by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
With the Indian army dislodging the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) from its entrenched positions in the Jaffna peninsula through “Operation Pawan” and other military exercises the tigers began re-locating in large numbers to the northern mainland known as the “Wanni”.
The LTTE’s number two Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya had for long been commander of the Wanni region. The districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitheevu and Vavuniya came under his command.Mannar district was administered separately.
Thus Mahathaya’s power and influence increased tremendously after the spotlight shifted to the Wanni. The LTTE leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran himself had moved to the Wanni and was accommodated in secret locations in the Mullaitheevu jungles.Protecting Prabhakaran who was a prize target in Indian perception became top priority for the LTTE.
Initially the protection of Prabhakaran was entrusted to Lt. Col Navam who incidently was a Tamil of recent Indian origin. His family had moved to the wanni from the up country after the 1977 anti – Tamil violence.
Lt. Col Navam was in overall charge of Prabakharan’s security in particular and Mullaitheevu defences in general. Balraj functioned as Navam’s deputy.Being familiar with the jungle terrain ,Balraj’s services were indispensable to the LTTE at that juncture.
It was during this period that Balraj began interacting closely with his leader Prabakharan. The LTTE numero uno who at one time was reluctant to induct Balraj into tiger folds due to his PLOTE past was now greatly impressed by his unassuming simplicity and quiet efficiency.
Navam was killed in action when the LTTE launched an attack on the Indian army camp in Nedunkerny. Thereafter Balraj took over informally and was like Mahathaya’s deputy for the Wanni command
Wilting under the Indian army onslaught the tiger cadres in the Wanni were scattered and demoralised. Communication was a big problem. It was then that Balraj undertook an arduous mission to infuse morale into the LTTE within the Wanni
With authority delegated by Prabhakaran and Mahathaya, the lad from Kokkuthoduvaai began travelling the length and breadth of the Wanni. He travelled on foot moving from place to place and meeting with tiger cadre in different places. Despite the heavy Indian army presence,Balraj managed to accomplish his mission.
As a result the LTTE in the Wanni got invigorated and began going on the offensive in a limited capacity. A series of attacks on Indian patrols and posts were launched. This restricted Indian army mobility to a great extent. It is said that Balraj was instrumental in motivating tiger cadre through his pedestrian mission
It was during this time that the LTTE inflicted heavy losses on an Indian commando unit which infiltrated the Mullaitheevu jungles in search of Prabhakaran. After monitoring the Indian commando movement Balraj along with Lt.Col Navaneethan led a contingent of fighters to counter attack.
The LTTE split in two formations in the jungles of Pazhampaasi area. One was led by Navaneethan and the other by Balraj. While the group led by Navaneethan conducted a frontal attack on the Indian soldiers the group led by Balraj managed to move clandestinely through jungle routes and attack from behind. The Indians were caught in the middle and were virtually wiped out. The survivors were rescued by helicopter.
The LTTE variation of double envelopement adopted by Balraj in the jungle terrain rattled the Indian army.Thereafter all such jungle operations were suspended.The tigers continued to launch sporadic attacks on Indian installations. Things however began to change after the advent of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Soon the Indian army was on its way out.
After the withdrawal of the Indian army the tiger leader moved back to Jaffna with his retinue. Mahathaya also moved to Jaffna as LTTE deputy leader and president of the LTTE political party Peoples Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT).
There was also a policy change of sorts where the LTTE was now as far as possible encouraging cadre from a particular locality to take up leadership positions there.In keeping with this policy Balraj was made military commander for the Wanni in 1990. Theepan was appointed his deputy.This was the opportunity Balraj had been waiting for to demonstrate his military acumen.
After assuming command Balraj undertook a gigantic public relations exercise. He visited the families of fallen LTTE cadre and consoled with relatives.Balraj also went to the houses of people who had supported the LTTE during the Indian army campaign amidst great risk and hardship. He thanked them profusely and requested continuous support.
Balraj launched three attacks at different times on the Sri Lankan army camps at Mullaitheevu,Mankulam and Kilinochchi. They were all failures and the LTTE retreated after incurring heavy losses.
The A – 9 highway or Jaffna – Kandy road was then under the nominal control of the army from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The army had military camps in key areas.Balraj decided to establish control over the A -9 highway in the Wanni
The army camp at Kokkaavil on the A -9 highway was singled out as a target by the LTTE led by Balraj in the Wanni. A large scale attack was launched under the field command of Theepan and strategic command of Balraj. The army resisted fiercely and inflicted heavy losses on the tigers. Even Theepan was injured.
Instead of calling the attack off, Balraj himself took up field command on the second day. Balraj’s battlefront presence encouraged the tiger cadres. After heavy fighting the camp was overrun. This was the first time that the tigers had overrun a Sri Lankan army camp.
Encouraged by the fall of Kokkaavil the LTTE now set its sights on the Mankulam camp. Although the earlier attack had failed Balraj now devised a new tactical plan. In a black tiger or suicide attack, Lt. Col Borg drove a truck full of explosives into the camp at midnight and exploded himself. Tiger cadres led by Theepan followed in its wake and began attacking.
Meanwhile a second LTTE contingent led by Balraj and Navaneethan moved clandestinely through paddy fields and attacked the Mankulam garrison in the rear. Despite the element of surprise being in LTTE favour, the soldiers fought back valiantly .The fighting went on even after day break. The soldiers behan withdrawing from the main camp and began converging at the adjacent helipad and its environs.
It was then that Balraj executed one of his legendary “leading from the front” attacks. He personally led a reinforced attack on the helipad area and dislodged the soldiers. The helipad area was captured.Balraj however left an “opening” at the Southern end thus enabling soldiers to withdraw and move down several miles to Vavuniya.The LTTE seized a huge arsenal that included .50 calibre guns. This was the first time this happened.
The victories of Kokkavil and Mankulam raised LTTE stock. Balraj also became known as a reputed military commander.
Another operation where Balraj proved his military prowess was the Elephant pass operation of 1991.This was the operation codenamed “Tharai – Kadal – Aahayam ” (Land – sea – Air )and led by Mahathaya to lay siege to the Elephant pass base and capture it.The operation ended in failure and 673 LTTE cadre were killed.
Balraj and his fighters were tasked with the goal of penetrating the complex from the Kurinchatheevu sector.Balraj and his men delivered results by infiltrating through the lagoon and overrunning the military installation set up in the former guest house premises and retaining it till the operation was called off.They destroyed it while withdrawing.
The failure of other LTTE cadre to achieve their objectives led to overall failure of the operation. It was however a personal triumph for Balraj.
The LTTE in 1991 formed its first infantry brigade. It was named after Charles Anthony , Prabakharan’s trusted deputy and close companion who died in Meesalai on July 15th 1983.
Balraj was Prabakharan’s choice to be the first special commander of Charles Anthony brigade. He served so until 1993.Later he had a second stint as Charles Anthony special commander from 1995 -97
One of the innovative features adopted by Balraj in conducting operations was the “amphibian assault”. This was a tactic in which LTTE cadres attacked coastal army camps simultaneously from land and sea. At that time the naval wing known as sea tigers had not developed fully. So LTTE cadres would wade into the sea at a distant point and move through shallow waters on foot. At the given time attacks were launched from land and sea.
A cost effective tactic employed by Balraj in some of these operations was to go in for the sentry posts,bunkers and mini-camps instead of attacking heavily fortified main camps. The first experimental attack using this tactic was in Karainagar in the peninsula in 1991.
A reconnaissance mission was done by “Major”Kinni in the Karainagar naval camp area. Thereafter LTTE cadre led by balraj attacked posts along the Karainagar – Ponnalai area instead of attacking the base itself. Tiger cadres moved on either side of the Ponnalai causeway through shallow waters and attacked the security force positions in a concerted manner.
Balraj repeated this tactic in other areas also. It met with massive success in Vallalaai in the peninsula. Tiger cadres moving through shallow waters attacked and overran 155 posts in the Vallalaai-Thondamanaru area. Another operation in the mainland saw 64 positions being destroyed in the Nagathevanthurai-Poonagary sector.Both these were in 1992.
Another attribute of Balraj was his penchant to conduct reconnaissance missions known as “rekke” himself. Except on rare occasions Balraj himself would scout around the security camp vicinity sometimes going up to the outer perimeter fence.Though extremely perilous and most unbecoming for a military commander,Balraj would rationalise his conduct by saying that he had to personally experience the terrain to launch and lead an attack.
Apart from leading military assaults and offensives Balraj also excelled in strategic defence. He was mainly responsible for defeating, preventing, restricting or nullifying several military offensives by the armed forces.
Some of these were “operation Wanniwickrema” in Vavuniya, Operation ” lightning” in Manal aaru/Weli Oya, operation “leap forward” in Jaffna, , operation” Yarl Devi ” in Kilaly /puloppalai and operation “Agni Kheela” in Elephant pass.
One offensive Balraj failed to thwart was the first phase of “operation Jayasikurui”in 1997 where the armed forces took Omanthai and Nedunkerny. Operation ” riviresa “ phase one in Jaffna where Balraj also participated in defence was another failure for the LTTE.
Balraj was in overall charge of LTTE defences during Jayasikurui till the fall of Puliyankulam. Thereafter erstwhile eastern LTTE regional commander “Col” Karuna took over defence arrangements
“YARL – DEVI”
Balraj’s finest accomplishment in defensive war was Agikheela on April 24th 2001. The armed forces had moved out from the Kilaly – Eluthumattuvaal – Nagar Kovul FDL’s in a bid to re- take Elephant pass.The LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the army.
Balraj was engaged in preparing for a major amphibian assault in Poonagary –Nagathevanthurai in 1993 when the Sri Lankan army began its “operation Yarl-Devi”offensive. Since Elephant pass was under army control, transport to and from Jaffna was through points at Kilaly in the peninsula and Paranthannalloor in the mainland.”Yarl devi” operation commencing from Elephant pass was aimed at seizing control of Kilaly.
Balraj moved into the peninsula from Poonagary and set up defences at very short notice. The fighting was hectic but Balraj was himself injured during Operation Yarl Devi in the fighting at Puloppalai. He sustained serious injuries on a leg when he was firing an RPG at a T – 55 tank. The injury caused him to limp slightly when walking.Also he suffered pain in the leg when he walked for a long distance. Incidently the LTTE managed to capture a tank for the first time in this
Despite the damage caused by the injury Balraj continued to function actively. He participated in several operations in the peninsula. It was during this time that Prabhakaran gave Balraj his greatest military honour by appointing him as deputy – military commander.Prabakharan was then the military commander of the LTTE. Thus Balraj became number two in the military hierarchy.
The LTTE’s new deputy – military commander began demonstrating his mettle in battle. But the LTTE itself was driven away from the Jaffna peninsula through the operation Riviresa phased out military campaign.The LTTE began operating militarily in the Wanni
On July 18th 1996 the LTTE overran the Mullaitheevu camp killing more than a 1000 soldiers. Balraj co-ordinated the operation codenamed “Oyatha Alaigal – 1.” (Unceasing waves)The beleaguered soldiers had fought back and entrenched themselves in the church area by the beach. Meanwhile soldiers were air landed at Alambil to move in and relieve the Mullaitheevu garrison.
The LTTE fought on both fronts. Finally reinforcements under “Col” Bhanu came in. The situation changed in LTTE favour when the T-55 captured at Puloppalai was used in the beach attack.
The military launched “operation Sathjaya – 1” and 2 and captured Paranthan and the greater part of Kilinochchi. Balraj himself fought in these battles but was unable to prevent the army advancing. Meanwhile the army had also reached Mankulam on the A -9 through Operation Jayasikurui. It was only a matter of time before the army from Mankulam would have linked up at Kilinochchi.
It was at this juncture that the LTTE decided to seize Kilinochchi.Balraj conceived, coordinated and commanded the operation.An important component of the military strategy was to prevent reinforcements from Elephant pass and Paranthan reaching Kilinochchi.
Balraj himself took up position at points between Paranthan and Kilinochchi. After fierce fighting the LTTE managed to prevent the army from moving to aid comrades under attack in Kilinochchi. Finally the soldiers withdrew after incurring heavy losses.Kilinochchi fell to the tigers.This manoeuvre by Balraj was the precursor to his remarkable feat later during the Elephant pass battle.
Then came “Oyatha – Alaigal – 3 in 1999 November when the LTTE in a series of co-ordinated offensives overran military camps in Oddusuddan. Karippattaimurippu, Mankulam, Kanagarayankulam, Puliyankulam etc.
Most military gains of “Jayasikurui” were reversed.
“Oyatha Alaigal” or unceasing waves was an on going operation with more battles to follow in the Jaffna peninsula. The greatest of these was the lengthy series of operations to take the strategic military base in the Elephant pass isthmus.
The key element in the LTTE’s “encircle and enfeeble”strategy was the interdiction of supplies along the A – 9 highway between Eluthumattuvaal and Iyakkachchi / Elephant pass. The besieged Elephant pass garrison had to be “cut off” and isolated.
In a bid to prevent such an eventuality the armed forces had fortified a rectangular area extending from Thaalaiyaddy – Maruthankerny along the Vadamaratchy east coast of the peninsula up ro the Puthukkaadu juction on the Jaffna – Kandy road.
This area known as the “Vathiraayan box”included Vathirayan , Pullaa veli, Soranpatru and Maasaar. Thus Elephant pass was assured of continuous supply from Eluthumadduvaal in the hinterland as well as Thaalaiyaddi in the littoral.
How the LTTE breached these impregnable defences amounted to a modern military miracle. It was Balraj’s crowning achievement.
In an ambhibean operation on March 26th 2000 , the sea tigers led by “Col” Soosai succeeded in transporting 1200 cadre from the mainland coast to the peninsular coast.
These cadre led by Balraj landed at Kudaarappu – Maamunai and then moved clandestinely into the interior by walking through the inland lagoon and marshy lands known as “kandal”.
Army posts in Soranpatru and Maasaar were overrun . A 40 foot bund erected by the army at Maasaar was breached by Balraj’s tiger squad.The tigers reached the A – 9 road near Puthukkaadu junction.
Thereafter the tigers led by Balraj moved up and set up positions at a place called Ithaavil near Pallai thus blocking military supplies to Iyakkachchi – Elephant pass.The contingent led by the LTTE’s deputy milit ary chief Balraj took a swathe of the Jaffna-Kandy road between Pallai and Eluthumattuvaal. These included the areas around Arasakerni, Ithavil, Indrapuram. Muhamaalai north and Kovil Kadu.
The area under LTTE control amounted to about 4 km in length and 2 km in breadth. With this move , the LTTE effectively cut off the main road link between the Elephant Pass/Iyakachchi camps and Jaffna. On April 10, the armed forces recaptured a major portion of the road but failed to dislodge the Tigers completely.
The next few weeks saw an intense battle where Balraj and his band of intrepid fighters held on to a strip of land at Ithaavil against formidable odds. There were many twists and turns but Balraj fought on stubbornly beating back attempt after attempt to dislodge him.
After 24 days of fighting the army gave in. Elephant pass was abandoned on April 19th. The LTTE hoisted its flag ceremoniously on April 22nd.
Balraj’s incredible military feat was analysed and dissected in military manuals.
The LTTE under Balraj had demonstrated that it could engage in offensive and defensive positional warfare in deep enemy territory and triumph against superior armed forces without air support.
It was hailed as a paradigm shift in the conduct of “limited wars”.
With this victory and the magnificient resistance displayed during “Operation Agnkheela ” in retaining Elephant pass the LTTE deputy – military chief’s reputation was further enhanced. He became a larger than life legend.
But things changed as Balraj’s health began to deteriorate. He had always had a “heart condition” and this began to worsen. In addition there was diabetes and kidney complications.
When the ceasefire was in progress Balraj went to Singapore with two bodyguards for advanced medical treatment. He obtained heart surgery there. Balraj’s visa application to enter Malaysia for further treatment was refused.
There was trouble on the domestic front too
In keeping with the LTTE policy of arranging marriages within the movement Balraj too had married a woman cadre Varathaa.
She was a close relative of LTTE supremo who had personally arranged the marriage. Varathaa like Balraj had injured her leg in a battle.
Married life however was not a state of bliss. There was temperamental incompatibility and the couple had serious differences. At one stage the wife started “complaining” against Balraj in public places.
This led to arguments and squabbles. Then Varathaa went to the LTTE police station and registered a complaint that Balraj had assaulted her.She also complained to the LTTE leader who was her kinsman.
Prabakharan then intervened and admonished Balraj. He also separated the couple. This increased Balraj’s misery.
In a tragic twist Balraj’s separated wife was stung by a russel’s viper and died.
Though separated , Varadhaa’s death through snakebite caused inconsolable sorrow to Balraj.Apart from physical ill – health it is said that Balraj’s emotional state declined considerably after his wife’s death.
Due to his deteriorating health Balraj began to pursue a comparatively , sedate life. He was involved as a lecturer and instructor at the LTTE’s military academy for officers.
Balraj taught military strategy, planning and tactics.He also provided specialised training for the LTTE commandoes and special forces.
He had earlier been a visiting instructor and demonstrator at various LTTE training camps. The recruits and conscripts liked to be taught by Balraj.
But there was no way in which his services on the military front could end.
In 2001 when “Col” Shankar was killed in a landmine attack by the army’s deep penetration unit a virtual state of emergency was declared by Prabakharan.
Balraj was directed to coordinate a defence strategy to counter the DPU and prevent further attacks. Balraj was engaged in this when the ceasefire was promulgated on Feb 23rd 2002
During the ceasefire Balraj was sent to the east at one stage to strengthen LTTE defences. This was after the Karuna revolt.
Balraj was in Vaaharai when the tsunami struck on Dec 26th 2004. Balraj was on the coast when he saw the huge waves and fired in the air. This alerted the people who saw the waves and fled inwards. Balraj reportedly had a miraculous escape when he was engulfed by the water.
The last days of Balraj saw his health deteriorate drastically. He used to spend most of his time in a hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. Yet he would leave the hospital and undertake prolonged trips to the frontlines inspecting and supervising defences.
The raising of the 59 division and its deployment in Manal Aaru / Weli Oya created fresh difficulties for the LTTE. Containing the armed forces in this strategically important terrain was of crucial importance.
Once again Prabakharan turned to Balraj. Despite his ill – health Balraj began staying at the Frontlines for extended periods. This worsened his physical condition.
Finally the end came after being bed ridden for two weeks. Thus ended the life of brave commander “Brigadier” Balraj.
Part I: Brigadier Balraj: LTTE’s fearless frontline commander
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com