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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90): An Anthology > Part 1 > Part 2 Broiling and Near-toppling of Rajiv Gandhi > Part 3 The Annoyance and Anger of the Sinhalese > Part 4 The Deals of Indian Mandarins of Deception > Part 5 The Rage of Sinhala Buddhist Monks > The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology. Part 1 > Part 2 > Part 3 > Part 4 > Part 5 > Part 6 > Part 7 > Part 8 > Part 9 > Part 10 > Part 11 > Part 12 > Part 13 > Part 14 >
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology. Part 2
1 December 2007
The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology. Part 2
Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
As I had mentioned in the part 1 of this anthology, in his all-encompassing ‘Dictionary of Wars’ (1986), compiler George C. Kohn had listed Alexander’s Asiatic Campaign (329 – 327 BC), as the first historically recorded military engagement in the Indian subcontinent. Our knowledge about this military engagement is mainly derived from the records of Greek historians who accompanied Alexander’s army to India.
Though for centuries, Alexander’s incursion into the current Punjab region of India has been presented rather flatteringly in the historical treatises authored by the Western authors (who had copied the Greek historians), Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t buy this view. In his book ‘Discovery of India’ (1946), Nehru had written as follows:
Though a time span of nearly 2,223 years separated the two military engagements, in a sense, some parallels can be drawn between Alexander’s attempted incursion into India and that of Indian army’s 1987 incursion into Eelam. Merely one month after the Indian army’s much-touted ‘muscle-flexing’ against Pirabhakaran-led LTTE in Jaffna, both Time and Newsweek magazines (dated November 9, 1987) carried the same deflated message in their news captions. While Time carried a caption “India steps into a quagmire”, Newsweek even shortened this into an assertive caption “India’s Quagmire”!
I present below seven chronologically-arranged newsreports and commentaries (including one profile on Pirabhakaran) that appeared in October-November of 1987, from Far Eastern Economic Review, Newsweek and Time magazines.
During this phase of war, a few photos of sarong-clad LTTE fighters carrying guns in their hands made the pages of these magazines. For the arm-chair pundits and analysts illiterate in battle field strategies, this provided some grill for their sneering. But these arm-chair pundits were too smart by half. They failed to grasp the simple fact that sarong provided a cost-effective, combat camouflage attire for the young LTTE fighters, to melt in with the populace.
The commentary which appeared in the Newsweek of Nov.9, 1987 under the caption ‘India’s Quagmire’ is truncated at the end, since the page containing last few sentences has been inadvertently misplaced in my collection. Since the contributor by-line appeared at the end of the commentary, now I’m unable to identify the author of this commentary. My apologies to the author. Wherever they appear, the passages in italics and the words within parenthesis are as in the originals.
Tigers in a corner - [V.G.Kulkarni; Far Eastern Economic Review, Oct.29, 1987, pp. 36-37]
After 11 days of fierce fighting with heavy loss of life on both sides, elements of the Indian peace-keeping force (IPKF) achieved a breakthrough in their operations against Tamil separatists when they entered northern Sri Lanka’s Jaffna town on 19 October. But the offensive, carried out by troops from the 54th Indian Infantry Division, has so far failed to achieve its ultimate objective – the capture of the top leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the largest separatist group.
The IPKF is expected to spend the next few days completing its capture of Jaffna. But if the Tigers’ leadership slips the Indian net it could regroup its remnant rank-and-file and disappear into the jungles to restart hit-and-run attacks against both army and civilian targets, turning the Indian operation into a politically sensitive stalemate.
On 9 October, the day before the IPKF launched its full-scale offensive, Gen. K. Sundarji, India’s chief of army staff, flew to Colombo to consult with perturbed senior Sri Lankan Government and army leaders. The mood in the capital then was decidedly ugly as the Tigers, who have not accepted the 29 July Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord, had unleashed a terror campaign killing some 200 Sinhalese villagers in Eastern Province.
To mute the Sri Lankan cries of keep-the-peace-or-get out, Sundarji is known to have assured his counterpart: ‘Give us a few days and you will start seeing the results.’ In the event, his estimate turned out to be rather optimistic. The seasoned Indian troops – from the Maratha, Dogra, Gurkha, Madras and paratroop regiments – had to fight every inch of the way, suffering heavy casualties.
According to Indian sources, the IPKF’s casualties by 19 October totalled 103 killed and 332 wounded. Another 22 soldiers were reported missing and presumed dead. Official Sri Lankan sources privately put the Indian casualties at a much higher figure and some unconfirmed estimates run to 200 deaths. Indian officials in Colombo put the Tigers’ losses at 527 killed, with another 254 captured. With the hardcore Tigers’ strength estimated at about 2,500, almost one-third of them are known to have been put out of action.
As the IPKF had been functioning in the 2,600-km2 Jaffna peninsula of Northern Province since early August and trying to persuade the Tigers to hand over their arms, the Indians had a fair idea of the Tigers’ strength. But apparently, the Indians did not anticipate such fierce resistance even from a band of committed extremists. Being completely familiar with the terrain, and having the advantage of being able to mix with the civilian population, the Tigers had laid a vast network of mines and booby traps, the extent of which probably surprised the Indians.
Mindful of civilian casualties in the heavily populated peninsula, the Indians were also constrained in their use of heavy weapons and air support. Indian officials said their troops were ‘fighting with one hand tied behind their backs’, to avoid harming civilians whom they had come to Sri Lanka to protect.
Two brigades of the 54th Division moved on Jaffna in a pincer attack from the north, west and south. In addition, the Indians had control of the Dutch-built fort in the town’s western edge adjoining the sea. The sniper fire from roofs and tree-tops and the mines and booby traps were so heavy that the Indians were still 4-8 km from Jaffna’s municipal limits after one week’s gradually inching advance. Fighting had been so heavy that forward battalions had to be rotated – with some fresh reinforcements from Indian – after the first week.
Although Indian officials in Colombo maintained that aerial strafing and heavy artillery had not been used, other sources confirm that selective use of such support had to be resorted to. On the night of 12-13 October, at least two platoons of commandos were helicoptered to an open space near the medical faculty of Jaffna University initially without air cover. The first platoon was butchered by the Tigers lying in wait, so the Indians asked for Sri Lankan air support, with the help of which the second platoon managed to fight its way out and join up with other Indian troops some miles away. Aerial strafing is known to have been used on at least three occasions during the operations. Similarly, heavy artillery has been used.
Use of such heavy weapons must have inevitably caused civilian casualties, more so because the Tigers are known to have used civilians – including women and children – as human shields against the Indian troops. Indian officials do not talk of civilian casualties, while official Sri Lankan sources privately admit to not more than 80 civilian deaths. But the Tigers have managed to pass messages to the outside world claiming hundreds of civilian deaths and extensive damage to buildings. An opposition political group in Madras claimed on 20 October that some 700 civilians had died in bombing and artillery fire, a claim dismissed by Indian officials as ‘terrorist propaganda and disinformation’. As journalists are barred from the battle zone, the claims and counter-claims cannot be confirmed.
To avoid hardship to civilians, the Indians through loudspeakers and air-dropped leaflets had asked people to move to safe areas like temples and schools and nearly 400,000, or half the peninsula’s population, had sought shelter. Since many houses were booby-trapped, with bombs rigged to explode at the touch of a light switch, electric power to the whole peninsula was cut off on 17 October. Food shipments by air and sea were sent from India through the Indian and Sri Lankan Red Cross to the population, though distribution of supplies has proved difficult.
Despite their determination, the Tigers were feeling the pressure after a few days of fighting and sent ceasefire offers to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, political leaders in Madras, the commander of the 54th Division and even to Colombo. But as the Tigers would not surrender their arms before the operations were called off, New Delhi turned down the peace feelers.
In Madras, the former Jaffna commander of the Tigers, Sathasivam Krishnakumar (alias Kittu) – echoing his leader Velupillai Prabhakaran - declared ‘the LTTE will not surrender its arms unconditionally, even if all its guerillas have to die.’ Although Indian troops had large parts of Jaffna town under their control by 20 October, with both sides committed to a fight-to-the-finish, the IPKF will have to inch from building to building to flush out the Tiger strongholds, from ‘the maze of booby traps and rubble’ described to the REVIEW by a young Tamil refugee from Jaffna.
According to reports from New Delhi, 6,000 additional troops were being airlifted on 20-21 October. This would bring the strength of IPKF in the Northern and Eastern provinces to almost 20,000.
Insubstantial support: Tamil Nadu parties divided over response [Salamat Ali; Far Eastern Economic Review, Oct.29, 1987, pp. 36-37]
The progress of the Indian peace-keeping force (IPKF) in the battle of Jaffna has been admittedly slow, but there are no signs yet of any political pressure from the Tamil Nadu state on New Delhi to halt its operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – usually known as the Tigers. So far there have been little more than pro-forma pro-Tiger statements from the two principal political parties in the state, which has traditionally provided political support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.
The two bitter foes in Tamil Nadu politics – the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, allied to India’s ruling Congress party, and the principal opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – have both expressed sympathy for the Tigers. But the call for a protest strike on 16 October backed by the ruling AIADMK and sundry other political parties was a flop.
The Tigers have long enjoyed the support of the AIADMK party chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, who is currently under medical treatment in the US. His illness, and infighting over his succession, is thought to account in part for the low-key response by the AIADMK to the IPKF operation as support from New Delhi will be crucial in securing the future leadership of the party.
Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran appealed for support to opposition DMK President M. Karunanidhi who made appropriately sympathetic noises but did little else. But the appeal to Karunanidhi could be one of the reasons for an urgent letter sent by Ramachandran from his hospital bed to Vancouver where Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was participating in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The contents of the letter were not disclosed but if it sought an easing of pressure on the Tigers in Jaffna, it was a total failure. Gandhi said in Vancouver that the IPKF would only accept the Tigers’ unconditional surrender. A Tigers’ spokesman said in the Tamil Nadu state capital, Madras, on 16 October: ‘Even if we are defeated due to the superior fire-power of the Indian army, we will revert to guerilla war and our struggle for Eelam [a homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils] will go on indefinitely.’
Although there are signs of unhappiness in sections of the AIADMK, these are attributed by experienced political observers less to any sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils than to the infighting within the ruling party over the imminent war of succession to the leadership. Ramachandran is considered too feeble to retain the leadership and there are at least three known factions aspiring to succeed. None of them wants to be seen as being indifferent to the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils, but at the same time each is wary of taking any step that might jeopardise its chances of support from New Delhi.
However, Ramachandran’s protégé, AIADMK Deputy Secretary-General, K. Kalimuthu, said on 12 October that the IPKF, fed and paid for by Indians including Tamils, was doing the dirty job of exterminating the Tamil Tigers for the Sri Lankan Government.
In the neighbouring Tamil territory of Pondicherry, P.K. Loganathan, the leader of AIADMK in the legislative assembly, submitted a memorandum to Pant demanding an end to the IPKF operations. But neither the general public nor the political parties in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry seemed to have been aroused to any violent reaction by Tiger accusations of IPKF atrocities, including the charge that they had recovered several dismembered naked bodies of Tamil women who had been raped.
The general line of the AIADMK’s leadership seems to be to express full sympathy for the Tigers but also to call upon the guerillas to ‘cooperate with the IPKF,’ and to ask the Indian Governemtn to negotiate with the Tigers. Aware of the various political dilemmas of the Tamil Nadu political parties, Pant during his 16 October visit to Madras said that his government had the interests of Tamils at heart and for that reason could not endanger their larger interests.
The reality on the ground in Madras is that the Tigers’ office is under total siege by the police. Earlier, on 11 October, the police had raided the office and also a few of the Tigers’ camps on the Thanjavur coast to search for Prabhakaran who at that time was rumoured to have slipped out of Sri Lanka.
In addition, the estimated 95,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living outside the established camps have been ordered to report with their documents to district magistrates for gradual repatriation to Sri Lanka. They have been warned that they will be prosecuted as illegal aliens if they do not report for repatriation by 31 December.
But most observers agree that future developments depend upon how quickly the IPKF is able to neutralise the Tigers’ resistance. Any protracted involvement in Sri Lanka is fraught with dangers for India in both its domestic politics and foreign relations.
The Siege of Jaffna: India vs. the Tigers [Nancy Cooper; Newsweek, Nov. 2, 1987, p.35]
An army of peacekeepers invaded Jaffna last week. Led by tanks and armored cars, a column of Indian soldiers battled its way into town. Once inside the stronghold of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatists, the Indian troops captured several key buildings – including the clock tower and town hall – and then sealed the southern waterfront. Other Indian units blasted their way past heavily mined and booby-trapped rebel positions to reach Jaffna’s railway station and its damaged, overcrowded hospital. The 8,000 troops that converged on the town cut off the rebels’ escape routes and offered amnesty to the 2,000 trapped Tamil defenders. But the militants were unlikely to accept it: outnumbered and outgunned, they were still finding ways to keep the Indians at bay.
With his soldiers stymied, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi found himself in a deepening guerrilla war. By last week the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka had grown to 20,000 troops. Last July, when he signed a peace accord with Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, Gandhi thought he had found a solution to the four-year-old civil war between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and the country’s Tamil separatists. But the two leaders underestimated the determination of Tamil hard-liners. The rebels have refused to give up either their weapons or their demand for a separate state. The attempt to subdue the militants has already cost the Indian forces some 150 lives – and is beginning to run up political costs for Gandhi.
Despite their overwhelming advantage in firepower, Indian units were unprepared to fight an urban guerrilla war. Cadres from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest and most militant of the separatist groups, continue their resistance from a labyrinth of fortified bunkers in vegetable patches and buildings. The coconut palms that line Jaffna streets provide cover for snipers, threatening Indian troops on their house-to-house searches for rebels and weapons. ‘Every house is a booby trap, every street is a mine field,’ said a spokeswoman from the Indian high commission in Colombo.
To dislodge the guerrillas, the Indians have used bursts of cannon and machine gun fire from tanks and armored vehicles. (After suffering heavy losses in landmine explosions, they finally stopped moving troops in truck convoys and ordered their infantry to walk on the shoulder, rather than the middle, of roads.) The peacekeepers insist they have restricted their use of air power and artillery in order to avoid civilian casualties. But refugees from the Jaffna Peninsula report that ‘indiscriminate bombings’ have taken almost 700 lives. Sri Lankan defense sources confirm that the Indians are firing salvos from 105-mm howitzer batteries, and reporters who have visited Jaffna say that bullets and shrapnel have pitted many downtown walls.
The campaign has every prospect of dragging into a war of attrition; to avoid that, the Indians tried to lure the rebels to surrender. They broadcast their offer of amnesty over the radio and with loudspeakers and also airdropped leaflets. But their offer does not extend to the one man who might be able to end the siege of Jaffna. Tiger leader Velupillai Prabakaran – who, Sri Lankans leaders believe, has the power to tell his troops either to fight on or to capitulate – went underground when the Indian offensive began. His escape embarrassed the commander of the Indian peacekeeping force, Major Gen. Harkirat Singh, who was recalled to New Delhi for ‘consultations’. According to senior Sri Lankan defense officials, the new commander, Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, accused Harkirat Singh of incompetence. ‘Your intelligence is hopeless,’ Depinder Singh reportedly said. ‘You didn’t keep track of Prabakaran.’ The separatist leader and his seven top lieutenants may have left Jaffna for the jungles of central or eastern Sri Lanka. ‘Even after defeat, the Tigers can regroup and carry on a hit-and-run battle – for a long time,’ said one diplomatic source in New Delhi.
The widening war is sure to send increasing numbers of Sri Lankans fleeing from their homes. Last week some 300,000 refugees were huddled in schools and temples outside Jaffna. They face shortages of food, water and medicine. The local hospital has no electricity, and refrigerated blood supplies have been ruined. Dysentery has caused several deaths among the 50,000 refugees crowded at the Nallur Hindu temple. The human cost of the Indian campaign has embittered many Sri Lankans among the Sinhalese majority. Gandhi is losing support even in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home of 50 million Tamils. Many of his former backers there now denounce him for sending troops ‘to kill Tamils’. Indians fear they are being dragged into a war that will be impossible to win – and equally difficult to end. [Reported by Ron Moreau in Colombo, and Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi].
Fighting for Peace: Indian troops pursue Tamil guerillas in Jaffna - [V.G. Kulkarni, Far Eastern Economic Review, Nov.5, 1987, pp.46-47.]
India’s High Commissioner in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, is a seasoned and pragmatic diplomat, not often known to invoke the supernatural. But two months ago, after securing the fragile Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord, he told a reporter: ‘The accord could do with all the divine help it can get.’ The gods have been less than kind to this hapless country, which continues to be torn by ethnic strife.
In early August, Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils, who are Hindu, danced in the streets of Jaffna, where they comprise the majority of the population, to celebrate the onset of peace after four years of civil war. Now, as more than 20,000 Indian troops, who under the 29 July peace accord entered Jaffna to maintain law and order, battle it out with separatist Tamil guerrillas, death once again stalks Jaffna, forcing almost half the 800,000 people of Sri Lanka’s northern peninsula into makeshift refugee camps.
Compounding the instability of the Tamil north and east, Buddhist Sinhalese guerillas of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, or People’s Liberation Front) – who oppose the accord – have launched their own campaign of terror in the south. The JVP, which combines Marxist populism with ethnic chauvinism, has been killing civil servants, policemen and even MPs of the ruling United National Party (UNP) to destabilise the regime and oppose the peace accord.
Also arrayed against the UNP and the peace accord is the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by former prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike. The SLFP maintains that devolution of power to provincial councils – for Tamil and other areas – as agreed upon in the peace accord is a negation of the country’s unitary constitution. The induction of the Indian peace-keeping force to solve an internal Sri Lankan problem is commonly viewed as an infringement of the country’s soverignty. Joining the fray in a similar vein are conservative Buddhist clergymen, who are powerful in the countryside.
Nevertheless, octogenerian President Junius Jayewardene, who has taken the greatest gamble of his political life in signing the peace accord, is sticking to his guns. He has gone ahead with a draft bill for provincial councils, which is subject to public petitions in the Supreme Court prior to passage by the parliament.
Opposition petitions have argued that as the bill alters the basic nature of the constitution, there should be a referendum held on the issue. Jayewardene has responded to this suggestion by saying that if the Supreme Court favours a referendum, he would try to alter the legislation as necessary rather than seek the electorate’s will on the sensitive and urgent issue. His UNP has an overwhelming majority in the parliament, where the bill is due to be debated in early November.
After passing the bill, the UNP apparently plans to hold snap provincial polls in the Sinhalese-majority provinces some time early next year. Jayewardene has taken care to announce that no elections will be held in the Northern and Eastern provinces until peace is restored there. The provincial polls could mollify public grievances against the UNP and erode the Sinhalese attraction to the JVP. Even if the UNP were to lose some of the provincial councils to the opposition, it could rule comfortably through its parliamentary clout, the reasoning goes.
The president, a shrewd political tactician, has also aired plans to hold parliamentary elections by the end of next year. Even if the UNP were not to gain a majority in parliament at the next general election, Jayewardene anticipates that it would emerge as the largest single party forming a coalition government which he, as president, would appoint.
However, the success of all these electoral calculations is contingent upon the power and prestige of one man, the president himself. The talk of electoral manoeuvres might sound unrealistic at a time when a large foreign force is battling to restore normalcy in one-third of the country and the JVP’s guns are aimed at UNP politicians. But then the ultimate gamble of the peace accord was taken by the president alone, and he has staked everything on making it work. The elimination of Tamil terrorism by Indian troops will be the crucial factor in deciding Sri Lanka’s electoral fortunes in the next year or so.
As Jayewardene put it, India, which had been only a mediator in the ethnic conflict until the peace accord was signed, has now become ‘our collaborator’ against Tamil militants. The irony is greater because in the past four years Tamil militants had been given sanctuary in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state, and New Delhi had provided the guerillas with arms and training.
While the peace-keeping force came to protect Tamil interests, it was also charged with disarming the militants – a task which proved harder than expected. Of the six militant groups, the five smaller ones were disarmed through persuasion, but the largest, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been strong-armed by India into accepting the accord, proved the most intransigent.
Although by 29 September, Indian officials had secured for the LTTE a majority role in an interim administration for the north and east, the LTTE unleashed a series of merciless killings against Sinhalese in the eastern region. In response, the peace-keeping force launched a full-scale attack on LTTE strongholds on 10 October – a ‘fight to the finish,’ as the media here called it.
That the LTTE’s 2,500 fighters, whose external lifeline had been dependent on India, would take on the peace-keeping force, shocked New Delhi as much as it did the top brass in Colombo. More important, the LTTE lost the opportunity of taking over the administration of the two Tamil provinces. Earlier they had formed a political organ called the National Liberation Movement with grand plans for party cells from the village to provincial levels – leading some observers to hope that at last the ‘boys’ were showing some maturity in joining the political mainstream.
But the LTTE’s ensuing suicidal violence convinced almost everybody that it was neither serious about the accord nor capable of the political savvy to govern anyone. In recent years, as the Sri Lankan army’s ham-fisted attacks against the militants mounted, the Tamils were perceived as youthful revolutionaries fighting for self-determination of an oppressed national minority. But by their needless violence against civilians in early October and their about-face on the accord, they seem to have lost most of the sympathy they had gained with various international human-rights groups and parliamentary lobbies.
Significantly, the Tamils’ ethnic brethren in Tamil Nadu have also cooled towards the Sri Lankan militants. India’s 50 million Tamils have always been viewed by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese as a foreign fifth column. But Tamil Nadu, despite its secessionist past, has joined the national mainstream and supported the peace accord. While Tamil Nadu would still favour autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils, it would not likely support secessionist Eelam.
Although Sinhalese killing of Tamils since 1983 stirred anger in Madras, the Tamil militants’ slaughter of one another and their shooting of soldiers of the peace-keeping force’s Madras Regiment has ended what sympathy there was for the militants in that city. Feeling the brunt of the peace-keeping forces’s fire power, the LTTE did appeal to political leaders in Madras. But the ethnic opposition there found few people outside their party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), to agitate for the cause of the militants, who had been notorious for gun- and drug-running and resultant street violence in recent years.
All the same, New Delhi has been mindful of the Madras factor and has tried not to upset feelings there during the prolonged negotiations with Colombo. On 21 October, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on a visit to the US, met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran who is undergoing medical treatment there.
However, as reports of civilian casualties in the Indian offensive, which have run to several hundred, began filtering out, the opposition DMK staged a demonstration on 25 October in Madras. Some 3,000 DMK activists were taken into preventive custody by police and another 400 were arrested at Madras Airport, where they were picketing an airlift of troops to Jaffna. To prevent more agitators flocking to Madras, Indian railway services were suspended in Tamil Nadu. On 27 October, the DMK tried to picket Indian Government offices in the state, but the police appeared to have the situation under control after arresting scores of agitators.
By then, Jaffna city was under the control of the peace-keeping force, and 1,000-odd LTTE remnants had fled to the countryside. With relief supplies pouring in from India and rehabilitation work under way, the clamour in Madras is likely to calm down and New Delhi will then be able to contain any continuing disaffection in Tamil Nadu.
The real trump card strengthening Gandhi’s hand vis-à-vis Tamil Nadu – at least in the short run – is the near total support for the peace accord abroad. Both Moscow and Washington and all the Commonwealth countries have praised the Gandhi-Jayewardene move. While the motives of these countries in supporting the accord differ, their support implicitly takes into account India’s interests in its own neighbourhood. A European diplomat in Colombo said rather sanguinely: ‘Western countries do not doubt the Indian role in the region.’
Independent observers maintain that the US has been preoccupied with other international flashpoints – the Gulf, Central America, South Korea and the Philippines – to meddle in the backyard of the prickly Indians. Britain has a defence arrangement with Sri Lanka dating back to 1948, but it has remained moribund since the late 1960s. The general Western view seems to be that the Sri Lankan situation is a messy ethnic problem in which distant powers can accomplish little through arms aid or even political mediation. Thus, this reasoning goes, a solution is best left to the Indians, who would have no ‘foreign hand’ to blame if they fail. Even after the accord, Jayewardene lamented that when he asked the US for military aid, Washington wanted to check if it was alright with India before sending spare parts for American-made weapons.
Even China has washed its hands of the Sri Lankan situation. Peking has expressed sympathy with Jayewardene’s plight but has made it clear that its top priority until the next century is national modernisation, the precondition of which is peace. The Chinese had advised Jayewardene to settle the issue with India’s help. India’s relations with Sri Lanka have been better than those with other neighbouring countries. The problem of Indian plantation labour brought in by the British in the 19th century, and made stateless soon after Sri Lanka achieved independence, was solved after 40 years of intermittent negotiations.
Indo-Sri Lankan relations worsened in 1983 as Colombo resorted to the military option to solve the ethnic Tamil problem. The harbouring of Tamil militants by India heightened Sri Lankan suspicions that New Delhi could split the island nation. So Colombo sought security aid and expertise from Israel, Pakistan and Western mercenaries. The involvement of Pentagon-related companies in an oil-base facility in Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Harbour and the expansion of Voice of America’s broadcast facilities in the country added to Indian fears that unfriendly external forces were creeping into the Subcontinent’s backyard.
With the signing of the peace accord, some of these mutual suspicions have been swept aside – at least for the moment. There is also a geopolitical realisation in Colombo that Sri Lanka is, after all, a small island on the southern tip of the huge Indian landmass. As a Sri Lankan minister, who reluctantly backed the accord, put it: ‘From now on we will have to make good relations with India, our largest neighbour, a cornerstone of our foreign and security policies.’ Jayewardene has talked of a security and friendship treaty with India.
However, as goodwill in international relations is usually fickle, India is under pressure to restore normalcy to the Tamil areas and win back the support of people who have suffered due to Indian Army operations there. A few hundred hardcore LTTE guerillas could still stage hit-and-run raids from their jungle hideouts. The peace-keeping force is faced with the task of containing such violence within manageable levels. The sooner Indian troops accomplish these tasks, the better the chances for a full-fledged peace and a friendship treaty.
Tigers beat the net: The peace-keeping force fails in bid to capture rebels [V.G. Kulkarni, Far Eastern Economic Review, Nov.5, 1987, pp.48-49.]
On 25 October, 16 days after Indian troops launched their offensive against Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, Indian generals declared Jaffna a ‘free city’. But there was no one to celebrate the new ‘freedom’ as most of the city’s 130,000 residents had fled their homes. Thousands of people found shelter in a cathedral and two college campuses in the city, and a temple on the city’s outskirts. Jaffna’s streets were empty, except for the occasional army patrol, and many buildings had been damaged by rockets and mortar shells.
Reporters flown into the city by Indian Air Force helicopters could hear intermittent bursts of machine-gun fire and an occasional mine explosion at the other end of the city from their vantage point in the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort. A sniper holed up in the city’s heavily built-up old section took pot shots every now and then which Indian officers, explaining the battle situation to the media, shrugged off as of little consequence.
But the occupation of Jaffna – along with the heavy casualties suffered by Indian troops – has been a sobering experience for New Delhi’s peace-keeping force. Rather than merely taking over the city, the Indian Army’s primary objective was to capture the separatist guerillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Maj.-Gen. A.S. Kalkat, chief of operations in the Indian Army’s Southern Command, said some 1,200 LTTE fighters were trying to escape from the city, and the Indians were trying to stop them. But later Lieut-Gen. Depinder Singh, overall commander of the task force in Sri Lanka, admitted that the LTTE, including its top leaders, had slipped through the Indian net.
The whereabouts of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran has become a matter of speculation, with military sources placing him at one or another of several spots on the Jaffna Peninsula or in Eastern Province. While Prabhakaran remains at large, small bands of determined guerillas will likely continue to carry out sporadic raids, using their lethal home-made mines with impunity in Northern Province. In contrast to the pitched battles the LTTE has fought in the past two weeks in Jaffna and its outskirts, such terrorist-style attacks in remote areas could pose an increasing hazard to the peace-keeping force.
Howeer, one of the immediate tasks of the peace-keeping force is to bring relief to the people of Jaffna. More than 10,000 tonnes of food and medicine have been shipped from India for joint distribution by Indian and Sri Lankan Red Cross workers. With Jaffna’s civil administration paralysed by the fighting, some Indian civil servants have been sent in to help the city government coordinate relief efforts....
In order to regain the people’s confidence, a speedy restoration of normalcy is essential to the Indians, because their very reason for being here is to protect the interests of Jaffna’s Tamils. There have been civilian casualties – perhaps as many as several hundred.
Indian officers said each Tamil guerilla had, through coercion or otherwise, three or four civilians to help carry ammunition and food. The rebels also used civilians in ‘human-shield tactics’ to face the Indian troops. Many of these civilians have succumbed to Indian gunfire, leading to the accusation that the Indian peace-keeping force really meant ‘Innocent-people killing force’. If the peace-keeping force is alienated from the people, it will make the task of hunting down the remaining LTTE guerillas that much more difficult, not to mention the routine maintenance of law and order when elections are held for provincial councils some time next year.
Since 25 October, Indian forces have laid siege around the Nallur Temple on the city’s outskirts, where 30,000 refugees have sought shelter and where some Tamil fighters are holding 18 Indian soldiers captive. The Indians describe their siege as ‘passive’ and offer it up as an example of their efforts to avoid civilian casualties. But it is also a classic example of the dilemma faced by conventional forces coming up against guerillas. Indian officers say that if they had used their full firepower, the battle for Jaffna would have been won in a few days.
The peace-keeping force did not anticipate such fierce resistance or such cunning tactics from the sarong-clad LTTE rebels. In just two weeks, the Indians say, their casualties soared to 175 dead and nearly 600 wounded. Unofficial Sri Lankan estimates put these figures much higher.
The peace-keeping force was clearly neither prepared nor equipped for counter-insurgency. Moreover, its experience here reveals a failure on the part of Indian intelligence. Although the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external spy agency, had maintained close liaison with all of Sri Lanka’s militant Tamil groups for years, it too probably did not anticipate such a prolonged battle against them and apparently knew little of their infrastructure. Because of Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisation, Colombo’s own intelligence network, dominated by Sinhalese, is also known to be woefully inadquate.
Although the peace-keeping force was in place two months before the Jaffna operation began, it probably required little significant intelligence on LTTE rebel strongholds or ammunition caches on the peninsula. The massacre of a platoon of Indian commandos by the rebels soon after the commandos had landed in Jaffna during the night of 12 October, was also blamed on poor intelligence.
When the Jaffna operation began, only one brigade was earmarked for the peninsula. In less than 10 days, the Indians had to bring in an additional four brigades to cope with the fighting. These operational and intelligence shortcomings led to the commander of the peace-keeping force division in the north, Maj-Gen. Harkirat Singh, being recalled. Although Indian officials said Singh’s recall to India was for ‘consultations with higher headquarters,’ Sri Lankan Government sources and foreign diplomats said the division commander was ‘on his way out’.
With more than half of the estimated 2,500 LTTE fighters either killed or captured, Indian counter-insurgency will from now on shift to smaller encounters over a wider area in the north and east, requiring extensive intelligence work.
India Steps into a Quagmire [Ross H. Munro, Time, Nov.9, 1987, p.68.]
Two Soviet-built Mi-24 helicopter gunships hovered 200 ft above a market-place in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna Peninsula last week, emptying their formidable arsenal of rockets and rapid-fire shells. Indian pilots and gunners inside the distinctive double-bubble cockpits were trying to destroy a temporary field headquarters of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The Tigers had been waging a deadly rearguard action against the Indian peacekeeping force for more than two weeks, and the Indians were determined to wipe out the last pockets of resistance.
When the Mi-24s wheeled away from the marketplace, at least 21 civilians lay on the ground dying. Yet the Tiger headquarters a few feet away was hardly touched. At a hospital several miles to the north, foreign medical volunteers spent the afternoon amputating limbs and suturing bodies pierced by Mi-24 bullets. ‘All these patients are civilians,’ scrawled New Zealand surgeon H.D. (Dick) Rawson on a list of people he had treated that day, including two who died.
India’s war against the Tigers has turned into a shadowy conflict with no front lines, where civilians rather than soldiers are more likely to be casualties. Among the victims of last week’s fighting was TIME reporter Qadri Ismail. He was standing with a taxi driver on a country road watching a helicopter attack a target a mile away when the gunship suddenly turned and beelined for the two men, letting loose a burst of fire that left bullet fragments in the reporter’s neck.
Indian peacekeeping forces last week ended their offensive against the Tamil Tigers, but they have failed to defeat and disarm the vast majority of the guerrillas, who have been trying to sabotage the implementation of the peace accord that was supposed to end the four-year-long Tamil rebellion. Instead of destroying the Tigers as a military force, the Indian army took heavy losses and could not prevent the Tigers from melting away with their guns, ammunition and explosives into the back lanes of Jaffna and the jungles of Northern province.
While the Indians were claiming to have killed more than 700 Tiger guerrillas, independent Sri Lankan sources and foreigners who witnessed some of the fighting put the number at less than 100. Indian forces showed visiting journalists a captured Tiger cache of homemade mines and mortars but were able to display only two of the Kalashnikov automatic rifles that the Tigers use. Concluded a worried Sri Lankan intelligence official: ‘As a fighting force, the Tigers have survived largely intact.’
The Tigers slipped the Indian net, vowing to continue their struggle for an independent Tamil nation for years to come by waging an underground guerrilla campaign. In fact, that battle seems to have already begun. Tiger snipers last week were roaming Jaffna town, exploding mines in eastern Sri Lanka, and are suspected of bombing an Indian government office in the city of Kandy.
India, the regional superpower of southern Asia, appears to be on the verge of slipping into a quagmire comparable to the ones that trapped the U.S. in Viet Nam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Indian forces are bogged down in a foreign land, living among a hostile populace and fighting a counterinsurgency war that it cannot win despite overwhelming power and high-technology weaponry. Says a Western diplomat in the Sri Lankan capital: ‘The Indians are in very, very serious trouble.’
The Indian army had to pay a heavy price for its advance through Jaffna. Its own casualty figures, according to reliable sources, are considerably higher than the 214 officially listed. The soldiers have been shaken by guerrilla warfare, in which the main weapons include booby traps and homemade mines, and by the fearless Tigers, who are ready to die for their cause. Indian soldiers frequently blunder into ambushes laid by the Tigers.
The result has been increasingly jumpy Indian soldiers who have shot and killed Tamil civilians before realizing that they were unarmed innocents. TIME’s Ismail confirmed instances where nervous soldiers mistakenly shot a boy who was climbing a tree looking for a coconut, and at a middle-aged woman, inside a house, whose shadow was momentarily visible through a window. Estimates of civilian deaths in the offensive range upward from 400.
Despite claims to the contrary, Indian artillery and mortar units were not pinpointing their fire on military targets but were aiming broadly. In two cases, Indian shells landed directly on refugee camps. ‘Indian shelling is worse than Sri Lankan bombing,’ said one refugee. ‘You can see bombs falling from a plane, and you can run for cover. But when the shells come, you don’t know where they’re from or where they’re going.’ People could not understand why this was happening and kept saying, ‘The Indians came here to protect us, and look at what they’re doing to us.’...
Most Indian and Sri Lankan officials are downplaying the fact that the Tigers are still a formidable fighting force capable of inflicting havoc in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. But one Sri Lankan Cabinet minister admitted that it will prove impossible to implement the peace accord and restore democracy in areas where armed Tigers can still roam free. As long as that is happening, it will be equally impossible for the Indian peacekeeping force to return home.
India’s Quagmire [Newsweek, Nov.9, 1987, pp.24-27.]
Standing atop the stone parapet of the 17th century Dutch fort that dominates Jaffna, Brig. Manjit Singh last week described how his Indian peacekeeping troops had just routed the last of Sri Lanka’s Tamil guerrillas from the area. As he surveyed the shell-scarred buildings along the city’s waterfront, Singh proudly pronounced, ‘My sector is clear.’ Suddenly, a burst of gunfire and the thud of exploding mortars broke the spell. ‘That’s not my sector!’ the commander interjected. ‘One of our columns is still fighting two miles away.’
India’s hard-won capture of Jaffna has proved a hollow victory. As the peace-keeping force closed in on the Tamil stronghold late last month, the Indians allowed the noose to slip; in the final hours of battle some 1,200 fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) escaped to fight another day along-side their incendiary leader, Velupillai Prabakaran.
Now Indian soldiers patrol the narrow streets in a perpetual crouch to avoid sniper fire. Booby traps and mines set by a small rear guard of Tamil fighters take a daily toll. In the face of a tattered peace plan, a vengeful band of guerrillas and an increasingly hostile civilian population, India’s ‘peacekeeping’ operation now shows every sign of becoming a painful, long-term occupation – one that invites comparison to Ulster and Britain’s near 20-year standoff with the Irish Republican Army.
‘This is not the finale of the war, this is only a battle in a struggle,’ Anton Balasingham, Prabakaran’s senior political adviser, told NEWSWEEK at a safe house on the Jaffna Peninsula. ‘If India is bent on liquidating us, they will create conditions for a prolonged guerrilla war for which we are prepared.’
That’s hardly a prospect the Indians foresaw when they began arriving in Sri Lanka three months ago. Then the troops were welcomed as the gurantors of peace, courtesy of President Junius R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Their vaunted accord promised to end the four-year civil war between Sri Lanka’s primarily Buddhist Sinhalese majority and separatist factions of the mostly Hindu Tamil minority.
In exchange for the creation of a semiautonomous Tamil ‘homeland’ in the merged Northern and Eastern provinces, the LTTE, the largest and most militant of the separatist organizations, publicly agreed to hand over its weapons to the Indian force. But it’s clear now that the plan was built on false hopes and empty promises. The Tigers accepted the terms only under strong pressure from India and never surrendered more than a fraction of their arms. Less than six weeks after the agreement was signed, the Tigers were killing again, and by last month the Indians believed they had no choice but to take Jaffna.
That battle was far tougher than anyone expected, however, and now even the Indian commanders are anticipating a long campaign against an enemy they can neither see nor engage. ‘If normalcy means riding along streets freely,’ says Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, who took direct command over the more than 20,000 Indian troops just three weeks ago, ‘then it will take a long time to come.’ The reason, the Indians acknowledge, is that many of the Tigers got away. Those who didn’t escape into the jungle buried their weapons, changed into civilian clothes and quietly slipped into refugee camps where they became the guests of the Indian government. The Indian Army is trying to screen the camps for LTTE rebels, but without much success.
The Indians should never have been caught so badly off guard. For the last four years, practically until the moment Gandhi ordered his troops across the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka, New Delhi had been the LTTE’s patron and protector. Overtly and covertly, India helped arm and supply the Tigers. Support was especially strong in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, home to 50 million ethnic Tamils. There, Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, a key ally of Gandhi’s, openly allowed the LTTE to run training camps, even as New Delhi officially denied their existence. Despite the many links to the Tamils, however, the Indian peace-keepers seemed genuinely surprised by the size and strength of the Tiger force, and they were completely uninformed about Prabakaran’s whereabouts. That intelligence blunder apparently led two weeks ago to New Delhi’s temporary recall of Maj. Gen. Harkirat Singh, who oversaw the initial assault.
Hit and run: In a full-fledged guerrilla war the advantage will shift to the side of the Tamils. ‘We know every inch of this land,’ said one young militant who was recovering from minor wounds at Jaffna Hospital. ‘We can hit and escape.’ The LTTE’s military commander, who goes by the name Mahattaya, also escaped the Indian pincers and is said to possess an almost photographic memory of the lush Jaffna Peninsula. He stays on the move, using a walkie-talkie to order his fighters into position for an ambush or out of harm’s way, hardly ever bothering to look at a map. Of course the Indian assault on Jaffna did take a toll. In addition to killing several hundred rebel fighters, the Indians dealt the LTTE a psychological blow by denying the Tigers their secure base of operations. The LTTE had grown accustomed to operating in an open, quasi-governmental fashion in Jaffna and must now make the difficult transition to becoming a true guerrilla force.
The Tigers will find help everywhere they turn. After initially welcoming the Indian peacekeepers, Sri Lanka’s Tamils have now turned against them with a vengeance. The Indian assault on Jaffna claimed more than 200 civilian lives, and Tamil refugee camps and hospitals are filled with bitter survivors – and unverifiable reports of murders, rapes and pillaging at the hands of the Indian troops. (One 14-year old girl named Kalla has become a near legend among Tamils since she is said to have electronically detonated a landmine under an Indian Army convoy near Batticaloa, killing at least 20 Indian soldiers.)
Inside Jaffna’s war-damaged hospital last week, the wards were overflowing with civilian wounded. One young woman whose right leg had been amputated said she had been shot by Indian soldiers who had fired into a crowd of civilians. Nearby, another woman fanned away the flies from the blood-soaked bandage covering the wound where doctors had amputated the foot of her nine year-old daughter. Next to them lay her four year-old son, hit by shrapnel on his back and legs. The mother pulled out the death certificate of her third child, an eight year-old boy who had been killed when an Indian artillery shell hit their refugee camp. ‘The Tigers may have indulged in violence, but they are our boys,’ said an elderly Tamil man tending his wounded son. ‘The Indians are aliens in our land.’
Helicopter attack: The Indians have indeed shown that they are prepared to go to extremes to put down the Tigers. Last week New Delhi acknowledged that its forces had used Soviet-built Mi-24 helicopter gunships to attack an LTTE stronghold east of Jaffna in the city of Chavakachcheri. India reported that 27 rebel fighters had died in the attack, but Indian journalists who visited the scene reported seeing the bodies of at least 20 civilians in the smoldering market-place. At the weekend Indian troops surrounded a Hindu temple on the eastern outskirts of Jaffna, where as many as 8,000 refugees were camped. The Indian Army suspected that dozens of well-armed Tiger guerrillas were inside the temple and that the area had been mined. They were reluctant to storm the temple, however, for fear of causing more civilian casualties and of further alienating the Tamils.
Against those kinds of odds the Indian peacekeepers will have a tough time winning back much support. The Indian Army is embarking on a hearts-and-minds campaign to convince Tamil civilians it can be trusted to provide for the community by running the hospitals, feeding refugees, restoring electricity and restoring the peace. ‘We are bringing succor and security,’ says Maj.-Gen. Amarjit Singh Kalkat, somewhat optimistically. ‘Once the people feel we are here and will remain here to look after them, then this [trouble] will go away.’
Gandhi won considerable praise at home for his statesmanship at the time of the Sri Lanka accord, but public opinion is beginning to turn against him – though the anticipated backlash among Indian Tamils has not occurred. More than 200 Indian soldiers have been killed or have been reported missing during the occupation, and many Indians have yet to be convinced that the results are worth that price.
Moreover, the military operation is costing New Delhi more than $3 million a day, a hefty sum in a resource-strapped country already suffering the strains of a severe draught. ‘If military casualties continue to rise at the present alarming rate,’ editorialized the daily Statesman, ‘there is a distinct possiblity that more and more Indians will begin to question the logic of sacrificing the lives of our jawans [soldiers] in a foreign adventure whose main purpose seems to be to shore up Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s sagging domestic fortunes.’
And what of the July peace accord? For all practical purposes it appears dead. Last week Jayewardene said that although provincial council elections would be held as scheduled throughout the island in December, there would be no voting in the Northern or Eastern provinces until peace is achieved. [Last few sentences truncated.]