View Full Version : Uncovering The War

14 Sep 13,, 14:42
Reconstructing the IPKF disaster, piece by poignant piece, brought me face to face with rare courage —and inexcusable complacence.

India's unexpected war in Sri Lanka caught me on the wrong foot by 12,000 km. I was still finishing the last month of my sabbatical year in Washington DC when the fighting broke out. And as I returned home, the media was full of coverage, often loaded, of the IPKF disaster in Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula. Loaded because the Bofors scandal, and many other missteps, already had Rajiv Gandhi under widespread attack. Sri Lanka was therefore seen as "babalog" political stupidity, rather than military incompetence. In the process, we were guilty of both insensitivity to Indian soldiers, their courage and sacrifice, and conveniently overlooking the complacence of our higher commanders. Now, this was obviously not a war we were going to ever lose — though my friend Hardeep Puri, who was by then our first secretary in Colombo under J.N. "Mani" Dixit, tells you, sort of semi-lightheartedly, that there was one evening so tense that it sounded as if Palaly (Jaffna airbase and the IPKF's 54 Infantry Division HQ) was going to fall. Hardeep had just seen the truce agreement he had so painstakingly drafted and signed with Mahattaya (Madras Cafe's Mallaya) fall apart.

It is creditable how much of that initial messiness Shoojit Sircar has got accurately. The fact that early IPKF patrols were routinely ambushed, pinned down and annihilated. How its officers were picked out by snipers. How the LTTE seemed to have inside information on all IPKF moves (more about this a little later). The most creditable footage, however fleeting and sensitively handled, is of the Tigers ransacking Indian soldiers' bodies and picking weapons, souvenirs and trophies from them. Note, particularly, a boyish Sikh soldier sitting, frozen in rigor mortis. That quality of research you didn't expect from a mainstream Indian filmmaker, and we will shortly explain why.

On my return to India, I was deeply saddened — even offended — by the celebratory coverage of the war. Cover pictures of Indian soldiers' bodies, close-ups of Tigers displaying caps, identity cards, boots of dead Indian soldiers. You had never seen an Indian war covered like that, and you haven't since. Of course, I also felt rotten having missed out on the big story which, for the magazine, was covered by my friend and colleague Anita Pratap, who later worked for Time and CNN. She believes that Nargis Fakhri's Jaya was styled after her, and has sent emails to her old friends saying so. The photographer accompanying her, Shyam Tekwani, was my frequent travelling partner in Sri Lanka subsequently, and now teaches at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii. I did get into many arguments in our newsroom on how we had covered the story and why it was necessary to now reconstruct what exactly had gone wrong, and the lessons learnt, etc. My reward was being assigned that story now. And in the third week of December, 1987, I landed in Colombo, having been briefed by Gen Sundarji, his DGMO Lt Gen (later army chief) Bipin Chandra Joshi, and his staff.

Since association by events is sometimes the safest way to remember dates, particularly if you do not maintain elaborate notebooks — in my case, in fact, hardly, and notoriously the sketchiest ones, if at all — I can tell you I was on way to Jaffna from Colombo in a rented Mitsubishi Lancer on December 24 and had just crossed Vavuniya when everything came to a standstill. Angry, grieving mobs blocked the streets. MGR had just died — that's how I know the precise date — and a bandh had been declared by Tamils. I couldn't go forward or back, knew no Tamil, had no food or shelter, and you know how early the winter sun sets that far in the east. But I was lucky again, as an IPKF patrol of Maratha Light Infantry Regiment passed by and its leader, then a very young Captain C.K. Menon, offered me shelter in his camp. We connected decades later at the ITC Grand Central Hotel in Mumbai, where he was serving in a senior capacity, having left the army as a colonel (he has moved up the ladder in ITC hotels now). From him and his colleagues that night, in that small camp in the danger zone, I heard my first stories of the ordeal Indian soldiers had just been through. True enough, after absorbing the initial setbacks, they had taken and secured the entire Jaffna peninsula. But the price had been a shocker: 350 killed and 1,100 wounded in this month-long charge. The casualty rate, at 7 per cent of all troops involved, was twice as high as in our wars against Pakistan. One of the five brigades that assaulted Jaffna, the 41st, which was airlifted on October 17 and launched straight on the coastal road axis leading to Jaffna Fort (see sketch), had 272 casualties, or 17 per cent of its strength. The 72nd also suffered heavy casualties, including its deputy brigade commander, Col D.S. Saraon. The heavily armoured BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicle he was riding was blown up by a 200-kg mine. The 13.2-tonne vehicle was tossed more than 30 feet and its doors, each weighing more than 250 kg, were found more than a hundred yards away. Another illustrious battalion, 4/5 Gurkhas, had its commandant and all but one of its majors killed one afternoon. This is not a war anybody had expected and, regrettably, prepared to fight. I wrote a five-page reconstruction and analysis headlined 'In a rush to vanquish' (India Today, January 31, 1988).

T-72 TANKS, Mi-25 helicopter gunships had come without ammunition, infantry had been airlifted from places as far as Gwalior and thrown into battle without even three hours of familiarisation. There is no excuse for this kind of complacence. The IPKF's first casualties were five soldiers from its finest unit, the paracommandos. Waylaid by the LTTE while casually going to collect provisions on October 8, they were burnt in public with tyres thrown around their necks. That disastrous beginning spilled over into the most talked about setback then: the combined, heli-dropped paracommando and infantry raid (October 11) on the Jaffna University campus where Prabhakaran and his top aides were living. It went wrong from the word go. Only two-thirds of the commandos (10 Paracommando) could be landed and the infantry company (13 Sikh Light Infantry), which was to secure the landing ground, the football field from where IPKF helicopters used to routinely pick up LTTE commanders for talks, failed to fetch up, and the special assault forces contingent was reduced to fighting a battle for survival instead. As for Sikh LI, only a platoon could be landed, and in the wrong playground, several lanes of buildings away. The rest of the company could not land as helicopters came under medium machine gun fire. The platoon, led by Major Birendra Singh, a close relation of diplomat-politician K. Natwar Singh, was encircled and wiped out after a valiant fight. Only one of the 30, Sepoy Gora Singh, survived, and was taken prisoner by the LTTE. It is believed Prabhakaran displayed him to his fighters, kicked him in public and said, let him go, so he will tell them not to fight us again. Gora Singh, however, brought back the story of one of the Indian army's most poignant battles ever, where, out of ammunition, the last three survivors even carried out a final, suicidal bayonet charge. The LTTE looted and stripped all the bodies, piled them in the nearby Nagaraja Vihar Temple on public display, and then cremated them by simply throwing a barrel of oil over them. That's why it is so revolting now to see Tamil Nadu politicians feeling so sorry for the Tigers.

And this is why we had said earlier that Madras Cafe's footage of the first battles, along with the young Sikh soldier (remember the Sikh LI platoon) in rigor mortis and the LTTE boys plundering the bodies, was so remarkable. It was the first instance of Indian filmmakers challenging the old Haqeeqat-Hindustan ki Kasam-Border notion of Indian war cinema. I walked around that ground weeks later and still found shreds of the Sikhs' uniforms. In the nearby building, there was more evidence of the sickening plunder of those bodies: pieces of Sikh LI battle fatigues, cross-belts, boots, water bottles, epaulettes, all mixed with .50 mg MMG shells, sometimes ankle-deep. That tells you how much fire that one lost platoon withstood in the course of those valiant 12 hours.

The commandos, separated in the football ground, had done a little better, with six killed and nine wounded. They were finally rescued in an audacious and brilliantly innovative operation by their commanding officer, Lt Col Dalbir Singh, covered by three T-72 tanks of 65 Armoured Regiment. Since by now it was known that the Tigers had mined all approaches, Major Anil Kaul, the tank commander (his father had first raised this regiment), remembered a railway line skirting the campus and decided to drive the tanks on the rail tracks instead, for once surprising the LTTE. But his own tank was hit on the turret by an RPG shell (or an MMG burst) and he lost his eye and hand as he bravely peeped out to navigate. His inspired troops put him on morphine, bashed on, and ensured that heroic rescue of the commandos. The Col Kaul with an eye-patch that you see on your TV channels, usually furious over some military issue or the other, and who once famously demanded that I be hanged upside down from a tree and flogged (after our story on the army movements on the night of January 16, 2012, that spooked Raisina Hill), is the same valiant cavalry man.

IndianExpress (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/uncovering-the-war/1168571/)

The movie being referred to "Madras Cafe" in this article is a recent Bollywood movie about IPKF in Sri Lanka, the supposed failed peace deal brokered by India between GoSLanka and LTTE, a R&AW mole (station head - Colombo), killing of IPKF personnel and finally the assassination of Late PM Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. This movie was banned in Tamilnadu, and IIRC was not released in UK due to protests. Overall a decent movie.

Not much is available in the open domain. Gurus, your thoughts on the entire episode starting from the creation of LTTE till it's demise.

14 Sep 13,, 20:02
A sad story of Indian political stupidity compounded by military higher command incompetence with the same inevitable body bag filled result.
Same old same old.

Who would be an IA Infantryman honestly. The poor bastards get fucked over time and time again.