Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked Margaret Thatcher to stop providing military aid to Sri Lanka in the 1980’s as Mrs Gandhi attempted to consolidate Indian influence on the Island nation, according to declassified British government documents.
In one letter released by the UK’s National Archives on Tuesday, Gandhi told Thatcher: “We hope that you will use your influence to persuade (Sri Lankan) President (J.R.) Jayawardena to give a positive lead by making constructive suggestions at the All Parties Conference”, referring to a Sri Lankan initiative aimed at providing greater autonomy to Tamils in the north and east of the Island.
“Military aid and anti-insurgency assistance are not enough to overcome a political crisis which has to be faced and resolved”, the letter further says.
Tensions between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority and minority Tamils had been simmering since communal riots in 1977, and broke out into full-scale Civil War in 1983 following the bloody pogroms against Tamils in July of that year.
India had been long been a major player in the conflict with political and military sympathisers in the south providing weapons and training to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main Tamil separatist group.
Mrs Gandhi’s administration, aligned to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, wanted to extend its influence to US-aligned Sri Lanka whilst outwardly distancing itself from machinations in south India.
In another declassified letter written in September 1984 by Peter Ricketts – private secretary to UK Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe – to David Barclay – private secretary to Prime Minister Thatcher – Ricketts writes: “The Sri Lankan government have engaged another British company (name removed) to provide training in counter-terrorist techniques.
The presence of (the company’s) employees, including some ex-SAS personnel, in Sri Lanka, has aroused controversy and the Indian government have expressed concern to us about the firm’s involvement.”
“We have made it clear that this is a purely commercial matter and that HMG (Her Majesty’s government) are not involved.”
Despite Mrs Gandhi’s protestations continued to provide training, advice and limited weaponry to the Sri Lankan government forces as the Civil War escalated. For instance, the SAS are known to have trained the Sri Lankan Army’s elite Commando regiment as well as the police Special Task Force.
As the war escalated in the late 1980’s – including with the disastrous deployment to Sri Lanka of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 – British support petered out, leading the Sri Lankan government to look elsewhere, most notably Israel.