India's Vietnam
                            HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS
  Part 1: The IPKF was totally unprepared and ill-equipped

Part 2: Don't worry about the LTTE, they are our boys


Totally unprepared and ill-equipped, that was the IPKF

Colonel John Taylor (retd), one of the first officers assigned to the IPKF, says the army was made to fight with one hand tied behind its back.

By the time the Indian Peace Keeping Force was inducted after the India-Sri Lanka Accord, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam had emerged a strong militant group on the island. They had wiped out all opposition, both Tamil and Sinhala. They had full control of the North and East. They were running a parallel government. The administration and judiciary were with them.

The LTTE was both loved and feared by all. When I was in Sri Lanka, the only Sinhalas north of the Elephant Pass were the Sri Lankan troops stationed there. Only Tamils were safe in the area. Such was the total control of the LTTE, because of their mass appeal.

When the Sri Lankan government reached its wit's end, it decided on military action. It sent in its armed forces to sort out the LTTE. The first full-scale military action, involving tanks, armoured personnel, carriers, artillery and armed helicopters was launched in 1987. The ruthless manner in which the Sri Lankan troops assaulted villages led the Tamils to cry 'genocide'.

Many critics have labelled the IPKF's role on the island as India's Vietnam. The Sri Lankan Tamils, fed on LTTE propaganda, boasted of giving the fourth largest army in the world, a bloody nose.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

The IPKF had successfully eliminated the middle order leadership of the LTTE and broken their stronghold over the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE was forced to take refuge in the jungles of the North and East. The Elephant Pass was open for the first time after the LTTE had taken control of the Jaffna. Movement of goods from the South, East and West was made possible after a long period of time.

However, the IPKF operations were not a complete success. We were unable to unite the different Tamil groups, mainly because of the intransigent attitude of the LTTE. It wanted the whole pie or nothing.

Anyone with a military background will tell you that for an army to be successful in an operation of the size and magnitude in Sri Lanka, it must have excellent intelligence, freedom of action to plan and execute its operations, and sound logistic support

Intelligence, or lack of it, has always been the bane of independent India. Every military operation undertaken by us has been dogged by poor -- no, pathetic -- intelligence. The Kargil Committee Report too has highlighted this aspect.

We were aware of the LTTE's domination over other militant organisations, but we were not aware of their innovative tactics, resourcefulness, tremendous mass support and, most importantly, their excellent intelligence network.

Let me give you two small examples of their subtle yet fatally successful methods of passing on information. Whenever an army patrol left their camp or post, the nearest temple or church would ring their bells to indicate how many men were in the patrol. If the bell chimed six times the strength of the patrol was six, and so on. Only later did we realise the truth of Hemingway's classic For whom the Bells Toll: they were tolling for us.

Passing through a village or township, a small boy or girl would run ahead to the end of the street, pass information about the patrol. The next messenger would be cycle-borne. Thus the message went ahead -- messengers changing every 150 metres or so. Even if they were intercepted, the boy or girl only knew his portion of the route. No one person knew the ultimate destination.

While passing messages on their radio sets, they switched frequencies continuously. So the intercepts were just one line of a coded message. This was something we were learning for the first time, and the hard way too.

The Research and Analysis Wing was in charge of collation of intelligence. The less said about them the better. The intelligence agents were afraid for their lives and hardly dared to venture out of their rooms. All the information they passed on was acquired from the army. Things should have been the other way round.

Unfortunately Rajiv Gandhi mainly accepted the advise given by RAW and other intelligence agencies, and decided to induct the IPKF. What we heard on the grapevine was that the RAW advisors had told the PM, "We will have Prabhakaran in our custody within 72 hours." This was never confirmed, but was an indicator of our poor intelligence assessment.

The entire IPKF operations were politically guided and intelligence oriented. The armed forces had little or no say. Or else, a full-scale military operation without the basic support arm, the artillery, would have never been launched. Tanks and APCs were not used. There was no air cover. Much later, an odd armed helicopter was brought in. For use against an enemy which had taken refuge in the jungles. The only other operation conducted on similar lines was when the Indian army was asked to flush out militants from the Golden Temple: barefoot, with weapons slung over their shoulders.

To be able to send troops to a neighbouring country for policing or for a military operation one has to have a strong and stable government, be at least a mini superpower, be politically and economically strong, have a strong army, air force and a navy with a medium strike radius (something on the lines of the US Seventh Fleet), and be a nuclear power or at least have some nuclear capability.

At that time we did not fulfill any of the above criteria. A strong and capable government means having no internal threat and being able to convince neighbouring countries of one's 'good intentions.' At the time of the IPKF operations, we were the Big Bad Brother of the subcontinent. Even Bhutan and Nepal had axes to grind with us.

Prior to the Accord, in the 1980s, the US-Israeli line favouring Colombo in the conflict was a sore point with New Delhi because of our Tamil lobby. The decision to intervene directly was based on wrong assumptions. We did not have the wherewithal for such large-scale operations and we went in with a token force which was totally unprepared for the job in hand.

It must go to the credit of the Indian armed forces, especially the air force, for conducting one of the largest airlifts since World War II. Few people are aware that in terms of man and material, more tonnage was lifted by land and sea in Sri Lanka than in any theatre of operation during the WWII. We were not organised for an operation of this nature. We did not have any airborne divisions, nor did we have a Marine Corps; we had never undertaken any amphibious operations. We just sent in an infantry division which had none of those elements. Such was the IPKF, totally unprepared and ill-equipped.

There were no proper maps. The IPKF did not even have sufficient cooking utensils and radio sets. They were more ceremonial than tactical. Even the chain of command was not adequately defined. The tactical HQ was initially at Southern Command, Pune. Better sense prevailed later and a separate HQ was set up for co-ordinating military operations of the IPKF at Madras.

After the assault on Jaffna the IPKF was also tasked to hold provisional elections and other administrative duties like running essential services and keeping the roads open. They manned banks, post offices, railways and vehicular transport. These jobs were carried out with distinction by the IPKF. This part of the story somehow never got publicity or praise. It was a Herculean task, done with the typical thoroughness that is the hallmark of our armed forces.

The army commanders were never given a free rein. It was always 'orders from Delhi'. The intelligence agencies called the shots. Choice of weapons was dictated from the top. This, in spite of the fact that the IPKF was fighting a very cunning opponent, who had the full support of the local population and who was operating in a terrain very well known to him.

The IPKF, on its part, had to fight in an alien country, alien terrain, face a hostile population and deal with an unfavourable foreign government, who never wanted it in their country in the first place.

India was no economic or military giant to undertake such an operation, but then persons of importance thought otherwise. Militancy cannot be solved by military action alone; more so in some other country. India should have ensured a dialogue between the Tamils and Sinhalese. That may have been more successful than sending in troops.

The revival of fresh initiatives for a new round of talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has given rise to a sense of optimism.

The collapse of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and the unsuccessful intervention of the IPKF had led to a stalemate for more than 10 years. No substantial efforts were made by a third party. The recent peace initiative made by Norway is most welcome, and things appear to be a little more brighter as there is now an international interest to end the Tamil-Sinhala stand-off, which has wrecked the political security and economic stability of the island.

A word of caution, however, needs to be added to this: similar attempts have failed in the past. Especially the stand taken by the LTTE when Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga proposed peace initiatives. The Tigers have since stepped up their offensive in the Jaffna peninsula.

For better leverage they will also step up their vicious policy of elimination of other Tamil groups and leaders. This is their style, a bloodbath before the calm of negotiations. Kumaratunga was lucky to survive one such attempt, just a day prior to her re-election.

Though India is not interested in a direct involvement now, any negotiations will have to take cognisance of her interests also. The 1997 Accord between the People's Alliance government and the opposition United National Party on the initiative of the British government fell through because New Delhi was not consulted. Whoever negotiates a peace initiative will have to also recognise India's geo-political concerns in the region and bring forward a peace plan that would satisfy all.

Don't worry about the LTTE, they are our boys, they will not fight us

Back to India's Vietnam

  Part 3: The IPKF's military role ended in 1988

Part 4: The most difficult part was managing the withdrawal

Part 5: The humiliation wasn't in Sri Lanka. It was when the IPKF returned

Part 6: Ultimately the Indian soldier was humiliated

Part 7: Till they get Eelam, the LTTE won't stop

Part 8: Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah!

Part 9: Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead in Colombo

Part 10: India should never have withdrawn

Part 11: More than ever, Eelam seems a reality now