Note to the Readers
In this part, I make liberal use of interviews and opinions, which have appeared in the open sources of information since 1997. Lest some readers think that I’m more or less using the ‘cut-and-paste’ version of writing history, for reasons of accuracy, I prefer citing direct quotes (even if they are lengthy!) from the main participants of the events under discussion, rather than trying to paraphrase what they have described.
An [unidentified] Indian Intelligence Agency’s Assessment
Apart from J.N.Dixit, even the operatives of Indian Intelligence Agencies had recorded the benefits of MGR’s patronage to Pirabhakaran and LTTE in one of their reports in mid-1980s. Ten years later, the 1997 Jain Commission Report on Rajiv Gandhi Assassination had made this public by reproducing an excerpt of an unidentified Indian Intelligence Agency, relating to Pirabhakaran and ‘other prominent personalities of the LTTE during the period of 1981-86’.
This report makes interesting reading in that, it was written from the angle of a spy (field officer) who was keen to find a ‘mole’ among the leading LTTE members. I reproduce the relevant paragraphs.
“What helped Prabhakaran most in the early stages was the total support given by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister [i.e. MGR]. Prabhakaran was always very respectful towards MGR and used the right phrases and right gestures. He admired MGR for the immense popularity he evoked in the Tamil masses and wanted to emulate him. On the other hand, Prabhakaran was seen as a real hero. Enormous funds were made available which helped LTTE to sustain themselves until they were in control of Jaffna peninsula and started collecting taxes. On one or two occasions arms shipments were reportedly cleared and this gave a decisive edge to the group by the end of 1984. This support added to the edge Prabhakaran had in his leadership and the ability to invoke a kind of mad and total loyalty in his followers. He has a self-constructive strain in him which he has successfully passed on to some of his close followers. If driven to a corner, Prabhakaran is capable of committing suicide rather than face humiliation. He has a love for guns and his face is said to glow when he sees a good weapon. He would always carry the latest pistol available in the world market, and is a good shot too. [Jain Commission Report, vol.5, chapter 16]
Now, to the assessment on Pirabhakaran’s closest company within LTTE and search for a ‘mole’ amongst them. From the cited evidence of Kittu being in Madras, it appears that this spy report was originally written after the attack on Kittu, which happened on March 31, 1987. One should overlook the stilted English description, since it probably was written by a field officer of RAW who was on a mole hunt.
“At the moment, Prabhakaran does not carry any threat to his leadership. Only two persons could have posed a threat. Of those, Kittu is now in Madras to get an artificial leg, and though he is consulted on all matters his disability and absence from the scene are big handicaps. In the early days when Kittu wanted to marry his girlfriend, Prabhakaran prevented it on the ground that a revolutionary should be wedded to the revolution, though he himself fell in love with one of the fasting girls of Jaffna University who was brought to Madras by the LTTE, and got married to her. Kittu continues to hold this against Prabhakaran.
Mathiasri [referring to Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya] could claim seniority even over Prabhakaran as he has continued with the Tigers while Prabhakaran briefly joined TELO. Unlike Prabhakaran, Mathiasri is very ambitious and the way Mathiasri has taken precedence over Dileep Yogi (who joined the movement only after 1983) has not gone unnoticed. Other persons who are considered to be very close to Prabhakaran would include Raghu, personal bodyguard of Prabhakaran, and Thilagar, a political adviser, and Shankar alias Swarnalingam who helped the LTTE in procuring arms and other equipment from abroad. Anton Balasingham, the political adviser (he is no doctor and does not hold a Ph.D.) is more a spokesman who, as he himself had remarked, is there to justify the action rather than advise on actions to be taken. Balasingham, after taking his post-graduate degree in Jaffna, briefly dabbled in journalism before taking up a regular job in UK High Commission. In the 1970s he went over to UK and in due course obtained British citizenship. He lost his wife in London and married the Australian nurse who was attending to her in the hospital. He is known to be shrewd and has slowly eliminated all other intellectuals who could have given sensible advice to Prabhakaran. Except for Balasingham, Prabhakaran is surrounded by a group of school and college dropouts. At this moment the rank and file is well-knit as the LTTE has the muscle and money which would over to over an estimated 15 crores of Sri Lankan rupees. The powerful motivation for attainment of Eelam is no longer present and the problem would be how to keep the cadres together with an alternative motivation. This is a major problem for the group.” [ibid]
Readers should take note of Mahathaya’s profile as presented in this Indian Intelligence wallah’s description and especially the comment ‘only two persons’ (Kittu and Mahathaya) could pose a threat to Pirabhakaran. By aligning this field report which was made public in 1997 via the Jain Commission Report, with the already exposed fact that in July 1989, the RAW officials had planted a news report in the Hindu newspaper about the death of Pirabhakaran in the jungles of Vanni [see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 1], it appears difficult to contradict the accusation on Mahathaya that he did turn into a Benedict Arnold of Eelam.
Col. John Taylor’s Assessment:
Col.John Taylor was one of the first officers assigned to the IPKF, and in 1997 he reminisced to the Rediff.Com.India his impression on the confrontation with LTTE to the Rediff.Com.India. Col. John Taylor’s observation is interesting in that he describes how the Eelam Tamil public provided ‘tremendous mass support’ to the LTTE. His words on the quality of RAW’s intelligence (both in literal and figurative senses) speak for themselves. Excerpts from the website of Rediff.Com are as follows:
“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… 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… 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 [LTTE] 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…”
Major General Harkirat Singh’s Assessment:
Major General Harkirat Singh served as the first commander of the Indian army’s campaign in Sri Lanka. His views are lucid and he shoots straight. Thus it is refreshing to digest this lengthy interview from a man who kept silent for ten years. Though Pirabhakaran turned out to be his adversary, this Indian soldier paid proper respect to the tenacity of Pirabhakaran. This 1997 interview, culled from Rediff.Com.India’s website, is also notable for many of its revelations: (1) How Pirabhakaran was treated in New Delhi before Rajiv Gandhi left for Colombo to sign the July 1987 Agreement? (2) How the Indian authorities armed the EPRLF during August 1987 which negated the spirit of LTTE’s surrender of weapons? (3) What caused the suicides of LTTE leaders Kumarappa, Pulendran and another dozen cadres? (4) on High Commissioner Dixit’s orders to ‘Shoot Prabhakaran – shoot Mahathaya’, (5) on Pirabhakaran’s security cover.
In this lengthy excerpt, I have only deleted the infrequent Hindi interjections in his responses, and altered the spellings of the names of individuals and places to their conventional forms.
“One early morning in 1987, Indian army’s 54 Division landed in Sri Lanka from Secunderabad. At its head was Major General Harkirat Singh, the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s first commander. General Singh first tried to buy peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. When that failed, he plunged his men into a blood war. And India suffered horrifying casualties.
After the infamous killing of Indian soldiers on the Jaffna University football ground under his command, New Delhi inducted Lieutenant General A.S.Kalkat. Thus, it slowly began relieving General Singh of his charge. Within a year, he returned to India. General Singh has been subject to much criticism. But, except for an interview immediately after his retirement, he has kept his counsel. A decade after those terrible days, he completed his memoirs on Lanka, wherein he blames key individuals involved in the IPKF operation for the unprecedented loss of life, and questions several long-held beliefs.
In a candid interview to Josy Joseph, he accuses several people -- including then Indian army chief General K Sunderji and high commissioner to Colombo J N Dixit -- and admits that “chaos” reigned in the jungles of Sri Lanka where the Indian troops faced humiliation.
Q: How did the IPKF, sent to enforce peace, get involved in a bloody fight with the LTTE? Do you personally believe that it could have been prevented?
One afternoon I was in my operations room when then vice chief of army staff (S.F) Rodrigues came. Later he became [army] chief. He talked of hard options. I advised him against it. I told him, If you adopt hard options you would be fighting for the next 10 to 20 years. And this will lead to insurgency and there is no stopping it. You are fighting in Nagaland, Mizoram, all over. This will be another. And sure enough, it has not ended to date. And it won’t end.
I have all regards for Sri Lanka. The Tamils have sacrificed [a lot], the LTTE is highly motivated and there is one aim: Eelam. Independence. Till they get independence they are not going to stop…
Q: So you actually opposed what you went out to do?
Actually [yes]. And, you know, [General Rodrigues said], ‘No, no, no... don’t get cold feet. We will take care of them.’ I said, ‘They have fought their entire lives in the jungles.’ I have flown over the jungles with Mahathiah, the number two man to Prabhakaran, in my helicopter. We flew over the jungles of Vavuniya and he explained to me how they fought against the Sri Lankans all these years. So they knew each inch of the land. We would push them out of Jaffna, they would get into the jungles. Then you would be fighting them for the next 10 years.
Q: You had no intelligence inputs?
All these people who were in Delhi, I am afraid, they visited Sri Lanka because it was a foreign country. They went back without any hard intelligence. They had no intelligence to give me about terrain, about enemy. I had to buy tourist maps in Hyderabad before I went into operations. And I had to borrow a Sri Lankan photocopying machine to make copies for my staff.
Only one officer, now he is a general, Memon, he got hold of some maps, because he was my staff officer. He was my brigade major once upon a time. He said, ‘Sir, we have only these maps. You please take them, you will need them. He was very nice, he gave me a dozen maps. For army a dozen maps is nothing. Every platoon commander has to have a map, a section commander has to have a map.
Q: So you went in with a tourist map?
We went in with a tourist map. We didn’t know the geography of this country at all, except that it was an island country. That is it. What it was inside, my God, you couldn’t see A to B, it was such thick foliage…
Q: What were the options given to you?
It was wavering. Like this: if there is a coup in Colombo, how will we reinstate [then Sri Lankan president] Jayewardane? Somebody came out with some kind of plan. All right. If we have to favour the LTTE, then how will we land in Sri Lanka? If we are to favour Sri Lankans, how will we land in Sri Lanka? After all, you just cannot land, you are going overseas, you are going by sea, going by air. So various options had to be discussed. This kind of scenario we were working on. War was never thought of. Nobody told us that behind-the-scenes there was an Accord being worked out.
Q: You were not told that the Indo-Lankan Accord was being worked on?
Of course not. What happened was, I was going back to Secunderabad. As I arrived at the airport, all my staff were lined up there. I said, Why are you all here, only my ADC is supposed to be here. They said, ‘Sir, first flight is to take off at 1 O’clock tonight.’ I said, ‘For where?’ ‘For Sri Lanka.’ I said, ‘It is 10 O’clock when I arrived and we are on a six-eight hour notice?’ Then my staff informed me, ‘Sir, the Accord has been signed in Sri Lanka, the prime minister is there, he rang up the army commander Depinder Singh to move a division to Sri Lanka.’….
Q: Your brigade commanders agreed to it?
They had no option, had to agree. Mentally we were prepared because we had been talking about the Operation for sometime. Say, we may be talking about it for a month, but there was no intelligence given to us. I should have got a proper intelligence summary, this is the terrain, this is the enemy strength. I should have been given a proper operational instruction.
When you are going into the blue in army terminology, a proper operational instruction must be given. A proper overseas command must be formed. Nothing was done. The air force was commanding its own troops, army its own troops, navy its own troops. Who is there to co-ordinate? Nobody. Everybody went independently, there was no joint command. It was a tri-service operation, air force, navy and army involved, but there was no joint command. There should have been a single command to take this full force across.
Q: Each one on his own?
Everybody did his own and we landed there. And we landed there like a refugee camp I saw in Assam, Chabua, when we were fighting the Chinese. Everybody was just being inducted, nobody knew anything. Anyway, I met the Sri Lankan brigade commander, went to his operations room and he told me what it was all about.
I said, Have you seen the Tigers, LTTE? He said, Never. I sit inside my bunker and at last light I have APCs [armoured personnel carriers] outside my bunker. Why should I go and see the LTTE? I said, You have been there for a long time. Alright, let us do one thing, you take me to the LTTE, I want to establish contact with them.
We established contact. Kumaran [Kumarappa], who got killed in the boat tragedy, he was the Jaffna commander, very nice chap, he came in a car and took me and one of my brigade commanders, who got killed in Srinagar, Fernandes, he got blown off by a mine aimed at the ammunition depot. We both went with Kumaran. Mahathiah was standing outside a bungalow. He said, ‘General, I am not prepared to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Why? I have come here with a message of peace, goodwill.’ He said, ‘Unless you bring back Prabhakaran, we will not talk to you.’ I said, ‘Where is Prabhakaran?’
I didn’t even know that. They kept the army absolutely in the dark. Prabhakaran was in the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. Now I know the room number also, 512 or 522. And he was to see the prime minister, before the prime minister went in for the Accord. Anyway he saw him, the PM gave him certain assurances, and before he could say ‘Jack Robinson’, the prime minister was in Colombo, signing the Accord. Prabhakaran learnt it on television that the Accord had been signed and they were not party to it. It was one reason why the LTTE never accepted the Accord and India’s stand.
If we had taken the LTTE into confidence, they would have known the whole thing, their terms would have been put across to Jayewardene, and the situation would have been different. Dixit was in a great hurry to get the Accord signed, with his name up. He became foreign secretary; he got the award later. But he never studied the mood of the people, especially the JVP. And since he didn’t study the mood of the people, there was an attempt to assassinate the prime minister… 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, Kittu (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 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 the Indian prime minister doesn’t go for surrenders, it is his minister who goes. So, Prabhakaran didn’t come. All the big shots of Sri Lanka were there. Aircraft was there, propellers on.
Attygalle [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.
Q: Did you tell the army headquarters that the EPRLF was being armed?
Q: 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’.
Q: 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 Thileepan fast happened. We tried our 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.
Q: Even after the riots you were in touch with 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.
Q: 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 (Kumarappa), and Pulenderan (the Trincomalee 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.
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…
Q: 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… 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 [General Officer in Command] 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,’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…
Q: 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.’
Q: So who messed up during the boat tragedy?
The responsibility is entirely on the diplomats, entirely on the [Sri Lankan] 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. The Sri Lankans would have just looked on. We would have taken them out, we had all the troops there. No problem.
Q: 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. Pulenderan was also there. A dreadful man. Wanted for 34 murders by [Gen. Cyril] Ranatunga. Every day he used to tell me, ‘General, Give me Pulenderan’ I used to tell him ‘I won’t give you Pulenderan, 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.
Q: 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.
Q: Could you tell us precisely what happened once the 17 Tigers swallowed cyanide?
Riots all over. The entire Jaffna was red. We had to move, take up defences. We had no defence stores. Remember, we had no defence stores. We went with rifles. We did not have supporting weapons, we did not have our defence stores... barbed by mines, pickets around your positions so that nobody assaults the infantry without a stop. We were in naked barracks. I had stopped even tents, because aircraft as it is were few.
We carried our weapons and ammunition. We improvised wire around us, put electricity on that so that nobody crosses over at night. We had to improve everything, there was nothing till the war started and things started coming. And all the time they wanted us to fraternise with the LTTE. All Madras battalions were flown into Sri Lanka. So that we had more Tamil-speaking people. So that we spoke to the LTTE, spread the message of goodwill, ‘We are here to protect you. Surrender your weapons.’ They were no fools. They knew that the Sri Lankan police was totally ineffective. The Sri Lankan police was completely finished, yeh? If they surrendered their weapons who would protect them?
Then they said, No, we will give 20 rifles for the protection of Prabhakaran, 15 for Mahathiah... Jayewardane himself said this. And Prabhakaran knew he could not survive with 15 people. He used to have three-tier security around him. If Prabhakaran is here, here [the innermost ring] will be the suicide people who will sacrifice their lives. The next ring will be the fighters and the third ring will be for early warning. We could never lay hands on him even during the war once he left Jaffna. I got him only once where he said, ‘Now, I am not going to survive, all commanders are independent and will take over...’ When we did that bloody parachute drop.
Q: You mean the attack in the university campus?
Yeah. That was also a tragedy.
Q: But what exactly happened?
What happened? I planned with nine helicopters. I needed nine helicopters to land the troops. When the hour came, when the flight had taken off to mark the landing zone, the next flight had taken off to land the people to secure the landing zone, I am told, Sorry, helicopters are not available hereafter.
Q: Who said that?
The air force. Why are helicopters not available? They have gone to the east, there is some exercise going on. But my requirement was nine helicopters, it was accepted by [Lieutenant General] Depinder Singh. [Lieutenant General A S] Kalkat had confirmed that your plans are approved. And now you are saying the helicopters are not available? It is too late!
It was too late for an operation: half on the ground, half in the air. Bad luck. But that chap of a major who landed there in the third flight... Five flights went in, he landed in the third. Out of the five, one had a hole in it, so it never came back. Anyway, this major of the 17 Sikh Light Infantry, he did not dig down. In army, the moment you land, the first requirement is to give yourself protection. So that you can fire your weapon and don’t get shot. Whereas the commandos got into the barracks. They told the chap, You also come into the barracks. He said, ‘No, no, my commanding officer is going to come. So I must meet him here.’ At that time Prabhakaran said, ‘I have had it, I am not going to survive.’ We had surrounded his headquarters. All the commandos were behind the back. And we were very happy because this intercept was taken by the Sri Lankans. The Sri Lankans were our interceptors, incidentally. We had no interception set-up. And we had a good rapport with the Sri Lankan [army] people; they were ready to give us all intercepts.
Q: The Indian soldiers were killed after they entered the campus?
Yes, they never went into the campus. They went to the football ground. Open space. Prabhakaran came there and kicked one chap. ‘Let him survive to tell the story’ he said. All the others were killed. And so many people are dead, 24 people are dead… If it was a success, it would have been a success, what a great success! Prabhakaran captured! It is unfortunate that persons were killed…
Q: You were worried after the boat tragedy?
One should not worry about this and that. That is OK. The boat incident was a diplomatic failure, diplomatic-political failure. The IPKF had nothing to do with it. I can write in bold letters that even if an open court is held people will talk about it. Operations, we had planned and we had executed them. But our aircraft support at the last minute was called off. In place of nine helicopters, we were given five and four in the second sorties. So we had to ground operations to link with that. That upset the whole thing, we suffered casualty…
Q: All that because you had no idea of the LTTE?
Only that we didn’t know their dispossession. Their caches. They had buried all their weapons, they had buried all their ammunition, they had buried all their supplies, they buried their money. And they knew where to dig. Their caches were all over. Not like us. We had a long administration tail. Even live goats were being sent. You can’t fight a war like this…
Q: So from word go it was flawed?
They should have had a proper war game. They should have known which troops to send. They should have known the terrain in Sri Lanka. Not that we rescinded it, we were pretty happy. I had in my mind that we would have the settlement by December and be back in Secunderabad. But then the whole critical political failure. We had no political backing. There should have had a civil-military liaison office. They should have come from the beginning. All IAS, IFS officers came much later. All political problems, it is not for the army to handle. We don’t handle political problems, we only fight.
Q: At the end of it all, when you were transferred out in an year, you felt humiliated?
No. Why should I feel humiliated? No question. I never felt guilty. It is this [then Indian high commissioner to Colombo J N] Dixit. When I refused his orders it was Dixit who went and spoke to the chief…
Q: But people humiliated you?
Nobody. Even Dixit did not dare to talk to me. I will take off his pants. Really, I have not forgiven him. He has done the greatest damage…
Q: Was the [IPKF] withdrawal rightly timed?
The IPKF should have never withdrawn. Why should they be withdrawn? Why they got withdrawn? Because [then Sri Lankan prime minister] Premadasa wanted them to withdraw. At what cost have we come back? We lost 1,500 to 2,000 people. All the weapons we imported, we handed them over to the EPRLF. He had no business to do that, [Lieutenant General] Kalkat. The IPKF boarded the ships, the EPRLF was annihilated by the LTTE, and all the weapons were taken away. EPRLF was put into a ship and rehabilitated in some island off Orissa. They deserted Jaffna. And Jaffna is back with the LTTE…
Q: Will the fight in Sri Lanka go on?
They are going to fight. We have parallels in Nagaland. Troops were inducted in 1957, now how many years? Still, fighting... Every day they are getting killed. This will carry on. The LTTE is not a simple soul to crack. A hard nut. Lead by Prabhakaran, a highly-motivated man. He has only one aim, Eelam. When India went in, they didn’t want them [LTTE] to win independence outside the [Sri Lankan] constitution because it had problems in Kashmir etc. They didn’t want Trincomalee to become Diego Garcia, because there were oil wells there. I don’t see any peace in the near future.”
In sum, Dixit (diplomat), RAW (Indian Intelligence Agency), and Indian soldiers Col. John Taylor and Maj.Gen.Harkirat Singh represented different faces of India. They worked against the interests of Pirabhakaran. However, their assessments of their encounters with Pirabhakaran and LTTE, project unanimous conclusions; i.e., Pirabhakaran has been a highly motivated strategist, who is innovative and talented. He possesses exceptional survival and resilience skills. However, it took nearly 10 years for their wisdom to be released to the public.
Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord of 1987
The Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord of 1987, which led to LTTE’s war against the Indian army, is an ideal example for a ‘Rashomon’ event. [for the explanation of Rashomon theme, see The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – Part 9]. An event occurred, in which quite a few participated and there was an observer. Then there were others who heard the story. When the event was later described by the participants, observer and the listeners, everyone delivered his or her own version and the truth became entangled on the description of the event, including what happened immediately before the event and after the event.
Chronologically, I list some of the prominent versions, as they came out. The EPRLF’s version was presented by the Broken Palmyra scribes in 1990. J.R.Jayewardene’s version was described by Prof.K.M.de Silva in the second volume of his sycophantic biography on the UNP leader, which appeared in 1994. Indian army’s version on its induction to Eelam was presented by Gen.Harkirat Singh in 1997. Sri Lankan army’s version was also presented by Major General Lucky Algama in 1997. India’s official version came in the form of Dixit’s memoirs in 1998. Panrutti Ramachandran, who was MGR’s right-hand man during that period, presented MGR’s version in 2000. For record, I present Lucky Algama’s version and Panrutti Ramachandran’s version as well.
Major General Lucky Algama’s assessment:
Lucky Algama lost his life in December 1999, at the campaign platform of the last Presidential election in Sri Lanka. He was a major player in the Sri Lankan army during UNP’s rule. In October 1997, he was interviewed in London by Thilak S.Fernando, who has posted this interview in his website [London Diary], with the note, ‘an interview which never found its way to a Sri Lankan newspaper’. Excerpt:
Fernando’s question: ‘During the period of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the North and East of Sri Lanka, the strength of their columns were reported to be in the region of 85,000 cadres. Yet they could not capture Prabhakaran! What was the Sri Lankan Army’s role during that period?’
Algama: ‘The strategy of the IPKF was to saturate the captured areas with their troops. They could do that because their manpower was enormous. If they wanted to capture Prabhakaran, definitely there were ample opportunities to do so. However, they did not capture him because their arrival on Sri Lanka soil was for a completely different purpose – due to the wrong foreign policy adopted by the Sri Lankan Government at the time. Our foreign policy appeared to be detrimental to India at the time, therefore, the IPKF came only to safeguard India’s interests and certainly not to solve Sri Lanka’s problems.’
Panrutti S.Ramachandran’s assessment:
Of all the versions presented on the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord, this version seems to have closest alignment to what Pirabhakaran and his patron MGR would have thought about it in July 1987.
“…. Though the accord contained some positive aspects, it was inherently defective. The problem was between Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in Sri Lanka. The accord should have been between them, and not between India and Sri Lanka. India can be a guarantor at best to see the implementation of any such agreement. Unfortunately, the accord was more like a pre-arranged marriage by parents without consulting the daughter, the eventual bride. Moreover there was a clause in it, putting the onus on India to disarm the LTTE, within two days of signing of the accord.
The accord was shown to the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MGR, almost as a fait accompli. He was asked to bring round the LTTE for this arrangement. In fact the LTTE raised at that time a pertinent question, as to why they should vouch for an agreement between India and Sri Lanka. On behalf of MGR, I took the onerous responsibility of trying to convince the LTTE. I prevailed upon the LTTE that there were aspects in this to be looked into. For the first time, the Government of Sri Lanka recognised Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka as Tamil homeland. Secondly in the past whenever Tamils entered into agreements with the Sri Lankan government, it always went back. But this accord allowed India to be a guarantor. Third, an interim government for the Tamil homeland was incorporated which gave legitimacy to LTTE and allow it to form a government. And furthermore it was only an interim arrangement.
When everything went as planned, the Sri Lankan government stabbed India by arresting LTTE cadres, who ultimately committed suicide under the custody of Sri Lankan army. The IPKF presence in Sri Lanka could not save their lives. Naturally LTTE was unwilling to go by the accord. Instead of pacifying or renegotiating with the LTTE, Rajiv ordered IPKF to disarm them. That was the fateful decision taken at Delhi in which I too participated. I was asked to leave the meeting because of my strong protests against the decision (emphasis added). Immediately, I met G.Parthasarathy at his residence in Delhi and apprised him of what happened in the meeting; he said, “this boy (he was referring to Rajiv) is immature; Everything is gone; Nothing can be saved”. His prophecy came true. The intention of the Indian government to “disarm LTTE within 24 hours” almost went on for two years, ending in a historical tragedy, including the death of Rajiv Gandhi…” [India Today.Com website, May 2000]
Pirabhakaran’s assessment and a retrospective summary
Pirabhakaran’s assessment of the performance of LTTE against the Indian army appeared in the Time magazine (April 8, 1990; Asian edition) and it has already been presented (see, Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 1). Retrospectively speaking, how did Pirabhakaran’s LTTE fare against the Indian army?
Indians present a face-saving excuse that if they were allowed to stay a few more months, they would have ‘finished’ their work in disarming the LTTE, but Premadasa’s government spoiled this job. Sri Lanka’s politicians and its army men (who were only spectators), harboring an ample dose of jealousy that Pirabhakaran had gained more stature by his confrontation with the Indian army, insist that if not for Premadasa’s back-handed help, LTTE would have been history by 1990.
The strategy adopted by Pirabhakaran was similar to what Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap did in Vietnam in the 1960s. As Giap reminisced his famous strategy to Stanley Karnow in 1990,
“We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American Government to continue the war. [Gen.] Westmoreland was wrong to expect that his superior fire power would grind us down. If we had focused on the balance of forces, we would have been defeated in two hours. We were waging a people’s war – America’s sophisticated arms, electronic devices and all the rest were to no avail in the end. In war there are the two factors – human beings and weapons. Ultimately, though, human beings are the decisive factor. Human beings! Human beings!” [New York Times Magazine, June 24, 1990]
Pirabhakaran was shrewd enough to learn from an Asian military genius and innovate the methods to his environs 15 years later. Like what Giap did to the American government, Pirabhakaran decisively broke the will of the then Indian government. Pirabhakaran also adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy and modified it to the 1980s. Wrote Gandhi, about his strategy against the British army,
“The British want us to put the struggle on the plane of machine guns. They have weapons and we have not. Our only assurance of beating them is to keep it on the plane where we have the weapons and they have not.” [Time magazine, Feb.9, 1948]
Pirabhakaran’s success against the Indian army was achieved by blending the strategies of Gandhi and Giap to his advantage. If tactical alliance with Premadasa helped his goal, he was bold enough to give it a try. Next, I trace the three major outcomes of the Indo-LTTE war in the 1990s. (To be continued)