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Strip chess in Colombo

[Express Buzz, Friday, 26 December 2008 17:58 No Comment]

Our man in Colombo is apparently under a lot of stress these days. People who have known High Commissioner Alok Prasad for a long time say that the reasons are varied. Some say the DMK’s episodic attempts to put pressure on Colombo are a part of it; others say it has to do with his inability to coax Sri Lanka to conclude the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. The document was finalised for signature around the SAARC summit. On July 9 the Commerce Secretary even made an announcement to this effect.


Yet, the event didn’t take place. Obviously people see a lack in our local reading of the political dynamics. Many are asking questions about the quality of conversations that are happening between our man in Colombo and the political leadership. New Delhi is still living down the embarrassment. Yet others say the High Commissioner is already consumed with thoughts about his next posting. Others say the stress factors lie elsewhere. But when I spotted him on the manicured lawns of a diplomat’s house in Colombo last Friday I had no idea.


There he was detailing to his audience what they would be treated to at a light music programme he was going to arrange at India House. It was just past a quarter to nine in the evening and it looked like a convivial gathering, and I had made my way towards him, made eye contact and waited for the conversation to subside. I wanted to get some insights on our policy vis-à-vis the Tamils issue. Operations had entered a trickier phase in the north; the population density was one aspect; the Essential Services Commissioner told this reporter that the Government got distorted figures as far as the population and the Internally Displaced People went but even he put it at 2,50,000 in Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu. It was common knowledge the LTTE had merged with the human shield in some areas; Colombo’s intelligence on a lot of ground parameters was not so hot; the air force didn’t have laser guided bombs; their planes bombed ‘targets’ manually; estimates of how much explosives are air dropped vary wildly but in a television interview on September 18 the Defence Secretary reportedly remarked: “We have launched 700 aerial attacks this year alone. Every day 10 sorties launch attacks and each one drops four or five bombs. Some of them weigh around a ton. Some weigh around 500 kilos. Then think how much they (the LTTE) are affected.” The casualty figures are perplexing; it is a war where hardly any prisoners were being taken, a situation which in Tamil Nadu could easily be seen to mean that the guiding philosophy was “one Tamil less is one Tamil less.” Who better to seek appropriate clarifications than our pointsperson in Colombo? There he was, our man, pausing after every sentence and breathing in deeply. Sometimes he paused mid sentence and breathed in deeply as well. Too much nicotine in his system I thought. When the group was breaking up I asked Alok if he could spare me a couple of minutes, off-the-record. An off-the-record conversation is usually the best way to talk reasonably candidly with diplomats as the conversation would not get attributed or quoted. But Alok had other ideas. “Why can’t we talk right here?” he asked challengingly. “Okay”, I said, pleasantly taken aback, and came straight to the point: “Are there any red lines that we have drawn for Colombo to be mindful of ?” The High Commissioner looked at me for a moment then cited a couple of red lines that he said had been in operation for some time: one, that there should not be unacceptable civilian casualties; two that the Internally Displaced People should not be wanting in terms of essential supplies. I wanted to know what exactly New Delhi would consider unacceptable: did New Delhi’s unhappiness trigger have a numerical value or would it be the nature of a collateral incidence or disproportionate use of force or a mixture? After all, the position repeated like Polly the parrot was that there was no solution through violence, the solution had to be political. So I asked him: “This civilian casualty red line — can you quantify it a bit, give some idea of a number that will be unacceptable to us?” He smiled at me sardonically and said: “Why don’t you give me a number?” I sensed he was falling back on an old trick so I asked him: “How can I give you a number? I am asking you. You are our man here.” After the three-drink standard some people get stuck on a point and refuse to budge. Alok seemed to have got there early. He insisted that I give him a number.


“Okay,” I said to move things along, “250”.


It was an arbitrary number but I needed to see where Alok was going with this. In public.


“What?! 250?! When did this happen? Where did they get killed? I want to know.


Where did you get such a figure? You should be better prepared with your facts,” Alok exploded. The disconnect was obvious. He glared at me glassily and looked around at the people who had come up to hear what was going on: diplomats, socialites, journalists.


There ensued a really pointless conversation in high decibel during which he accused me of being an “expert” which is laughable because all I wanted to do was take notes off the record. It was when he began to use the word “genocide” — inappropriately since I never even uttered the word —that it struck me that the conversation had gone so completely contrapuntal and surreal that it would not have been out of place in a less accessible Samuel Beckett absurdist play. Our conversation ended when I told Alok bluntly that he was wasting my time and he also expressed similar sentiments, and then the man whom his colleagues refer to as Napoleon marched off in surprisingly quick little strides to another corner in a most imperious manner.

You might wonder what this has to do with our Sri Lanka policy. I cite this not to highlight the behaviour of one of our brightest foreign service officers who has had the plumiest of postings. I highlight this to stress the difficulty in getting a straight answer from our policy enforcers on where we stand on a question that a lot of people are asking. Helping to destroy the LTTE is one thing; losing control over the process is completely another.

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