An interview with Varatharajah Perumal
Talking of the international dimension, back in the 1980s, the reason why India started supporting the Tamil militants was because India didn’t like Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under the J.R.Jayewardene government. Had Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike been in power at that time, the Tamil militatnts would not have got any help from India. Today once again, the Indians are interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka in order to impose their foreign policy on Sri Lanka. The excuse they use for this is the Northern Tamil community. For example, when Narendra Modi came to the Sri Lankan parliament and talked about going beyond the 13th Amendment, he was doing so on behalf of the Northern Tamils. There is a huge Indian Tamil population in Sri Lanka and Modi does not give a twit about them because they can’t be used in India’s foreign policy games.
The former chief minister of the combined Northern and Eastern provinces Varatharajah Perumal has lived in India ever since the LTTE overran the areas being vacated by the withdrawing Indian army in 1990. Now a quarter of a century after that failed experiment, India is widely believed to be once again involved in political intrigue in Sri Lanka albeit in ways less obvious than in the 1980s. In this interview, The Island staffer C. A. Chandraprema speaks to Varatharajah Perumal about the continued use of the Tamil community of the North and East as a cat’s paw in Indian foreign policy games.
Q. You are remembered by the Sri Lankan public as the Tamil politician who made a unilateral declaration of independence. Though people like myself knew you as a moderate Tamil militant who was opposed to the LTTE, in the eyes of many Sinhalese, you rank just below Prabhakaran in the separatist hierarchy!
A. There was actually no such unilateral declaration of independence. There was a resolution passed in the North-Eastern Provincial Council making 19 demands from the government and stating that unless these demands were met within one year, the Provincial Council would sit as a constituent assembly with a view to creating an independent state. The 19 demands were formulated well within the unitary state system. This is what has been misreported for more than a quarter of a century as a unilateral declaration of independence. President Premadasa buried the 19 demands by raising a cry about a non-existent declaration of independence. We lost the propaganda war to Premadasa.
Q. If we look back at the turbulent 1980s, the provincial councils system was introduced through the 13th Amendment due to Indian pressure and not due to any natural political process in Sri Lanka. There was overt Indian interference in the politics of Sri Lanka. Today we seem to have entered another phase like that of the 1980s with some charging that RAW agents were active in the north during the recent presidential election. Is any of this going to be for the benefit of the Tamil or Sinhala people?
A. In the 1980s India did interfere by supporting various Tamil militant groups. But the Indian army came here only on the invitation of President J. R. Jayewardene. I also don’t agree that the provincial councils system was imposed on SL by India because the basis for the 13th Amendment was negotiated in the All Party Conference in 1983/1984. When you say that India was involved in this or that, you have to realise that India was involved in everything. During the 1971 insurgency, India supported the Sri Lankan government. India also supported the war against the LTTE. India is not for separation but she wants a reasonable political settlement in Sri Lanka. I don’t think that can be interpreted as interference.
Q. When the Northern PC election was held for the first time in 2013, that was an emotional moment for the Northern Tamil electorate. Events overseas added to the emotion of the moment. Jeyalalitha Jeyaram had once again been swept to power in Tamil Nadu and had unleashed a wave of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu. Channel 4 had just put out their second documentary about alleged atrocities committed by the SL army during the war and the United States had just started getting resolutions passed against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council thus reigniting the hope among some Tamils about being able to get a separate state through international sympathy and the UN mechanism. Despite all this, the number of votes that the TNA got in the North was only 353,959 whereas at the presidential elections in January, Maithripala Sirisena got 394,991. How is it that a Sinhala politician can get more votes than the TNA?
A. Just after the war, there were the Municipal elections in Jaffna with a very low voter turnout. The turnout was slightly higher at the parliamentary elections. At every election, the voter turnout improved. So the turnout was higher at the presidential election than it was at the PC election in 2013. Furthermore there was a trend in the country for a change of government and in that general trend, the Tamils and the Muslims were ahead of the Sinhalese. Why the international forces were involved is another matter.
Q. Talking of the international dimension, back in the 1980s, the reason why India started supporting the Tamil militants was because India didn’t like Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under the J.R.Jayewardene government. Had Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike been in power at that time, the Tamil militatnts would not have got any help from India. Today once again, the Indians are interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka in order to impose their foreign policy on Sri Lanka. The excuse they use for this is the Northern Tamil community. For example, when Narendra Modi came to the Sri Lankan parliament and talked about going beyond the 13th Amendment, he was doing so on behalf of the Northern Tamils. There is a huge Indian Tamil population in Sri Lanka and Modi does not give a twit about them because they can’t be used in India’s foreign policy games. India should be closer to the Indian Tamils living here and they should know that the Indian Tamil leaders including Arumugam Thondaman are opposed to the 13th Amendment and particularly to provincial police powers because that places them at a disadvantage. Yet the Indians ignore their own and instead plug the line of the Northern Tamils because that is what gives them a handle over Sri Lanka. Are the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka forever condemned to be a foreign policy tool of the Indians?
A. After 1983, India started giving training to the Tamil militants but no weapons were given for a year. During that period, India wanted the TULF and the government to talk and come to a settlement among themselves.
Q. I would like to suggest that the settlement between the Tamil leadership and the government was not what was important. India just wanted to bring the Sri Lankan government to heel.
A. That may be one interpretation. Even when weapons were given to the Tamil militants, only a few were given – just enough to get the Sri Lankan government to the negotiating table. India was never for a separate state and she sacrificed over 1000 lives in trying to disarm the LTTE. Sri Lanka wants India to make sacrifices, but she cannot say one word without someone raising cries that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was being threatened. When you work together you can’t say the benefit has to be for Sri Lanka and all the losses should go to India.
Q. As a Tamil politician, are you under the delusion that India is doing all this for a ‘settlement’ between the Tamils and the Sinhalese? Just supposing there is a settlement and the Tamils here are completely satisfied, then what is the lever that they have to use against the Sri Lankan government when the need arises? The only interest that India has in the Northern Tamils is to use them to ensure that Sri Lanka toes its foreign policy line. That was the case in the 1980s, and it is the case now. So long as their foreign policy objectives are met they couldn’t care less as to what happens to the Tamils.
A. India is a big country and a great power and they can influence Sri Lanka in many ways. India does not need to play games with the political settlement to get the leverage they need. India has the capacity to maintain a grip over Sri Lanka even without the Tamil issue. My point is that no country is absolutely independent and all countries are interdependent. India needs Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka needs India.
Q. You have many friends in the Sinhala community. You should know that given the way Maithripala Sirisena was elected and the way Modi came to Sri Lanka and addressed the parliament, there is an undercurrent of resentment building up against India. We seem to be eternally condemned to this cycle, India intervenes and scores a victory, then there is a reaction to that and then the Indian influence wanes and things go on like that in cycles. Now like in the 1980s, we are in a situation where the Indians have got the upper hand.
A. Every loser will have reasons to give for his defeat. When Mahinda Rajapaksa won, they did not say anything about India. The opposition could have said at that time that Mahinda was brought to power by India. Now Maithripala won so those who supported the loser say that he lost because of India. That is similar to what the LTTE is also saying. They say they were defeated by India and the international community. But in actual fact it is the LTTE itself that brought about their own defeat. Likewise it is not India that made Mahinda lose, but his own actions.