of hostilities had been extended to all people and groups in Sri Lanka, thereby implying that the LTTE had agreed not to attack the EPRLF.
In the first week of July, Thondaman went to India to attend the SAARC trade union conference. He took the opportunity to call on Gandhi.
During that 25-minute meeting, he urged that the withdrawal issue should be settled amicably. He told the Indian Prime Minister that, President Premadasa was anxious to solve the issue peacefully and he explained the pressures the Lankan President was facing.
"The Sinhala people fear that the Indian army will never leave Sri Lanka. The JVP is exploiting that fear. That is the main reason President Premadasa wants the IPKF to leave Sri Lanka," Thondaman told Gandhi.
Gandhi was very appreciative. He explained his own concerns and compulsions. He explained that India had signed the accord as guarantor with the promise that India would obtain for the Tamils such autonomy as that enjoyed by the Indian states. It was on that promise Tamil militant groups agreed to lay down arms and enter mainstream politics.
"If Colombo devolves power to the Tamils, I will gladly recall my troops. Tell your government to honor its obligations. Tell your President that I am not prepared to be called a betrayer by the Tamils. Tell your President that I had very good working arrangements with former President Jayewardene and I would like to have a similar relationship with him," Gandhi said.
Thondaman met the Indian press at New Delhi and also in Madras after that meeting and told them, "Gandhi takes a very positive approach, which make me feel the deadlock can be broken." He added, "Gandhi and Narasimha Rao are anxious to avoid a confrontation."
Devolution And Withdrawal
In Madras he met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi and found him anxious to fall in line with Indian government. Karunanidhi wanted Thondaman to make an effort to forge unity among the Tamil militant groups. Thondaman agreed but said the initiative should come from the militants themselves.
Indian Foreign Ministry officials did not share Thondaman's optimism. They told the press that India considered it vital to link troop pull-out with the implementation of the terms of the Accord. They reiterated their offer of negotiations on the devolution of powers to the North-East Provincial Council and the IPKF withdrawal.
Gandhi replied on July 11 to President Premadasa's letters of June 30 and July 5. He maintained that the peace accord was an agreement between two sovereign countries meant to preserve the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka and ensure the safety, security and legitimate interests of the Tamils. The withdrawal and the implementation of the accord had to be simultaneous and the timetable for that should be worked out through consultations.
He referred to his meeting with Thondaman and said, "Your colleague, the Hon. Mr. Thondaman, who met me here, would have conveyed to you our desire for friendly relations and our willingness to resolve any misunderstandings through mutual consultations." He also invited Foreign Minister Wijeratine to New Delhi for talks.
President Premadasa replied the next day, setting out the four premises, which India should accept if Sri Lanka was to agree to the talks. They were: Indian acceptance of President Premadasa as commander-in-chief of all the forces on Lankan soil; that the 29 July 1987 agreement was between Sri Lanka and India and no other party was involved. That the presence of Indian armed forces in Sri Lanka and the devolution of power were unconnected and that India should not allow its territory to be used for anti-Sri Lanka activities.
He then said India was bound to withdraw her forces if asked to do so and that the IPKF had failed to cease hostilities with the LTTE although he had requested it The LTTE had assured him that it was committed to entering the political mainstream and had given him an undertaking that cessation of hostilities would be extended to all Tamil groups. If that position were accepted, he said, he would consider having discussions with India.
Gandhi, who left for Paris to attend the bi-centenary celebrations of the French Revolution, sent his principal secretary, B. G. Deshmukh, to talk to President Premadasa in a bid to resolve the conflict. Deshmukh arrived on July 13 and met President Premadasa the same day delivering Gandhi's message that the IPKF withdrawal should be resolved through talks. The meeting failed to produce any results.
Deshmukh also met Thondaman and told him that Gandhi was annoyed with the four premises the President had laid down. Thondaman commented that had he not been delayed in Madras he could have persuaded President Premadasa not to stipulate such conditions.
Deshmukh reported the results of his discussions with Premadasa to Gandhi-and from then Gandhi toughened his stance. At New Delhi airport on July 19, Gandhi said he would not withdraw the IPKF. He observed caustically that none of the 30 world leaders, including the American, Soviet and Pakistan leaders with whom he had discussions in Paris, had once raised the Lankan issue. "The message I got was that no one is interested in Sri Lanka," he said.
Meanwhile, TULF leaders A. Amirthalingam and V.Yogeswaran were killed in Colombo. India made full use of it for propaganda. President Premadasa also stepped up Sri Lanka's campaign and demanded the IPKF withdrawal.
On July 19, President Premadasa wrote another letter to Gandhi clarifying Sri Lanka's position. Claiming that Sri Lanka had done its part to devolve power to the provincial councils he said that any argument by India that it would have to keep the IPKF in Sri Lanka until that process was completed was untenable.
As July 19 was a Wednesday and the weekly Cabinet meeting was held at 7 p.m. Thondaman spoke his mind that evening. He spoke for more than an hour. He traced the history of the traditionally close relationship between India and Sri Lanka. He spoke of the need to preserve it. He told the cabinet Gandhi was anxious to resolve the conflict through negotiations. He argued that Sri Lanka should accept the invitation for talks without pre - conditions. Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake spoke in support of unconditional talks with India.
The next day India announced that if Colombo did not accept the invitation for talks on the IPKF pull-out India would work out its own plan for phased withdrawal. "We are in the process of talking a decision on a phased withdrawal," an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in New Delhi.
On July 25, just four days prior to the deadline, Indian High Commissioner Mehrotra handed Foreign Secretary Bernard Tilakaratna a letter and a note from New Delhi: India reiterated its readiness to withdraw the IPKF and wanted Sri Lanka to implement the peace accord. Foreign Minister Wijeratne was invited to Delhi for talks. No mention was made of cessation of hostilities against the LTTE.
President Premadasa replied promptly: Colombo preferred government-to-government talks and that the IPKF should cease its hostilities against the LTTE.
This was the backdrop to the weekly Wednesday Cabinet meeting on July 26, at which Thondaman raised the IPKF withdrawal issue. It was agreed to hold a special Cabinet meeting on Thursday, July 27, to consider it.
The next morning, at the press conference, Wijeratne told pressmen that he would go to New Delhi provided India accepted the President as commander-in-chief of all forces on Lankan soil and agreed to cease hostilities against the LTTE. He also disclosed that talks were already going on to resolve the conflict between India and Sri Lanka.
Thondaman realized that the matters were getting out of hand. He got the political committee of the Ceylon Workers' Congress to pass a resolution authorizing its leadership to take the initiative to avert a confrontation between Sri Lanka and India. The resolution requested India to recommence the phased withdrawal of the IPKF it had begun in January 1989 stating that its stoppage had bred suspicions and misunderstanding in Sri Lanka. It requested India to take immediate steps to review the situation with a view to re - establishing the friendly relations that had traditionally existed between the two countries.
The resolution concluded, "The Political Committee of the CWC calls upon the governments of Sri Lanka and India to take immediate steps to review the situation with a view of re-establishing the friendly relations which have traditionally existed between the two countries.
"The political committee also authorizes the leadership of the CWC to take whatever initiative it may think fit to help bring about better relations between Sri Lanka and India to end the current impasse."
At the July 27 special Cabinet meeting, Thondaman played exactly that role. He went to that meeting determined to take some initiative to end the impasse. After Gamini Dissanayake had finished his speech, Thondaman spoke. He urged that Sri Lanka should accept the Indian invitation and send Wijeratne for talks. There was general consensus that the invitation should be accepted.
"Now let's formulate out basic position," Thondaman said. Br> "For what purpose?" some ministers asked.
"No sir, we are not going to send our foreign minister there to eat lunches and dinners," he replied.
There was good-humored laughter in which the President joined. Tension eased; they were all felt more relaxed.
Thondaman asked Lalith Athulathmudali who sits next to him at cabinet meetings to write down the points. The first point he suggested should be a request by Sri Lanka's President to the Indian Prime Minister to recommence withdrawal on July 29. It was agreed. The second point was about the discussions, the third concerned the cessation of military operations by the IPKF against the LTTE.
Athulathmudali drafted the formula as follows:
1. The President of Sri Lanka requests the Prime Minister of India to re-commence the withdrawal of the Indian Armed Forces contingent. A significant withdrawal will recommence by 29th July 1989.
2. The Governments of India and Sri Lanka will forthwith commence discussions in Delhi and Colombo to draw up a time - table for the complete and expeditious withdrawal of the Indian Armed Forces contingent from Sri Lanka.
3. The IPKF will, upon commencement of the discussions, suspend all offensive military operations in the northern and eastern provinces.
Athulathmudali told the Cabinet the third point as it stood did not specify the period of suspension of hostilities. He suggested in the clause 'until the conclusion of the discussions' be included at the end of the third point within parenthesis. It as accepted and included.
Thondaman asked the Cabinet staff to type it. It was typed on an ordinary piece of paper without a government letterhead. It did not bear any signature. President Premadasa had wanted the formula to go as Thondaman's own proposal and not the government's. Thondaman agreed.
It was a little past 11 p.m., when Thondaman rushed to India House with his formula. The Sri Lanka Air Force sentries who stood guard outside recognized Thondaman and allowed him to approach the gate. Hearing footsteps, Indian Black-Cat commandos guarding the Indian High Commissioner's residence from within, opened the gate holding their weapons aloft. An official of the high commission recognized Thondaman and told him that the high commissioner was at the high commission office.
Thondaman rushed there and sought an immediate meting with High Commissioner Mehrotra. He was ushered in and a surprised Mehrotra received him warmly.
"I've come with an urgent message to be sent to Rajiv," Thondaman said showing Mehrotra the typed paper he was carrying. The High Commissioner read it but was unenthusiastic.
"I'm sorry. This formula will not be acceptable to India," he said. "Things have gone too far to save the situation."
"If this is not acceptable let us sit together and see how it can be made acceptable to India," Thondaman persisted.
"Some major amendments are necessary," Mehrotra insisted.
"We will first see how it can be made acceptable to both countries," Thondaman replied.
Taking out his pen Mehrotra made two amendments to the first clause. He deleted the phrase 'Indian Armed Forces contingent' and substituted it with 'IPKF". He then scratched out the words "A significant" and substituted the word 'The '. The clause amended read: "I. The President of Sri Lanka requests the Prime Minister of India to recommence the withdrawal of the IPKF. The withdrawal will re - commence by 29th July 1989."
Mehrotra made extensive amendments in clause two and wanted clause three dropped all together. He suggested a new one. As suggested by Mehrotra those clauses read:
"2. The Government of India and Sri Lanka will forthwith commence discussions in Delhi and Colombo to discuss all issues of mutual concern, including the time-table for the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and the implementation of the Indo-Lanka agreement.
"3. A Sri Lankan delegation led by the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka will visit India on 28th and 29th July, for this purpose."
The second and third clauses were then combined and the draft read: "The governments of India and Sri Lanka will forthwith commence discussions in Delhi and Colombo to discuss all issues of mutual concern including the time - table for the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement."
Thondaman insisted that the message be sent to Gandhi immediately. Mehrotra was reluctant. He said Gandhi would be sleeping.
"Let this be the first thing he sees in the morning," Thondaman pleaded.
"I shall be sending this as your formula. Will the Government of Sri Lanka accept this?" Mehrotra asked.
"I give you my assurance that I will persuade the President to accept it, if India is agreeable."
Mehrotra finally dispatched the message as Thondaman's formula.
It was around 2 a.m. when Thondaman left the Indian High Commission.
At 10 a.m., next day, Thondaman telephoned Wijeratne and suggested a meeting. Wijeratne went to Thondaman's flat opposite Royal College.
Thondaman told Wijeratne that the message sent to Delhi was not materially different from the formula they have agreed to the previous night "We have only played with words," he said. Wijeratne left to brief the President.
Mehrotra contacted Wijeratne soon afterward. He said, 'Gandhi wanted other amendments made. India had taken the view that the Lankan Foreign Minister must visit Delhi to negotiate the IPKF withdrawal and implementation issues of the Indo-Lanka Agreement."
Wijeratne observed that Delhi had dropped the question of suspension of hostilities in the northern and eastern provinces. Mehrotra contacted Gandhi, then Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao and Foreign Secretary S. K. Singh, who were then at Gandhi's residence. After consulting Gandhi, Singh suggested a compromise by agreeing to discuss the cessation of hostilities at the Delhi talks.
The compromise was reached around 3.30 p.m. on July 28. Mehrotra and Lankan Foreign Secretary Bernard Tilakaratne signed the joint communiqué that was released simultaneously at Colombo and New Delhi at 4 p.m.; half hour after the agreement was reached.
The communiqué, which took over the sentences from Thondaman's formula, reads:
"The President of Sri Lanka has requested the Prime Minister of India to recommence the withdrawal of the IPKF. The withdrawal will recommence on July 29.
"The High Commissioner reiterated the invitation of the Minister of External Affairs of the Government of India to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Sri Lanka to visit India to discuss the time schedule for the withdrawal of the remaining IPKF contingent in Sri Lanka.
"During the visit of the delegation, the question of the cessation of offensive military operations by the IPKF and the safety and security of all communities in the North - Eastern Province of Sri Lanka will also be discussed."
India Pulls Out
The final communiqué contained all the points on which Thondaman had got the Cabinet to agree. Labour Minister Ranjit Atapattu was the first to congratulate Thondaman for helping Sri Lanka avoid a confrontation with India. He told him he had saved the country from a difficult situation. President Premadasa telephoned Thondaman to congratulate him. Lifting the receiver Thondaman said, "Sir, I congratulate you," to which the President replied, "It is you I must congratulate for the correct advice you gave me."
Under the agreement India made a token pullout of 600 soldiers from Trincomalee and a high level delegation led by Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne flew to New Delhi for talks. That diffused the crisis and averted the war.
Thondaman deeply wanted the talks to succeed. Unless they succeeded the gains of his efforts would only be temporary, he said. He was aware of the complexity of the problem and the difficulties involved in working out a solution. He felt that unless the talks were conducted at very high political level a solution would be difficult.
So he wrote a personal letter to Gandhi, advising him to lift the talks to the highest level. Bureaucrats would take a narrow legalistic view of the issues, he said in his letter.
Gandhi heeded his advice and took personal charge of the negotiations. His meetings with Ranjan Wijeratne and A. C. S. Hameed, the two ministers in the Lankan delegation, actually saved the talks from breaking down. His personal intervention and President Premadasa's direct contact with Wijeratne and Hameed resulted in the two delegations narrowing their difference to a considerable extent.
Lankan delegation returned to Colombo on August 5 after seven days of intense deliberations with a position paper that gave the respective stand the two countries took on the four main issues discussed. The two issues raised by Sri Lanka were: time schedule for IPKF withdrawal and cessation of offensive military operations by the IPKF. On the first Sri Lanka wanted the withdrawal to be completed by the middle of September and India wanted time till February 1990. In the second Sri Lanka wanted IPKF to cease hostile operations immediately and without laying down any qualifications by reciprocating LTTE ceasefire. India offered to suspend offensive military operations for 15 days that would be extended once the LTTE joins and participates in the work of the North - East Peace Committee.
The Peace Committee to be chaired by a Sri Lankan cabinet minister would comprise representatives of all Tamil militant groups and Tamil political parties, India had said. It should act to bring back peace in the North - East Province. The decision of the committee would have to be unanimous.
The two issues India raised were: review of the implementation of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 29 July 1987 and the arrangement for the safety and security of all communities in the North - East Province. On the first there was agreement. India accepted Lanka's request not to link the implementation of the agreement with troop withdrawal. Lanka reciprocated by clarifying the action so far taken to devolve power to the North - East Provincial Council and the steps to be taken to set up the Provincial Police Force and to facilitate the effective functioning of the provincial councils.
On the second Sri Lanka agreed to set up a committee to review and coordinate security arrangements during the withdrawal of the IPKF. India accepted it. Sri Lanka wanted the committee to comprise the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, the General Officer Commanding the IPKF, the IGP of Sri Lanka and the Governor of the North-ast Province. India accepted the first three but wanted the Chief Minister of the North-East Province instead of the Governor.
Minister Wijeratne reported to President Premadasa on the Indian proposal soon after his arrival. President Premadasa summoned a special meeting of the Cabinet on August 7 to consider India's proposals. The president tabled the Indian proposals at the meting and announced that he wanted to place them before Parliament to get the opinion of the opposition parties. He arranged for a debate on August 10 and 11. He also fixed another special Cabinet meeting for August 11 to enable the Ministers to express their views.
Opposition parties evaded expressing their views in Parliament. At the Cabinet meeting the opinion was divided. Thondaman, Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Ranjit Atapattu and Festus Perera, - all senior Ministers took up the position that Sri Lanka should avoid a confrontation with India. New Ministers took a harder line. Education Minister W. J. M. Lokubandara argued that Sri Lanka should insist on getting the IPKF withdrawn out immediately. He said Colombo should not yield to any of India's demands.
Thondaman cautioned against picking up a fight with India. He said that would harm Sri Lanka more than India. He also said Sri Lanka should take this opportunity to devolve more power to the provincial councils. "Let's make use of this opportunity to solve the ethnic problem," he said.
President Premadasa said, he would take a decision after considering the views expressed in Parliament and Cabinet. President Premadasa then sent his advisor Bradman Weerakoon to Delhi to obtain clarifications on three sticky matters: date of the IPKF withdrawal; cessation of hostilities by the IPKF against the Tigers: and the composition of the Security Co-ordination Group.
Weerakoon went with the brief to negotiate an early withdrawal earlier than India's stipulated February 1990; for a permanent ceasefire instead of India's offer of 15 days; and inclusion of the governor of the North-East Province in the Security Co-ordination Group.
Weerakoon met with Foreign Ministry officials and finally with Gandhi. The Indian Prime Minister agreed to accelerate the IPKF withdrawal and complete it by the end of December and acceded to Colombo's wish to reconstitute the Security Co - ordination Group. They agreed Sri Lanka’s Minister of State for Defense should head the group and comprise the Chief Minister of the North - East Province, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary and the General Officer Commanding the IPKF.
With much reluctance Gandhi agreed to extend the ceasefire to one month with the promise that it would be extended if the Tigers behaved.
President Premadasa was not satisfied. He wanted a speedier IPKF withdrawal - preferably by the end of October; and the ceasefire to be permanent.
These points were finally resolved on September 6 when Ranjan Wijeratne met Gandhi at Belgrade, where both attended the Non - Aligned Movement summit. At that meeting, described as "friendly, cordial and cooperative", Gandhi agreed to a permanent ceasefire but wanted adequate safeguards are built into the agreement, and it took ten days to chisel the mechanism for monitoring the ceasefire.
The final agreement was signed on September 18 in Colombo by Lankan Foreign Secretary Bernard Tilakaratne and Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehrotra The seven-paragraph joint communiqué released simultaneously in Colombo and New Delhi, stated that Sri Lanka undertook to expedite the devolution process, agreed to establish the Provincial Police Force and facilitate the effective functioning of the North-East Provincial Council and establish an adequate administrative structure for that purpose. Colombo also undertook to institute early measures to strengthen the civil administration in the north and east.
Sri Lanka also undertook to set up a Peace Committee to afford political and ethnic groups in the North - East province to come together to settle their differences thereby ending violence.
India on her part undertook to make all efforts to accelerate the IPKF withdrawal and complete it before December 31. It also agreed to suspend offensive military operations against the LTTE. It took effect at 6 a.m. on September 20.
An Observer group consisting of the Sri Lanka Army Commander and General Officer Commanding the IPKF was set up to report on violations and take immediate consequential action,
A Security Co-ordinating Group comprising Sri Lanka minister of State for Defense, Chief Minister of the North - East Province, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary and the to take measures to ensure safety and security in the North - East Province as the phased withdrawal of the IPKF goes through.
The agreement denotes the completion of the negotiation process, which began with Thondaman's initiative of July 27 midnight dash to India House and then to the office of the Indian High Commissioner, the effort that saved Sri Lanka from a war
With the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi in the Indian Parliamentary general election and the swearing in of V.P.Singh's government, India's foreign policy perceptions and priorities underwent change and the linkage between IPKF pull out and the devolution of power to the North-East Provincial Council was dropped. The commitment India had to prop up the EPRLF -ENDLF northeast administration too was forgotten. India withdrew completely the IPKF on 31 March 1990 and with that the EPRLF administration packed up and the Tamil National Army it set up with Indian assistance disintegrated.
The withdrawal of the IPKF and the collapse of the EPRLF administration headed by Chief Minister Varatharajah Perumal diminished the need for negotiations with the LTTE and the urgency for a political solution. President Premadasa repeated former President Jayewardene's time consuming All Party Conference exercise to which he directed the LTTE to participate and search for a solution to the ethnic problem. Exasperated by President Premadasa's disinterest and encouraged by the immense arms President Premadasa had gifted it to get it harass the IPKF in case a military confrontation occurred and the huge quantity of arms that fell its way when the Tamil National Army disintegrated the LTTE restarted the war with the Colombo government
. Thondaman was naturally upset by the new development. In the last quarter of 1990 and in 1991 he concentrated on working out a solution to the ethnic problem. His approached was based on the two premises he developed in early eighties: merged autonomous northeast province in a united Sri Lanka and negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
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