Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka: Origins

What remained of Tamil areas in Colombo after Black July

What remained of Tamil areas in Colombo after Black July

This is the first post of a five-part series telling the story of India’s Sri Lankan adventure. You can also read other parts of the series here: Part 2, Part 2.5, Part 3. This is for Shivangi Singh who asked me to explain the whole IPKF story. 

The plane was late. The Sri Lankan president JR Jayewardene had been anxiously awaiting its arrival for hours, but to no avail. It was a delay that the president couldn’t afford, for the plane carried the dead bodies of thirteen soldiers who had been ambushed and killed by the Tamil insurgent group LTTE the day before. Earlier in the day, the president had overruled his advisers and decided to have their funeral in Colombo. Now it was proving to be a fatal mistake. Every minute that the plane was late, the crowd outside the cemetery swelled even further, demanding retribution against the Tamils. By the time the plane arrived, the restive mob had grown to 10,000. The police, concerned about law and order situation, decided to use its riot squad to break up the crowd. Instead it brought the situation to a boiling point, and almost instantly ethnic riots engulfed Colombo. Within a day, the riots spread across the country. For the next seven days, Tamils were targeted, looted, killed by hordes of angry Sinhalese. By the end of what became known as Black July, more than 100,000 Tamils had been made homeless, most of them fleeing to refugee camps in India. Within days of Black July, ranks of Tamil separatist groups like LTTE began to grow. What were until now basically just terrorist groups, started to build armies of their own. In the following months and years, these groups unleashed the level of violence unprecedented in the entire South Asia.

The Sri Lankan Civil War had begun.

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Accession of Junagadh: Farce of History

A Map of Princely States in Gujarat, leftover from British India. Junagadh is the state in red at the southern tip of Gujarat

A Map of Princely States in Gujarat, leftover from British India. Junagadh is the state in red at the southern tip of Gujarat (click to enlarge)

In the run-up to the Indian Independence 600-odd princely states, another legacy of the British Raj, were being divvied up between India and Pakistan. In the last few months of British India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten were trying convince, cajole, bribe or threaten all the state princes into submission. Remarkably, by 15 August, Indian Government had managed to get almost all of them in line; only three states ended up proving to be troublesome – Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh.

Of these the story of Junagadh turned out to be the most absurd, as if a farce mockery of the upcoming Kashmir and Hyderabad crises. It was a state on the southern-tip of Gujarat within a region called Kathiawar. The region was peppered with tiny states, as can be seen in the map on the right (click to enlarge). Junagadh itself contained dozens of petty estates and sheikhdoms within it. In fact the situation was so confusing that it took the Government of India several weeks just to figure out the correct borders before they could formulate a military plan. Moreover, the government lawyers couldn’t figure out whether these tiny sheikhdoms were legally independent or under the suzerainty of Junagadh even after the accession. But Junagadh was an important state, with a population of 700,000, 80% of them Hindus and, predictably, ruled by a Muslim prince.

The Nawab of Junagadh was an eccentric character, famously obsessed with dogs. He was said to have owned 800 of them, each with its individual human attendant. When two of his favourite dogs mated, he is said to have spent Rs. 20-30 lakhs in “wedding” celebrations, and proclaimed the day as State holiday. It is no surprise that the actual governing of the Junagadh was carried out by his dewan (Chief Minister). In the last months of British India his dewan was a Muslim League politician named Shah Nawaz Bhutto (father of future Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar and grandfather to Benazir Bhutto).

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The 2001-2002 India-Pakistan Standoff (Operation Parakram): A Dangerous Experiment

Security Personnel during the firefight at the Parliament

Security Personnel during the firefight

On the morning of 13 December 2001, Shekhar, the driver for the Vice President of India, was at the Parliament parking lot waiting for his boss. The Rajya Sabha, which his boss chaired, had been adjourned forty minutes ago, but the Vice President was still inside the building. At around 10:00 am, Shekhar heard someone shouting and suddenly a white Ambassador rammed into his car. By the time he got out of his car to have a word with the Ambassador’s driver, five men armed with AK-47s had poured out of it and begun shooting indiscriminately. Shekhar ducked for cover as other members of the Vice-Presidential security detail begun shooting back. A fire fight had broken out a few feet away from the heart of the Indian Government. In thirty minutes, it was over. All five attackers, who will be later linked to Pakistan, were dead. So were six of the policemen and security guards and a gardener who tended the Parliamentary gardens. The Parliament Attack was one of the deadliest terrorist strikes India had suffered through since its independence. In response the Indian Government started off the first nuclear crisis of the twenty-first century. A ten-month stand-off, where they stood precariously on the brink of an all-out war, was the closest India and Pakistan had come to nuclear annihilation. This is the story of that crisis.

The Parliament Attack had touched off one of the most difficult puzzles that the Indian leadership had been struggling with for more than a decade – how to handle a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in late 1980s, it had grown more and more aggressive in pushing terrorism and the Kashmir Insurgency. As Pakistan’s leadership had calculated, the bomb gave them a cover against India’s superior military forces. They could bleed India by supporting the insurgency and be assured that India would not retaliate, for a retaliation could mean escalation to an all-out war and a nuclear annihilation for both countries.  It was a game of perverse logic much like living next to a crazy neighbour (or a very smart neighbour pretending to be crazy) who keeps stealing from your house. Should you ever retaliate, he threatens to burn down both your houses.

All through the 1990s, while Pakistan continued to train and send increasing numbers of insurgents into India, New Delhi remained stuck in a strategic paralysis. While retaliations like air bombings or commando raids were considered, the risks were too great for India to ever go through with them. With the nuclear threat, coupled with the weak leadership that India suffered through during the decade of fractured politics, Pakistan seemed to have hit upon the perfect solution for its own security. The continued insurgency meant that the Indian Army remained occupied in Kashmir and thus not free to threaten Pakistan. It also meant that the Indian Government had to bear the crushing cost of securing India-Pakistan border against infiltration and the counter-insurgency campaign as opposed to Pakistan’s extremely cheap expense of running a few terrorist training camps.

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The Rise and Life of Mayawati

Mayawati and Kanshi Ram's huge statues at the BSP headquarters tell the story of how an ideological movement was turned into a personality cult

Mayawati and Kanshi Ram’s huge statues at the BSP headquarters tell the story of how an ideological movement was turned into a personality cult

In the evening of 2 June 1995, Mayawati found herself living through the greatest horrors of her life. She, along with a few other Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leaders, had locked herself inside the State Guest House in Lucknow, while a frenzied mob of more than two hundred was trying to break the doors of her room from the outside. The mob was shouting abuses, promising to kill her. Many of her colleagues had already been physically dragged away by the mob. This nightmare went on for hours. Only the quick reaction of certain junior police officers at the scene kept the mob from breaking in. Mayawati remained inside the room late into the night, not knowing what was going on behind those doors. Only a few hours before the attack, she had pulled her party’s support from the Uttar Pradesh Government, collapsing Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Ministry. She has maintained, ever since, that the State Guest House incident, as it came to be known, was retribution for it. Eighteen years later, the courts have still to decide anyone’s culpability for the attack.

The forty-eight hours before the incident had been momentous for Mayawati. On 1 June 1995, she had visited her political mentor and boss Kanshi Ram in the hospital where he was being treated for a brain clot. In his absence, Mayawati had been managing the party – a very important responsibility since for the first time BSP was in the government as junior partner to Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP). Kanshi Ram’s illness had her worried, for his death could mean a serious blow to the party at such a critical juncture. But Kanshi Ram was not dying; instead he had a surprise for her. “How would you like to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh?” he asked her. Mayawati face clouded, as she assumed that illness had turned Kanshi Ram incoherent and delusional. But he insisted, explaining to her that he had made a deal with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BSP will break the alliance with SP and form a new government in UP with support from BJP. Events then moved forward quickly, BSP pulled its support and the State Guest House incident ensued. A few hours after emerging from the guest house, she was sworn in as Chief Minister.

At 39 years of age, a low-caste daughter of a postal clerk from Delhi, with no family connections or administrative experience, Mayawati had become Chief Minister of the biggest state in the country. Then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao called it “a miracle of democracy.” This was made possible by her burning ambition and drive, something she probably fostered from her resentment of the fact that her father always discriminated between her and her brothers. But her success was not hers alone. It tapped into something deeper that had been building up for a long time in the Independent India.

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The Syndicate: Kingmakers of India

After my last post “How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split” some of the readers pressed upon me to write a deeper explanation for the phenomenon known as the Syndicate. Hence this post:

The Congress Syndicate

By the end of 1963, Nehru was dying. For the first time in sixteen years since independence, New Delhi was rife with speculation about the question – “After Nehru, who?” To answer this question, four men met at the Tirupathi Temple in the beginning of October, 1963. These were K Kamaraj, the former Chief Minister of Madras, Sanjiva Reddy, an Andhra leader, Nijalingappa, the Chief Minister of Mysore and Atulya Ghosh, the president of Bengal Congress Committee. Together, these men controlled the power of the Congress party in non-Hindi states. Soon, along with a Maharashtra leader SK Patil, they will be come to known as the Syndicate.

Ostensibly, the leaders were at Tirupathi to offer worship at the shrine, but secretly they were together to discuss the future of the country and how to shape it after Nehru. The two questions in front of them were who shall be the next Prime Minister and who will become the next president of the Congress Party, a post that would be tremendously important after Nehru’s death. It wasn’t so much that they agreed on who should fill these posts as who should not – Morarji Desai. Desai was the most prominent leader in the party after Nehru and most likely to succeed him. However, his very prominence was a threat to the Syndicate. Had he become the Prime Minister, his domination would have been complete, leaving the Syndicate members to the fringes. The Syndicate wanted someone more malleable, someone they could control.

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How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split

Shastri's body brought home

Shastri’s body brought home

On the grey winter afternoon of 11 January 1966, a huge crowd of Indian Government officials, politicians, military officers, heads of states of other nations and common public thronged the Palam Airport in New Delhi. They were awaiting a small Soviet aircraft bringing in the dead body of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. India had woken up to Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent, Uzbekistan only hours ago. A sense of uncertainty over India’s political future surrounded the airport thicker than the Delhi fog. Many had come to the airport to mourn Shastri’s death, many for appearance sake. But at least one person was there for a clearer purpose. Clad in white khadi, was an astrologer, much consulted by top-level Congress politicians. He was there to predict who will be the next Prime Minister.

Unlike with Nehru, no one had anticipated Shastri’s death and there had been no discussion over the issue of his succession. Only two hours after his death, the President had sworn in the home minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda as the acting Prime Minister in the middle of night. But Nanda was considered a light-weight, unlikely to be able to turn his job permanent. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours he threw his hat in the ring to be considered as the next Prime Minister. So did many others. Within two days of Shastri’s death, the list of politicians circling around the throne had grown considerably, including the defence minister YB Chavan, Mahashtrian politician SK Patil and the future President of India Sanjiva Reddy. But the strongest candidate was Morarji Desai.

Desai had already had already had bitter experience in his ambition to be India’s Prime Minister. In early 1960s, Desai was a centre of power within the Congress Party. A right-leaning, pro-business conservative leader, he had emerged as the opposing pole within the party to left-leaning, liberal Nehru. As the finance minister in Nehru’s Government, he had become so influential as to be considered by many as his natural successor, to the extent that in some of his foreign visits he got the treatment reserved for visiting heads of state. Had Nehru not eased him out of the Cabinet in 1963, he would have most likely become the next Prime Minister automatically. Instead, in 1964, when Nehru passed away, it was the unimpressive Shastri who got the chair, a shy, placating man who was so unimposing that his greatest achievement at the time seemed to be that he had “hardly ever made an enemy during his entire career”.

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Indira Gandhi and the Pakistani Bomb

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

In December 1975, a thin man with a light moustache landed at the Karachi Airport, where he was awaited by a top Pakistani Military general. He had three large suitcases with him, all stuffed with photographed and hand-written documents that he had stolen from a Dutch lab where he worked as a translator. These documents were technical designs of a revolutionary new technology to make a nuclear bomb. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan. He was here to make, as the world would come to know of it, the first Islamic Bomb.

In July 1974, AQ Khan had written to the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering to build a nuclear bomb for Pakistan. The timing of the letter had been perfect, for only two months ago India had exploded a nuclear bomb of its own, which had thrown Islamabad into a tizzy. Pakistan had been trying to develop its own nuclear bomb since 1958, but had consistently failed because of the lack of money and the technical know-how. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was still many years away from developing a bomb. So the letter from this unknown mining engineer had come as a god-sent for Bhutto.

Pakistan had been trying to develop a nuclear bomb through Plutonium, which is a very expensive and difficult exercise. What AQ Khan offered, instead, was building the bomb with Uranium-239, enriched through centrifuges, which was a cheaper and quicker process. This enrichment technology was just being developed by a European Consortium called UNRECO, where AQ Khan worked as a translator. His job offered him unlimited access to the technical information, which he was willing to steal and bring to Pakistan.

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