It will be a poignant moment when Prime Minister Modi lays a wreath at the IPKF memorial in Sri Lanka
When the good folks at Swarajya requested me to write a piece on the visit of India’s Prime Minister to the IPKF memorial in Sri Lanka, it brought back personal memories.
One of my close friend from school, had finished his stint with NDA and IMA and his very first posting was in the IPKF leading a company. The young Lieutenant fought bravely and after a successful tour of duty came to Chennai and we friends met up. Excited to meet him and know more about life in the army, we plied him with many questions.
It was apparent that he was a changed man by then. He had the soldier’s discipline, the precise manner in which he answered revealed that he had been through a lot in his first tour of duty.
We asked him about his stint and he shared many a story of the battlefront. It was then that we realized what a life-changing stint that it had been for the young officer. He led from the front, lost men under his command and although he did not spell out his disappointment of the political leadership, he gave a glimpse of the blurred lines of morality that war often poses on men in the frontlines of battle.
One vignette he shared was particularly searing and is still etched in my mind. He was leading a platoon on a search, apprehend and disarm mission. Young men from a distant part of India were under his command. The fact that he was a Tamilian officer meant that he was preferred for such missions as it meant interacting with the local population. The entire mission was based on intelligence inputs of LTTE cadre operating from a remote village. They entered a small cottage. Men were asked to stand down but be on alert. He entered the cottage with one JCO. They saw an old Tamil lady and a young teenaged girl. He greeted the old lady and made enquiries. They took a quick look and turned to leave. The teenager lunged forward and fetched an AK 47 from under concealment in the floor and opened fire. The bullet narrowly missed his head; the JCO opened fire and shot the girl down.
They secured the place, but that was the kind of “peace” that they had to secure. It was not something that he or the JCO was proud of. They broke down when they reached camp.
Why should I recount the above story on this occasion? Many a tale has been left untold. There are many stories that the powerful LTTE propaganda unleashed which were lapped up by the chauvinistic regional media and made IPKF to be seen as a villain. The then CM of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, went on record to state in the Legislative Assembly that he would not receive the IPKF soldiers when they came back. I will not recount here what my friend had to say about that. It is best left to be in private.
Ask any army commander, he will tell you the primary principles of an operation for the armed services are always two key ones – Clarity of Purpose and Unity in Action supported by a clear Chain of Command. The saga of IPKF was an outcome of its time. From a purely military objectives perspective, there was clarity of purpose at the beginning. The IPKF was to be the guarantor of peace and provider of security to the region. It was clear that the SL Army would withdraw from the region and in return, the armed rebels of all hues were to disarm and the agency to carry out the disarmament was the IPKF.
The IPKF, in good faith, came prepared for the tasks on hand. Now, whether there was clarity of purpose on the political front is a matter of intense debate. I would think, that Rajiv Gandhi as PM wanted to have a settlement that would secure the rights of Tamils within the framework of united Sri Lanka. He was a man in a hurry.
On the Sri Lankan side, President JR Jayawardene was a seasoned politician who was willing to strike a balance on his own penchant for retaining enormous power and ensuring that the Tamil uprising was put down. When the young PM from India came forward to mediate, he made sure that India would be made party to the dispute and it had a role.
The LTTE supremo, Prabhakaran, was not yet the undisputed leader of the Tamils. There were others, including moderates who were willing to work with India, provided India became a party to the dispute as well. The hardliners, especially Anton Balasingham and his wife were the ones who resisted.
The advisors to the Indian PM led by the JN Dixit and the then External Affairs Ministry mandarins, ill advised him to pressurize Prabhakaran at the now famous Thimpu talks.
The troika of people executing the political part for the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement ran things in a manner that proved to be the key impulse for the classic betrayal that followed. On the Sri Lankan side the then PM, Premadasa, was not willing to concede to any legitimate demand of the Tamils. He bided his time and then what followed was one of the most disastrous misadventures of Indian foreign policy.
The present so-called-champions who are indulging in the propaganda of immortalizing Prabhakaran cannot hide the simple truth that he made a deal with one of the most hardline Sinhala leaders in Premadasa to scuttle and sabotage the peace process.
Every step of the way, the Indian Armed Forces were constrained by a civilian leadership that did not understand the real politics that was being played nor did they understand the ground level realities that they were facing based on the unholy and unprincipled covert alliance between Premadasa and Prabhakaran.
Several times the IPKF were in a position to neutralize the LTTE leader and under instructions had to back off. There was no Unity in Action. Added to that was a disconnect between the commanders on the ground and the generals in HQ.
There was clearly a misjudgement of the strength, capability and resources that LTTE had. The initial forays by the IPKF were fraught with risk and they paid a heavy price in terms of men as well as local support from the population. The high cost was epitomized by the Battle for Jaffna University.
Despite these odds, the IPKF did a tremendous job of fighting back and delivering what was expected from it. They did make the region secure enough for an election to be held despite the active sabotage attempts by the Premadasa government.
In the blurred world of urban guerilla warfare, the IPKF troops were asked to make tough operational choices. That they did so, without considering the costs involved in exposing its troops to unnecessary danger is clear in the number of people India lost. There were, I am sure, quite a few mistakes made by the IPKF which may have resulted in innocents being caught in the cycle of violence.
The IPKF, however held firm to the ethos of the Indian Army and did a thorough and professional job. Despite being in an environment that was stacked against them, coupled with a political leadership that was oscillating between ramming through an agreement and running rough shod over operational decisions of the IPKF, the IPKF was able to deliver on the objectives.
It was a body blow to the LTTE and they unleashed a propaganda of falsehood and canards to besmirch the work of IPKF. Unfortunately, the were buyers to this propaganda were the chauvinistic leaders of Tamil Nadu. The badly wounded LTTE swore then to take revenge on Rajiv Gandhi. The rest is tragic history.
The political scenario that changed in Delhi also brought to power V.P. Singh, whose regime is probably the most damaging one India has ever had in terms of National Security. His ally, Kurananidhi, by his acts of omission and commission ensured the re-emergence of the LTTE. Once the LTTE was given a life-line, the war continued for more than a decade and half which cost thousands of lives.
It is in this context, that the political leadership of India forgot IPKF. No one wanted to associate with, or recognize, the IPKF for its stupendous efforts. After the tragic loss of Rajiv Gandhi , even the Congress regimes that came to power did not give their due respect to the men who lost their lives in one of the most challenging military engagements by India, since the Bangladesh Liberation.
Even the NDA regime of Atalji forgot these brave men who gave up their lives for the cause of peace and reconciliation in a neighboring land. That is why, the step of PM Narendra Modi is a welcome one. It will be a poignant moment when he lays a wreath to their memorial in Sri Lanka.
Indian government and indeed the Indian public at large do not have a strong legacy of recognizing the brave martyrs of their Armed Forces – be it to the thousands who gave their lives in distant lands in the two World Wars or in the many wars that we as a nation had to face post independence.
I am sure of one thing, that my now middle aged friend, would surely say a Thank You to PM Modi when he lays that wreath in the memory of the young lads who he had led in battle and had the honour to give their lives in the cause of peace.
I hope that by this single act, the Government of India and the people of India will bring a bit of solace to the brave soldiers who served the IPKF. They deserve the honour and respect that has long been denied to them.
On the larger context of the visit, I also hope that this visit will bring solace, support and closure to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and bring about a national reconciliation that has long eluded their beautiful but tragic land. If the visit reaffirms that faith among both sides in Sri Lanka that India is their closest and best well-wisher, it will be a lasting tribute to the sacrifice made by the IPKF.
It is an opportunity that comes rarely in Indo-Sri Lankan history; an opportunity to break from the past and usher in an era of peace in Sri Lanka. An economically resurgent northern and eastern Sri Lanka with close economic, political and security ties will be in the abiding national interests of both countries. PM Modi, I am sure, will articulate the vision of possibilities and I do hope that the southern states in India, especially Tamil Nadu, lead in bringing about peace to the war torn and weary Tamils of Sri Lanka. They deserve no less. That will be the abiding tribute to the IPKF.
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