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Indira Gandhi helped train Tamil rebels, and reaped whirlwind

Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sri Lankan strategy was a mixture of contradictions. It reflected Cold War calculations, rather than purely Indian strategic compulsions. The LTTE’s war to create a separate state for Tamils called Eelam proved a handy tool for Indira to work India into a role in Sri Lanka, but her mistake was to presume she could manage the conflict without letting it get out of hand.

Former Indian Prime Minister, the Late Indira Gandhi planned to escalate LTTE’s armed struggle to a certain level and use that as negotiating leverage to settle the (Tamil) issue in a peaceful way in Sri Lanka. Evening Standard/Getty Images

In the 1980s, India and Sri Lanka belonged to separate Cold War camps, with the former aligning with the now splintered Soviet Union and the island nation with the US. Though India under Indira did not share bad vibes with the Lankan leadership, it was an uneasy relationship to some degree.

Indira took active interest in resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, yet she also provided training to rebel Tamil youths. The Indian government convened a meeting of both sides in the ethnic conflict at Thimpu in Bhutan to thrash out a solution. While playing big brother, it also allowed the LTTE and other militant groups to set up base in Tamil Nadu. Tamil separatists received funding and weapons from private sources as well.

In an exclusive interview to VK Shashikumar of Mediagrove, LTTE leader Kumaran Pathmanathan (“KP”), who is now in Sri Lankan custody, says that India started training the Tamil rebels in the early 1980s around the time when peace talks were floundering
(See video).

“The talks were called Thimpu talks (held in Bhutan). But the talks failed. Around that time the Indian government gave (military) training to Tamil youths. So we (LTTE) had a base in Tamil Nadu. We had a (military) base in India. All the four Tamil (militant) groups, very strong groups, were trained and armed by India. Like I told you, that was the Cold War period and the international environment was such.”

What was Mrs Gandhi’s gameplan in training the Tamil groups? According to KP, “During that time it was Mrs Gandhi’s idea that she may be able to escalate LTTE’s armed struggle to a certain level and use that as negotiating leverage to settle the (Tamil) issue in a peaceful way. Unfortunately, she was gone (assassinated in 1984).”

In the final analysis, Mrs Gandhi’s decision to play with fire ended up scorching her own son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi. She herself went down to bullets fired by her own bodyguards – both strongly influenced by Sikh extremists taking revenge for “Operation Bluestar,” when the Indian Army entered the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh militants.

KP also says that the LTTE’s ties with India started souring around the time Rajiv Gandhi came into the picture. “He (Rajiv) was a modern leader and he was very fast (with decisions). His approach was different. By then RAW (Indian spy agency Research & Analysis Wing) was heavily involved with all the Tamil groups. It was at that time that a misunderstanding between Prabhakaran and RAW started.”

KP does not say what the misunderstanding was, but obviously the LTTE had developed a wariness about Indira and her son Rajiv well before the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord to send in the IPKF was signed.

He says: “Sri Lankan President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to sort it out. But again LTTE did not accept the proposals. Rajiv Gandhi pushed (for it) and so LTTE reluctantly came to an agreement (referring to the India-Sri Lanka Accord). But actually LTTE rejected the agreement (internally).”

So much for India's involvement with the militant movement in Lanka, but was the reverse also true? Was the LTTE also training the Maoists in India to take on the state? KP says it wasn't the case as long as he was at the helm. (See video)

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