Mr. Lakhan Mehrotra, Indian Foreign Service (1958)
Lakhan Mehrotra is a time-tested diplomat having joined the elite Indian Foreign Service in 1958. In his chequered career, Mehrotra has served in several key hubs of international developments like the capitals of Russia, Yugoslavia and of course Sri Lanka.
The book under review recounts his stint and role as India’s High Commissioner in Colombo from April 1989 to June 1990. Drafting or writing is an essential quality of all successful diplomats. Notably, sometimes a few lapses in drafting may sometimes throw up highly controversial agreements. The 1966 Tashkent Agreement between India and Pakistan brokered by the Soviet Union put Pakistan on the defensive that years later provoked the then Pakistani head of government Z A Bhutto to threaten more than once that he would reveal the “secrets” of the Tashkent Agreement one day. Bhutto did not love long to do so. Mor recently, the then Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, now National Security Advisor, said mention of Balochistan in the Indo-Pak document at Charar E Sharif was result of a ‘bad draft’.
Well, the book at hand often exemplifies a good synthesis of a bad and a good draft. Here lies the test of tactfulness of the writings of a diplomat. So in this book too, Mehrotra debates a lot about the Sri Lankan conflict and its issues visà- vis Tamil population and India, but he does not quite pass a clear opinion on the merits or otherwise of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement of 1987.
But by page 31-32, he underpins the crux of the issue between the two neighbours, separated only by a stretch of 35 kilometers of sea. Firstly, with regard to the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement, often considered as a favourite international pact of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Mehrotra rightly says that India “got embroiled in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka”. The Sinhalese population and the Sri Lankan government treated Tamil rights as domestic issue and thus, “despite an enormous will and sustained effort”; both New Delhi and Colombo ran into contradictions that led to confrontation.
My Days in
Lakhan MehrotraThe book is otherwise a landmine of information and for anyone interested in the affairs of Sri Lanka especially with regard to the vexed issue of Tamils and its relations with India, the book will be a collector’s piece. Besides highlighting several historical facets that had gone down in shaping the relationship between the two countries from the days of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, it details diplomat-turned-author’s intensive consultations with Sri Lankan political wizards, especially the irreplaceable President Ranasinghe Premadasa over the much talked about issue of withdrawal of IPKF. “IPKF had put LTTE under enormous pressure but they needed more time to obtain its surrender…… Premadasa did not want to put up with IPKF for a day more,” he says summing up perhaps the all-time low the diplomatic relationship had reached between the two countries.
However, Mehrotra, chosen to be India’s envoy according to his own words as a result of consensus between P V Narasimha Rao (then foreign minister), K C Pant (then defence minister) and Rajiv Gandhi, argues that the issue of India’s ‘hegemonic bully’ into Sri Lankan affairs was “contrary to facts”. (page 195) But he gives in to the general refrain of experts as well as among the commoners that “the presence of IPKF on their territory was feeding their apprehensions about India’s designs on Sri Lanka”.
Mehrotra, however, puts forward the argument of the government of India under Rajiv Gandhi, that it was “unfair” on the part of Sri Lanka to demand withdrawal of IPKF before it had completed its mission – that is, to ensure the surrender of LTTE. The chapter ‘IPKF Quit Sri Lanka’ should be any reader’s favourite in this book. Mehrotra candidly recounts his turbulent days in office when a serious “logjam” surfaced in bilateral relations once Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi delayed or was not responding to a letter from the Sri Lankan President. the ‘diplomatic breach’ by unilaterally announcing about IPKF withdrawal by July 29 (1989) without taking Rajiv Gandhi into confidence.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv GandhiIn no unambiguous terms, Mehrotra also suggests that Sri Lankan President Premadasa had failed to establish a personal rapport with Rajiv Gandhi. Thus in December 1989, Once Rajiv Gandhi lost elections paving the way for V P Singh to take over the mantle as Prime Minister, Mehrotra claims, President Premadasa not only tried to reach out to new leadership in India but that he also mocked at Rajiv’s electoral debacle. “….I know that on receiving news of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat at the hustings, Premadasa made the acerbic comment that whoever hurt Sri Lanka was bound to suffer like that”. Like most books by diplomats, this book has a few documents as Appendixes. One of them that deserves mention is the text of President J R Jayewardene’s speech to law students union. The text terms the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 29 July 1987 as a political document.
Former Sri Lanka President R. Premadasa“There are many examples in the world in which a nation has been called to assist a sister nation, militarily in the hour of its need. There was nothing new in the Sri Lankan request,” Jayawardene’s speech ran. However, bigger question in India that would continue to be debated is whether the Peace Agreement was a diplomatically and politically correct decision by the Rajiv Gandhi government.
“At one point of time the President (Premadasa’s) astrologers advised him that he should invite his better half to all his cabinet meetings so that her supposedly better stars could impact on his decision making! From then on Mrs Premadasa started attending those meetings”
President J R JayewardeneThe former foreign minister Natwar Singh once defended it strongly; others differ chiefly because sending forces almost heralded a military disaster in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the violence cult let loose, as Mehrotra himself points out, has consumed the host of leaders including President Premadasa and his compatriots Ranjan Wijeratne. Similarly, in a diabolical suicide attack, Rajiv Gandhi too was assassinated by LTTE.
Sometime back, this reviewer had interacted with a former Nepali foreign minister Upendra Yadav. Among other things, Yadav had spoken about New Delhi’s often “misguided” policies under which both JR Tamils and Sinhalese remained unhappy and dissatisfied with India. The diplomat-writer Mehrotra concludes the passages with a rather sentimental note that those who are familiar “with the agony and ecstasy of writing” would look at his book as also his stint as envoy in a challenging station with a touch of empathy. One cannot agree more.