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Indian food aid to Sri Lanka; Are there any lessons from 1987?

Sri Lanka should also remember the adage ‘there are no free lunches’ and bilateral relations will depend on a give-and-take policy, writes Suggeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor

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(Top left) Prime Minister Narendra Modi, (top right) Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, (bottom left) Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and (bottom right) Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene

People of Sri Lanka, burdened by severe shortages of essential goods to sustain day-to-day lives, received much-needed assistance from India. June began with the arrival of Indian Naval Ship (INS) Gharial with a consignment of food, medicine and kerosene for distribution in the North. This welcome humanitarian gesture from the people of India depicts the strength of the ties between the people of the two countries.

Indo-Lanka ties have seen many ups and downs over the past few decades. 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 in the last few months.

India has extended a line of credit of $2 billion under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy with another $1.5 billion of support to Sri Lanka in the past few months. A lot of this aid is catering to people who are vulnerable and are from the lower economic strata. People appreciated the food sent by India.

Indian help 

In addition to direct assistance, India also mediated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help Sri Lanka’s request for funding. Finance Minister Niramala Sitharaman put in a word at the IMF in Washington when Sri Lanka’s request was discussed.

The magnanimous gesture from India underpins the success of Modi’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’. This also brings to limelight the contrast between the current policy and the one followed four decades ago by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and before that his mother Indira Gandhi. A vivid example of that policy was the Indian decision to forcefully airdrop ‘parippu’ (dal) on Jaffna peninsula claiming they wanted to feed the Tamil people in the North -- exactly 35 years ago on June 4, 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 secretly gave assistance to Tamil militant groups. In addition to providing them arms and ammunition, the militants were trained at various locations in India.

1987 food drop 

In the second quarter of 1987, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a major assault on Tamil insurgents;. When the troops were about to enter the LTTE stronghold Jaffna, India asked Sri Lanka to stop the military action. When the fighting continued unabated and troops were about to cross into Jaffna, India decided to make a direct intervention.

During that era, the relationship between the two countries was marred by animosity and mistrust. On June 4, 1987, India decided to send food by aircraft violating Sri Lankan airspace, pushing down bilateral ties to its lowest ebb in history. As Second Secretary at the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi then, I was a front row spectator of the unfolding drama of June-July 1987.

Claiming that the displaced Tamil people were starving, India sent a flotilla of boats with food items. The Sri Lankan Navy intercepted them at the maritime border in the Palk Strait and told them to return to Indian waters.

Though the flotilla returned to Rameswaram, the following day, media sources revealed that some action was taking place at the Indian Air Force base in Bangalore. On the morning of June 4, 1987, a journalist friend called me to say that the India's External Affairs Ministry had selected a group of journalists for a ‘secret mission’. The media persons were asked to come to Palam airport in Delhi to fly by Indian Air Force planes to Bangalore for this secret mission.

Colombo gets tip 

I informed this to High Commissioner Bernard Tilakaratna and asked whether it was possible for 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 they can achieve by such a move?” he wondered.

We got the answer soon. The External Affairs Ministry summoned the High Commissioner at 3.00 p.m. Secretary K. Natwar Singh informed Tilakaratna that Indian planes would enter Sri Lankan air space in half an hour (3.30 p.m.) to drop food parcels to 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 nonchalantly. “But a few armed MIG 21 jets will accompany them”.

The following day, Indian newspapers reported that the Indian Air Force carried out ‘Operation Poomalai’ (Garland of Flowers), also known as Eagle Mission 4, by dropping supplies over the besieged town of Jaffna. One newspaper, quoting External Affairs Ministry sources said, “Tilakaratna dialed from Natwar Singh's telephone with trembling fingers to inform (Sri Lankan) Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed that Indian planes would enter Sri Lankan air space within 35 minutes.”

The errant journalist did not know that Tilakaratna was aware some operation was taking place. There was no reason for him to be shocked and his hands to tremble. The High Commissioner also alerted then Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. He then turned to his junior diplomats and said: “I hope some fool does not take potshots at the invading Indian planes.”

India, then & now 

The air drop took place at 3.35 p.m. and 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 Tilakaratna's report sent in the morning was that he mentioned that Indian forces could be planning to occupy Jaffna.

However, India's 'Big Brother' muscle-flexing foreign policy paid off with regard to East Pakistan and Sikkim. India helped to speed up bifurcation of Pakistan in 1971 though it was to happen anyway due to mismanagement by Pakistani military rulers. India hastened the process of breaking away East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by its military intervention in 1971. That was followed by the annexation of Sikkim in 1975 after the ruler Chogyal fled with his American wife.

That was the policy then and it should not be taken as a yardstick for judging the current humanitarian help of sending food and essential items when the people in Sri Lanka are faced with severe shortages. This is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka perhaps is aware who are its true friends now. At the same time, Sri Lanka should remember the adage “there are no free lunches” and bilateral relations will depend on a give-and-take policy.

(The writer is Director, International Media, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. Views are personal. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)
 

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