IPKF in Sri Lanka: War

This is the fourth post (Part 3) of a six-part series telling the story of India’s intervention in Sri Lanka. You can read other parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 2.5

From left: Prabhakaran, Dixit and General Harkirat Singh. Ten days after this picture was taken, they will be fighting a war against each other.

From left: Prabhakaran, Dixit and General Harkirat Singh. Ten days after this picture was taken, they will be fighting a war against each other.

At first, Major General Harkirat Singh had it easy. In July 1987, he had been sent to Sri Lanka to command Indian Army’s 54 Infantry Division, essentially making him in-charge of the IPKF in the Tamil North. At first this had meant protecting Tamils from the Sri Lankan army and cajoling LTTE and other Tamil insurgent groups into keeping their side of the Accord. The duties were mostly ceremonial and the biggest worry for officers was to have enough games and activities going to make sure that the soldiers don’t grow bored. Meanwhile, IPKF command was making friends with the Tamil insurgents. LTTE leadership was often in and out of IPKF HQ. Indian officers attended weddings of LTTE families. General Singh hoped to be back home by December. All in all, it seemed an easy assignment. Sadly, the good days were not to last.

Behind IPKF’s backs, LTTE had been steadily preparing for a war with the IPKF. Weapons were being smuggled in and hoarded; anti-India propaganda was quietly being circulated. LTTE was also assassinating rival Tamil leaders, getting rid of the competition from other Tamil insurgent groups. Parallel to it, Prabhakaran was slowly sabotaging the negotiations, making excessive demands from the Sri Lankan government. India’s High Commissioner in Colombo, JN Dixit, who had been taking care of the political side of the Accord, was the first raise alarm. But General Singh and IPKF command, sympathetic to LTTE, were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

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IPKF in Sri Lanka: Coup

This is a sidetrack to the five-part (now a six-part) series on Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka. Consider it Part 2.5. Although not technically set in Sri Lanka, it is nevertheless an important and interesting part of the story. You can read the previous parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

International Conspiracy: India-trained Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka invade Maldives

International Conspiracy: India-trained Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka guarding the NSS Complex

They had been at the sea for three days now. Sri Lanka, where they had spent most of their lives fighting a war for the cause of Tamil liberation, was hundreds of miles away. India, where they had been secretly trained in the trade craft of warfare years ago, lay even further off. They were eighty in number, huddled in four stolen fishing boats. They were armed to the teeth with AK-47s, grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars, but had run out of food and water. Hungry and thirsty, they had been searching for land for hours. They finally saw it at 11 am on the night of 2 November 1988, a tiny red light on one of the buildings off the coast. The leader, a young guerrilla nicknamed Vasanthi, ordered his men to check their arms and ammunition, as they approached their destination. They were here to invade Maldives.

At first, the invasion went without a hitch. The Tamil militants landed in Male, capital of Maldives, at 4 am on 3 November 1988. Maldives didn’t have an army, only a 1400-strong National Security Service that served as police, fire fighting service and military, all rolled into one. The first task for the invaders was to neutralise it. After a half-an-hour fire fight, they had taken over the NSS complex, killing a few NSS guards but losing Vasanthi. Next they took the harbour, the power grid, and TV and radio station. By noon, they were in control of Male and in effect the entire Maldives. Only the Maldivian president Maumoon Gayoom eluded capture, but all in all, the operation had gone without much trouble. The 30,000 or so bewildered Male residents could only watch as lungi-clad Tamil militant looted their shops for food and booty.

However, the success was short-lived. In afternoon they heard BBC radio announce that help for Maldives was on its way. The radio was reporting a military contingent of hundreds of commandos flying in to liberate the country. In the evening, the militants heard a fighter jet zoom over their heads. This was more than they had bargained for. Leaderless, the militants began to panic. Indian forces were coming for them.

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Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka: Accord

This is the second post of a five-part series telling the story of India’s Sri Lankan adventure. You can read other parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2.5, Part 3

Feared LTTE leader Prabhakaran, flanked by Indian guards

Feared LTTE leader Prabhakaran, flanked by Indian guards

The crisis was not long in coming. In January 1987, Sri Lankan military started a new offensive, putting the Tamil city Jaffna under martial law. The entire Tamil north was put under embargo, stopping supplies of even essential like food and medicine and creating famine-like conditions. The government also started using its newly-acquired air power for air strikes. Undoubtedly, these were highly brutal tactics, causing incalculable harm to the innocent Tamil civilians.

While Indian government sought to defuse the situation, both LTTE and Colombo kept escalating it by attack and counter-attack. By May, the situation had become intolerable. Faced with growing pro-Tamil sympathy at home, Gandhi decided to issue an ultimatum. Jayewardene was demanded by India to end the military offensive. But the Sri Lankan president was ready to call Gandhi’s bluff. “India can go to hell,” he told his advisers. When Indian diplomats stressed on their demands, he told his advisers, “what is the worse [sic] that India can do? It will invade Sri Lanka. I will cross that bridge when it comes.”

Given Jayewardene’s stubbornness, Gandhi was forced to take more drastic measures. On 2 June, the Sri Lankans were informed that in a few hours India will be unarmed ships carrying food and medicine for the embargoed Jaffna city. The Indian ships will be sailing through the Sri Lankan naval blockade and delivering the relief supplies to the distraught Tamils. However, by this point, Jayewardene was too committed to turn back. The nationalist Sinhalese population (including the Buddhist monasteries) were goading him on to take on the big Indian bully.

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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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