The intelligence agencies said, Don't worry about the LTTE, they are our boys, they will not fight us
J N Dixit was India's high commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1985 to 1989. He played a major role in drafting the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987, and the subsequent induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force to implement it.
Days after Indian troops arrived on the island, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam started what it was best at: guerrilla attacks in the jungles and shanty towns of north-east Lanka. It killed over 1,200 soldiers, maimed thousands, and forced the IPKF to abandon its task and retreat.
As then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi government's key man in Sri Lanka, Dixit was in the hot seat and privy to all the greenroom drama. Giving a clean chit to Gandhi, he blames the heavy casualties India suffered in the initial fighting for Jaffna on Major General Harkirat Singh, the IPKF's first commander.
Dixit spoke to Josy Joseph last fortnight:
It is 10 years since the IPKF withdrew. Was it rightly timed?
My view would be prejudiced. I think the Indian forces went to ensure the implementation of the agreement of July 1987, not to fight the Tamils or the Sinhalese. It was the LTTE that primarily created a situation that resulted in the Indian army having to fight them. And also, the Sri Lankan government ministers like Lalith Athulathamuthali and Premadasa, who sabotaged the agreement.
Despite these limitations, the Indian army did a very effective job of restoring stability, organising a democratic government in the north-eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. In my judgment, we withdrew in haste. Had we stayed on perhaps for eight months or a year, we could have perhaps stabilised the situation and generated sufficient persuasion on [LTTE chief Velupillai] Prabhakaran to come back to the political path.
We withdrew because the V P Singh government and then foreign minister Mr Gujral partially felt that they need to be legalistically correct: we were in a foreign country, the president of that country says "go away", and you come back.
The second thing is, there was a political motivation to prove Rajiv Gandhi was not right. But have the last 10 years shown the Sri Lankans got a better deal? Have the Tamils got anything better compared to what was provided for in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement? And most of it was implemented under the amendment of the 13th Sri Lankan government.
In fact, our troop-withdrawal resulted in erosion of the things which were beneficial to the Tamils. Sri Lanka sunk back into 10 years of violence. It sees no end even today. My view may be considered partisan because I was involved in the process as the high commissioner. Remarkable proof of it is: Renil Wickramasinghe, the present leader of the Opposition, has gone twice on record, once sometime in 1995 or 1996, and he told this to [then Indian prime minister P V] Narasimha Rao that he would like the Indian troops to come back.
The second thing, more than one Sri Lankan, Sinhalese and Tamil politician have acknowledged that the proposals in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement were the best compromise possible. They have become irrelevant because so much of violence occurred. New political terms have emerged.
On what basis do you say that had the IPKF stayed for a little more time it would have completed its mission?
Jaffna was pacified that it was under a civilian government. Trincomalee was pacified. Baticaloa and Ampare were pacified. LTTE cadres were pushed out of north-central Sri Lanka. They were all concentrated in a small place north of Vevunia jungles. Had we continued our military containment operation we could have persuaded them to surrender and give up violence.
More important than the withdrawal is the induction. Was it the right decision to send in the IPKF?
We didn't want to send troops, who said that? Sending the troops was not part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. Please understand. There was no thinking on the part of India to send armed forces into Sri Lanka during the negotiations and till the morning of the signing of the agreement on July 27. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Janatha Vimukti Peramuna organised wide-scale riots all over Colombo, it spread to the whole of Sinhalese areas in Sri Lanka in the morning a day before. On the morning the agreement was signed it became so violent that they went and burnt down the president's house somewhere south of Colombo.
President Jayewardane wanted to withdraw his troops from Jaffna to control the riots in the South. And it was he who said, "I want some Indian troops to come in to ensure security in Jaffna and Trincomalee because I am withdrawing my Sinhalese troops to maintain law and order here."
And Mr Rajiv Gandhi -- I was present -- said, Are you sure you want our troops? Because India can be criticised, Sri Lanka can be criticised. He said, I am going to give you a formal written invitation. Mr Gandhi said, Let us first sign the agreement, and then in your letter, if you think it is necessary, you say to ensure the efficient implementation of the agreement you want the troops. So it was a separate matter.
Did Gandhi's agreement to send in the troops surprise you?
No. It didn't. He was reluctant. Why should it surprise you? We had anticipated this possibility, so we had no qualms. 20, 30 days before, all sorts of contingencies were speculated upon by the army chief, intelligence, ministry of external affairs. There was no surprise.
This was one of the contingencies that you foresaw?
Did you expect them to fight?
No. How can you expect? But we had speculated on the possibility. I have said that in my book.
In your book you also admit to the fact that India sent in troops with inadequate briefing.
Yes, the army did not brief its own people why they were going in. But that is the armed force's responsibility. I had specifically asked [then army chief Krishnaswamy) Sunderji in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi, suppose you face a situation where you have to fight the LTTE, what will you do? He said, no, it will take a fortnight to take care of them. And the chief of intelligence said, These are our boys, once they have agreed they will not betray. Anand Verma said this to Rajiv Gandhi.
You think that was bad judgment?
Why blame one or the other? All of us who were involved are to be blamed. There was a certain... why certain, there was a very basic lack of judgment about what Prabhakaran's intentions were. There is a whole chapter in my book on how we failed. Read it. The whole chapter, totally uninhibited acknowledgement of where all we went wrong.
Did we underestimate the capabilities of the LTTE?
Yes. Perhaps we did. We did.
Intelligence agencies, did they come up with inputs?
Intelligence agencies did not analyse it from that point of view at all. They said these are boys who were trained by us from 1977 or whatever.
All of them. Why the LTTE? All the 50 different groups. LTTE , EPRLF [Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front], all sorts. They did not look at it from that angle at all. They said these are our boys, we know them very well, they owe so much to us, so once they say yes, they will not fight us, they won't. That was their judgment.
More than a former foreign secretary you are an analyst of diplomacy and international affairs today. Was India's decision to train them wrong?
See, you do not indulge in value judgement, in retrospect, in hindsight. It is unrealistic. When you take a decision, you are in the middle of a situation. Nobody sitting in a chair 10 years later, five years later, is competent to judge whether it was necessary or not. Whether it was necessary or not was decided upon by the then government, then prime minister, on the basis of information and analysis that were available.
The army went in in 87. Between 77 and 85, [Indian prime minister] Mrs Gandhi would have been given information about all sorts of security equations, intelligence equations, that Jayewardane was developing with Pakistan, with Israel, with the Americans. Mind you, the Cold War had not ended. Plus, the compulsion of Mrs Gandhi was not only external, you have 60 million Tamils in your country. It is one of the most important states in our republic, and which has a history of secessionism. In 67 they threatened to separate on the question of language.
So she had take care of the sentiments of 60 million people who send out messages to her. In fact they went to the extent of saying that, Achcha, when the Bengalis were in trouble you gave support. When the Tamils are in trouble, because we are from the South, you are not giving us support. It is all easy to sit on moral judgment and say, No, no, we should not have done it, we should not have interfered, non-alignment, Mahatma Gandhi's country etc. The political pressures of that particular point of time must have made the then government consider it necessary. It is a different matter that it did not come through as we desired.
It did not come through as we desired because we did not have the grit to follow through a policy decision which we took. You have to look at it in two contexts: Either you are a totally committed moral country. In that case, you should have said that it is a problem of another country, it is an internal problem, do sort it out [yourself]. And to the extent possible, we will receive the refugees. Then you are safe and nice.
Or, because of consideration of our politics, and our internal political pressures, external consequences, we have taken an initiative that is strictly not moral. In that case, we should finish the task that has been undertaken. If you leave it half way, then you have the perceived lack of judgment, lack of performance. This is what has happened. You think we did not take the position regarding Bangladesh, there also we interfered many times. What happened in the Maldives, where we finished the operation in two-and-a-half days and came back?
If you look at the newspapers of the first two-and-a-half months, from July to October, the Indian papers were full of praise. Even the Americans came and told the Government of India that you assume responsibilities which are yours, we are glad. The moment you do not do it fully, everybody will say that you are no good.
Did the V P Singh government consult you while withdrawing troops?
They didn't consult any one of us. They had a two-point programme. We must be given a certificate for being a very good non-aligned, great non-interfering country. And second, we must do things exactly opposite to what Rajiv Gandhi did.
Did you feel bad that an expert hand on Lanka like you was ignored?
Why should I feel bad? I am a professional. Why should I feel bad? I was not even dealing with Sri Lanka then. I was the high commissioner in Pakistan. You do a job to the best of your ability in a particular assignment and when you move away from it somebody will continue. In my profession, there is no place for emotions. The only thing emotional about my profession is hopefully a very deep commitment to India. That is the only thing. In my judgment, the IPKF going in was in India's interest.
But once the IPKF entered we suffered humiliating casualties.
That was the foolishness of [IPKF's first commander, Major General] Harkirat Singh. You don't do a helicopter attack in full moonlight after giving advance notice to the enemy.
Was the army aware that the LTTE could intercept its messages?
Of course they were. [But] He [Major General Harkirat Singh] was a most inept general. The first general there was the most inept fellow.
Do you think the death of over 600 soldiers in a most gruesome manner during the initial fighting for Jaffna could have been avoided?
Much of it could have been avoided.
Did Major General Harkirat Singh come down to you for any briefings, discussions?
Once in August, and once perhaps in September with General Sunderji. No, not Sunderji, Mr K C Pant. He never came otherwise. In fact, he was so wooden that when those fellows where arrested and brought to the Palami airbase, I told them to take them into protective custody and not let the Sri Lankan authorities get to the LTTE cadre.
The fellow said, No, no you are not in my chain of command. Please don't tell me. You first send it to the ministry of external affairs, they should send it to the ministry of defence, they should send it to army headquarters, they should send it to Southern Command. Then Southern Command should tell Madras. Then they should tell me, then only I will act. I said, By then the game will be over. I am telling you I am fully responsible. No, I will not do it, he said. The result was that the 17 fellows were killed.
That added to the LTTE anger?
That is the origin of where we had to fight the LTTE. The LTTE got an excuse. [Thanks to] this man's foolishness.
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