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


Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah!

So tell us more about your encounter with the LTTE.

General Harkirat Singh Then I came back from there, from Mahathiah. He gave me a cold drink, I came back. I went straight to [Lieutenant General] Depinder Singh. He had landed. You know his habit. He would take off from Madras, land at 11.30, 12 in the afternoon, take off again by one, and go back to Madras. This was his daily routine. He never came and stayed with me, or saw anything. He used to land in Jaffna and move to Madras. His headquarters had moved to Madras.

All these people used to fly in from Madras to Jaffna and go back. If I was available, they met me. I was never available. I was working from Jaffna town to Ambarai, and I was working from Malaithevu in the east to Manar in the west. I had to hop by helicopter; our troops were all over, all over. So one would start the day early. So whatever it was, it was a sad story.

Then I spoke to Depinder. I said, Prabhakaran must come back if you want me to talk about surrender of weapons. That was the main issue. He picked up the Sri Lankan phone, spoke to Delhi. Then he went back to Madras and pursued the matter. He did a good job.

The next day Prabhakaran's aircraft landed in Jaffna with Prabhakaran and his bodyguards, his wife and children, Kitu, whose leg was blown up, who was his right hand then. The air force pilot wanted a receipt from me saying that I received these souls safely. Then I was told that you will ensure that he reaches safely to Jaffna town and handed over to his people. I said, Fine. We ensured that. We put him and the others in various APCs [armoured personnel carriers] so that if one is blown off, the other is alive. We took them through the Sri Lankan lines to Jaffna.

I told my staff, take a receipt from Mahathiah that he has received Prabhakaran. These are normal formalities. After all, Prabhakaran is not a small man. He is the leader, a charismatic leader of the LTTE. His life is very precious. And a very simple man. No bullshit about him. His wife lived with three saris -- one she wore, one she washed and one was ready to wear. That is all. They never drank Coca-Cola. They offered us Coca-Cola, but never drank it themselves. They drank that goliwala soda.

So that was your first encounter with him?

After all that I said, Prabhakaran, we must meet. He said, General, tomorrow, 11 o'clock. And we landed in the football ground of the Medical College, Jaffna. The entire area was manned by LTTE guns. I got down from the helicopter and looked around. I walked till I met Prabhakaran. He was standing outside a conference hall. He took me to his office. We spoke for five hours. I had to convince him that he should surrender weapons.

And he was convinced?

He gave it in writing. I can show you. The only letter he gave in writing. I flew to Colombo showed it to [then Indian high commissioner to Colombo J N] Dixit. His words: "General what you have achieved the nation will appreciate. And I speak on the behalf of the prime minister of India." These were his words to me at that point of time.

Right. The letter was flashed all over. Surrender ceremony was fixed for 5th of August. Surrender started. Prabhakaran said, I won't come, my political officer will come. Quite right. Atal Bihari tho nahi na jatha hain, minister hein jatha hain [the Indian prime minister doesn't go for surrenders, it is his minister who goes]. So, wo tho nahin aaya [Prabhakaran didn't come]. All the big shots of Sri Lanka were there. Aircraft was there, propellers on.

Athikule [then Sri Lankan defence secretary] said, My orders are that I have to take the first weapon to Colombo and give it to Jayewardane. The surrender took place. A token surrender. Yogi [Prabhakaran's representative] took his pistol and gave it. Then vehicle after vehicle the LTTE came, piled up the whole area with ammunition, guns. Bahut accha tha. Later on, all ran into trouble.


Because they did not stop arming the EPRLF [Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front]. RAW was doing it, ministry of foreign affairs knew about it, Dixit knew about it, but they couldn't stop it. With the result that handing over arms by 21st of August came to a virtual standstill. And the whole thing took an ugly turn. They started anti-IPKF demonstrations. Who is to answer? The general officer.

My God, thousands of young girls and children used to come in front in whites and later on what used to happen? When they used to come we used to be careful, they used to go to the ground and behind would be Tigers, with guns. That is how they used to take out our people. You couldn't kill them because there were children in the front, women in the front. We were always fighting with our hands tied behind our backs.

Did you tell the army headquarters that the EPRLF was being armed?

Of course.

What was the reaction?

Nothing. No reaction. [Indian army chief] General [K] Sunderji never said anything. In the army headquarters there was a core group headed by defence minister, three chiefs and a few senior officers. They used to take decisions, decisions are given to me by the staff officer. Decisions, if I question, the answer will come, These are orders from higher echelons. Higher echelons, that is the famous answer we got. Higher echelons.

What happened after the surrender came to a standstill?

There was a lot of problems. Ethnic riots broke out. They killed a lot of Sri Lankans, tortured them. Between Tamils, Sinhalese, Tamil Muslims. We did the spadework to stop it. But then the Thilappan fast happened. We tried out best. I went and tried to meet him. LTTE chaps told me, General, the people's emotions are so high that if you appear on the scene they might create a problem. They asked me to stay there. I wanted to go and tell him, Give up. How will he give up?

Unless the assurances given by the prime minister of India are fulfilled I am not giving up, he said. I kept requesting the high commissioner, Come and meet, come and meet, come and meet. He dragged his feet, he delayed it, he didn't come. Finally he came when the man was dead. We should have saved his life, one life.

Then the boat tragedy, I was in a meeting with Mahathiah and Prabhakaran. You know, when we go for a meeting, they used to have two video cameras focused on us, tape recorders, everything. With great difficulty we had a thing like this [he points at this correspondent's recorder]. The poor brigade commander used to keep that recording, then give it to his PA, and then send it to the army headquarters. Whether anybody took action on what our reports were, I don't know.

Even after the riots you were in touch with Prabhakaran?

Prabhakaran Oh yes. I never gave up with Prabhakaran. He is a leader of the LTTE. I had all the time to meet him because I knew he was the only man who could solve the problem. Nobody else. Otherwise, you take up arms, and we took arms and look what happened.

And what exactly happened during the boat tragedy in which the LTTE cadres committed mass suicide?

Yes, I was having a meeting with him, I came down from the boat. Mahathiah had come down a little later. Kumaran, the Trincomalee leader, and Pulinderan, the Jaffna leader, they were in the boat. Mahathiah said, General, I want to talk to you. I had a major who could translate. Prabhakaran spoke to me in English many a time. He appeared well-read. He [Mahathiah] said, At all cost these people [who were surrounded by Lankan troops] must be released. IPKF is here to protect the LTTE, and they should not go to Colombo. Otherwise, they will be tortured.

They were 17, four we were able to save. So instead of going to Colombo, we flew them from the naval base to the Jaffna airbase. Now, the tamasha started. There were LTTE, around them were the Indian troops, around us were the Sri Lankan troops, around them were the Indian troops, around them the APCs of Sri Lanka. Now tell me, if you try to fight, there would have been a conflict between the Sri Lankan and Indian troops. Of course, the orders were very clear to the [Sri Lankan] brigade commander, otherwise get into the helicopter and reach Colombo, relinquish the command. Wo tho haath jhod tha tha, ke mein mara ja raha hum kaam kaam kar ke.

Anyway I was told, you go to Trincomalee and prevent reinforcement of Trincomalee by Sri Lankans. Deny the airport to them. I reached Trincomalee, and we took over the control tower, commandos were deployed, no troop movement was allowed. It created lot of ill-feeling with the Sri Lankan troops.

In the meantime, I had said that it was high time that Dixit, who was on leave in Delhi, go to Colombo, and mediate their release in the boat. Depinder Singh also flew, I generally had my hat off to him but he was not a strong man. I needed a commander like Maneckshaw or Rolli who could stand up to the government at the cost of their own service.

So how did the boat tragedy end?

I was guarding the airfield. And all of them came, Depinder, Dixit and some other staff officers. They landed there, they could not convince Jayewardane, and he was too clever for them. Too clever. I cannot have that much say in my country? he asked them. You are given amnesty to them, fulfill it, but these politicians, they couldn't. Depinder next day flew into Trincomalee and told me, Hand over, let them go and do whatever they want. Let us go and have a cup of tea with them, with the three chiefs. They were staring at me: This man created all the problems.

Anyway, we had a cup of tea. At 2 o'clock I get a message, why is the G-o-C IPKF interfering in the 'constitutional activities of Sri Lanka? These were the exact words. This message came all the way from the force headquarters in Madras. And, 'Please lift your siege in Jaffna, let the Sri Lankans do what they want to.'

I was upset. I was in Trincomalee; they were in Jaffna, my staff officers, everybody was taking charge of everything. I spoke to my Colonel G S Hoshiar Singh. He said, Saab ea hukhum aya hein. I said, Chod do, aap tho ye mili gaya tho. Chod gaya tho mare jayenge saren. He said, Anyway we have got ambulances, cars, 13, 14 of them, the hospital is all geared up to flush poison.

Our troops withdrew, the Sri Lankan troops charged, and these fellows swallowed cyanide. Those who chewed, they died on the spot, those who swallowed were saved. This created chaos in the Indo-Sri Lankan entity. That the Indian army, IPKF, could not save them. Now this man blames me. This Dixit. The general left them off. Bhai, mene kya bola?

What was Dixit's approach to your attempts to buy peace with LTTE?

Once he said, Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah. I said, Sorry I don't do that. Those were his orders. When they came to me at 12 o'clock at night for some work, he said shoot them. General, I have told you what I have ordered. I said, I don't take your orders. And we are meeting under a white flag, you don't shoot people under white flag.

So who messed up during the boat tragedy?

The responsibility is entirely on the diplomats, entirely on the army headquarters. Otherwise, for me to save those people was no problem. I would have just put them into few APCs and smuggled them out. Sri Lankans tho dekthe raha jathe [The Sri Lankans would have just looked on]. We would have taken them out, we had all the troops there. No problem.

What did you feel when the orders came to leave the LTTE men to their fate?

I felt terribly bad about it. Because Kumaran's wedding was attended by one of my brigadiers. Pulinderan was also there. A dreadful man. Wanted for 34 murders by Ranatunga. Every day he used to tell me, General, mujhePulinderan de do. [give me Pulinderan] " I used to tell him, Pulinderan nahi detha, Pulinderan mere saath mere Jeep mein jhatha hain [I won't give you Pulinderan, he will travel with me in my Jeep]. And they [the LTTE] were very cordial. They would take me anywhere. I had lot of time for them.

Specifically, did Dixit fail?

Dixit had the backing of the prime minister of India. He had a free hand in the affairs of Sri Lanka. He could have thumbed the table and told Jayewardane, sorry you have to do it. And if you don't do it, you know what the results will be. There will be riots, ethnic killings. Dixit could have done it. There was no question about Jayewardane not listening to him. Dixit may be a high commissioner, but he was a high commissioner of great standing. When you have the backing of the boss, you will be on the top of the world. You can make any statement to these people.

Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead

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