Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead in Colombo
Read Josy Joseph's interview with General Harkirat Singh from the beginning.
Could you tell us precisely what happened once the 17 Tigers swallowed cyanide?
Riots all over. The entire Jaffna was red. We had to move, take up defences. We had no defence stores. Remember, we had no defence stores. We went with rifles. We did not have supporting weapons, we did not have our defence stores... barbed by mines, pickets around your positions so that nobody assaults the infantry without a stop. We were in naked barracks. I had stopped even tents, because aircraft as it is were few.
We carried our weapons and ammunition. We improvised wire around us, put electricity on that so that nobody crosses over at night. We had to improve everything, there was nothing till the war started and things started coming. And all the time they wanted us to fraternise with the LTTE. All Madras battalions were flown into Sri Lanka. So that we had more Tamil-speaking people. So that we spoke to the LTTE, spread the message of goodwill, We are here to protect you. Surrender your weapons.
They were no fools. They knew that the Sri Lankan police was totally ineffective. Police tho bil kul kadam thi naa? [The Sri Lankan police was completely finished, na?] If they surrendered their weapons who would protect them?
Then they said, No, we will give 20 rifles for the protection of Prabhakaran, 15 for Mahathiah... Jayewardane himself said this. And Prabhakaran knew he could not survive with 15 people. He used to have three-tier security around him. If Prabhakaran is here, here [the innermost ring] will be the suicide people who will sacrifice their lives. The next ring will be the fighters and the third ring will be for early warning. We could never lay hands on him even during the war once he left Jaffna. I got him only once where he said, Now, I am not going to survive, all commanders are independent and will take over... When we did that bloody para drop.
You mean the attack in the university campus?
Yeah. That was also a tragedy.
But what exactly happened?
What happened? I planned with nine helicopters. I needed nine helicopters to land the troops. When the hour came, when the flight had taken off to mark the landing zone, the next flight had taken off to land the people to secure the landing zone, I am told, Sorry, helicopters are not available hereafter.
Who said that?
The air force. Why are helicopters not available? They have gone to the east, there is some exercise going on. But my requirement was nine helicopters, it was accepted by [Lieutenant General] Depinder Singh. [Lieutenant General A S] Kalkat had confirmed that your plans are approved. And now you are saying the helicopters are not available? It is too late!
It was too late for an operation: half on the ground, half in the air. Bad luck. But that chap of a major who landed there in the third flight... Five flights went in, he landed in the third. Out of the five, one had a hole in it, so it never came back. So paanch ke char reh gaye next time ke liye. Then, wo keh the hai, saab kal subah ration kel liye kaise jaayenge?
Anyway, this major of the 17 Sikh Light Infantry, he did not dig down. In army the moment you land, the first requirement is to give yourself protection. So that you can fire your weapon and don't get shot. Whereas the commandos got into the barracks. They told the chap, You also come into the barracks. He said, No, no, my commanding officer is going to come. So I must meet him here. At that time Prabhakaran said, I have had it, I am not going to survive.
We had surrounded his headquarters. All the commandos were behind the back. And we were very happy because this intercept was taken by the Sri Lankans. The Sri Lankans were our interceptors, incidentally. We had no interception set-up, everyday, every morning ithni [draws a long line in the air] intercept athi thee. And we had a good rapport with the Sri Lankan people; they were ready to give us all intercepts.
The Indian soldiers were killed after they entered the campus?
Yes, they never went into the campus. They went to the football ground. Jahan ye pahle ho tha tha open mein. Prabhakaran came there and kicked one chap. Let him survive to tell the story, he said. All the others were killed. And much hungama -- so many people are dead, 24 people are dead. So what? Ask me, so what? I said, so what? Do you go to fight a war with no casualties? What did you do in Kargil?
Thousand of people were killed. So many officers were killed. And knowing that they will be killed and slaughtered, they still went up to 18,000 feet through one path where you can kill a person by throwing a stone at him. And here you are telling me casualties are so much? I took no notice of it. I said casualty tho honi hai. If it was a success, it would have been a success, what a great success! Prabhakaran captured! It is unfortunate that persons were killed.
Why did you in the first place carry out the operation without proper intelligence inputs?
This one? You see, this is also great. Ye athe the Dilli se [It used to come from Delhi]. All these. The [army] chief came, he said do something. Something must be achieved. He had pink papers issued by the government, top secret. He gave me to read as if I was doing a fast-reading exercise. I was reading that we must adopt 'hard options'. Depinder was standing next to us. Then we went to the airport to see off the chief, who was going to Trincomalee. By that time another division was brought to Trincomalee under R P Singh. All these time I was single, now there were two generals. He was [in charge of] Trincomalee downwards, I was [ in charge of] Vavoonia this side.
So we went to see him off. So Depinder said, Harry, now do something. I explained the strategy which I and my officer Hoshiar Singh, a para-commando, best in the country, trained in US, had drawn up. We had discussed the plan. He had commanded the troops, he said they will do it. I was convinced logistically and operationally. Go. Start at first light so that we had the whole night to fight the operation.
I explained it all to General Depinder Singh. He says, Okay, go ahead. He gets into his aircraft, back to Madras and from there Kalkat rings up. He says your requirement of aircraft is approved. He was staff officer in Southern Command. He had nothing to do with Jaffna.Wo tho iski kismat thi woh ban gaya woh. Otherwise that man...Anyway I won't talk about that.
You were worried after the boat tragedy?
One should not worry about this and that. That is OK. The boat incident was a diplomatic failure, diplomatic-political failure. The IPKF had nothing to do with it. I can write in bold letters that even if an open court is held people will talk about it. Operations, we had planned and we had executed them. But our aircraft support at the last minute was called off. In place of nine helicopters, we were given five and four in the second sorties. So we had to ground operations to link with that. That upset the whole thing, we suffered casualty.
Did you protest with the air force?
No protests in war. If you had an overall command, if you had air force, army, and navy under you, you would have sorted them out there and then. There was no single command. They were all fighting their own battles. A piddling little squadron leader will turn up and say, Sorry sir, aircraft not available, helicopter not available. How can you do that? We are fighting overseas. We are away from the country.
Did you bring this to the notice of your chief?
Of course. Sunderji was well-informed. Sunderji, Depinder everybody knew about it. But they didn't have the courage to speak out to the press. Why did they not speak to the press regularly? When we were fighting in Lanka, why was press briefing not done, like during the Kargil time? Roz raat ko bhashan ho jatha tha, yeh ho gayi, ye ho gayi. Why wasn't it done in Sri Lanka?
When five fellows sacrificed their lives in Kargil they were given a ceremonial reception in Delhi and a burial. Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead in Colombo. I brought the bodies in one of the aircraft to Gwalior, then I was told no bodies should go to Gwalior. They should all be cremated there only.
Oh, it was told to you?
Of course. By this gentleman Mr Kalkat. He was in command headquarters. And Khajuria, his boss. They said last rites should be done there only, ashes should be send home. I said, Yeh tho Gwalior ke troops hai, inko bodies jaane tho [These are the troops from Gwalior, let their bodies go home]. The sentiments of the parents... Nobody sounded even a Last Post. Nobody shed tears for them... in Kargil because we were fighting in our own country and there we were fighting in an alien country.
The bodies [of our soldiers] were burnt by the LTTE. What they used to do, they used to put a tyre around the body, fill up the tyre with kerosene and put it on fire. And tell us, X is being burnt, please go and take it from the centre of the town. That kind of treatment they used to give to our bodies. When one body was mutilated in Kargil, what hungama it created! Same thing, here the troops were just burnt alive.
All that because you had no idea of the LTTE?
Only that we didn't know their dispossession. Their caches. They had buried all their weapons, they had buried all their ammunition, they had buried all their supplies, they buried their money. And they knew where to dig. Their caches were all over. Not like us. We had a long administration tail. Ek aadmi ke puri bhi jaana hai, Hindustan se bakri aam bhi jaana he. Ye bhi jaana, woh bhi jaane. Even live goats were being sent. You can't fight a war like this.
How was it that your division was chosen for the operation?
54 Division was being trained for air landing operations. It was the assault division. We were sitting in Secunderabad. Probably our selection was due to being the nearest to Sri Lanka. Otherwise, knowing the terrain in Sri Lanka, it warranted a division from East, 8 Div, 57 Div, those divisions should have come. Sure enough, by April all those divisions were in Sri Lanka. They were flown down from Mizoram, from Nagaland. Where was the problem with India? They could have been flown even from Dimapur. Our division was not trained to fight jungle warfare. Our division was being given training to re-equip itself, or reorganise itself, as an air landed division, or assault air division or airborne division, something like that.
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