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.
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.
Sri Lanka continues as a united country because of Rajiv Gandhi
The general's "foolishness" cost us most of the lives?
Did you write to the government about the lack of planning?
I don't know. I don't remember. I must have send telegrams and reports.
Did you feel bad about the initial casualty?
Naturally. If your soldiers are killed, you feel bad. But I didn't know the background, why they were killed. General Sunderji and Harkirat Singh did not consult me when to attack and how to attack. These are operational matters. I was not involved.
There were differences between the Indian diplomatic mission in Lanka and IPKF, is that it?
On political matters there were no differences. Except Harkirat Singh in one case, in the beginning. Regarding that 17 people.
Your foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari reportedly did not possess a deep knowledge of the Tamil problem. He asked you to hand over a letter to a dead Tamil leader. In Thimpu, his rhetoric apparently forced LTTE to walk out of negotiations.
He called the Tamils fools. Apparently he said, What is all these foolishness? Then he said, Are we bloody fools?
He was not aware of the problems?
No. A shallow human being (laughs).
Did all that contribute to the ultimate failure?
No. I think the situation was retrieved after he went away. [A P] Venkateswaran and K P S [Menon] were good.
After the failure of the two rounds of talks in Bhutan, did the Indian foreign office tighten its approach towards Tamil leaders?
I don't think we tightened our stand against Tamils, until 1986 end.
But you refused a visa to some leaders.
Naturally, we refused a visa for arms to come in. Because we had changed our policy, Rajiv Gandhi had changed the policy of supporting violent militants. That is what was the hardening of attitude towards Tamils. If you are mediating, then I don't want you go create violence. Mrs Gandhi was not mediating. Please remember, there is a difference between Mrs Gandhi's approach and Rajiv Gandhi's approach. Mrs Gandhi was not mediating; she was generating pressure and was siding with the Tamils. Up to a point where she thought Jayewardane would compromise.
Rajiv Gandhi changed it and said, I want to be a honest mediator. Therefore, to gain credibility in view, I will stop giving support to militant activities. So if planeloads of arms and other things land for distribution to Tamil militants, we did not allow it. These are the people who are doing militant activity. But we have always been in close or continuous touch with all militant groups since at the Bangalore summit in 1986 Prabhakaran said, No, I am not agreeing to anything. He was brought to Bangalore and talked to Rajiv Gandhi.
The replacement of G Parthasarathy as the key negotiator, his replacement by Bhandari and others. Did it have any impact?
Naturally. Bhandari did not have the knowledge or emotional understanding of the problem. He was in a hurry to prove that he was a great peacemaker. Parthasarathy was a very mature person, with deep knowledge. A great figure. Young people don't like old people. So Rajiv Gandhi said, Who is this 78-year-old man?
You met Prabhakaran four or five times. What was your personal impression? How did you converse with him? In Tamil?
Little bit of Tamil. But mostly in English. I understand Tamil, but I can barely carry on a conversation in Tamil. My late wife was a Tamil lady. The impression I got was of a very, very determined young man, with a lot of fire and emotional and other commitment to the cause. The man was very conscious of his personal security. In hindsight, I can say the man was a very good political tactician.
Was he courteous?
Was he always serious? Or had a sense of humour?
No. Very serious with me. He was very upset with me. He said he will only come for the Jaffna negotiations after the agreement was signed only if the foreign secretary came, or somebody from Delhi should come. Then only he could make it. When I was told I should talk with him, I told the Government of India, I don't want to go. Why should I go? If he wants to talk to somebody in Delhi, let him. Let somebody from Delhi come.
But then the government said I should go. Then when the message went that he has to talk to me, he said I should first arrive in Jaffna. Then he will come from wherever he was hiding. I sent a clear message to him, Unless I get confirmation that you are in the military camp sitting with Harkirat Singh I am not coming. Fellow came and sat.
Among the Tamil leaders, was there a second figure other than Prabhakaran who could have influenced the course of history?
Not in that generation. There were others. Vardaraja Perumal, Padmanabha, several young people. But this chap [Prabhakaran] was way ahead of them in terms of commitment and capacity. And after we stopped supporting him, he had money coming in from other sources. He had diversified his training facility with the PLO, and also with the Mossad. Very funny. Mossad was simultaneously training the Sinhalese and the LTTE.
And, he had a lot of money from Tamil expatriates. They have a vested interest, because as long as the conflict continues, they can have the refugee status abroad, get a lot of money.
Among Lankan politicians who was the most impressive? How do you rate Chandrika Kumaratunga?
She was perhaps the most thoughtful and practical leader. Jayewardane agreed under compulsion. Gamini Dissanayake [who drafted the agreement along with Dixit], who was killed, was also somewhat like Chandrika. Others were all trying to be clever.
How do you look at the present situation?
I don't see any breakthrough. They will go on suffering violence till they get exhausted or till they get destroyed. Norway or no Norway (laughs), I don't know.
Should India think of interfering again?
(Waves his hands in disapproval).
As far as I am concerned, first of all it was not interference. We were trying to help. Except in the beginning stages, when Mrs Gandhi did interfere.
So India should not think of again burning its fingers?
Each human being is subject to his own experiences, consciousness, inadequacies. Having gone through that, I would never again want to interfere in anybody's matters. Not because such interference become necessary, but I don't think as a State we have either the necessary political will or the inner grit. If you don't have it, why get into all that?
Any particular instance, during those years, that you think should have been differently handled?
It is an irrelevant question. I never discuss what might have been, because we did what we did subject to the pressures and circumstances of that time. And I think negotiating that agreement and the content of that agreement was the best deal that the Tamils could get under a united and unbroken Sri Lanka. The other solution is to break away Jaffna. They won't get Trincomalee and Baticaloa because Muslim-speaking Tamils were no more sympathetic to the LTTE. They never felt close to any Tamil Hindu group. So all that they will get is Jaffna. What will they do with Jaffna? It is a small part of what they call the Tamil homeland.
How was your overall tenure in Lanka?
It was very interesting, but very tense. I cannot recollect how many political murders I witnessed.
Were you satisfied with your performance as the ambassador there?
I did everything in the context of what I consider was my country's interests. The rest is for history and others to decide. Whatever the government decided that time, in my judgement, was in the interest of the country and the interest of Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka continues today as a united country it is because of that accord and because of Rajiv Gandhi.
Rajiv Gandhi always listened to you?
Yes. Yes, he did.
People criticise him as an immature politician who mixed up things.
It was also said of Mrs Gandhi when she took over power. You see, all these judgements are judgments of hindsight. If he had succeeded nobody would have said he was immature and young (laughs).
Five or six years later, people are sitting around making value judgements. He did the best thing. He had charisma; he captured the imagination of the Indian people at least for 2, 3 years. In the past 50 years, he was the first prime minister who was young, who asked us to go forward instead of talking about the past. He took some wrong decisions, wrongly advised and he was assassinated.
His murder, how did it impact you?
I told you, in my professional life, I have no emotions. Of course, one felt sad that the prime minister whom one knew personally was murdered by the LTTE. His mother too had a violent death.
You expected such violent attacks from the LTTE?
From the beginning itself. The moment IPKF started cracking down on the LTTE, it was logical to assume that LTTE would target people.
Were you aware that intelligence agencies continued to train LTTE even after the IPKF landed in Lanka?
Yes. The IPKF fought LTTE cadres, who came to Madras and got treated at hospitals and went back to fight them. Also perhaps, the LTTE's base in Tamil Nadu continued to facilitate the flow of arms and money to them. They enjoyed financial and political patronage.
Of which parties?
All sorts of people. There was this Maran [not Murasoli Maran], V Gopalaswamy. Several of them including George Fernandes.
Isn't it then amazing that Fernandes is India's defence minister now?
That is the miracle of India (laughs).
You were aware that all these people were openly supporting LTTE even after the IPKF landed there?
So what did you feel about their involvement?
I can only say what I did. I do not know what the decision at the highest level of government was.
How active was Fernandes at that time?
He was not very active that time.
Did he visit Lanka during that period?
He was visiting LTTE leaders in Delhi?
I have no idea. He must have had contacts. Subramanian Swamy has contacts.
Are you planning to write anything more on your Sri Lankan experience?
No. Enough is enough.
The day the elected government was in place, the military role of the IPKF was over
From January 1988 till New Delhi withdrew its troops from Sri Lanka, Lieutenant General A S Kalkat was the man in charge of the Indian operations.
Ten years down the line, he is still evasive when you ask him who is to blame for rushing in soldiers to the island nation without proper briefing, inadequate logistics and misplaced intelligence inputs. And he feels the Indian Peace Keeping Force completed most of its task.
Lt Gen Kalkat, however, admits that it indeed was an ill-equipped and unprepared army that he was put in charge of. He answered Josy Joseph's queries:
General, do you think the withdrawal was well-timed? Had the IPKF completed it task?
The IPKF went there as part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed in 1987. Our role was to assist the democratic implementation of the Accord and prepare the ground for that. And the test of that was to create conditions such that an election could be held in the north and the east. In October-November of 1988, elections were held. Basically about a year after the Accord, the conditions were created for the elections.
The second part of the agreement was that the Sri Lankan government would fulfill its obligations under the Accord. Primarily, devolution of power. And certain safeguards. In lieu of that the Tamils and LTTE, which was the most militant party, would give up arms. That was part of the agreement itself. That after the conditions were created for democratic process to go through, elections will be held. Tamils would vote.
That was done, and elections were held. If you recall, it was the highest ever turnout in the Sri Lankan history. It was over 60 per cent. That was pretty good for any election anywhere, even in our own country.
And the Tamil party, the EPRLF, won. The LTTE boycotted the election. The other parties also participated. The Sri Lankan parties, the Sinhala parties, too. The Sri Lanka Muslim Party also participated. With the result that an election could be held and we could have the provisional assembly.
The next part after that had to be the proclamation by the [Sri Lankan] president to merge the two provinces because the demand was for a single homeland, not a divided homeland.
And it did not happen soon.
It took a lot of prodding, pressurising by us. But since the IPKF was on the ground, one was able to get them to do it. The moment the decision took place, the northern and eastern provinces stood merged. And that is something which is even now forgotten: that the north and eastern provinces stood merged. It became the North-Eastern Provincial Council.
The moment it became so, they elected a chief minister, the leader of the party Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, Varadaraja Perumal. Now that was all right. Then the most important thing to define was his rights to function as the provincial government, and that is where the role of the Sri Lankan government, bureaucracy and political hierarchy come into it. They were holding on to it, hedging on it. The day the militancy was put under control and elections were held and the elected government was in place, the military role of the IPKF was over. A military man thereafter had no role.
But you stayed on.
Because of the peculiar conditions of the north-eastern government. The police force was non-existent [there]. Actually, the police force had disintegrated. The reason is also obvious: the police primarily consisted of Sinhalese. The area was predominantly Tamil -- in fact the northern part was 90 per cent Tamil. And the eastern part was 33 per cent Tamil. It was 1/3 Tamil, 1/3 Sinhala, 1/3 Muslims. Muslims speak Tamil, but they do not identify themselves as Tamils.
So there were no Tamils and it would have then been not practical to have a police force entirely manned by Sinhalese. A police force had to be created; it was created. And certain notification had to be done. All these things took time. So we were assisting to that extent.
The police force became fairly functional, but unfortunately the powers of the North-Eastern Provincial Government were not devolved upon this government. So, the police force took orders from Colombo. The chief minister had no power even on one simple constable in the entire north-eastern province. So his credibility was getting questioned. He had no financial powers, in fact not even the powers of a municipal corporator. Because all the powers came under the centre, that is part of the devolution that had to take place.
After that it had to be promulgated. It is something like in Delhi you have the Rent Control Act passed; the government hasn't yet notified the act for implementation. Similar thing they were doing there. And it was a very deliberate pattern there in Colombo because they wanted to go back on some ingredients of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. We could not have gone back on it, because we had committed ourselves and we were there, and India was committed to the rights of the Tamils. But Premadasa had no intention of doing so. When he found that a government [in India] which had come on a platform that it would withdraw [the IPKF], all that he had to do was to carry on delaying it till we withdrew.
Once we had withdrawn then it was a different story because as you are aware, before we withdrew, Premadasa announced that he had opened talks with the LTTE and they have become the best of friends and that they will never fight again. And they have withdrawn all defensive postures and therefore the IPKF, the third party, was not required and it should go home.
The most difficult part was managing the withdrawal
So that was the game plan of the LTTE and Premadasa?
This was part of the same game plan. The two of them decided that if IPKF remained there, then neither could cheat the other on the Accord. And each one thought that he was cleverer than the other. So both were playing a game to double-cross each other. Who could prevent them from doing it was the IPKF. Our stand was it was not over and if they do it, they will end up killing each other. That is the reason why the IPKF remained there. Because we were sure that it would not work. And it was apparent that both sides would not do what they were saying. Their priority was, Let us get the IPKF out.
For the LTTE their concern was that as long as the IPKF was there they could never get away with their demand for an independent Tamil Eelam. For the Sri Lankan government, or the Sinhala government of Premadasa, it was quite clear that we could insist that the Sri Lankan government honour its part of the agreement.
You had a lot left to be done.
There were so many things to be done. The land reforms. There were illegally occupied land, they had many areas where the demographic pattern had been changed. In the northern province certain area was made a separate territory for the so-called experiments in irrigation, but basically the Sinhala convicts were resettled there. It was a convict's colony. They were trying some arid agricultural experiments etc. Those land belonged to the Tamils, it was part of the Tamil homeland. There were many issues like that.
But Premadasa pushed you out.
Both felt that it was not in their interest to honour the Accord. Particularly after Jayewardane stepped down and Premadasa took over. He had always opposed the agreement. In that he was backed by a large chauvinistic group of Sinhalese. So both of them felt that let us get the IPKF out, then we will sort the other guy. So the IPKF came out on March 24, 1990.
When did you get orders to leave Lanka?
I was told that our government gave a commitment that by the 31st of March the IPKF would withdraw. So I was given the charter. By that time it was apparent that the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government had joined hands. When I say the Sri Lankan government -- I would like to clarify that not all governments have been like that -- I mean Premadasa's government and not of his predecessor or his successors.
You came across proof of the LTTE-Sri Lankan government collaboration?
The collaboration between the LTTE and the government had started around October 1989. It came to our notice, and we brought it to the notice of the Sri Lankan government and our government also. I myself took it up at the highest level, with the President.
But the Lankan government never accepted that?
Of course, it was denied. There was nothing that they could do. I am literally accusing them of collaborating with or sleeping with the enemy. The whole scenario changed soon after President Jayewardane decided that he will not stand for elections. The presidential election was held around, I think, December 1988, and as soon as President Jayewardane decided that and nominated Premadasa to be his successor, the bureaucracy and government started naturally behaving in the interest of Premadasa. So he started working on it earlier, and as soon as the announcement came the tilt was slowly and slowly taking place.
You interacted with the Sri Lankan army closely. How did they react to Premadasa's decision to tie up with the LTTE? Did the army also change its tunes to suit the new president?
Obviously, the last organisation to be affected by the tilt was the Sri Lankan army. They were professionals, they were dedicated. But over a period of time that also gets affected when the government gives you certain orders. Slowly and slowly they started replacing those officers who would not play ball with Premadasa. Because it was hurting them also, because the Sri Lankan army had been fighting the LTTE. They had lost a lot of people. And then suddenly to ask them to collaborate with them and assist them wouldn't go well. In fact, to the extent that Mr Premadasa faced a revolt within the army at that time.
You could feel that revolt?
I could feel that revolt simmering. And there was talk in Colombo that they might press a coup. The [ Sri Lankan] army chief that time was Hamilton Vanasinghe. But it was not one person, it was simmering across the board with generals because they were not happy. Because on the one hand they were asked to go easy on the LTTE, and on the other hand they had been asked to give them weapons.
A lot of officers would say We are giving them weapons today, and they will be used against us one day. So he was in a precarious situation. I think for him getting past it, he owes it to his late foreign minister who was assassinated, Ranjan Wijayarante. He was also the minister for defence, because he was liked by the army and he supported their action. What he did was since he could not go in any way against his president on the IPKF issue, he got clearance from the president for the Sri Lankan army to go against the JVP.
They were facing two problems. The JVP, the leftist Marxist movement in the South, and the LTTE in the North. Therefore, he got the clearance that the army would have a free hand against the JVP. And as you know, within three months they had virtually destroyed the JVP. They just destroyed it. Of course there were no human right activists there that time, otherwise it is a matter that would have come up. Those times, the visual media wasn't like it is today, so a lot of it did not come out. Today, there is a lot of transparency in military operations; at that time it was by and large close. With that the army, and every one got a respite.
You haven't answered my question: Was it the right time for the IPKF to withdraw?
It was preordained. There was no option. It had been announced by the new government in India in 1989. Once it was elected, the IPKF had to withdraw. We were told the time.
Once the withdrawal was announced, what were your concerns?
The main thing I was concerned about was that the Sri Lankan government was hostile to us to the extent possible. Not that they were fighting us, but they were abetting the fighting. I did not want my soldiers to be caught like what happened in Vietnam or in Afghanistan. I wanted to make sure that every soldier came home safely. I did not want to lose lives during the withdrawal.
Secondly, I wanted the withdrawal to be with dignity, not as in Vietnam where people were running away, hanging on to helicopters. Those thing would be terrible for the morale of an army. I was quite determined that as we went in with our flag flying high, we would come out with our heads high. So certain plans had to be put into action.
The most difficult part of my entire command was managing the withdrawal of the IPKF. At one stage we had 70,000 troops, we slowly brought them down to 50, 40, and then to 30,000. When you are in a narrow bridge head, with the LTTE all around and you getting militarily no assistance from the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE free at that stage, the prime concern for me was the lives of my soldiers.
Every day we withdrew certain amount with ships at Trincomalee and Konkeshanthurai in the northern province of Jaffna. We had planned the de-induction. Each day a battalion would withdraw; over three days that would complete a brigade and that was how it was done.
The last day a ceremonial send-off was given by the Sri Lankan army. Guard of honour was given at Trincomalee. The foreign minister came there, then the three service chiefs of the Sri Lankan armed forces, senior officers of the armed forces and, of course, the media was there to see. While we were pulling back, we had our party standing by on all sides to make sure that someone did not double-cross or conspire against our soldiers. We had even helicopters on board standing by to extricate.
We did not want to leave behind a single item of equipment because it was costly and they were heavy equipment which had to be phased out. We had heavy vehicles, tanks, armoured cars, which was useful. Now, we needed them there, we wanted to keep them till the last, but then to keep them till the last and pulling them out on a ship takes hours. So you had to have a fine balance, take them as late as possible but not too late.
And ultimately, of course, the infantry solider was on his own. For these kind of problem one did make arrangements for some kind of naval guns to support, if we can call. These kind of management, tactical planning was done.
Did any trouble happen during the withdrawal?
No. If anything, we were over careful, and things went off as we planned.
While withdrawing did you not think that you could have brought complete peace, disarmed the LTTE?
There are a couple of things. Disarming the group cannot be an ongoing task. You can disarm a group, there are no arms today. But you cannot guarantee that they will not acquire them in future. So it cannot be a job in perpetuity. It should be time-framed. The military part is disarming, the LTTE was disarmed to that extent, their holding became negligible once we were able to hold elections. But then they continued to get arms. That is why they went to the Sri Lankan government and got arms.
Now, that task cannot be given to the military, to prevent the government from arming them. Because the implications of that are far serious. To prevent that I have to go at the personnel arming them, I cannot go at the Sri Lankan government.
The second part is, what about peace? Can you bring in peace? Let me say this: Application of military force will never bring peace, anywhere in the world. I know I am making a categorical statement, but I stand by that statement. Application of military force can never bring about peace. Peace in the minds of the civil population is the perception in the minds of the common man on his environment, on the kind of governance he has, on his basic needs being met, on his rights being protected.
These are all political matters, not one of them is a military matter. So it is a fallacy if anyone thinks anywhere that by sending it military you bring in peace.
The military can only create a condition for the political actions to take place. It can neither take political action, nor take on the role of the political system.
So did you complete your task? The popular perception is that you did not.
If the IPKF was deemed a political weapon, obviously [it did not]. If it was deemed a military weapon, the task was completed the day election was held and the government could be installed. Thereafter there were no dispensation that the IPKF could give out. We could not give them independence, we could not give them devolution of powers, we could not give financial control to the chief minister, we could not give the provincial government what it took them to be a strong credible government.
I agree that we could not prevent the Sri Lankan government from arming the LTTE. But I could have done it, I had the strength to do it. That would have meant to forcibly preventing the Sri Lankan government from arming the LTTE.
You could have done that?
You know what that means. That means, taking over the country.
Did you think of taking over Sri Lanka any time?
No, no. Because we cannot be involved in it. It was not me, in fact nobody in India could have done that to force the Sri Lankan government not to [arm the LTTE]. Because what do you do with the Sri Lankan government still doing it? What do you do? You go to war.
The humiliation wasn't in Lanka. It was when the IPKF returned
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.