The only visit of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush to India in May 1984 was marked by the episode of abduction of an American couple by a rebel Tamil outfit in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
While in New Delhi, Mr. Bush had played a role in securing the release of the couple by interacting with the Indian government, which was, in turn, closely coordinating with Sri Lankan government on the issue.
The kidnap episode, which lasted five days, came to an end on the day Mr. Bush left India for Pakistan.
It all began with the couple – Stanley Bryson Allen and Mary Elizabeth – getting abducted by the rebel group, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) from their residence in Jaffna on the night of May 10, 1984, just two days prior to Mr. Bush, the then Vice-President of the U.S., reaching New Delhi, as part of his four-day visit to India.
Accusing Mr. Allen as an “agent” of the Central Intelligence Agency, the rebel group had demanded the release of 20 political prisoners and the payment of gold worth $50 million, which should be deposited with the Tamil Nadu government, in return for the safe release of the American couple. The rebel group had set 72 hours as the deadline to the Sri Lankan government. But, Mr. Allen was then part of a water project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
While the popular impression in India was that the kidnap episode had been enacted to coincide with Mr. Bush’s visit, the EPRLF had said it had wanted to highlight the CIA’s “activities” in Jaffna ahead of the then Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene’s visit to the U.S. in June 1984.
A report published by The Hindu on May 14 stated that Mr. Bush, who was personally in charge of the crisis management group in Washington, was “following closely” the steps in securing the kidnapped persons.
On the day (May 14, 1984) of the expiry of the deadline, a spate of activities took place both in India and Sri Lanka.
In New Delhi, Mr. Bush met for two hours with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose appeal to the kidnappers to release the couple on humanitarian grounds was broadcast over All India Radio every half an hour nearly for nine hours throughout the day.
At an official lunch hosted by the Prime Minister that day, Mr. Bush was informed that the deadline was getting extended. The same day, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran had warned the kidnappers that a stage might be reached that the militants would lose the sympathy and support of people of Tamil Nadu.
In Colombo, late in the day, Sri Lankan National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali informed reporters that the hostages were said to have been released.
On May 15, 1984, when the U.S. Vice-President left New Delhi for Islamabad, the couple were handed over to the Bishop of Jaffna. Before departing from India, Mr. Bush had appreciated India’s efforts to secure the release of the Allens.
Apart from the diplomatic activities, the actions of the Tamil Nadu police too had apparently contributed to the release of the couple. Fifteen members of the EPRLF had been arrested by the authorities. K. Mohandas, who had headed the State intelligence wing when MGR was Chief Minister, in his book, The Man and The Myth, claimed that a threat issued by him to a group of EPRLF leaders such as K. Padmanabha, Varadaraja Perumal and Douglas Devananda had facilitated the release.