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


Till the LTTE get Eelam, they won't stop

30pic1.jpg One early morning in 1987, Indian army's 54 Division landed in Sri Lanka from Secunderabad. At its head was Major General Harkirat Singh, the Indian Peace Keeping Force's first commander.

General Singh first tried to buy peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. When that failed, he plunged his men into a blood war. And India suffered horrifying casualties.

After the infamous killing of Indian soldiers on the Jaffna University football ground under his command, New Delhi inducted Lieutenant General A S Kalkat. Thus, it slowly began relieving General Singh of his charge. Within a year, he returned to India.

General Singh has been subject to much criticism. But, except for an interview immediately after his retirement, he has kept his counsel.

A decade after those terrible days, he completed his memoirs on Lanka, wherein he blames key individuals involved in the IPKF operation for the unprecedented loss of life, and questions several long-held beliefs.

In a candid interview to Josy Joseph, he accuses several people -- including then Indian army chief General K Sunderji and high commissioner to Colombo J N Dixit -- and admits that "chaos" reigned in the jungles of Sri Lanka where the Indian troops faced humiliation.

How did the IPKF, sent to enforce peace, get involved in a bloody fight with the LTTE? Do you personally believe that it could have been prevented?

One afternoon I was in my operations room when then vice chief of army staff (S F) Rodrigues came. Later he became [army] chief. He talked of hard options. I advised him against it. I told him, If you adopt hard options you would be fighting for the next 10 to 20 years. And this will lead to insurgency and there is no stopping it. You are fighting in Nagaland, Mizoram, all over. This will be another. And sure enough, it has not ended to date. And it won't end.


I have all regards for Sri Lanka. The Tamils have sacrificed [a lot], the LTTE is highly motivated and there is one aim: Eelam. Independence. Till they get independence they are not going to stop. You see stray incidents everyday, they even attempted to kill the present president.

When did General Rodrigues speak to you about hard options?

A week before the war started. It started on the 10th of October 1987. He came about a fortnight before; he had just taken over as the vice-chief from J K Puri. So he came and spoke to me.

So you actually opposed what you went out to do?

Actually [yes]. And, you know, [General Rodrigues said], No, no, no...don't get cold feet. We will take care of them. I said, They have fought their entire lives in the jungles. I have flown over the jungles with Mahathiah, the number two man to Prabhakaran, in my helicopter. We flew over the jungles of Vavoonia and he explained to me how they fought against the Sri Lankans all these years. So they knew each inch of the land. We would push them out of Jaffna, they would get into the jungles. Then you would be fighting them for the next 10 years.

You had no intelligence inputs?

All these people who were in Delhi, I am afraid, they visited Sri Lanka because it was a foreign country. They went back without any hard intelligence. They had no intelligence to give me about terrain, about enemy. I had to buy tourist maps in Hyderabad before I went into operations. And I had to borrow a Sri Lankan photocopying machine to make copies for my staff.

Only one officer, now he is a general, Memon, he got hold of some maps, because he was my staff officer. He was my brigade major once upon a time. He said, Sir, we have only these maps. You please take them, you will need them. He was very nice, he gave me a dozen maps. For army a dozen maps is nothing. Every platoon commander has to have a map, a section commander has to have a map.

So you went in with a tourist map?

We went in with a tourist map. We didn't know the geography of this country at all, except that it was an island country. That is it. What it was inside, my God, you couldn't see A to B, it was such thick foliage.

It was total lack of intelligence. You are sending a formation into battle, it has to be properly briefed. What happened in Kargil? Lack of intelligence, lack of strategic intelligence, lack of technical intelligence. They were building up and all behind the lines we didn't know about it. Obviously our missions were sleeping.

When did you reach Delhi for the briefing? If they had no intelligence what were they discussing?

They were discussing various options. Various options of going into Sri Lanka. Now you will say what were these options? Firstly there was no aim to this entire battle. It was a wavering aim. When you have to spell out so many options, where is the set aim for you? There is no aim. It is against the basic principle of war.

What were the options given to you?

It was wavering. Like this: if there is a coup in Colombo, how will we reinstate [then Sri Lankan president] Jayewardane? Somebody came out with some kind of plan. All right. If we have to favour the LTTE, then how will we land in Sri Lanka? If we are to favour Sri Lankans, how will we land in Sri Lanka?

After all, you just cannot land, you are going overseas, you are going by sea, going by air. So various options had to be discussed. This kind of scenario we were working on. War was never thought of. Nobody told us that behind-the-scenes there was an Accord being worked out.

You were not told that the Indo-Lankan Accord was being worked on?

Of course not. What happened was, I was going back to Secunderabad. As I arrived at the airport, all my staff were lined up there. I said, Why are you all here, only my ADC is supposed to be here. They said, Sir, first flight is to take off at 1o'clock tonight. I said, For where? For Sri Lanka.

I said, It is 10 o'clock when I arrived and we are on a six-eight hour notice? Then my staff informed that me, Sir, the Accord has been signed in Sri Lanka, the prime minister is there, he rang up the army commander Depinder Singh to move a division to Sri Lanka.

I said, Get into the ops room. We talked about it. And the brigade commanders took off. And I get a message at 2 clock from signal-in-chief, not to leave, till I get a notice from the chief. The message came, lightning. Un dino hamare pas fax machine nahin the so telex spelled out the Accord.

Which day was it?

27th night [of June]. The Accord was signed, that thing came, so I read the Accord, it made no sense for operations. It meant I leave for Sri Lanka, go and establish peace. And we left. My flight took off at 5 o'clock. Every minute there used to be an aircraft taking off.

Your brigade commanders agreed to it?

They had no option, had to agree. Mentally we were prepared because we had been talking about the operation for sometime. Say, we may be talking about it for a month, but there was no intelligence given to us. I should have got a proper intelligence summary, this is the terrain, this is the enemy strength. I should have been given a proper operational instruction.

When you are going into the blue in army terminology, a proper operational instruction must be given. A proper overseas command must be formed. Nothing was done. The air force was commanding its own troops, army its own troops, navy its own troops. Who is there to co-ordinate? Nobody. Everybody went independently, there was no joint command. It was a tri-service operation, air force, navy and army involved, but there was no joint command. There should have been a single command to take this full force across.

Each one on his own?

Everybody did his own and we landed there. And we landed there like a refugee camp I saw in Assam, Chabua, when we were fighting the Chinese. Everybody was just being inducted, nobody knew anything. Anyway, I met the Sri Lankan brigade commander, went to his operations room and he told me what it was all about.

I said, Have you seen the Tigers, LTTE? He said, Never. I sit inside my bunker and at last light I have APCs outside my bunker. Why should I go and see the LTTE? I said, You have been there for a long time. Alright, let us do one thing, you take me to the LTTE, I want to establish contact with them.

We established contact. Kumaran, who got killed in the boat tragedy, he was the Jaffna commander, very nice chap, he came in a car and took me and one of my brigade commanders, who got killed in Srinagar, Fernandes, he got blown off by a mine aimed at the ammunition depot. We both went with Kumaran, Mahathiah was standing outside a bungalow. He said, General, I am not prepared to talk to you. I said, Why? I have come here with a message of peace, goodwill. He said, Unless you bring back Prabhakaran, we will not talk to you. I said, Where is Prabhakaran?

I didn't even know that. They kept the army absolutely in the dark. Prabhakaran was in the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. Now I know the room number also, 512 or 522. And he was to see the prime minister, before the prime minister went in for the Accord. Anyway he saw him, the PM gave him certain assurances, and before he could say 'Jack Robinson', the prime minister was in Colombo, signing the Accord.

Prabhakaran learnt it on television that the Accord had been signed and they were not party to it. It was one reason why the LTTE never accepted the Accord and India's stand.

If we had taken the LTTE into confidence, they would have known the whole thing, their terms would have been put across to Jayewardane, and the situation would have been different. Dixit was in a great hurry to get the Accord signed, with his name up. He became foreign secretary; he got the award later. But he never studied the mood of the people, especially the JVP. And since he didn't study the mood of the people, there was an attempt to assassinate the prime minister.

We would have lost our prime minister. After signing the Accord, they themselves would have killed him. We didn't know of it. Why did they not tell us? We only saw it on television, newspapers never came.

Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah!

General Harkirat Singh continues.

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