25 Years ago, an exit following a debacle
Part of the reason why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam did not get eliminated when it had assumed dangerous proportions in the eighties lies at India’s door. Ironically, two very dissimilar actions New Delhi took on Sri Lanka provided oxygen to the terrorist organisation and emboldened its chief Velupillai Prabhakaran to be even more brutal. The first was that it arm-twisted Colombo to halt the Lankan Army’s decisive assault against the LTTE in mid-1987 and air-dropped relief material that was seized upon by a desperate Prabhakaran and his beleaguered outfit with glee. The second, and the contrary, step was that New Delhi sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force to disarm the LTTE and establish provincial regimes in the Tamil-dominated North and the East. Both the missteps happened in quick succession, and both were initiated by Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister.
The first gave a fresh lease of life to Prabhakaran and his cadre, while the second strengthened their resolve and provided them occasions to boost their morale by getting the better of the IPKF during many confrontations. While it is true that the IPKF did register some victories – it succeeded in clearing up significant areas and pushing the LTTE deeper into the jungles – the overall impact was one of a pyrrhic win at best. In any case, by the time the so-called peacekeepers returned home after some three years of a futile battle – the last men exiting 25 years ago in early 1990 – the LTTE had become even stronger to continue terrorising people and eliminating its enemies. The LTTE’s anti-New Delhi venom culminated in the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – the leader who had prevented Sri Lankan President J.R Jayawardene from crushing the LTTE and ordered the air-drop of supplies to help the terror group. It would take the Sri Lankan Army more than two decades to snuff out the outfit and put out its leader.
If the two decisions India took were contradictory to each other, the justifications offered for them were amusingly similar: New Delhi was accommodating to the LTTE on humanitarian grounds and also because it did not want a confrontation which could flame up passions in Tamil Nadu for cession from India. It later targeted the LTTE because the latter’s growing separatist campaign was arousing strong sentiments among sections of the people in Tamil Nadu, for an eelam of their own. New Delhi was also worried that continuing support to a secessionist group in a neighbouring country could weaken its position vis-à-vis its offensive against the Kashmiri separatists.
A great deal has been written by the IPKF’s apologists and critics, and their opinions have expectedly been on opposite ends of the pole. Yet, they all concede that the IPKF had largely failed in its mission, and failed because of the confusing and ham-handed approach of the Rajiv Gandhi Government. It is not surprising that both India and Sri Lanka had had enough of it by the time Rajiv Gandhi made way for V.P Singh as Prime Minister in end-1989. V.P Singh, promptly heeding a call by L Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had taken over from Jayawardene earlier that same year, decided to call back the IPKF. But that (and the fact that Premadasa allowed the LTTE to re-occupy areas the IPKF had wrested from the Tamil Tigers) did not win the new Lankan President the terror outfit’s gratitude; the LTTE assassinated him in May 1993.
Author and academic Rohan Gunaratna’s book, Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, should easily be among the most exhaustive and authoritative accounts that exist on New Delhi’s fatal decisions to stop the decimation of the LTTE in 1987 and send in the IPKF months thereafter in pursuit of the group. Calling it the “march of folly”, Gunaratna said military historians would draw a parallel between the Indian Government’s decision to deploy the IPKF against the terror group and the interventions of the American troops in Vietnam, the Chinese troops in Cambodia and the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Like in those three cases, India, he added, was fighting someone else’s war it was bound to lose. He blamed “political considerations” for the debacle: IPKF troops were ordered to use only small arms in most conflict zones to avoid civilian casualties; IPKF commanders had been directed to minimise casualties on their side, thus preventing them from going all out against the Tigers; the IPKF was forever being told to be restrictive in its response so that a political solution could be hammered out alongside. Gunaratna quoted an Indian Army officer as saying, “We are fighting the enemy with one hand tied behind our back.”
The author observed, “Those who violated the guidelines drawn up by New Delhi…were punished. Some were court-martialled, called back home, transferred, (their) promotions held in abeyance, demoted or even pre-maturely retired. This included even an IPKF Major General.” And the ones who continued to confront the LTTE were engaging an enemy they had themselves trained and armed even (if not always officially). Given these issues, it is no wonder that the IPKF returned home feeling less than victorious. It must be said, however, that the IPKF personnel did the best that they could in the highest traditions of Indian military, under the most stifling circumstances the political masters of the day had laid down in their (lack of) wisdom.
The other episode – that of the Rajiv Gandhi regime bullying Colombo in May 1987 to halt its strike against the LTTE strongholds just when the end seemed near for the terror group and its chief Prabhakaran – was equally disastrous. The Sri Lankan Army had launched what was called Operation Liberation, which according to Gunaratna, was a “full-scale assault by 8000 men on the Vadamarachchi sector of Jaffna. The operation had been masterminded by National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali and executed by General Cyril Ranatunga, who went on to become somewhat of a cult figure. Then President Jayawardene had revealed to the book’s author, “I told the Generals to raze Jaffna to the ground, to burn the town and then to rebuild it.” Prior to the offensive, the Army had dropped pamphlets asking civilian residents to move out to safety. Jayawardene had emphatically stated that it was a “fight to the finish… either they win or we win”.
But New Delhi came to the Tamil Tigers’ rescue. The author quoted Rajiv Gandhi as expressing his dismay. The Indian regime saw the offensive as “genocide” and “carnage” – words that in a different context later came to be readily bandied about by various busybodies and human rights activists to deride Colombo’s successful elimination of the LTTE and Prabhakaran. Jayawardene also told the author, Gunaratna, that while India would not have invaded Sri Lanka even if he had defied Rajiv Gandhi, it would “have helped the LTTE”. He added, “I would have been a