Wednesday, April 05, 2006

India, Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers

It is difficult to summarize a complex sequence of events in a single post. There are many versions to a story. Each side has its own interpretation. The views below are expressed in my individual capacity. I have simplified the narrative in the interests of brevity.

The word "Sri Lanka" is derived from the Sanskrit "the resplendent isle". The country has an area of 25,000 square miles and a reported population of 19 million. The country has not had a complete census since 1981. In that census, the Sinhalese constituted 72.9% of the population, the indigenous "Sri Lankan Tamils" constituted 12.6%, the Muslims (a separate ethnic group that largely speaks Tamil) constituted 7.4%, while the "Indian Tamils" (who were the descendents of indentured labor who had immigrated in the 1800s) constituted 5.6%.

Sri Lanka obtained its independence in 1948 - six months after the British withdrew from India. Inspired by Jinnah, the indigenous "Sri Lankan Tamils" had demanded weighted representation in the legislature in the immediate prelude to independence. The ethnic polarization had begun. Sri Lanka proceeded to strip the "Indian Tamils" of their citizenship in 1949. The then Government of Don Stephen Senanayake was unabashedly pro-American.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike campaigned on a platform of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956. He won the elections and replaced English as the official language of the country with Sinhalese. Many "Sri Lankan Tamils" vociferously opposed the move and demanded parity of status between Sinhalese and Tamil. The parallels with East Pakistan in the 1950s were remarkable.

Assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959, Bandaranaike was eventually succeeded by his wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In the Sino-Indian border dispute in 1962, she cautiously edged towards the Chinese position on the case. She managed to persuade India to take back half the island's "Indian Tamil" population. Lal Bahadur Shastri was only too keen to wean away Sri Lanka from the growing Chinese links in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

1971 marked the Sinhalese youth insurrection driven by unemployment and landlessness. Mrs. Bandaranaike crushed the revolt and declared emergency. An estimated 20,000 Sinhalese youth had died. Pakistani ships and planes refueled in Colombo enroute to Dhaka in the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. Sirimavo introduced affirmative action to encourage Sinhalese intake into the university system and Government jobs. This in turn precipitated the Tamil revolt.

Junius Richard Jayewardene won the elections in Sri Lanka in 1977. Indira Gandhi expressed concern at the pro-American tilt of Sri Lankan foreign policy in 1979. The United States had sought refueling facilities for its airforce and navy in Sri Lanka, had reportedly expressed interest in the strategic port of Trincomalee, and had requested to set up a Voice of America relay station to beam news to the Indian subcontinent. India viewed the VoA station as an intelligence gathering device. This alarmed Mrs. Gandhi all too aware of the rapprochement between the United States and China, the traditional close links between the United States and Pakistan, not to mention the coup in Bangladesh in 1975 that overthrew the pro-Indian Mujib-ur-Rahman.

The anti-Tamil pogroms in 1977, 1981 and 1983 had led to the death of many Tamils, arson attacks on Tamil businesses and the flight of Tamils from Sinhalese majority areas of the island. Tamil youth groups responded with bomb attacks, assassinations and murder of Sinhalese. Bank robberies financed Tamil militancy. Several traveled to Lebanon, Libya and Syria for training. Mrs. Gandhi saw this as an opportunity to out-flank the increasingly pro-American Jayewardene regime. She proceeded to support Tamil militancy to avoid the perceived encirclement of India by pro-American regimes. This had the added advantage of ensuring electoral support in Tamil Nadu that had been inflammed by events in Sri Lanka.

India armed, aided and abetted several Tamil groups in the early 1980s. The LTTE was the only group that chose to be independent of Indian influence. Its leadership had temporarily moved to India and had received some training. But it soon returned to the island unlike other militant groups.

Both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers carried out mass murders of Tamil and Sinhalese villagers. There were acts of terrorism. Colombo gradually lost control of Jaffna. It turned to Israel for support which trained its military and adviced the arming of Muslim home guards to neutralize Tamil militancy in the island's east. The Muslim home guards attacked Tamil villages in the East and the LTTE responded with brutal murder of entire Muslim congregations at prayer. The situation had grown out of control.

Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi attempted to enforce a negotiated settlement on the island. Jayewardene acquiesced by agreeing to a land mark constitutional amendment in 1987 that recognized Tamil as an official language on par with Sinhalese. He devolved power to Tamil majority areas through the establishment of provincial councils. India in return had to enforce the cease-fire. India proceeded to disarm Tamil militant groups. It succeeded in all instances except with regards to the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers took on India with ferocity.

India lacked a unified command and control structure in the island. The Indian military was caught between the politics of the Ministry of External Affairs, the state government of Tamil Nadu and India's Research and Analysis Wing. Wounded Tamil Tiger cadre were shipped to Tamil Nadu for medical treatment while simultaneously fighting India. The LTTE imported arms through Tamil Nadu to sustain its battle against Indian forces.

The presence of Indian troops in the island precipitated the second Sinhalese youth uprising between 1987 and 1989. The Australian Human Rights Commission had estimated that 60,000 Sinhalese youth died fighting the Jayewardene administration in protest at the perceived capitulation of the Government to India.

Jayewardene ended his two term limit in 1988. Premadasa succeeded him and promptly demanded the withdrawal of Indian forces. The LTTE entered into a strategic alliance with the Premadasa regime. Colombo and the Tamil Tigers declared a cease-fire. Colombo armed the Tigers to fight the IPKF. The LTTE imported weapons and ammunition through the port of Colombo.

Rajiv had lost the elections in 1989 and V.P. Singh agreed to the Premadasa demand to withdraw. The last Indian troops left the island in March, 1990. 1,000 Indian soldiers had died between 1987 and 1990 fighting the Tamil rebels in the island. The LTTE was to later boast that they had defeated the world's fourth most powerful military.

The LTTE resumed hostilities against Premadasa in June, 1990. The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in the run-up to the 1991 Indian elections to forestall the return of the Indian military to the island. It assassinated Premadasa in 1993. This brought one chapter of the island's murky and bloodied politics to a close.

The LTTE and the Sri Lankan military continued to fight massive conventional battles in the late 1990s. 65,000 people are estimated to have died in the Tamil insurrection. The LTTE formed a naval wing, an incipient air wing, an illicit mercantile shipping wing and illicit real estate operations overseas to raise funds. India abandoned open intervention in the island's politics and opted for more subtle behind-the-scene maneuvers.


Kaunteya said...

The post made an interesting read.
What is the current situation? Do Indians, in your knowlegde, still provide tacit support to Tamil rebels?

Reminds me of how Congress pulled out from the government just because DMK was a part of the deal, pushing India to another unneccessary elections, not to long ago. It's a different matter that to keep the *communal forces away* they have come together,conviniently forgetting *Rajiv ji's sacrifice* [whatever that means]

Actually sometimes i feel the Gandhi family should stop sacrificing for us. Let them not have a monopoly on sacrificing. And in any case we will be better off, without their generosity.

Coming back to the post, do you think there's animosity towards India in general in Sri Lanka today? Because that makes us probably the second most hated nation after USA, right? Pakistan,Bangladesh, may be Nepal hates us as well. So four of our closest neighbours hate us.
So much for Nehru's Panchsheel, oh or was it meant only for China?

Anonymous said...

I'm no authority on the subject and am loathe to comment but I remember attending a concert organized by the Tamil Association in melbourne in 2001 and saw money being collected for the "Tamil Eelam"- so I'm tempted to say that Indians still provide support to the Tamil rebels- I'm not sure whether I would call it tacit though.
Jaffna- this may seem like flamebait to you, but might I recommend an essay by Ramachandra Guha titled "Tigers in the Alps" [I read it in his book, though there is a version here which seems the same to me-]
I found it quite quaint.


Jaffna said...

Kaunteya, Hitesh

I do not think that there is significant anti-Indian sentiment in Sri Lanka today. I see New Delhi as very supportive of Colombo as part of efforts to contain the LTTE.

The Sea Tigers are viewed with concern in Indian defence circles. The Air Tigers are still incipient - a mere two ultra-light combat aircraft, several UAVs (unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles), anti aircraft weaponry and two airstrips capable of accommodating medium sized aircraft.

My concern is the deep fissures and fractures within our society. We are not a united people and our pyschological mistrust of each other goes deep.

A Finnish friend told me last week that Sri Lanka was the only country that he had encountered where the people had never united on a single issue ever - even when it came to the fight against colonialism. He added that this appeared to be trend in the 2,000 years of recorded history in this country.

This is sad. The Government had announced its intend to set up an exclusively Muslim battalion to help combat the Tamil insurrection. This is likely to fuel tensions in the multi-ethnic east. The LTTE killed two Muslim home guards yesterday. Things might get out of control. When will all this stop!

This said, it is a miracle that Sri Lanka continues to intermittently register a 6% rate of GDP growth and has a GDP per capita of US$ 1,000. Ours is indeed a contradictory country.

Best regards

doubtinggaurav said...


Thanks for such an insightful post.
I was only vaguely aware of the ethnic tension in Sri Lanka.
I can only hope that the violence is stopped and the different groups reach to a amicable settlement.


Angry Tamil said...

you disappoint me!!! you make no mention of the Sinhalese appropriating Tamil lands in the east, of settling Sinhalese from outside in those lands to alter the racial balance on the lines of Israel, the eviction of Tamils from strategic corridors, the underrepresentation of Tamils in public sector recruitment and the blatant misuse of Buddhism to win elections. what about the 700,000 Tamils who had to flee abroad??? Bandaranaike and Jayewardene were Christian converts to Buddhism who used religion cynically to win elections. are not the sinhalese so stupid to vote for such leaders??? and percy mahinda rajapakse??? This country is a cursed one and will remain divided and bloodied until it opens up to its horrible history. look at how they messed up the tsunami a man will you and present all the facts the next time. or better still stick to writing on india!!!

froginthewell said...

Are there any obvious factors explaining why Sri Lanka has both better economic development ( much lesser poverty ) as well as literacy rate than India? Thanks.

Jaffna said...


You question facts always and force us to address issues, that if remain unaddressed, never throw light on the complete picture :-) I think that the word "Frog-in-the-well" is not applicable to you. You should rename yourself the "questioner".

I had attacked the left in a previous post. And yet is was Sri Lanka's leftist policies between 1956 and 1965, not to mention between 1970 and 1977 that addressed issues such as village schools, health care centers, free health, free education etc. The left also nationalized the school system. These policies explain in part the high literacy rates, the low infant mortality rates, the low maternal mortality rates etc. The comparison can be made with Kerala. The two states have lots in common.

The issue is that after having raised socio-economic indicators so successfully, Sri Lanka failed to expand economic growth until 1977 to employ the educated youth. This explains in part the two Sinhalese youth insurrections and the one Tamil youth insurrection.

Sri Lanka liberalized its economy in 1977. My sense is that this allowed the local economy to remain afloat despite all the political violence and foment.

Best regards

Anonymous said...

An aritcle in Outlook on the LTTE's diaspora resources

Anonymous said...

The very first anti Tamil riots took place in 1956. The book "Emergency 58' by Tarzie Vittachi describes the second riots of 1958.

Actually, the word "riots" is incorrect. These are events in which Sinhala thugs attacked Tamils and the latter either were killed or fled. Until the birth of the LTTE, Sinhala masses regarded the Tamils as a meek lot. Now Tamils of Sri Lanka are known as Suicide Warriors and the "rioting" has stopped.

Jaffna said...

Dear Anonymous-2,

I used the word pogrom, not riots for exactly the reason that you provided. And I agree with your take on the issue.

The 1956 and 1958 pogroms were equally bad. It is to the credit of Tarzie Vitacchi, a Sinhalese, that he was able to capture the anguish of being a Tamil in those dark days.

I for one do not see an end to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka in the near future.

Best regards

OxbridgeAllBlack said...

Dear Angry Tamil ,

when will people like you learn to forgive and forget ? the past is long gone ,why cant we forge a peaceful sri lanka ? ..the only solution for sri lanka is for strong honest individuals to enter the current political structure and weed out the crooked politicians and push for reforms in the constitution. the curent constiution and political system of sri lanka is biased and unfair and needs should be in the bin
.this cause requires a group of young multiethnic SRI LANKANS !!

i am not singhalese but ibelieve in ONE SRI LANKA ..nothing less

Jaffna said...

Dear OxbridgeAllBlack,

I completely agree.

This said, I am worried at the current incentive system in the political process. It seems to reward ethnic polarization and penalize those who argue like you do. We need to get our minds on that issue. I am not sure what the solution is. A moratorium on politics??? (at the sound of being "politically incorrect") .

Best regards

doubtinggaurav said...


I think one reason India is comparatively stable is that there is no single cohesive majority.

I do not agree on bypassing democratic machinary though.


Jaffna said...


I would reword what you mentioned. Rather than say "no single cohesive majority", I would mention that the incentive structure of the Indian polity is based on compromise - i.e. between different geographic regions, different castes, different religions, different ethnic groups and different economic constituencies. A mobilization in one issue area (e.g. caste) is canceled out by a mobilization in another issue area (e.g. language or geographic region). So there are multiple compacts between multiple constituencies at different levels - each of which serve to neutralize the potential destructive effect of the other.

Conversely, the incentive structure in Sri Lanka is not based on compromise. It is based on unilateral demands. Hence the escalation.

Thanks for the thought. It in turn got me thinking :-)

Best regards

Anonymous said...

doubting gaurav:

the Sinhala people are hardly a single cohesive majority. they are internally very divided too.

cynical nerd said...

Jaffna: You have been on a roll. Sri Lanka is not well-understodd by Indians in general. This post eminently merits wide publicity. I have been out of town, will cross-post soon.

I have seen some extortion rackets by the LTTE in some European cities.

One can add that after the formation of Air Tigers, GoI and GoSL have intensified their military co-operation, with IAF helping out with anti-aircraft radars.


Anonymous said...

"the Sinhala people are hardly a single cohesive majority. they are internally very divided too".

But when it comes to oppression/annihilation of Tamils, the Sinhalese can be considered as a single cohesive unit. They all like to see the Tamils dissappear from the island so that they can "preserve the true form of Buddhism as Buddha has entrusted them to do."

tubal reversal said...

War is not good for the it should e finished sooo here i want to tell u something about tubal reversal...
i also share my experience with you through this site....
I want to tell about you the process of tubal reversal..
A process through which i women can born a child again.. And u can get more information from link given below.. thanksss

vinesh said...

Your information is good.....
its very use article

Madurai Hotels


Blog Archive