Prabhakaran’s guile and Rajiv’s trusting innocence

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Rajiv Gandhi’s blossoming political career was brutally cut short by ruthless terrorist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on 21 May 1991 and three decades later Rajiv’s trusted friend Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress MP revealed inside facts of the late Prime Minister’s trusting innocence and how it cost him his life.

Diplomat-turned-politician Aiyar disclosed that Prabhakaran refused to accept the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) of 1987, when the draft was shown to him. Everyone from Indian High Commission’s First Secretary Hardeep Singh Puri (now a top Cabinet Minister in BJP Government) and the then High Commissioner Jyotindra Nath Dixit to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran had tried to convince Prabhakaran to accept the peace accord in vain. When they failed, Rajiv Gandhi decided to meet Prabhakaran. “It was the meeting with Rajiv Gandhi that ultimately gave Prabhakaran the confidence to sign the accord,” Aiyar said.

Speaking with Karan Thapar, popular talk show host, on Headlines Today’s ‘Nothing But The Truth,’ Mani Shankar Aiyar said Prabhakaran’s reluctant assent was so welcome that Rajiv Gandhi immediately ordered a celebratory dinner. His advisors were appalled that the Prime Minister of India had given a private audience to a man like Prabhakaran. But Gandhi was upbeat about his cooperation and the success of the accord. As he was leaving, Gandhi sent his son Rahul (Gandhi heads the Congress Party of his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv, both of whom were assassinated by terrorists – Sikh extremists and LTTE respectively) to fetch him something.

Aiyar said Rahul returned with Rajiv’s bulletproof jacket. Rajiv then put his bulletproof jacket on Prabhakaran’s back, and said with his usual charming smile, “Take care of yourself.”

Aiyar said not only Prabhakaran, but many people Rajiv had trusted finally betrayed him. He referred to former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh’s claim in his book that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka without taking his Cabinet colleagues into confidence.

Giving the allegory of a blind man touching different parts of an elephant’s body and thinking that the elephant is just like that, Aiyar said “this is what has happened with Natwar.” He said Natwar was only a Minister of State (MoS) at that time, suggesting that he may not be aware of a lot of things happening in the Government’s decision-making at the top at that time. State ministers did not have access to Cabinet meetings.

Insisting there is a difference between a decision and a deployment, Aiyar said the decision to send IPKF was taken by Rajiv after there was a call from the then Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, who was apprehensive that a coup can happen against him on that particular evening (30 July 1987, the day after the ISLA was signed) itself.

From the middle of 1986, Rajiv Gandhi had a ‘core group’ to address Sri Lanka – a bunch of advisors who had a ‘genuine desire’ to facilitate a compromise between the Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan Government. This desire culminated in the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord.

The backdrop to the accord is the politics of Tamil Eelam. More immediately, the accord aimed to address two sore points for the Indian and Sri Lankan Governments respectively: the Sri Lankan Government had been conducting military operations against Tamil militants between January and June 1987 – with Operation Liberation marking its peak in May 1987 – and the Indian Government air-dropping supplies to the Tamils during Operation Poomalai in June 1987.

A final draft of ISLA, with amendments and annexures approved by both India and Sri Lanka, was ready by 22 July 1987.

The tense mood in Colombo on 29 July 1987 was described by The Print website. The Indian Prime Minister exhibited ‘gravitas’ and ‘thoughtful sobriety.’ But Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene was reluctant and stressed, and his Prime Minister R. Premadasa was boycotting the accord’s signing. All this while Prabhakaran, the fearsome LTTE leader, was confined to Room 518 at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi – where he allegedly racked up a phone bill running into thousands of rupees, making frantic calls.

The high tea on the lawns of the Sri Lankan President’s house held on the day the ISLA was signed was a frosty affair. There were many empty seats at the reception – including former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s, who wrote a terse letter to Rajiv Gandhi explaining her absence, according to Dixit’s book, Assignment Colombo.

Mani Shankar Aiyar summed up that everyone, from military, to intelligence, to diplomatic establishment, let Rajiv down and thereby converted an agreement made in good faith into a stupendous failure.

“Rajiv was engaged in working out conditions for the withdrawal of the IPKF when the Government changed (in 1989 and new President Ranasinghe Premadasa gave quit notice to IPKF), yet he had to pay with his life for the faults of others who had rendered the IPKF mission a tragic farce,” Aiyar said.

The only person who seemed to have communicated his intentions properly was the one who took the fall: Rajiv Gandhi. Ultimately, he was let down by those he trusted – including Prabhakaran.

The meeting between Gandhi and Prabhakaran in July 1987 was an episode that showed ‘Prabhakaran’s guile and Rajiv’s trusting innocence.’

By Sugeeswara Senadhira