Darshanie Ratnawalli, in The Sunday Island,22 January 2017, where the title reads “I can’t give up my interest in SL” Sri Lanka’s favourite foreign journalist becomes confidential
Ram the former editor in chief of The Hindu has had a long association with Sri Lanka. In the 1980s he used to come here regularly, motivated by his interest in the Tamil question. As a working journalist who happened also to be the Managing Director of The Hindu and a foremost member of the family which controls The Hindu Group, he had privileged access to President J. R. Jayewardene. They used to have long conversations during which JR would discuss what came to be the Indo-Lanka accord. Ram would be asked to switch off his recorder and JR would say things like, “India should guarantee this agreement”.
In February 1987, JR sent Ram to try to convince Lalith Athulathmudali that the Indo-Lanka accord was the way to go. Ram put it to Athulathmudali that the Tamil militant groups had really been strengthened and the best way was to negotiate with India and put pressure on the militant groups, particularly the LTTE to make it behave. Lalith remained non-committal. He also carried from Rajiv to JR a special message, which he is not at liberty to disclose.
Some weeks after the Indo-Lanka Accord had been signed, while scenes of searing national anguish were breaking out all over the Sinhalese majority areas of Sri Lanka, Ram shared a ride with Rajiv Gandhi from Chennai to Delhi. Rajiv, who had been addressing a huge rally in Chennai, where there was a lot of support for the accord, was looking for affirmation. “Are you happy, are you satisfied?” he asked Ram, who said, “yes I am very happy.”.
Having received several messages from Prabhakaran who wanted a separate channel to Rajiv Gandhi, Ram came over to Jaffna in a cargo flight in August 1987. During a long conversation with him, Ram became convinced that Prabhakaran would not settle within the framework of Sri Lanka and support the agreement and what became the 13th amendment.
Indian troops at the ready in Jaffna
What strikes one today about N. Ram, this Tamil Brahmin who has been accused by pro-LTTE voices of not identifying enough with ‘Tamilness’ due to his caste, is how unchanged his position on the Sri Lankan Tamil question has remained. In 1987, JR remarked to him, “your friends [meaning the LTTE, both the Indian and the SL Governments apparently believed that Ram had a line to the LTTE] are not cooperating for the agreement”. Ram replied, “You have to merger the North and the East. That’s very important. You start with one unit instead of two and start negotiating. That’s your business”.
Today a lot of water may have flown under the bridge, sweeping away in its inexorable current all the original players, JR, Rajiv, Prabhakaran, but N. Ram’s position as articulated to me on January 16, 2017 remains, “Tamils need a political unit, where they need to be empowered in a political space because they are Tamil speaking…a political structure, self-government within the unity of Sri Lanka…Tamils want state rights. It can’t be delegation. It has to be devolution. It can only be to a province. In fact, they say ‘merger’ the ‘Tamil Homeland.’ But that can be taken as steps. The first step is the existing provinces because the SC struck that [merger] down.”
Here are the excerpts of the N. Ram (NR) Q and A with me (DR) for The Sunday Island.
NR– I was at the Galle literary festival. I called my section ‘Free speech deficits. The fraught state of free speech in India’. The previous day I had a meeting over dinner with Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. I said, “I am going to Galle. Can you tell me if there has been a marked change in the climate of free speech in SL?” Sampanthan was very happy. I recorded his statement saying, “There is a marked change. People are no longer afraid. Earlier, journalists were killed and people went missing. They were afraid to express their views. Now they are freely criticizing.”
When I discussed that question in Galle, a former editor of Daily News, Rajpal Abeynayake got up and was very vehement, asked, “From which planet have you come?” But most of the audience felt there has been a change, I don’t know to what extent. The old laws are still there. They can be misused. So don’t get complacent. I was quoting the leader of the opposition, not the President or the PM. He [Rajpal] attacked them very strongly. Read out some statement by Ranil.
DR– Ranil Wickremesighe has made some statements
NR– But nothing happened. He could have avoided those statements. We don’t know what provoked him. But I think there has been a relaxation. The media is divided. I see The Island and there was a terrific attack on the RTI, an editorial on the government’s intentions behind the RTI. As long as they are not threatened, there’s nothing wrong in criticizing of journalists or articles by politicians.
DR– The Hindu took a stand against separatism?
NR– From the start. I remember the TULF came and said because we attacked separatist demands so strongly, this is being used as propaganda in Sri Lanka. They put out booklets and so on. Then we looked at the issue seriously and the Tamils had a real grievance. They had a rough deal. But the answer was not Tamil Eelam. On that we are absolutely clear.
DR– Your interview with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in June 2009, the second part, contains the potentially explosive revelation by MR that the military announced No Fire Zones to corner the Tigers, to make them go where the military wanted them. The implication being that NFZs had a military objective? Nobody picked up on this at the time.
NR– what does he say actually?
DR– “The No-Fire Zones were all announced by the armed forces. After Kilinochchi, they were saying: “No-Fire Zones, so go there.” So all of them [the LTTE leaders and fighters] went there. These were not areas demarcated by the U.N. or somebody else; they were demarcated by our armed forces. The whole thing was planned by our forces to corner them. The Army was advancing from North to South, South to North, on all sides. So I would say they got cornered by our strategies.”
NR- That is an admission only of strategy for the LTTE fighters, not the civilians.
DR- But the whole point of the No Fire Zones was supposed to be protecting the civilians.
NR– I see. Well everybody knew that the two were interwoven – that the LTTE would take advantage of it. Of course you can interpret it. But I didn’t see it that way at the time.
DR- your August 24, 2015 interview with PM Wickremesighe provided us with another of these explosive revelations, when you asked him, “Since there is so much on your plate by way of domestic issues, will you be able to devote time to some of your favourite projects, like the land bridge between Sri Lanka and India? Or will that take some time?”
This was the first time, that SL general public learnt from a reliable source that the proposed land bridge was a favourite project of our PM, that it was his idea.
NR– That was my description of it. I don’t know that he’d call it favourite. He has spoken about integration, particularly economic integration with the Southern States [of India]. So I regarded it as something to which he had given thought.
DR- Was it his idea?
NR– I don’t know whose idea it was but he certainly talked about it earlier.
DR– Before he came to power?
NR– Yes. I met him most often when he was in the opposition. I don’t know if it was explosive or anything or whether it will work in India. But he thinks that the Southern States in India and Sri Lanka can derive mutual benefits, have sort of an economic partnership on which he has spoken again in his latest interview with me.
DR– He was talking specifically of ETCA I suppose in this latest interview?
NR– Yes the question was about that. It’s being held up. Sri Lanka wants it settled earlier- early this year. India is slower on that.
DR– But in his answer to you he didn’t exactly deny that it was a favourite project.
NR– You don’t say everything. It’s my description. So I wouldn’t put it in the mouth of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
DR– What is your personal opinion of the desirability of the land bridge?
NR– I don’t know enough about it. I think this was also earlier. Whether it’s still his view I don’t know. I didn’t ask him whether it is feasible. I asked [that question] because it was in the news and someone flagged it when we were researching.
DR– A lot of analysts picked up on that from your interview because you described it as his favourite project.
NR– You can’t ask him?
DR– I think the government would be sensitive about it. They have already said they were not going to build a bridge.
NR– I think he was really putting forward the idea of the partnership rather than the physical bridge. But at one point in the past he had said that [about a bridge]. We can find the references.
DR– Another revelation which came out in your interview with Mahinda Rajapaksa in June 2009 was that Lasantha Wickrematunge’s last call had been to the President. You knew about it before or the President told you?
NR– President told me. I don’t quote him directly?
DR– You ask him “Lasantha’s last call was to you?”, and he answers, “Yes I was in the shrine room”
NR– Yes he said, “The security man didn’t inform me and I blackguarded him for not informing me”. He used to meet [Lasantha] late at night. So he had a communication, a conversation with him, which may not have been known to whoever was behind the assassination. I think he regarded him as a friend even though Lasantha attacked him virulently in public. And I don’t know what kind of journalist he was. But the fact that journalists were being killed was a matter of great concern. Others also told me that he was in touch with the President.
DR- Apparently the President [Rajapaksa] was extremely accessible to some editors. He gave them the impression that they had his ear, that they were his confidantes.
NR– I think this man also gave him some special inputs. I know they met very late at night, which perhaps even Gotabhaya wouldn’t have known about.
DR- When PM Modi visited Sri Lanka; he invoked the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ for Sri Lanka. Some analysts saw this remark as overstepping the parameters of propriety that should exist between two sovereign nations?
NR- He talked about it for Sri Lanka? He used those words, ‘cooperative federalism’?
NR– I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. But in India we use ‘cooperative federalism’ for India. Because there need not be a conflict between the Centre and the states. That word is used. I have also used it, for what should be in India. India is less than a perfect federal system.
DR– But in essence that’s what you outline for Sri Lanka too, right?
NR- I have been participating in the World Forum of Federations with Bob Ray, the Canadian politician and various others from India. What you learn is States may call themselves unitary like the UK and evolve into more federal systems. That’s why I said terminology is unimportant. The UK is not a federal State in the formal sense. But if Northern Ireland wants to unite with the Republic of Ireland, nobody can stop them. And Scotland could have gone another way. They still can. What we learn from that is there are many States which are not considered federal, where real devolution is taking place. That is the trend. They are trying to promote the idea, give people more self-administrative opportunities. They don’t even care whether they stay within or out. But I would care. We should care. There’s nothing wrong in using the phrase ‘cooperative federalism’. I don’t think you have to use it for Sri Lanka. If PM Modi did I’ll want to look at it.
The old constitution says SL is a unitary State, which is not acceptable to the Tamils. To say it’s federal is not acceptable to the majority or at least the parties, that claim to represent majority. So don’t get into that trap. It’s words. Go for substance. That is the common bridge between those who don’t want to give up the unitary State and those who want federalism. There’s nothing wrong with federalism. In effect it should be federal. But in Sri Lanka, it is a recipe for trouble. Unitary has a meaning. I agree. But you don’t have to say it. I was told you can craft terminology where both are accommodated and both have no problems. But if somebody says I want to declare it unitary, then you run into problems.
There’s nothing wrong in saying, I don’t want to go like Canada, the USA or Australia which are extremely federal. But in India the Centre is quite powerful. That was the attempt by all the progressive Sinhalese leaders of Sri Lanka who wanted to reach out to the Tamils. They tried to approximate what Indian states have. Even somebody like Karunanidhi, DMK leader, would say Eelam and all that. But he made it clear to us, if they [Tamils] get what we have in Indian states, we will be very happy. With whatever differences. It’s not just aping India. The idea being that there need not be any conflict between the Centre and provincial councils. You want to give them real powers, finances, land, police powers.