SPECIAL REPORT : Part 107January 20, 2016, 9:46 am
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Wartime Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, recently evoked memories of India’s disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka. Gandhi reiterated unsubstantiated war crimes accusations at an event to mark President Maithripala Sirisena’s first year in office. Gandhi was in Colombo a few days before Indian Foreign Secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, arrived, in Colombo, for consultations. Jaishankar had served the Indian High Commission in Colombo during the turbulent 1988-1990 period as the First Secretary, Political Affairs.
Against the background of Gandhi’s pronouncements, The Island interviewed Dr. Engineer K. Vigneswaran, Secretary to the North-East Provincial Council, during EPRLF heavyweight Varatharaja Perumal’s tenure as its Chief Minister, in the late 80s.
Having conducted the NEPC polls, on Nov 19, 1988, India named Perumal as its first Chief Minister. Perumal received the appointment on Dec 10, 1988. The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa dissolved the Council, on March 1, 1990, immediately after Perumal made an unilateral declaration of independence. The announcement was made about three weeks before India pulled out her Army from Sri Lanka.
In a wide-ranging interview with the writer, Vigneswaran, former EPDP National List member, discussed contentious matters, including the ongoing battle between Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, and the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a clandestine arrangement between the then UPFA presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the LTTE, ahead of Nov. 2005 polls, a UNP project to sabotage the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s bid to change the constitution, in 2000, and serving Indian Army officers thwarting Tamil Nadu administration from arresting him. Vigneswarana also recollected his contacts with Jaishankar.
Vigneswaran said that those who had been involved in Perumal’s administration earned the wrath of the LTTE, therefore top officials were given an opportunity to leave for India ahead of the departing Indian Army. Having received information regarding a possible attempt on his life, by the LTTE, in Colombo, Vigneswaran had sent his wife, Ramya, (a Sinhalese), and two children, Madhavi and Udiyan, to Colombo. "I stayed in Trincomalee while members of my family took a flight to Tamil Nadu. The LTTE stepped-up pressure as the Indian Army gradually reduced its presence here. Perhaps, over a week before the last Indian contingent left Trincomalee, I was given an opportunity to join my family in Tamil Nadu."
The Indian Army quit Sri Lanka during the last week of March 1990. The writer was among those who had an opportunity to board the last ship carrying troops to leave the Trincomlee harbour.
Shortly before, an Indian Air Force flight, carrying a full load of passengers, including Vigneswaran, took off from China Bay airfield, Trincomalee, they were told of fresh instructions from Tamil Nadu as regards Sri Lankans on board the aircraft. The Indian Army here was told that any aircraft carrying members of Perumal’s administration shouldn’t be brought to Tamil Nadu, under any circumstances, in accordance with a directive issued by the then TN Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a Dravidian political party.
Vigneswaran said that India’s response to the situation in Sri Lanka should be examined against the backdrop of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s partnership with the LTTE as well as close relationship between Karunanidhi and the then Indian Premier V.P. Singh. Before taking off from Trincomalee, the Indian Air Force had received instructions to avoid Alhambra Air Force station, close to Chennai, for want of Karunanidhi’s approval. Instead, the passenger aircraft, carrying Vigneswaran, had been directed to Odisha (formerly Orissa), an eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal. Vigneswaran said: "Obviously, Indian officials faced a deepening dilemma due to the significant change in New Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka."
Having brought him to Odisha, Vigneswaran had been swiftly moved to the state guest house where he was placed under police guard. Although, Vigneswaran had enjoyed a range of facilities, he soon realized that an attempt was being made to restrict his movements. For nearly three weeks, he had been ‘held’ there even after the completion of the Indian Army pull out from Sri Lanka. Finally, Vigneswaran had solicited the help of a Tamil journalist, based in Odisha, to convince the senior officer in charge of his security and Principal Secretary to the CM, Odisha, to allow him to leave the state.
Having decided to travel by train, Vigneswaran had bought the required ticket while authorities in Odisha alerted Tamil Nadu administration of the Sri Lankan’s movement. They had planned to arrest Vigneswaran as soon as he entered Tamil Nadu to reunite with his family. Vigneswaran said that he would have most probably walked into a trap if not for the journalist who warned of the conspiracy, having overheard Odisha officials discussing the operation.
As the train left Odisha, the Tamil Nadu police knew of the exact compartment and where Vigneswaran was seated. Having entered Andra Pradesh from Odisha, Vigneswaran had changed his seat as the train approached the Tamil Nadu railway station where he was to get off. As plainclothesmen had swooped down on the compartment, and surrounded the section where Vigneswaran was supposed to be seated, he had quietly got down and walked towards an Indian Army Major (name withheld) who was there to welcome him. Vigneswaran had sent a message to the Major, before he left Odisha, to be there to move him out of the railway station. Vigneswaran had befriended the officer during the latter’s deployment, in Trincomalee, with the Indian Army, and was in a position to provide assistance.
"I was confident that the Tamil Nadu police didn’t have a photograph of mine and I also changed my appearance by growing a beard during my stay in Odisha."
Accompanied by the Major and several uniformed soldiers, Vigneswaran had used an entry/exit point exclusively used by the Indian military to leave the railway station.
The Vigneswarans stayed in Tamil Nadu for a couple of weeks before leaving for New Delhi. Responding to a query, Vigneswaran recalled the Indian Army personnel being with them at the railway station until the train left for New Delhi. Those who had served in Sri Lanka abhorred the Tamil Nadu administration. They felt the state administration had turned a blind eye to the sacrifices made by the Indian Army for want of better understanding of the situation.
Vigneswaran joins Devananda
From India, Vigneswaran moved to Singapore where he served a British firm operating in the region.
Vigneswaran had been stationed in east Malaysia when EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda, unexpectedly visited him during 1996. Devananda had sought the engineer’s expertise to promote the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. As a member of the then President Kumaratunga’s cabinet, Devananda believed he needed the support of an expert. Devananda had been of the view that the party needed expertise of an official who had handled matters pertaining to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Vigneswaran said that Mrs. Kumaratunga had unflinchingly pushed for a new Constitution inclusive of comparatively comprehensive devolution package. The President remained confident that her project could be brought to a successful conclusion, in early August, 2000. By then, Devananda had accommodated Vigneswaran among his parliamentary group and was deeply involved in the process on behalf of the EPDP, one of the Indian backed terrorist outfits. Vgneswaran recalled Mrs Kumaratunga passionately pushing her project in spite of the then TULF leadership, obviously under pressure from the LTTE trying to sabotage the process. Vigneswaran said: "At one meeting chaired by President Kumaratunga, I sat next to EPDP leader. TULF veteran Sampanthan was next and on his right was V. Anandasangaree. Remember, the draft Constitution was meant to strengthen the devolution package and promote the rights of the minorities. In spite of some initial differences, the President succeeded in securing the support of the People’s Alliance. Unfortunately, the TULF struggled to come to terms with the situation. The party was under tremendous pressure. At one point, Sampanthan promised to vote for the draft constitution though he couldn’t convince other members in parliament to do so. Even without the support of the TULF, President Kumaratunga would have achieved her dream if the UNP threw its weight behind her. Regrettably, the UNP refused to back the President’s initiative."
In spite of the UNP’s refusal, President Kumaratunga had been still confident of adopting the draft Constitution with a two-thirds majority.
CBK’s project goes awry
Vigneswaran recollected the late Colombo District MP Tyronne Fernando, on behalf of the UNP, offering the EPDP what the UNPer called a better deal if the Tamil withdraw its support to President Kumaratunga’s project. "Without any hesitation, I rejected Fernando’s proposal. We were aware of President Kumaratunga having secret negotiations with some members of parliament elected on the UNP ticket. She firmly believed they could be trusted and were confident of securing a two-thirds majority to adopt new Constitution. But, she wasn’t aware of the UNP’s strategy. In fact, all of us had been in the dark."
President Kumaratunga had been having a discussion at Temple Trees on the eve of the vote on the draft Constitution, when Vigneswaran who was there, along with several others, including EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda, received a message from his police bodyguard. The policeman had quoted a colleague who had been assigned to UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake’s security team as having claimed that a group of parliamentarians were to leave for Singapore. Vigneswaran: "I realized the UNP thwarted President Kumaratunga’s move to adopt the new Constitution with the support of the Opposition. Immediately, after the meeting, she was told of the UNP move, President Kumaratunga phoned presidential secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi to verify the information. Within minutes, he confirmed the group leaving for Singapore. President Kumaratunga was stunned. The President adjourned the meeting."
According to Vigneswaran those who had been identified as possible turncoats were given a party at MP Karunanayake’s residence and then taken to Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Although President Kumaratunga had refrained from revealing what she intended to do before she adjourned the meeting, the dissolution of parliament was announced hours later. Vigneswaran lost an opportunity to address the parliament the following day.
Vigneswaran strongly criticized Sampanthan for not being able to convince his colleagues of the need to support President Kumaratunga’s initiative. Had she succeeded, the situation wouldn’t have taken a turn for the worse, Vigneswaran said.
Vigneswaran claimed that in the run-up to the presidential polls, in Nov. 2005, the then Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had reached an understanding with the LTTE to deprive UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of certain victory. Had the LTTE allowed those living in areas under its control to freely exercise their franchise, Wickremesinghe would have secured the presidency comfortably. Vigneswaran reiterated unsubstantiated allegation that the LTTE received Rs 800 MN to deprive Wickremesinghe of the much needed northern vote.
The LTTE directive to boycott the presidential poll was announced by the then five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sampanthan told The Island on the night of Nov 15, 2005, that the decision, taken on Nov 9, 2005, at Kilinochchi, to boycott the election wouldn’t be changed. Speaking from Trincomalee, the veteran politician claimed that nothing worthwhile could be achieved by supporting either of the two leading candidates. Both Sampanthan and Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham told the writer that the Tamil speaking people weren’t at all interested in the Nov 17 poll. (TNA refuses to change polls boycott stance––The Island of Nov 16, 2005).
Vigneswaran: "Although Devananda expected a key ministry, following Rajapaksa’s victory, he was given Social Services. I didn’t like what was happening and decided to quit the EPDP in late 2005."
Having formed the Akhila Ilankai Tami Mahasabha after quitting the EPDP, Vigneswaran contested the Provincial Council polls in the newly liberated Eastern Province in 2008. The previous government evicted the LTTE from the Eastern Province by June 2007. One-time LTTE fighter, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pilleyan, who led the TMVP campaign, received the post of Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, courtesy the SLFP-led UPFA. Vigneswaran received an invitation from Pilleyan to be his advisor. Vigneswaran said that Pilleyan was keen to improve the living conditions of the Easterners. Vigneswaran claimed that Pilleyan retained his services in spite of the then President Rajapaksa’s objections.
Vigneswaran said: "When President Rajapaksa wanted Pilleyan to dissolve the Eastern Provincial Council, a year ahead of the scheduled election, to hold fresh polls. Pilleyan sought my opinion." Vigneswaran had inquired from Pilleyan what would he gain by recommending the dissolution of the council. Pilleyan revealed that the previous political leadership had assured him six more years as the Chief Minister. It was Vigneswaran, who drafted a letter for Pilleyan advising the President to dissolve the council. Despite lack of education, Pilleyan had functioned much better than many other politicians, Vigneswaran asserted while pointing out the failure on the part of retired Justice C.V. Wigneswaran to meet even the basic expectations of the northerners. Vigneswaran urged Tamils to examine the Northern Provincial Council administration since the four-party TNA comfortably secured the council at Sept. 2013 polls.
Vigneswaran invited to
Hailing from the Jaffna administrative, C.V. Wigneswaran and K. Vigneswaran had studied at Royal College, Colombo. They had been friends since school days. According to Vigneswaran, he met Wigneswaran at the Uthayan guest house in Jaffna on Sept. 2013. The poll was scheduled for Sept. 21. "We discussed about the situation in Jaffna, problems experienced by the Tamil community and what we should do overcome them. We were there for about two and half hours. Sinhalese and Muslims didn’t experience some of the problems experienced by our people. Wigneswaran requested me to be his advisor. Obviously, he valued my opinion."
When TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate, Wigneswaran had inquired about the major problems faced by the community in the post-war era, Vigneswaran explained four issues which Wigneswaran’s administration needed to address immediately. Tangible measures were required to provide relief to thousands of families headed by women, tackle unemployment, improve standard of education and housing.
Vigneswaran emphasized that they could have easily dealt with problems in accordance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. "We didn’t need any new laws. What we needed was a tangible action plan and a vision to implement it. Unfortunately, those who had received a mandate from Tamil speaking people played politics with national issues."
Having handsomely won the Northern PC polls, Wigneswaran again met Vigneswaran at the Cambridge Terrace residence on Oct 2, 2013. Vigneswaran used the opportunity to emphasize that he should immediately launch an action plan on the basis of the 13th Amendment to provide relief to the people. When the issue of him being the new Chief Minister’s advisor came up, Vigneswaran had told Wigneswaran that Sampanthan would never permit that. Wigneswaran had assured that he would take care of that problem. There had been two other persons present at that meeting. Vigneswaran said: "Although I didn’t realize at that time, they had been there to convey what took place to Sampanthan. At the conclusion of the meeting, Wigneswaran promised get in touch with me."
A meeting before Rahu Kalaya
Vigneswaran remembered Wigneswaran requesting him to come for the Oct 2, 2013, meeting before Rahu kalaya. The former Supreme Court Justice had been sincere in his efforts though he couldn’t go ahead with an action plan of his own due to interference by the TNA leadership which pursued an agenda spearheaded by influential Diaspora.
Asked to explain what prompted Wigneswaran not to appoint him as his advisor, Vigneswaran said that a few days after Oct 2, 2013, meeting, the Chief Minister had sent an SMS to Vigneswaran inquiring whether Northern Provincial Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan could be appointed as Deputy Minister of Women Affairs. Ananthi had been an influential member due to her husband being a senior LTTE leader whose disappearance at the final phase of the operations on the Vanni east front she blamed on the Army. Vigneswaran had pointed out that Sasitharan could be made the coordinator of that particular ministry as there was no provision for appointment of deputy ministers in accordance with the 13th Amendment. Vigneswaran had further explained that decision to appoint Sasitharan as coordinator should be taken by the Chief Minister and four ministers of the Council. In accordance with 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Board of Ministers of a Provincial Council consisted of Chief Minister and four Ministers.
Subsequently, Wigneswaran had spurned Vigneswaran efforts to contact him prompting an irate Vigneswaran to denounce the Chief Minister. Now, Wigneswaran appeared to have taken even a harder stand than the other lot in the TNA, Vigneswaran said, adding that the recent formation of the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) highlighted the widening divisions among the present Tamil leadership.