Reminiscences: Serving with the Indian Army in Sri Lanka
By Col. R. Hariharan
“Meet this Army officer. He is the man who killed our son,” the middle aged man pointed at me as he introduced me to his wife. My wife was shocked. But I knew his pain, so I was nonchalant. It happened in 1989 in my own home in Chennai. I knew them quite well in Jaffna. In fact, their house was the first one I visited when I set foot on the red earth of Jaffna on August 5, 1987 as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. His 18-year old son was also there. The handsome young fellow was a “Tamil Tiger” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Jaffna everybody called them “Boys.”
When quite unexpectedly our war with the Tigers started a few months later, I learnt the young fellow had gone to Mannar to fight against our troops. So I had told our men to take him alive and not kill him. “He is a Tamil Tiger so he may chew the cyanide capsule. Don’t allow him to do it,” I had warned. But what happened was quite tragic.
When the clash took place, he swallowed the cyanide capsule and dropped dead even before our troops got to him. How can I explain all this to his father in distress? But the boy’s death hurt me like hundred other incidents I faced in Sri Lanka as Military Intelligence chief for three years. As a Tamil I had a professional advantage there, but emotionally it was a torture daily to see innocent Tamil civilians dying in the war. The unhappy experience left deep scars in me. I sympathize with the Tamil struggle for equal rights with majority Sinhalas, but I do not accept taking up arms as the means to gain them.
My involvement with the Indian forces in Sri Lanka came unexpectedly. I was the senior most MI officer among the handful of Tamil MI officers at that time. Some relatives of our extended family lived in Jaffna and Colombo; so I was familiar with the Tamil issue. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was conceived in haste and executed without thinking through a long term strategy. Ostensibly it had two goals – to preserve India’s strategic security interests and to help out Sri Lankan Tamils get their just rights while maintaining the unity of Sri Lanka. These were political and diplomatic goals rather than military one. To top it all, Indian Peace Keeping Force had no written mandate. Some oral instructions went even beyond our goals - we were told to be ready protect Sri Lanka President Jayawardane from possible backlash to the Agreement from Sinhalas and Sri Lanka army!
When I reached Chennai on August 2, 1987 the Southern Army Commander Lt Gen Depinder Singh told me to be ready to go to Jaffna to assist Indian troops tasked with the implementation of the Agreement. Sri Lanka had asked for Indian troops help in disarming the Tamil militants. “You will be required to be there for about 3 days, I guess. Nobody knows. I have no clear cut mandate. But I expect Prabhakaran to follow others and deposit his arms,” He said. That was how I reached Jaffna three days later with two pairs of uniform and nothing else. Gen Depinder could not have been more wrong on both counts. Prabhakaran never fully accepted the Agreement or gave up his goal of creating an independent Tamil Eelam. And I returned formally back to India only after three years. So much for our readiness for war in Sri Lanka!
The first two months were the best period of peace and tranquility we had, though the LTTE was dragging its feet in surrendering arms and accepting the proposed interim administration set up for the Northeast Province. I could see the trouble brewing. Even as we landed in Sri Lanka, Rajendra, our family friend and retired civil servant of Sri Lanka who had served under Jayawardane had warned me. “Rajiv Gandhi is a baby in politics. The wily Jayawardane is going to eat him up for breakfast. His idea is to make you fight the Tigers by October. You just wait and watch.” I passed on his assessment to New Delhi. Rajendra did not live to see his deadly forecast come true when we went to war. He was killed when a bomb burst near his house in Jaffna in the first week of war.
The LTTE confrontation with Indian army reached a new high when Thileepan, one the young LTTE leaders, went on a fast unto death on September 15, 1987 over “India’s failure to implement the Agreement.” The LTTE organized widespread anti-Indian public protests all over Jaffna. New Delhi chose to ignore the worsening situation and left it to the army to handle sensitive political and diplomatic issues for which the army had no competency or expertise. Thileepan never broke his fast and died on September 26, 1987. It only worsened our increasingly bitter relationship with the LTTE.
But the breaking point came on October 3, 1987 when Sri Lanka Navy apprehended senior LTTE leaders Pulendran, Kumarappa and 13 other members when in mid sea off Point Pedro when they were returning from Tamil Nadu coast. The two leaders were found carrying arms. They were kept in custody in Sri Lanka Army base at Palaly. President Jayawardane wanted to fly them to Colombo to face a number of criminal charges pending against them for involvement in some of the major LTTE attacks in which a number of civilians were killed. (Pulendran was accused of masterminding the attack that killed 139 pilgrims in Anuradhapura.) India tried to persuade President Jayawardane to release them as a goodwill gesture to preserve amity. However he did not budge. Probably he saw trying them as a political opportunity to regain some of the lost popularity among Sinhalas. We believed he would never allow them to go back alive.
I was present at the air base on October 5, when the Sri Lanka army decided to forcibly fly them to Colombo. I knew Major General Jayaratne, Jaffna Commander of Sri Lanka, who had done an army course with me in India. He made a last ditch effort to persuade Colombo to hand them over to Indian custody. But he failed; “President says no and out they go” he told us unhappily. The Sri Lankan officer standing next to me said, “My god, it is going to be war all over again.”
We were watching as the Sri Lankan troops dragged the cadres out just as they bit cyanide capsules. The LTTE leader Mahathia had smuggled cyanide capsules when he visited them earlier. They were carried dying, frothing at the mouth and their limbs twitching as the Sri Lankan troops loaded them in ambulances. Some of the soldiers kicked the dying men. It was one of the saddest moments in my life to see them dying so needlessly, when peace was so near, just to satisfy the egos of two leaders. My colleague Capt Chandok had tears in his eyes. I had always felt India’s failure to act strongly in that incident was the point of no return for LTTE’s decision to go to war.
Next day the Sri Lankans handed over the 12 bodies to us. (Three cadres had escaped death thanks to effective first aid.) Senior LTTE leaders Mahathiya and Yogi came to collect the bodies. The atmosphere was gloomy. I saw Koteeswaran, the legal advisor of LTTE, who was known to me with them. I requested him to persuade Prabhakaran not to get into armed confrontation with the army. “We don’t want to fight Tamils; we came to help them. And our army is huge and can fight for the next 20 years. We have been doing it in Nagaland for 30 years. So kindly put some sense in Prabhakaran’s mind,” I added. The able attorney looked sad. “Col sir, you are right but who can talk sense to Thambi,” he said. Mahathiya was grim. “Now you are handing over 12 bodies of our cadres. You will collect 1200 bodies of your own soldiers,” he said as the bodies wrapped in white shroud were loaded in LTTE vans. Mahathiya was so prophetic; we lost 1255 soldiers in our war with the LTTE. Only he could not predict his own death later when Prabhakaran killed him for being a RAW agent. And my friend the soft spoken Koteeswaran was also shot dead by unknown persons before we left. What a waste!
Mankind has always glorified war. They are so depicted in epics. I have seen three major wars and at least ten other insurgency conflicts in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The truth is wars are tragic because death visits us everyday. I have lost so many people known to me in wars during nearly 30 years of my army service. They belonged to different armies and insurgent groups. They fought for a cause and died. But was it worth it? I wonder. I remember Major Gopalakrishna, the only son of a widowed mother from Madurai. Just before the India-Pakistan war he was to be sent to Soviet Union for special training. But war became imminent and he was unloaded from the plane. Next day, two days before the war, he was killed when a single bullet from somewhere hit him when a few of us were moving around the border area.
Once in Trincomalee I got information that the LTTE had sent two assassins to kill Padmanbha, leader of the EPRLF (Eelam Peoples Liberation Front) which was supporting us. I called him at 3 AM to warn him about it. Padmanabha laughed at the information. “Col Sir, don’t wake me up for this. Don’t lose your sleep also over this. I died the day I took up arms to fight for my belief,” he said and went back to sleep. I could not do so. Though he survived then, sadly death in the form of LTTE did not spare him. They killed him in Chennai after the war was over.
I had my own brush with death a few times in wars. In Sri Lanka it was in 1989 I think. I had gone with Lt Gen AS Kalkat, our commander, in a helicopter to visit our troops fighting in a LTTE stronghold in Nithikaikulam in Mullaitivu district. Just as we stepped out of the helicopter, a LTTE rocket whizzed past us and hit the helicopter which burst into a ball of fire. Death missed us by a whisker. We jumped over a bund nearby to take cover as another rocket hit set one more helicopter standing there on fire. Our escort helicopter gunship hovering over us for our protection fired a few rockets at our foes. We were spared our lives. It was on that day that wars lost their glamour for me, not out of fear of my life, but at the utter futility of it all. Why was Gopalakrishna killed by a lone bullet even before the war started? And why we were spared even by rocket fire in the thick of war? I don’t know the answers.
(Col. R Hariharan, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)