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

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


The humiliation wasn't in Lanka. It was when the IPKF returned General Kalkat

So you came to a highly volatile disagreement with the Lankan government. You had other confrontations too?

Well, there were differences, but they were not aired in public. The aim was not to further murky the waters whereas our relationship, country-to-country, was concerned. We had gone there to cement it, not to destroy it. Differences were there all along. Strong ones. But they were not aired in public. I took it up with the government there, I made my stand clear to them. But thereafter there is nothing you can do.

If the intent of a government is not to go along with the agreement, you can't force another country to do it.

Did someone in Delhi suggest that you force it on Lanka?

No. Use of military force against the government was never envisaged and would have been totally wrong.

Not even during meetings in Delhi?

These issues were not discussed. They should not be certainly discussed at public levels. The fact of the matter is that the Sri Lankan government was welting their commitment. The only time when there was an open confrontation between me and the government was when President Premadasa ordered the IPKF confined to its lines. He gave this order sometime in December 1989. Then he announced in a press statement that the IPKF has been ordered to stay in its lines, if they do not comply they would be ordered an army of occupation. And that we will then take action whatever it is.

It was told to me. That was a time when my forces were spread out all over north and east of Sri Lanka. This was not a legitimate order as far as I was concerned. I had to respond to it. It came at a crucial time, I think the election had just been held in India. So one could not expect the Delhi government to respond to the Sri Lankan government. It had to be played at my level, because I was the commander of the forces there under the Accord. And technically speaking I was accountable not just to one person but to the Accord where there were two signatories, the prime minister of India and prime minister of Sri Lanka.

So I was told this. In fact, a letter was prepared, signed by Premadasa, very legalistic, all "herein after" and "therein after", "whomsoever" etc, saying if you do not do this you will be declared ABCD. I was called up from Colombo, asked that a special messenger, a brigadier, was coming carrying the letter from the president of Sri Lanka, could you accept it? I said, Of course I would accept it. Will you be there? I was flying out, there was some operations on. I said if it is coming, I would make sure I was there to receive them.

I, of course, had got to know the contents of the letter from various sources. Plus, the BBC had also got to know of what had happened, this ultimatum being given to me. They wanted to how I would respond to it. I did not want things to come to a head-on. On the other hand I was not going to risk the lives of my soldiers. Thirdly, this was a very unilateral action by one party to the Accord. It was against the Accord.

So when the ultimatum was conveyed to me, I conveyed back that as per the Accord, the North-Eastern province is under the IPKF. I am responsible here for the safety of the entire region and if there was militant activity by anyone, any force I would respond. And that if my forces are attacked by anyone I would respond. That is as far as you can go, but it conveyed the meaning of what it meant.

What was their response?

They backed out. I was told that the order will be given to the Sri Lankan forces to throw us out. See, that is part of it. Then I explained that any such action takes place, it could have 'unpredictable consequences.' For which the responsibility would lie entirely with Sri Lanka. To make sure, I conveyed to the press the same.

What was your assessment as the commander about the completion of the task?

My assessment was simple. In case the Sri Lankan government does not give devolution, then nothing better will have happened. If they give devolution, then my staying on would have some meaning. Then one could assist the provincial government in being more effective. To make the Sri Lankan government to give devolution would have needed pressure from the Government of India.

And that was not happening?

It was the other way [round]. That we had to get out. The [Indian] election had taken place, the decision was there, and Premadasa was reading the manifesto better than me, because he was watching what was happening in India. The Sri Lankan government and their policy were very much influenced by the changes in the Indian politics at that time. Therefore they were very observant of nuances of any position taken by any party [in India]. V P Singh had already said he was against it. So once V P Singh was elected, Premadasa knew the IPKF's days were numbered. All that he had to do was make sure that he could delay the devolution till the IPKF was gone.

So the IPKF did not come back to India as a victorious force.

Yes. There was some feeling in my soldiers. The humiliation was not in Sri Lanka, because there was no humiliation. The humiliation came when we came back to India. The question people asked was, Why did we go there, what were you doing there? When you send soldiers to such an area, you don't ask them these questions, you don't ask them what were you doing there. Those are things that you should have sorted out earlier.

Questions came from within the army?

No, never. But when the public started saying this, and the soldier starts hearing it, he gets hurt. And the main thing was the so-called boycott of IPKF soldiers when they arrived at Madras port. I think that was a needless act. It was no good. I think the DMK was [then in power in Tamil Nadu] the one, they boycotted it. The government in India did the right thing, they said if they will not participate in the welcome, fine, we will send our people from here.

So the defence minister that time, Raja Ramanna, came from Delhi and others came from Delhi. Governor of the state Dr [P C] Alexander was there. But that leaves a bad taste. It could have been avoided because it was not conveying anything to me.

How did your appointment come through as the IPKF commander?

I was in Delhi only on leave. I had been earlier to UK doing a fellowship at the IISS [International Institute of Strategic Studies]. It was a one-year fellowship, it was 11 months when I was asked to cut it short, the army wanted me in Southern Command. This was in the month of September-October 1987. I would have finished in November. I initially came, that time [Major] General Harkirat Singh was the divisional commander in Jaffna.

My first encounter was that we had a setback in Jaffna, when the Sikh Light Infantry carried out a helicopter attack [on Jaffna university] and it was foiled. Our troops could not get there, they were held up all over Jaffna, 3 or 5 km outside. All the troops came under fire, they couldn't move. The whole division was pinned down. That time they asked me to go into Jaffna to direct operations for a short while. So I flew in, I was there for 10 days. In fact, when I flew in I did not even have spare clothing, I had only the normal uniform you wear. The aircraft was flown into Madras, an Indian Airlines plane was charted there.

It was your first journey to Sri Lanka?

I had visited it once before. Two months before, to see what was happening. That time fighting wasn't there, just there to see what was happening. I was in Southern Command. A one-day trip. I had never been to Sri Lanka before, and in one-day you cannot see much.

I went in there. We had to make a plan. General Sunderji flew in there the next day with the GoC-in-C, Southern Command. I told them what was to be done. It was imperative that Jaffna be captured. I mean, I discovered that it was a national imperative because our prime minister was going to Vancouver and then from there to Washington to meet the US president. The fact that the fourth largest army in the world couldn't get to a town like this would have been talked about.

So there were too many imperatives. Jaffna had to be captured, particularly as the US Congress had passed a resolution welcoming the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. I had made a plan and changed the earlier plan, modified the earlier plan, and we tried out double envelopment. Instead of taking Jaffna frontally, that is north to south, I planned to make a feint, give the LTTE and other occupied forces a surprise. Move two groups, one from the right and one from the left. Do an encircle from behind and get into Jaffna from the rear.

We did that. We surprised them because we outflanked them from both sides and landed at their base in Jaffna on the southern side. That was very close to the Jaffna fort. Inside the fort was the Sri Lankan army. They were not able to move. From there I moved in more troops and from the rear we attacked.

In the first attack on Jaffna there were too many casualties. Who is to be blamed?

I as a professional soldier do not comment on another general. If I were removed from the scene, I could comment on some other operation elsewhere, but this one becomes one's subject, so I would not comment. I am prepared to say what one did, but would not like to pass judgement on what someone did when I was not there.

But it was avoidable?

Well, it was the man's decision that time. Depends on what inputs he had. What perception he had. And based on that he took a decision. Honestly, that decision must have been discussed with the superiors. Superiors are always watching. So I don't know what all inputs went into his decision... of course, he was the final authority.

Didn't Delhi push more troops into the furnace?

Out of the 1,200 killed, in the next two years when I was in command only six hundred were killed. Six hundred or so died in the first few months.

What failed in Jaffna?

The operation was planned to capture Jaffna. And it didn't work. Basically I felt attacking it frontally perhaps is wrong. But then it also has to be based on what were the perceptions and inputs available: Will the LTTE fight, how capable they were. In fact, it was the first time that head-on attack took place. The perception and intelligence build-up was that they would not fight the IPKF. And we felt it [frontal attack] was the right thing to do. If there were any possibility of attack, it would not have been done.

All along your intelligence agencies told you that the LTTE would not fight you?

I don't know. I wasn't there. When I was there, I firmly believe battlefield intelligence had to be collected by my soldiers. The intelligence of RAW and other agencies is good at political or strategic level.

But when the soldiers went in, they had no idea at all about the LTTE and others?

Absolutely. There is no doubt the force went in unprepared. Not only that, the equipment that the army had then, compared to even some of the other Asian countries, was prehistoric. Infantry soldiers particularly: the kind of radio sets, rifle, machine gun. I mean they were out of date.

Even there were no maps. What they had was printed a 100 years ago. Reprints were done. It was at a scale when you fly over you can see an area, but you cannot make out any roads or any marks. It was almost six months after I had taken over that we could get some maps. Almost nine months after the IPKF landed there. Unfortunate.

And then, you are operating in an area where you don't know the language. Tamil is the language that is spoken there. In our army, except for the Madras regiment, no other regiment speaks Tamil. You had gone there to help people, and if you cannot speak their language how are you going to help them? You can't help them with sign language. How do you except them to come and co-operate with you? These need preparation.

One thing is certain, it was a totally unprepared and ill-equipped force that landed there. If the role was only to show your overbearing presence, and make sure that they amicably handed over their weapons, it was fine. But if the role involved peace enforcement, then it was totally unprepared and ill-equipped.

Why did General Sunderji agree with the political establishment to rush in troops?

One does not know what were the inputs General Sunderji got. By the time I was there, we were at firing range with each other. It was open hostility. It was in the previous six months all this happened. Someone will have to write who played a role in Delhi, and I am not the person. To begin with I was across the seas, and after we captured Jaffna I came back.

After the Jaffna take-over you came back. Why did you go back permanently?

I was on leave in Delhi. On 31st of December, New Year's eve, I got a message, Please be at the operations room on January 1. There they told me that a decision has been taken to put me in charge as the chief of IPKF. Technically, I came in command in the first week of January in 1998.

There are reports that India's diplomatic mission in Lanka and the IPKF differed on most issues. Was that true?

I know there were disagreements taking place when I went in. But I feel when we are abroad for this kind of role neither of us can have private agendas. It has to be one agenda, that is the national agenda. I was clear on that, I spoke to the high commissioner. We never had a problem for the two years. Our interaction was regular.

Ultimately the soldier was humiliated

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