When LTTE tried to take Sri Sri hostage

This book is also a story of the foolish short-sightedness that destroyed the LTTE – and along with it the future of tens of thousands of Tamils it claimed to represent in Sri Lanka

M.R. Narayan Swamy Feb 22, 2022
Title: The Tiger’s Pause: The Untold Story of Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka; Author: Swami Virupaksha; Publisher: Ebury Press/Penguin Random House

This book is more than enough for anyone to realize why an armed militant group that once controlled two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s winding coastline and a third of its land territory finally got crushed by the military. It was sheer arrogance and a complete lack of understanding of politics and diplomacy. It is no surprise then to learn that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) planned to seize Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Indian spiritual leader with a global following, during a visit to its lair in northern Sri Lanka and hold him hostage to ease the military onslaught. This book is the story of the spiritual leader’s attempts to forge peace in Sri Lanka and how he almost got abducted. In other words, this book is also a story of the foolish short-sightedness that destroyed the LTTE – and along with it the future of tens of thousands of Tamils it claimed to represent. 

The day before Sri Sri went to Kilinochchi – the administrative capital of the LTTE-held zone in Sri Lanka’s north – to meet the group’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the latter held a meeting in a secret bunker along with S.P. Tamilselvan, the outfit’s political head, Nadesan, the police chief, and Pottu Amman, the intelligence chief, and a few others. When Tamilselvan insisted that it was not appropriate to call off a scheduled appointment between Prabhakaran and the spiritual leader, another LTTE leader boasted about the group’s military capacities to win the war and argued that Sri Sri would try to convince the Tigers to give up their weapons. As the arguments raged, Pottu Amman told the gathering that plans to take Sri Sri hostage were already in place. 

Much later, after the military had destroyed the LTTE, the author found out details about this bizarre plan from a LTTE cadre who managed to mingle with civilians and found shelter in a refugee camp where Sri Sri’s Art of Living Foundation was providing succor. The LTTE operation to seize Sri Sri was code-named ‘Bunker 21’ – after September 21, 2006 when the event was to be executed. Three bunkers were prepared so that Sri Sri could be shifted every two days to avoid detection by satellite. A few sets of white dhotis and shirts had been brought from Colombo for his use. The LTTE had collected every bit of information about Sri Sri. It also discussed possible Indian responses to the abduction. Sri Sri was to be whisked away in a van while the others accompanying him would be dropped off at the Kilinochchi checkpost so that they return to Colombo. Prabhakaran had made it clear, however, that no harm should come to Sri Sri – “not even a scratch”. 

Sri Sri in LTTE lair

The day Sri Sri did make it Kilinochchi, he was initially told that Prabhakaran would meet him. They reached a house with a red-tiled roof where three men and a woman in LTTE uniforms waited – Selvam, Charles, Kumaran and Thamilini. But there was no trace of Prabhakaran. As anxiety gave way to frustration, the LTTE cadres were unable to say if their leader would come or not. At one point, one of them, Charles, gloated: “Sir, I cannot speak for our leader but one thing I can say is that we are in a stronger position now militarily.” More than an hour later, when Charles, after getting a call on his satellite phone, enquired if Sri Sri could spend one more day in Kilinochchi, the visitors decided they had had enough.  

Sri Sri gave the cadres some gifts from India and handed over a pure white shawl embroidered with light gold threads. “This is for your leader. Give it to him,” he said. “I know you want liberation; you want to win the war… but it cannot be won only with weapons or force. You need ‘yukti’ (skill) for it.” With those words, Sri Sri and his team members walked backed to the car and drove out of the LTTE territory. 

A Sri Lankan Tamil journalist with connections to the LTTE later told the author that Prabhakaran did not show up that day because his intelligence had warned him that India might quietly and indirectly help Sri Lanka by bombing him when he proceeded to meet Sri Sri – using Indian radars and satellite images.  

Much later, as the LTTE began going down, Tamilselvan, the political head of the LTTE, wrote a secret letter to Sri Sri apologizing for the failed meeting with Prabhakaran who he said was misguided “by some of his senior aides”. He said he was hurt that Prabhakaran did not take his advice. “I strongly feel, for us, this was a last missed chance for peace.” He said he was writing the letter in absolute secrecy and that he could not speak on the satellite phone either. “Please tell me how we can convince our leader Prabahakran to bring final success to our long Tamil struggle.” 

LTTE regrets

Much later, on May 2, 2009, when Sri Sri was in the Netherlands, LTTE’s Nadesan phoned him and spoke in a trembling voice: “We made a very big mistake by not receiving you. We should have met you when you came to our motherland.” Nadesan – speaking clearly with authorization from Prabahakran -- expressed the LTTE’s readiness for any kind of settlement with a third party other than the Sri Lankan Army. 

Of course, it was too late. Sri Sri got in touch with then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now Prime Minister), who made it clear that he would not be able to stop the war as it had gone beyond a point of no return. But he was ready to grant amnesty to the surrendering LTTE cadres. They only had to show a white flag signifying their willingness to surrender. Nadestan and some of his colleagues including his wife did just that; but everyone else was shot dead. Tamilselvan was dead long back. Prabhakaran would soon be killed – and the LTTE would be annihilated. 

This book may not have been written by a so-called Sri Lanka scholar but it has all the meat to show why the LTTE collapsed. On a personal level, I must say that Sri Sri met me at a devotee’s residence on Sardar Patel Marg in New Delhi – incidentally the same street where I met Prabhakaran in 1985 – before venturing into Sri Lanka. I told Sri Sri that he would never succeed in his peace mission because the LTTE would only try to use him and not listen to him. I would have been happy if I had been proved wrong; the only good news is that the LTTE did not carry out what it had planned. 

Title: The Tiger’s Pause: The Untold Story of Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka; Author: Swami Virupaksha; Publisher: Ebury Press/Penguin Random House; Pages: 189; Price: Rs 399 

(The writer is a veteran journalist with a special interest in Sri Lanka. He is author of the book "The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE′s Story")

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