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Demarche is the word of the week

The Oct 6 demarche was from National Security Advisor MK Narayanan to the Lankan deputy high commissioner talking of India’s concerns on the “growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians” in the north, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

world Updated: Oct 21, 2008 23:04 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Former diplomats and analysts here seem to be feeling a sense of déjà vu this past week. And the word that’s made a return to political discussions is ‘demarche’, a formal appeal or protest made by a diplomat of one country to another.

The October 6 demarche was from National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to the Lankan deputy high commissioner talking of India’s concerns on the “growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians” in the north.

But analysts here turned back the diplomatic clock by 21 years, and not without a hint of foreboding nostalgia, to recall another demarche that India had handed over to Sri Lanka in 1987.

The war situation that year was uncannily similar to the current situation, they said.

The Tamil Tigers were surrounded by the armed forces in Jaffna, as they are now in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

Even then, India had expressed concern about the condition of unarmed Tamil civilians and talked about food, shelter and medicine for them. Like now, the then Lanka dispensation had said that there was no shortage.

A columnist for the Sunday Times wrote: “Then the army had launched ‘Operation Liberation’ to regain total control of the Tiger guerrilla-dominated Jaffna peninsula. The Indian PM, Rajiv Gandhi, telephoned Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene to warn of the consequences.’’

“The conflict intensified and New Delhi — Colombo relations deteriorated. Militarily, the JR Government felt it was on the ascendant and began elaborate preparations to wrest back areas of Jaffna peninsula under LTTE control,’’ columnist D.B.S. Jeyaraj wrote.

The military offensive was finally put on hold but not before Indian ships loaded with food for the displaced were turned back.

“The next day came the infamous ‘parippu drop’ where Indian Air Force aircraft threw food stocks from the sky over the peninsula.

The events paved the way for the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987,’’ Sunday Times said. Subsequently, India, as part of the accord and with disastrous consequences, sent forces to Lanka to disarm the LTTE.

K Godage, Lankan deputy high commissioner in New Delhi between 1989 and 91 said it is unlikely that India would intervene on behalf either of the two sides like it did 20 years ago. “But the October 6 demarche was a strong message to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to prepare a list of concrete proposals for ending the ethnic conflict”, Godage said.

It remains to be seen however what happens to the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced in the north. For all the cold exchanges and hot interventions in 1987, 21 years later, in 2008, the conflict continues to rage.