Indian Food Aid

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The Indian Naval Ship (INS) Gharial arrived early June with a consignment of food, medicine and kerosene for distribution to the needy in the North. This welcome humanitarian gesture from the people of India to Sri Lanka depicts the strength of the ties and close friendship between the people of Sri Lanka and India.

Indo-Lanka ties have seen many ups and downs over the past few decades and India’s generous assistance in the face of current shortages of fuel, essential foods and medicine and offer of financial restructuring facilities to Sri Lanka to overcome the foreign exchange shortage has brought home the fact that India is a dependable friend. Thus bilateral ties have flourished during the last few.

The current bond between the two countries is quite in contrast to the animosity and mistrust that existed 35 years ago when on 4 June 1987 India forcefully airdropped parippu on the Jaffna peninsula claiming they wanted to “feed the starving Tamils in the North”.

India’s naked violation of Sri Lankan airspace resulted in bilateral relations hitting the lowest ebb and as Second Secretary at the Sri Lanka High Commission; I was a front row spectator of the unfolding drama of June-July 1987.

India was highly concerned over Sri Lanka’s Western-tilt under the J R Jayewardene Presidency and during Indira Gandhi’s last term as Prime Minister from 1980, India surreptitiously gave assistance to Tamil militant groups. In addition to providing them with arms and ammunition, the militants were trained at various locations in India from Dehradun to Gurgaon, near Delhi.

In the second quarter of 1987, armed forces launched a major assault on the LTTE terrorists and when the troops were about to enter the LTTE stronghold in Jaffna, India asked Sri Lanka to stop military action. However, fighting continued unabated and when the troops were about to cross into Jaffna, India directly intervened. Claiming the displaced Tamils were starving, India sent a flotilla of boats with food items which the Sri Lankan Navy intercepted at the maritime border in the Palk Straight and instructed them to return to Indian waters.

Operation Poomalai

Though the flotilla of boats returned to Ramswaram, the following day, Media sources disclosed that some action was taking place at the Indian Air Force base in Bangalore. On the morning of 4 June 1987 a journalist friend of mine informed me the Indian External Affairs Ministry had selected a group of journalists for a secret mission. The group of journalists was asked to come to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi to fly to Bangalore on this secret mission with the Indian Air Force.

I informed the High Commissioner Bernard Tilakaratna and inquired whether it was possible that India was planning to launch a military operation against Sri Lanka. His reply was that it could be a very limited operation to take over Jaffna Airport. “But what could they can achieve by such a move?” he openly wondered.

We got the answer soon enough. The External Affairs Ministry summoned the High Commissioner at 3.00 p.m. and Secretary Natwar Singh informed HC Tilakaratna that Indian planes would enter Sri Lankan air space in half an hour (3.30 p.m.) to drop food parcels on the Jaffna peninsula. “The planes will not be armed and a team of journalists will travel in one of the planes,” Natwar Singh said and added, “But few armed MIG 21 Jet Aircraft will accompany them”.

The following day, 4 June 1987, the Indian newspapers reported the Air Force carried out ‘Operation Poomalai’ (Garland of Flowers), also known as Eagle Mission 4, to airdrop supplies over the besieged town of Jaffna. One newspaper, quoting External Affairs Ministry sources said, “HC Tilakaratna dialed Foreign Minister ACS Hameed’s telephone number with trembling fingers to inform him that Indian planes would enter Sri Lankan air space within 35 minute.”

However the errant journalist did not know that HC Tilakaratna was aware that an operation was underway and there was no reason for him to be shocked and his hands weren’t trembling either.  The High Commissioner also informed President J. R. Jayewardene and the National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. He then turned to his 3 junior diplomats and said, “I hope some fool would not take potshots at the invading Indian planes”.

The air drop took place at 3.35 p.m. and High Commissioner Tilakaratna reported to Colombo at 10.00 a.m. that New Delhi-based journalists were taken to Bangalore to report on the ‘launching of a secret operation against Sri Lanka.’ The only mistake in HC Tilakaratna’s report sent in the morning was that he mentioned that Indian forces could be planning to occupy Jaffna.

That was the Indian aggressive policy then which started with helping the bifurcation of Pakistan in 1971, though it was to happen anyway due to mismanagement by Pakistani military rulers. However, India hastened the process of breaking away East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by its military intervention in 1971. That was followed by annexation of Sikkim in 1975 after the monarch Chogyal fled with his American wife.

That policy should not be taken as a yardstick for judging the current humanitarian help of sending food and essential items when people in Sri Lanka are faced with severe shortages. This is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood First’ policy.

By Sugeeswara Senadhira