Shocking disclosures

Print edition : September 21, 2007

In his memoirs Maj Gen. Harkirat Singh has reproduced contemporary documents that reveal a lot that was not known about the IPKF in Sri Lanka.

MAJOR General Harkirat Singh (Retd.) is an upright gentleman and a fine soldier; altogether a man of integrity. He was Divisional Commander of 54 Infantry Division when, on July 29-30, 1987, he was sent to Sri Lanka as General-Officer-Commanding (GOC) of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). In January 1988, he got orders posting me out of Sri Lanka. The Overall Force Commander (OFC) of the IPKF was the GOC-in-C Southern Command, Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, who praised him in his memoirs The IPKF in Sri Lanka (Trishul Publications, Noida, 1991).

The cheerful and enthusiastic soldier had the misfortune of having to work with two egotistic and flamboyant figures, the Army Chief Gen. K. Sundarji and the High Commissioner J.N. Dixit. On retirement as Foreign Secretary in 1994, Dixit lost no time in setting a unique and disgraceful record as the first officer to denounce his successor publicly in a press interview.

Harkirat Singh paid the price for uprightness: an early ouster in January 1988. Depinder Singh wrote: All I could do at that stage was to suggest to Harry that he could represent against the posting as the change [and his transfer] were not at my instance. He did and though I recommended his case, it was some months before he was posted from the staff assignment he was on to command Maharashtra and Gujarat Area. Later, I was to question the COAS as to why we had been unfair to Harry; he agreed that we had been unfair but stated that redressal could only come from his successor (Sundarji was to retire on April 30, 1988, and General V.M. Sharmas name had been announced as the next COAS). (Emphasis added, throughout.) The wrong was done by Sundarji himself. He passed the buck of redress to his successor, cynically enough.

Depinder Singhs book contained a damning indictment of the political decision-making process in New Delhi; of the material help the LTTE received in Tamil Nadu even while its men were killing the IPKFs jawans; of the Research and Analysis Wings incompetence and of much else. The IPKF knew that the LTTE remained powerful even after the surrender of arms pursuant to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. It is unnecessary to recount here the fallout between the Government of India and the LTTE on October 7, 1987, when the IPKF was obliged to go to war.

Depinder Singh writes: Regrettably, the view taken in New Delhi was that these feelers [from the LTTE] indicated that the end was close and, therefore, the requirement was to stop talking and turn the screw some more. It was quite apparent that Ministry of External Affairs and RAW were recommending a contrary course of action to what the Army was; the tragedy was that their view was prevailing. I remember a telegram the High Commissioner sent from Colombo to Delhi stating inter alia that, according to information available to him, the LTTE collapse was imminent The reason why the Army view did not or could not prevail, perhaps, can be ascribed to the lack of rapport between the COAS and the Prime Minister undesirable in normal times, completely fatal in an emergency. I am not aware of why such a situation developed; perhaps it was a fallout of the days preceding Exercise Brasstacks in early 1987 when we almost went to war with Pakistan. Be it as it may, what I do know is that when I queried the COAS as to why our point of view was not being projected, his revealing reply was, Woh Sunta Nahi Hai (he does not listen).

Harkirat Singh was replaced by Lt. Gen. S.C. Sardeshpande whose memoirs, Assignment (Lancer Publishers, 1991), record the same story of ineptness and confusion. Harkirat Singhs memoirs are different. He has reproduced whole t exts of contemporary documents that fully support his version and reveal a lot we did not know despite all that was written.

The only orders received by the Commander of 54 Infantry Division in Sri Lanka were the contents of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord sent at midnight on 29/30 July 1987 from the COAS with instructions to read out that document to all ranks prior to their departure for Jaffna. The chiefs of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy had their reservations about the despatch of troops.

The OFC had no operational control over the IAF and the IN, or on the employment of the Indian Army Para Commandos based at Colombo and Palaly. The OFC acted as a link between 54 Infantry Division, and through the Army Headquarters with Air and Naval Headquarters. Unfortunately, Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh believed in giving only verbal instructions. His staff officers, under Maj. Gen. A.S. Kalkat, the MGGS [Major General, General Staff] who headed the Operational and Intelligence Staff at Headquarters OFC, took full advantage of this situation by holding the formation and unit commanders responsible for any act or omission, instead of shouldering the responsibility themselves. The responsibility for issuing written orders was that of the staff who unfortunately never bothered to issue confirmatory orders directive. It is sad that Maj. Gen. A.S. Kalkat and Brig. Manjit Singh, Commander 41 Infantry Brigade, did not stand by their formation and unit commanders. This can be attributed to the greed for personal benefits. Gen. V.N. Sharma, who took over as COAS after Sundarji, bluntly told me, The Commanders who initially launched the campaign have to pay the price for it and in this scenario, Harry, you had become the prime target. Palaly was the headquarters of the IPKF; Chennai of the OFC whose base as Commander, Southern Command, was Secunderabad.

The author writes: I am unsure of what prompted the Army Chief, Sundarji, to shift me out of Sri Lanka, but one of the factors must have been the letter that Indias High Commissioner J.N. Dixit reportedly wrote to Sundarji in September 1987 since I did not accept his order to shoot/arrest the LTTE supremo. Moreover, someone in the governments of India and Sri Lanka took exception to my remarks to the media in December 1987, that the IPKF took its orders from the Indian government and no one else, and that Indian troops would not leave the island until the Tamils are satisfied and their aspirations are met. It was probably the turning point which eventually led to my transfer out of Sri Lanka.

V. Prabakaran, LTTE chief. A 2002 picture.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

V. Prabakaran, LTTE

This brings us to three important disclosures. First, RAW began rearming other Tamil groups even while the LTTE was being disarmed in August 1987. The author gave Dixit the damning videotapes which the LTTE had given him. Secondly, on September 11, 1987, he met Dixit. According to Dixit, the ultimate objective of the IPKF was to discredit the LTTE in the eyes of the local Tamil population. In short, the IPKF was expected to play a double game. I realised that these tactics would not work since the Tamils had already understood that their aspirations for Eelam could be met only by the LTTE. Dixit then turned towards me and said, General, please ensure that the actions of the IPKF are in line with my discussions with the Prime Minister at Delhi. You should adopt a posture of gradual change from negotiations to coercion. The junior commanders during their contact should ascertain the view of the Tamils on the above approach.

The last one is shocking: On the night of 14/15 September 1987, I received a telephone call from Dixit, directing me to arrest or shoot Pirabakaran when he came for the meeting. Telling Dixit that I would get back to him I placed a call to the OFC. Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh directed me to tell Dixit that we, as an orthodox Army, did not shoot people in the back when they were coming for a meeting under the white flag. I then spoke to Dixit in Colombo and conveyed the message, emphasising that I would not obey his directive. I pointed out that the LTTE supremo had been invited by the IPKF in order to find a solution to the problems in the implementation of the Accord. Dixit replied, He [Rajiv Gandhi] has given those instructions to me and the Army should not drag its feet, and you as the GOC, IPKF will be responsible for it. The next morning I received a call from Lt. Gen. B.C. Joshi, the then Director General Military Operations, who supported my stand on Dixits directive. However, the COAS, Gen. Sundarji, expressed his annoyance. In fairness to Rajiv Gandhi, Dixits claim that he spoke on his behalf must be rejected. Dixit was prone to bragging and braggadocio.

A meeting was fixed at which Depinder Singh, Dixit and Prabakaran were present. The talks took place and were very successful and most of us concluded that the IPKF would be out of Sri Lanka by December 1987. All those who attended the meeting felt that the deadlock had at last been broken and that peace was in sight.

That was not to be. The boat tragedy in October and the suicides by the captured LTTE men led to the break. Dixit and Sundarji thought that Harkirat Singh was soft on the LTTE. The texts of his assessments on September 17 and 20 and on December 5, 1987, show him to be far more perceptive and realistic than Dixit. The Army lost 1,155 men when the IPKF withdrew.

Harkirat Singh paid the price for his uprightness and for being right. The book confirms the need for clear directives to the armed forces at all times. On October 8, 1987, Sundarji ordered him to launch operations that night itself. I could have prevented the COAS from leaving the Palaly airfield and demanded his orders in writing. Brig. Naveen Rawlley (later Lt. Gen.) did this at Salong airstrip to Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul, General Officer commanding IV Corps, during the Indo-Chinese conflict in 1962. Headquarters 2 Mountain Division produced this document, written in green ink, with the Divisions War Diary before Lt. Gen. Henderson Brooks during his investigations into the Indian Army debacle.

If that report had been published many a blunder might have been avoided. It is time to invoke the Right to Information Act to secure publication of the Henderson Brooks Report, 43 years after its submission to the government.

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