Palangaturai, Sri Lanka — We had chosen the wrong time. We had come to live in a ``rapidly deteriorating'' situation, we were told as we arrived two months ago. This island nation off India's southern coast was and still is embroiled in communal struggle -- minority Tamils vs. majority Sinhalese. Tamil rebels are demanding an independent state.
None other than the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, showed his concern for the Tamils just as we got here. But Mr. Gandhi was electioneering, and there were Tamil votes to be won in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. How better to woo them than with a show of great concern for the ``oppressed'' Tamil minority in northern and eastern Sri Lanka?
New Delhi's perceived ``double think'' about someone else's terrorists and its own in Punjab and a gratuitous call on Sri Lanka's government to stop the killings have made people here pretty bitter about Indian professions of friendship.
We have a house on the seaside north of the island's principal fishing center, Negombo. We are living not in a sanitized tourist ghetto but with and among Sri Lankans, Tamils as well as Sinhalese.
If one thing has become clear, it is that support is scant for an independent Tamil state -- even among the Tamils, who make up about 20 percent of the island's 15 million people.
New Delhi often gets close to picturing the most extreme of the terrorist factions as ``freedom fighters.'' Few Sri Lankans see them as such.
Recent actions of Tamil rebels have been anticlimactic. For example, in December they talked of a proclamation of ``eelam'' (independence) over the Christmas period. The proclamation failed to mature. ``Put off,'' it was said -- for unspecified reasons -- until Jan. 14. Again, nothing.
Although on Jan. 19 the terrorists mined a northern express train, killing Tamil civilians as well as a score or so of troops, an overall impression has grown for some time that they may be running out steam, or that the government is at least containing them. (Just before the train incident, security forces overran one of the terrorists' two main bases, killing their reputed second-in-command.)
The extremists seem to be reviving the strategy of 1983 when they undoubtedly succeeded in provoking a major Sinhalese backlash in which burning, killing, and looting momentarily brought the island to a standstill.
In the past year the government has tightened security, but at the same time played it cool. ``Don't allow ourselves to be provoked'' was the message broadcast daily to Sinhalese and Tamil alike. Full and frequent use was made of the curfew, but it was astonishing to see how little irritation the inconveniences aroused among ordinary people.
On the busy Saturday morning before Christmas, the authorities called a curfew for midday in Negombo. Earlier, apparently, two shops had been fired upon -- a provocation by terrorist sympathizers, most people seemed to think.
Public reaction, however, was remarkably good-natured. Sinhalese and Tamil traders alike began to take wares in from the forecourts of their shops. The bigger stores half-closed their doors but went on serving those already inside and letting others in.
For a couple of hours business and close-down went on together. But by midday, the shutters were up, the doors closed, people thronged homeward -- and there had not been a single sign of ``backlash'' reaction at this abruptly interrupted Christmas shopping.
There are, of course, some complex minority problems here. Some have lingered on from the time of the British, when mostly low-caste Tamils were imported from India as cheap labor for the tea plantations. There are still questions of statehood for some of the poorer Tamils, but by no means are all Tamils disadvantaged.
Overall, one has a clear impression that most Sri Lankans are thinking much less in party political terms than of the preservation and maintenance of the island's sovereignty and unity. That seems to apply to most Tamils just as much as to Sinhalese.
From what we can see, discrimination is by no means as bad as the Tamil opposition -- and their friends in New Delhi -- would have one believe.
According to the academic institutions' own figures, the proportion of Tamils to Sinhalese in the universities, government, and in the professions is greater than in the population overall. For example, Sri Lanka's chief of police and chief justice are both Tamils.
President Junius R. Jayewardene, moreover, is widely seen as ready to grant pretty nearly everything to remove the Tamil disadvantages where they exist -- everything short of any division of the country. But the opposition party -- the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) -- rejects anything noticeably short of independence, as two noted Sinhalese authors (one a Christian, the other Buddhist) of a highly regarded book just published here concluded.
TULF itself confirmed such suspicions when the results of the government's 10-month ``all-party conference'' -- boycotted by the opposition -- were published for nationwide appraisal. Its findings surely at least merited discussion.
TULF leaders here, however, turned it down in a single day. Then they went off to Madras, India, to confer with the self-exiled militants there, who, Sri Lanka complains, are treated there almost with diplomatic status as spokesmen of Sri Lankan political opinion.
In recent months India has held a double standard toward this country. One might cite many examples, but none perhaps more flagrant than the bland or blind eye -- or both -- Delhi chooses to turn on the Tamil terrorist training facilities everyone knows they enjoy in Tamil Nadu.
Nonetheless, this is still the ``Serendip'' isle, with not only its physical beauties but also with the invigorating spectacle of human life and endeavor that even the most humble and poor of its villages still presents, whatever internal problems remain to be solved. We like that.