Shoojit Sircar’s controversial movie, Madras Café dealt with real-life events in the ‘80s and early 90s that changed the history of Sri Lanka and India.
The movie, focused on the period after the North-East Provincial Council (NEPC) polls held on Nov. 19, 1988, in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. The Indian army helped the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) secure the NEPC with an overwhelming majority in the wake of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) declining to contest the polls. Although the TULF felt it could secure the NEPC, it feared to earn the wrath of the LTTE. The then TULF leader A Amirthalingam refused to join the fray at the behest of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, one of the groups sponsored by India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is its central theme. Madras Café speculated on the possibility of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ordering the assassination at the behest of a foreign power and the alleged involvement of Indian officialdom in the atrocity to thwart him from returning to power at the parliamentary polls. Madras Café also discussed an Indian plot to influence a senior LTTE cadre to assassinate Prabhakaran.
Major Vikram Singh, played by Bollywood heart throb John Abraham, sent on a special mission to Jaffna peninsula occupied by the Indian army (July 29, 1987-March 1990) uncovered a plot to assassinate Gandhi. In spite of having advanced intelligence, Indian security services failed to protect Gandhi, much to the dismay of those who uncovered the plot.
The LTTE feared the consequence of the possible return of Gandhi as India’s Prime Minister at a time it was fighting the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government. The LTTE resumed hostilities on June 10, 1990 after having 14 months of talks (May 1989-June 1990) with the government. Did a foreign power exploit the LTTE fear of Gandhi’s return to office to its advantage?
An LTTE operative, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam alias Dhanu blew up Gandhi at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on the night of May 21, 1991, the day after the first round of polling took place. The assassination compelled the Election Commission to put off the second and third rounds of polling to June 12 and June 15, respectively. The assassinated Gandhi’s Congress did well in the second and third rounds to secure the election. The victory paved the way for a minority government under veteran politician P.V. Narasimha Rao in the wake of the dissolution of Lok Sabha 16 months after the previous parliamentary polls in Nov 1989.
In spite of Sircar declaring that the movie dubbed an espionage thriller was a work of fiction, it has a resemblance to actual events in Sri Lanka and India. UK-based Tamil groups, spearheaded by the Tamil Youth Organization (TYO) opposed its screening in the UK. Violent protests and threats prompted three major cinema companies owned by Cineworld, Odeon and Vue to cancel screening of the movie scheduled to begin on Aug. 28.
Madras Café dealt a severe blow to those who had been still trying to promote LTTE ideals, in spite of the group losing its conventional military capability in May 2009. Interestingly, Madras Café was never filmed in Sri Lanka, though the production team could have taken the opportunity. Filmed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as some scenes in the UK, Malaysia and Thailand, Madras Café was released in Sri Lanka too. In the Jaffna peninsula, the movie was shown on giant screens at public places in the run-up to the first Northern Provincial Council polls on Sept. 21, 2013.
The worldwide release of Madras Café couldn’t have come at a better time for Sri Lanka facing criticism by a section of the international community for alleged battlefield atrocities during the last phase of the conflict. Madras Café forced the Tamil Diaspora, which thrived on unsubstantiated Channel 4 documentary series, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, on to the back foot, amidst ongoing efforts to sanitize the LTTE.
Tamil Nadu factor
Prabhakaran reacted furiously to the EPRLF’s installation as the NEPC administration. Prabhakaran adopted a two-tracked policy to undermine the EPRLF administration. The LTTE chief worked closely with the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as he was having direct talks with President Premadasa. Prabhakaran’s strategy was meant to isolate the EPRLF, through political and military means. President Premadasa turned a blind eye to LTTE operations directed at the EPRLF. The UNP leader went to the extent of providing both financial and material support to the LTTE. Both President Premadasa and Prabhakaran agreed that the EPRLF should be neutralized through military means. However, at that time, unknown to President Premadasa, Prabhakaran, through his trusted spokesman, Anton Balasingham conducted a dialogue with Karunanidhi. The UK-based Balasingham and his Australian-born, Adele visited Tamil Nadu on several occasions to meet Karunanidhi on behalf of Prabhakaran during the time the LTTE had direct negotiations with President Premadasa.
Justice M.C. Jain, who investigated the circumstances as well as the conspiracy leading to the assassination of Gandhi, revealed the complicity of Karunanidhi’s DMK. Jain also blamed former prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar for their failure to take tangible action to thwart the attempt on Gandhi’s life. Jain also targeted the then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram for ‘supping with the devil in the cause of political expediency.’ S. Guhan, one-time advisor to Karunanidhi told the Jain Commission of three clandestine meetings the then Chief Minister had with the Balasinghams between December 1989 to February 1990, at the Port Trust Guest House, Madras. Guhan, who had been present on all three occasions, revealed Karunanidhi explored the possibility of having the LTTE in a reconstituted NEPC. The LTTE rejected the move. Balasingham insisted that the LTTE wanted the NEPC dissolved and fresh elections held, under the auspices of the Sri Lankan government.
The Jain Commission revealed that in spite of the Indian army being engaged in counter terrorist operations in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu remained the main supply base for the LTTE throughout this period. The LTTE-TN alliance continued after the LTTE declared war on President Premadasa on June 10, 1990, after 14 months of direct negotiations. When President Premadasa ordered large scale military operations, the LTTE swiftly made overtures to Gandhi in a bid to bring Indian pressure on Sri Lanka. Gandhi too made the mistake of meeting senior LTTE representatives several weeks before his assassination to discuss the LTTE’s appeal (Indian Involvement in Sri Lanka and the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987: A retrospective evaluation by one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit-an International Alert publication released in February 1998).
Unfortunately, Madras Café hadn’t delved into the domestic political conspiracy, hence missing an important aspect. In fact, successive Sri Lankan governments failed to examine the assassination of Gandhi. Had Sri Lanka opted for a comprehensive investigation, it could have exposed the LTTE and those in Tamil Nadu still propagating separatist sentiments in Sri Lanka.
It would be pertinent to mention that the then Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva, at the behest of President Premadasa recognized the LTTE’s political wing PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers ) as a political party in early December 1989-six months before the outbreak of eelam war II. Having secured political recognition, the LTTE pushed Premadasa to dissolve the NEPC to pave the way for fresh elections. The LTTE also demanded that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution be repealed to facilitate the negotiating process. The introduction of the Sixth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution in the wake of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna was meant to protect the unitary character of the country. In spite of the LTTE relentlessly pushing President Premadasa, the UNP leader declined to go ahead with constitutional change or dissolve the NEPC, much to the dissatisfaction of the LTTE.
EPRLF’s 19-point plan
Had Gandhi prevailed at the November 1989 parliamentary polls, he may have ignored President Premadasa’s unilateral declaration that the Indian army quit Sri Lanka. President Premadasa made his unexpected announcement on the morning of April 13, 1989 at a temple in the suburbs of Colombo. Gandhi simply ignored Premadasa’s demand that the Indian army withdraw by July 29, 1989. However, the newly elected National Front Government brought about a major change in India’s policy towards not only Sri Lanka, but other neighbours as well.
As relations between President Premadasa and the EPRLF rapidly deteriorated with the security forces increasingly cooperating with the LTTE, NEPC Chief Minister Varatharaja sought India’s intervention. But India remained aloof with the then V.P. Singh administration declining to intervene in President Premadasa’s strategy. Much to the dismay of Perumal, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi bluntly told him to dissolve the NEPC to make way for the LTTE. Under pressure from all quarters, Perumal offered to share power with the LTTE and to hand over the chief ministership to the LTTE.
The EPRLF as well as its patrons in New Delhi failed to realize that the LTTE never wanted to share power with the EPRLF or any other political party or group. The TULF was not an exception. Having failed to secure Karunanidhi’s support to work out an agreement with the LTTE, the EPRLF unveiled a 19-point Charter signed by K. Pathmanabha, Secretary General of the party to settle all outstanding issues, including devolution of power, colonization and law and order. Having formulated the plan, the EPRLF presented it to Karunanidhi seeking his intervention to pave the way for talks with the LTTE. But Karunanidhi rejected the EPRLF plan on the basis it didn’t recognize the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people.
In the wake of its failure to win support for the plan, the EPRLF on March 1, 1990 converted the NEPC into a Constituent State Assembly for the purpose of drafting a Constitution for what Perumal called the Eelam Democratic Republic. Perumal declared that independence would be declared on March 1, 1991 in case President Premadasa failed to implement the 19-point Charter.
On June 19, 1990-nine days after the eruption of eelam war II, an LTTE hit squad massacred 13 EPRLF personnel, including Secretary General Pathmanabha, Jaffna District parliamentarian G. Yogasangary and provincial Finance Minister P. Kirupakaran at a flat in Kodambakkam, Madras. Perumal escaped as he was away from Madras at the time of the LTTE raid. Some alleged that a senior member of the EPRLF alerted the LTTE as to the presence of Pathmanabha at Kodambakkam. The LTTE went ahead with the operation in spite of EPRLF seniors living there under the protection of the government of India. Still India failed to take punitive measures against those politicians and law enforcement officers in Tamil Nadu collaborating with the LTTE. India obviously felt that any move on its part to dismantle the LTTE in Tamil Nadu could cause a major rift with the Tamil Nadu administration. India paid a heavy price for its failure to neutralize the LTTE on its soil.
The LTTE operated with impunity in Tamil Nadu, with the state administration turning a blind eye to what was going on. The LTTE had the resources in Tamil Nadu to take on major operations.
On March 21, the following year, the LTTE blew up Gandhi immediately after the conclusion of the first phase of parliamentary polls.
Madras Café examined the circumstances under which Prabhakaran dispatched a hit squad to assassinate Gandhi whose re-election the LTTE chief feared could cause serious impediments to his plans. The LTTE justified the Gandhi assassination on the basis of various atrocities committed by the Indian army during its deployment in Sri Lanka. The LTTE alleged that Gandhi was assassinated to avenge the rape of Tamil women by the Indian army.