The new government formed on 1 April 1989 under the premiership of Vishwanath Pratap Singh inherited a tense Indo-Sri Lankan relations. The inventionist approach adopted by the previous Government of Rajiv Gandhi resulted in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 that paved the way for interference of Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) in the country and had created a very complicated situation, bristling with dangerous possibilities and unpredictable consequences.
With the change of government Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne hoped that the change in India would have no impact on either the Indo-Lanka Accord or the agreed time framework for IPKF withdrawal from the island country. The new dispensation that took over in India was serious over the loss of confidence and mutual trust between Colombo and New Delhi. As such, it made initial attempts to redefine the parameters of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka. India had learned a lesson that while dealing with an independent sovereign country and that too during a destabilise situation there was a point beyond which India could not go.
Withdrawal of IPKF
The National Front Government has viewed that the very presence of IPKF would pose a grave danger for mutual trust and confidence building from a small nation. In the circumstances there were three aspects which the National Front applied to the situation in Sri Lanka. (i) That South Asia was a troubled region emphasising that in the context India’s interest must be protected. (ii) A Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Sri Lanka to bring the island back to India’s sphere of influence and to put an end to the penetration of the international forces of subversion became an imperative need for India, (iii) A good neighbourly relationship would make National Front comfortable at home and enable it to concentrate more on containing domestic subversive activities and justify its action in quelling it.
Initially, the National Front Government was charged with continuing the policy of the previous government but soon it was realised that it had different view of the problem. With all its concern for the security of the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, the new government acknowledged the stern reality that the Indian peace keeping force can not do for the Sri Lankan Sinhalas but Tamils alone can do for themselves and therefore, must live in peace and social stability.
But the webs of confusion prevailed on the issue as Inder Kumar Gujral, the Minister for External Affairs, under new dispensation going by the reply to a parliament question stated that his government is committed to another deadline—31 March, 1990 for the withdrawal of the IPKF. New Delhi had assured President Premadasa that the Indian forces would leave Trincomalee and Jaffna districts much before the March deadline and possibly by January end.
Negotiations on deadline
The declaration of the new deadline (March 31) for withdrawal of IPKF had surprised Colombo and in the background the second visit of Ranjan Wijeratne took place in the first week of January 1990. The frequency and speed of the visits suggested serious efforts for sorting out bilateral problems—the de-induction of the IPKF and related matters. During his stay at New Delhi Wijeratne discussed with his Indian counterpart the schedule for the de-induction of the Indian peace-keeping force and related matters in the context ofSri Lanka’s plea for speeding up the process.
Gujral, while giving an assurance that he would personally look into the possibility of accelerating the withdrawal also expressed the desire that Sri Lanka should take care of logistical and other practical problems. However, his main concern was to impress upon the visiting minister about the new government’s sincerity in sorting out its problems with Sri Lanka. In his opinion, this, and not the change in deadline by a few weeks here and there was material for a relationship of trust and confidence.
The joint statement issued at the end of the visit, India and Sri Lanka agreed to make joint efforts to use their influence with the rival militant Tamil groups in the North Eastern Province and work towards a ceasefire. New Delhi had reaffirmed the commitment made in parliament to complete the withdrawal of the IPKF by 31 March 1990. Sri Lanka had pledged to ensure the safety and security of all communities in the north-eastern province. The two sides agreed to finalise a friendship treaty proposed by Sri Lanka that incorporated most of the elements of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and elements from the letters exchanged between New Delhi and Colombo.
The main outcome of the exercise, the one most highlighted, is an agreement on finalising the friendship treaty, proposed by Colombo in an updating or upgradation of the accord of July 1987. Wijeratne, while addressing his press conference after his recent visit to New Delhi, sketched an optimistic scenario of the future of Indo-Sri Lanka relations stating that “We have to have a change of heart and bearing in mind the compulsions of both sides there must be a growing understanding of each other’s problems. He appeared to feel that the new government coming to power in New Delhi, a fresh chapter in Indo-Sri Lanka relations devoid of the irritants of the past few years could begin.
Mutual confidence restored
A week ahead of the deadline (31 March), the last of Indian Peace-keeping Force left Sri Lanka ending a historic two and-a-half year long chapter in relations between the two countries. Soon after coming to power V. P. Singh on his part, fielded Karunanidhi to hold talks with the squabbling Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups. The Chief Minister, according to informed sources, “assured” the PM that he would try to bring all these groups together so that the IPKF could be withdrawn without the fear of a refugee backlash for. India.
No doubt, the present government can claim to have improved relation with Sri Lanka after they had suffered under the Rajiv Gandhi Government. The irony of that government’s policy’ was that India got deeply involved in the complex international contradictions of Sri Lankan politics. The fiasco of the policy of active intervention was writ large as our armed forces were virtually engaged in pulling president Jayawardene’s chestnuts out of the fire.
Hardly ten hours after the IPKF left Sri Lanka, Premadasa, the President of Sri Lanka, thanked India profoundly for withdrawing its troops completely and said, “We were able to send home a mighty army not by war but by consultation.” He did not hesitate in praising New Delhi publicly and while addressing the Ceylon Workers’ Congress referred to the Indian Prime Minister and said. “The premier has won our love and I am please to announce that his government has withdrawn its troops from the country without attaching any condition.” “I thank the Government and people of India for respecting our sovereignty.” The Indian action was also hailed by the USA and state spokesman department Margaret Tutweiler, commenting on the withdrawal said that his country welcomed the departure of the Indian forces from Sri Lanka and that “it makes a step on that troubled country’s road to normalcy”.