Lt Gen A.S. Kalkat (Retd)
I was on a sabbatical in London, United Kingdom for a fellowship with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) when I received a message from Brigadier (now Lt Gen) Satish Nambiar, the Military Attaché in London to call the Army Headquarters. I did so from his office and was informed by the Military Secretary that the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Gen K. Sundarji wanted to speak to me. I was put through to the COAS who asked as to how much longer my fellowship was, as he needed me. When I asked as to when he needed me, typically he responded, “like yesterday”. I told him that I would terminate my fellowship with immediate effect and return, which I did. That was the beginning of my odyssey with the IPKF and Sri Lanka.
At the time, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka was staffed by some of India’s “best and the brightest”. The High Commissioner, M.N. Dixit was to become the NSA later, Political Consular Head Hardip Singh Puri is now a Union Minister, and the First Secretary, Dr. S. Jaishankar is now the Foreign Minister.
INDO-SRI LANKA ACCORD 1987
With a 74 percent Sinhalese population, Sri Lanka had by the mid-1980s effectively become a Sinhala Buddhist state. The 18 percent Tamil minority, which was the dominant community in the Northern and Eastern provinces were getting politically marginalised and suppressed. The Government of India, then headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was facing political pressure to intervene.
India coerced the Government of Sri Lanka headed by President Junius Richard Jayewardene into signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord literally at gunpoint. The Air Force’s “Op Poomalai” of dropping humanitarian aid over Jaffna was an effective power projection.
SRI LANKA’S COMMITMENT
The Accord committed the Government of Sri Lanka to merge the Tamil majority Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka (comprising 17,000 Sq km out of the total 65,600 Sq km of the country). Importantly, these two provinces are also the most fertile part of the country.
Thereafter the newly-formed North-Eastern Province was to be devolved power by changing the political structure of Sri Lanka from its Westminster model to a federal structure.
The impracticable nature of the Peace Accord is obvious from the demographic implications of the Accord which forced the Sri Lankan Government to give the minority Tamils (around 1/5 the population) as much as one third of the total land area of the country and that too its most fertile part. The Accord was thus doomed to fail.
The Accord was hailed in India as a masterstroke of Indian diplomacy. On its part, India was required to make available a military force to the President of Sri Lanka to keep the peace while the Accord was implemented. It is for this purpose that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was created.
Many question why we were fighting when it was a peace-keeping role.
To ask a soldier why we were fighting in Sri Lanka takes my mind back to the Balaklava 1853 Crimean War. The British General, when ordered by Queen Victoria the seemingly impossible task of attacking the Russian Forces and capturing Crimea, told his men, “Ours is not to question why, ours is to but do and die”. It succeeded and is enshrined in the annals of world history as “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Decisions are taken in Delhi, the soldiers just obey them.
Operations to keep the peace were incongruous because there was an ongoing civil war raging between Tamils and the Sinhalese supported by the Sri Lankan government forces. The immediate task of the IPKF thus became to conduct military operations to achieve peace and security for all communities. Therefore, the IPKF had to first fight for peace. Ultimately, the IPKF had to enable the conduct of elections in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which was a prerequisite for their merger.
Though authorised and projected as “Tri-service Forces Command” by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the support from the Navy and the Air Force was limited, though both did contribute to the effort—the Navy hired commercial shipping at times with the Air Force carrying out several other roles as well. Functionally, the IPKF was directly under Army HQ for operations, intelligence and civil affairs and under Southern Command for logistics.
From the strength of one division in 1987, the IPKF built up to five divisions’ size by March 1988, having an operational strength of almost 75,000 troops. The IPKF carried out the process of creating a secure environment for carrying out elections in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at a cost of over 1,200 soldiers. The provincial elections that were the prerequisite for the merger of the two provinces were duly conducted and on December 10, 1988, the elected Chief Minister of North Eastern Provinces was sworn in by the President of Sri Lanka. On the same day, as the Force Commander, I intimated the Indian Government, “Mission Accomplished; await further orders”.
The political dealings between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka were dealt with by the External Affairs Ministry (MEA). At this stage, there was a twist to the tale, as the MEA failed to obtain the political dispensation for the North-Eastern Province from the Sri Lankan Government. Seeing the failure of the Accord, the Indian Government passed on the “baby” to the IPKF, ordering it to continue to help the Provincial Government to “establish firm roots”. The consequences of the failure of the Accord cost India the lives of over 1,200 officers and soldiers.
IPKF ‘MUCH ON ITS OWN’
Initially, we were fully supported by the Sri Lankan Government and operations were going well. However, in Sri Lanka’s General Elections, on January 2, 1988, R. Premadasa was elected President and he was against the Accord from the beginning and wanted the IPKF to be withdrawn. He even refused to give time to the Indian High Commissioner (HC) to present his credentials, which is essential when a new President is installed. The HC, therefore, had to be changed and Dixit was recalled and replaced by a new HC. Thus, the IPKF was left to the “mercy” of the President. Nevertheless, I continued with my task since the mission assigned to me was to implement the Accord. The Indian Government was “mum” as far as IPKF was concerned.
One day I got a call from the new HC that the President was sending me a letter with all the legalese of “whereby”, “thereby” and “hereby”, asking me to confine my troops to the “barracks” and leave the shores of Sri Lanka in 24 hours. He offered no advice. Simultaneously, I got a call from the President’s Office that he was sending a letter to me by messenger. I replied that I would make myself present at the airport in Trincomalee to receive him. Trincomalee was my HQ. I immediately called our PMO and told Ronen Sen, the PM’s advisor, about this and asked for guidance. I often used to get calls from him about Sri Lanka’s situation. He said, “Bossman is away on electioneering and he couldn’t say anything.” I told him, “In that case, I will do what I have to do.”
I was at the airport to receive the President’s messenger and saw Lt Gen Hamilton Wanasinghe, Sri Lanka’s Army Chief emerging from the aircraft. We were good friends and warmly shook hands. Gen Wanasinghe then suggested we take a walk at the airfield. He then said that he wanted my advice; his President had ordered him to issue me an ultimatum to confine my troops to our barracks and to take over the area which was under IPKF jurisdiction (North-Eastern Province). What should he do? I answered that if I were him I would obey the orders of my President. He then asked in that case what I would do. I replied that I would fight to keep my mandate. He thereafter left without delivering the letter from the President.
The word about this had been leaked to the media in Colombo by the President’s Office. Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent, had got a whiff of what was happening. He chartered a plane and was at my HQ by the time I reached my office.
I was in a quandary; however, I was clear that I would not let my National Flag to be disgraced or my soldiers or equipment harmed. I also knew that I had enough troops to take on the Sri Lanka Army. I felt the time had come to call a spade a spade. At my HQ, within the hearing of the Sri Lankan liaison officer with the IPKF and also Mark Tully, I dictated my operation order. In essence it said that if we were attacked by the Sri Lankan Forces, the IPKF would launch operations to capture Anuradhapura in Phase 1, orders for further advance will be issued later (implying Colombo). I was concerned about air-cover, so I rang our Air Chief, ACM “Polly” Mehra, who was my senior schoolmate and requested him to have the airfields in Trincomalee and Jaffna (IPKF jurisdiction) “buzzed”, which he very graciously obliged with Canberra and Hunter aircraft. The Sri Lanka LO suddenly disappeared. Later I discovered he was frantically talking to Colombo. Nothing further was heard from the Sri Lankan President.
At the same time, results of the General Election in India came out and the opposition party coalition led by V.P. Singh won and he was sworn in as the PM. His election manifesto had included the “withdrawal of the IPKF”.
Soon thereafter he ordered the IPKF to withdraw and on March 24, 1990, I was the last person to step off the shores of Sri Lanka and embark on the ship waiting to carry the last contingent of soldiers home.
It is not important how a conflict starts; it is important how it ends.
In securing the Accord, the MEA had overlooked the first principle of intervention in civil unrests—that most conflicts have a political dynamic and ultimately require a political resolution. It is only the Government of a country that can give a political dispensation to its citizens and not an outside power.
Before intervening in such conflicts, the intervening country must ensure that the commitments are guaranteed by the host Government. If the host Government thereafter reneges its commitments the only alternative left would be to resort to “regime change”.
The exit plan must be ready before you go in. The Indian Foreign Secretary was summarily dismissed. The then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated a few years later.
The famous German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany had a board fixed above his desk which read: “Most people learn by experience, I learn by others’ experience”.
Regrettably, great countries have disregarded this wise counsel and paid the price for it—Afghanistan and Iraq being the more contemporary examples.