By Amit Baruah
Sri Lanka was forced into making a deal with India as its own armed forces had twice refused to “take Jaffna”, then President J.R. Jayewardene has been quoted as saying in a declassified document, nearly 30 years after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in the island nation.
Jayewardene told visiting American diplomat Peter Galbraith that he had twice ordered his troops to take Jaffna — “burn the place to the ground” — and they had talked him out of it on grounds of unacceptably high casualties.
A little over 1,200 Indian soldiers died in IPKF operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. In May 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had signed the July 1987 peace deal with Jayewardene, was assassinated by the LTTE.
In response to significant promises of devolution of powers to the Tamil minority and recognition of Tamil as an official language, India agreed to provide military assistance — the IPKF — to ensure peace according to the 1987 Gandhi-Jayewardene accord.
‘A mad fellow’
“He [Mr. Jayewardene] made clear that he shared the GOI’S [Government of India’s] implacable hostility toward Prabakaran, calling the LTTE leader ‘a mad fellow’, ” a declassified CIA document said about the February 1988 conversation.
“He stressed, though without obvious bitterness, that none of his outside friends would help him, so he had no choice but to make a deal with India,” the CIA document read.
Interestingly, the then President opened up to Mr. Galbraith and said he would hold elections in the Tamil-populated northern and eastern provinces in Sri Lanka. Polls were finally held in November 1988.
Mr. Galbraith also provides an insight into the relations between the IPKF and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), and the ground situation in the Jaffna peninsula after being flown to the area during his visit.
“…the IPKF and the Sri Lankan forces are getting on well together, and…the situation in Jaffna, while still far from normal, is gradually improving,” the American diplomat said in an assessment.
An SLA officer, Brigadier Jayaratne, is quoted in the memo as saying: “The IPKF is doing a jolly good job in Jaffna.” He added that the SLA and the Indian troops were getting along famously, like a house on fire.
The document recounted that the Indian officers were “warm and responsive” in their interaction with the American visitors, which included Mr. Galbraith and the then U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Behind the scenes
It appears that the Americans also played a behind-the-scenes role in ensuring channels of communication between President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Gandhi, a second declassified CIA document said.
In 1986, Jayewardene held a very negative view of India given that New Delhi had been training Tamil insurgents as he conveyed to visiting U.S. Senator Charles H. Percy. “I am a very peaceful man. But India’s role in this [ethnic] matter is reprehensible and the Indians have to be held responsible for their actions.” Percy, who carried a letter from U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Jayewardene, “offered to be of assistance in conveying any message” from the Sri Lankan President to Rajiv Gandhi.
Interestingly, a third CIA intelligence assessment of September 1986 stated that India was “rapidly expanding” its armed forces to “intervene” in Sri Lanka.
India, it said, was improving its ability to deploy airborne troops. “The paratroopers probably would try to seize an airfield so that reinforcements could be brought in by air. U.S. defence attaché sources report the Army and Air Force practised such an operation late last year  at Trivandrum, with the assault force receiving offshore fire support from Navy ships.” Trivandrum, the memo argued, resembled Colombo in topography.
In the CIA’s assessment, India would intervene in Sri Lanka in two scenarios — one, if the government collapsed and, the other, if Tamil insurgents established a separate State.
“In our view, an Indian intervention would most likely come [exactly what happened in 1987], as in 1971 [to deal with Marxist insurgents] following a request from Colombo to help in restoring internal order,” the assessment said.
Interestingly, the CIA believed that the poorly trained Sri Lankan Army would offer token resistance and opposition to a “prolonged” Indian intervention would come from Tamil and, possibly, Sinhala insurgents.
In a prescient observation, the memo concluded: “If New Delhi continues to oppose a separate Tamil state, we believe Tamil insurgents would resist the Indians as they now do the Sinhalese.”