Feature Article

The Importance of ‘Rearbase’: Taraki, 1989

[TamilNet, Friday, 17 February 2006, 02:05 GMT]
In the 29 October 1989 issue of Sri Lanka's English daily, Island International, late Dharmeratnam Sivaram, popular journalist and Senior editor at TamilNet, writes on the waning importance of a rear base in Tamil Nadu after the end of Eelam war I in 1987. "That a multipurpose comfortable rearbase would in the long term erode the conviction to fight and play into the hands of India was an opinion expressed in 1983. Finally the rearbase started becoming a factor that threatened to undermine the control various leaders had over their fighting cadres," Sivaram wrote.

If anything characterizes the new phase of Tamil militancy, it is the waning importance of the rearbase in Tamil Nadu, or in India for that matter. Even if there is a drastic turnaround in affairs, leading to a pre-1987 situation a rearbase across the Palk Straight will not be as essential to Tamil groups as it was during 1983-87. During that period, the rearbase became so important that North and East Sri Lanka was simply referred to as ‘land’ in the parlance of the Tamil militants.

The preoccupation that the rearbase (Pin Thalam) was so great that rifts within the groups were mainly on the lines of the leadership in Pin Thalam and those on ‘land.’ The Sri Sabaratnam-Das split (TELO), the Pathmanabha-Douglas Devananda split (EPRLF), the Uma Maheswaran-Eeswaran split (PLOTE) were all primarily due to the rearbase/land dichotomy. The only leader who circumvented the problem was Prabhakaran. He had a separate command for each district and handled supplies separately through an efficient communications network. Therefore none of his area commanders could even think of consolidating his power on land. The India-based LTTE leadership kept power by controlling the supply of weapons, ammunition and finance. They were also extremely careful to keep the top RAW contacts in their hands. It was felt that if these lines slipped RAW would have an opportunity to put through deals with somebody with influence on ‘land.’

Those who call EPRLF “quislings” of the Indians should remember what RAW did to the EPRLF – pulling out their ‘land’ commander and teaming him up with PLOTE’s ‘land’ political leader to form the ENDLF. Despite their stated and even real political position, the EPRLF has strong reservations about RAW’s intentions on this score.

The rearbases control over supplies, their strategic links with Delhi, commitments and vested interests in Tamil Nadu reduced the leaders’ sensitivity to and grasp affairs on ‘land’- even in the case of the LTTE, but to a lesser degree than the others. The fact that the leaders in the rearbase lived in comfort for which the boys on ‘land’ had to pay with their blood and sweat was the stuff which the disgruntled made generous use of to sow discord.

The now-forgotten ‘literature of heresy’ within the groups from 1983-1987 bears ample evidence of the extent to which the rearbase became a fissure in the affairs of the Tamil movement. There was serious concern about the wisdom of having come to India in the first place and about the disproportionate importance of the rearbase among some quarters. The extent to which the war was becoming dependent on Tamil Nadu did not go without criticism. That a multipurpose, comfortable rearbase would in the longterm erode the conviction to fight and play into the hands of India was an opinion expressed as early as 1983. Finally the rearbase started becoming a factor that threatened to undermine the control various leaders had over their fighting cadres. Meanwhile the Indian authorities began demonstrating regularly that they had the militants in their mercy by locking up and releasing weapons and men at will, but by this time, the militants were hopelessly entangled. There was a time towards the end of 1986 when the Tamil Nadu state police started treating even the leaders of groups like common criminals. Further, the long period of inactivity and the absence of the natural discipline imposed by the guerilla’s fighting environment turned several cadres towards anti-social behavior.

Another serious mistake was that if the rearbase in India had been developed on the basis of a sound political commitment from sympathetic local antiestablishment groups it would have been useful in the long run without jeopardizing the future of the movement, even though such a line of action would not have had the massive benefits offered by the Indian state. In the early stages, before the split in the LTTE which saw Uma Maheswaran and Prabhakaran go their separate ways, some contacts of this nature were made. The Vinod Mishra faction of the Naxalbari movement and Perunchitranar’s group which left the DMK when it abandoned the separatist call for Dravidanad in the early ‘60’s, were two such groups. Except for the National Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam and the Thamilar PaduKappu Peravai (Assembly for the protection of Tamils)- both Maoist groups which said they were only fighting for self-determination and not separation- every one else went for the big parties in Tamil Nadu, especially after 1983.

The Indian central government became aware of the presence and nature of the Tamil militant movement on their soil only in 1982, when Prabhakaran and Maheswaran shot at each other at Pondi Bazaar in Madras. The actions of both after the incident made it obvious they preferred to work under ground in Tamil Nadu. But it was too late by then. The matter was transferred from the State police to the Intelligence Bureau (IB) of the Central Government. In due course, RAW took over.

Despite the IB’s involvement (the first batch of militants was trained by them) operations in Tamil Nadu continued to be secretive. But 1983 saw too many young men wanting to “join up” for the groups to handle in the North and East. Camps in Tamil Nadu became inevitable as each organization was faced with the dilemma of absorbing at least part of the massive influx or becoming a nonentity.

The maintenance of large numbers in the camps needed the support for politicians from the AIA-DMK, the DMK and in some cases the CPI. The LTTE made a grave error, according to some sympathizers in Tamil Nadu, by cultivating MGR while discreetly and sometimes openly avoiding others, Karunanidhi and Thamilaga Viduthalai Padai (Tamil Nadu Liberation Army) leader Thamilarasan were deeply vexed by the LTTE’s strict adherence to MGR. In Colombo, the LTTE has adopted a similar one track allegiance.

In Tamil Nadu, the LTTE were very careful that not a single weapon went to either any of the various underground Marxist rebels or to Thamilarasan’s separatist movement. Thus, unlike other groups, they had a very good record with the Q branch in Tamil Nadu set up to crush the Maoist Naxalite movement and later given the responsibility of monitoring the Tamil movements. But despite their careful conduct, the growing incidence of separatist and Naxalite violence in Tamil Nadu was seriously worrying some Indian authorities. The accord provided an opportunity for a cleanup. RAW’s premises were such that the LTTE never expected them to stand by and allow all of them to be arrested. But Ranjan Appa who managed their vast finance, Kittu and Rahim were among those arrested and sent back to Sri Lanka. Thus, when the LTTE started waging war against the Indian Army, they found themselves without any friends who could act outside the supervision of the Indian state.

Although analysts have attached considerable importance to the role of Tamil Nadu politics in shaping Delhi’s attitude to the Tamil militants, it is Delhi and Delhi alone that decided on the course of action and maintained all the most important connections with the militants. Therefore, as soon as the RAW-LTTE talks of mid-1988 broke up, there was no one to help them in Tamil Nadu.

The war required higher and higher inputs in terms of ammunition, explosives, medicine etc. Even though teh LTTE- suspicious of RAW- had hoarded vast quantities of ammunition and explosives in the North, it soon faced sharply reduced mobility and pressure on supplies due to the constant fighting on all fronts. The LTTE’s brand of guerilla war requires the kind of high inputs a conventional army needs. The volume of money that has to be handled to finance these inputs, and the international transactions need an urban center. The ‘closure of Madras’ was a serious crisis for the LTTE from this point of view.

As IPKF operations aimed at throttling LTTE supply lines and the intensity of operations pushed them closed to Sinhala border areas the prospect of a hostile Sinhala army at their back became a serious consideration. This forms the background to their decision to deal with Colombo, which is also proving much cheaper than having a rearbase across the Palk Strait. Cynthia, a 3rd year medical student at the Jaffna University and Kittu’ fiance, came to Colombo three weeks ago. Kittu followed- for a reunion, apart from other reasons connected with diplomacy or health. A strongly pro-LTTE paper ‘Unmai’ published in Colombo, is proving to be a bothersome fissure in moves towards an information-monopoly in the NorthEast. In the meantime, the LTTE’s public relations operation in Colombo has been expanding.

These are all signs that a fundamental change is taking place. Because of this change in the rearbase and its nature, the LTTE’s commitment to Eelam, India may not be able to play the same role in Tamil-Sinhalese politics that it did before.

But the possible outcome to two recent developments may determine prospects for the internalisation of conflict-resolution in Sri Lanka.

Saravanabhavan, elder brother of Francis, the LTTE’s Batticaloa political leader, has been missing since last month, allegedly picked up by men in police uniform in Wattala. The LTTE leadership is seriously worried about this. And the RAW Director for Sri Lankan Affairs had visited London recently- to meet LTTE representatives there, according to sources in Delhi. It remains to be seen how the LTTE reacts to these developments


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