Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Missed opportunities

War on terror revisited : Part 97


 The Indian Army during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990) caused irreparable damage to the Tamil community.Instead of disarming all Tamil groups sponsored by the Indian government, the IPKF ended up arming thousands of men, further militarizing war-torn areas. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never examined the Indian deployment here, which aggravated the situation.

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having scheduled the first election for the temporarily merged North-Eastern Province for Nov. 19, 1988 in accordance of the Indo Lanka Accord (ILA), India declared a five-day unilateral ceasefire in the third week of Sept. 1988 in a bid to facilitate a fresh round of talks with the LTTE. Although the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was sceptical about the LTTE’s intentions, India felt Velupillai Prabhakaran should be given another chance to enter the political mainstream.

India extended the ceasefire by five more days when the LTTE ignored the first offer. In an exclusive interview with this writer, the then Indian High Commissioner, J. N. Dixit ruled out direct talks with Prabhakaran unless the LTTE chief responded positively to the ongoing ceasefire. Dixit did not mince his words when he declared that Prabhakaran should respond before 7 a.m. Sept. 26, 1988 or face the consequences. Dixit emphasised that the surrender of arms, ammunition and equipment belonging to the LTTE was a prerequisite for negotiations. Dixit was responding to a statement attributed to the LTTE, calling for unconditional talks.

The Indian High Commissioner was responding to The Island queries, after having high level consultations in New Delhi followed by a meeting with the then President JRJ. Dixit’s deputy, Nerupan Sen told the writer that there was no indication from New Delhi of any further extension of the ceasefire (Lay down arms for talks-India tells LTTE–The Island Sept. 25, 1988).

Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga lambasted India at the launch of C. A. Chandraprema’s ‘Gota’s War’ at the Waters Edge last May. Weeratunga asserted that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would have reacted differently if he had come under the same pressure as the late President JRJ. J.N. Dixit had been lucky that he had had to deal with JRJ and not President Rajapaksa, Weeratunga declared. Among the distinguished invitees were many diplomats, including Indian High Commissioner Ashok K. Kantha. Weeratunga didn’t refer to the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s reaction to India’s role.

The Indian move received the backing of all Citizens’ Committees active in the Northern and Eastern districts, though none of them wanted to pressure the LTTE to accept the ceasefire. Instead, they appealed to Dixit to extend the ceasefire in the wake of an LTTE cadre lobbing a hand grenade at an IPKF vehicle at Punguduthivu on Sept. 23, 1988. IPKF personnel captured the attacker.

India strongly felt that all Tamil groups, including the LTTE should join the provincial administration. Dixit asserted that the LTTE wouldn’t get another opportunity if it spurned the latest offer. Although the LTTE ignored the Indian offer, many pointed out that Prabhakaran, too, had suspended attacks. They described the grenade attack on the IPKF at Punguduthivu as an isolated case. Speculation was rife of an understanding between India and the LTTE before the lapse of the ceasefire on the morning of Sept. 26, 1988.

It was the first formal attempt made by India in consultation with President JRJ to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table, after the launch of Operation Pawan in the second week of Oct. 1987.

Interestingly, the IPKF made an attempt to establish contact with the LTTE through the Batticaloa Citizens’ Committee. The IPKF high command summoned the BCC for a meeting at the Batticaloa Rest House on Sept. 16, 1988 to explore ways and means of contacting the LTTE. The IPKF conveniently forgot its earlier threat to members of the BCC not to contact the LTTE. Addressing the BCC, Maj. Gen. Ashok K. Metha said that the IPKF was ready to extend its unilateral ceasefire if the LTTE responded positively to the Indian offer. Metha urged the BCC to facilitate a meeting between the IPKF and the LTTE (India to extend ceasefire to get LTTE to accept peace offer––The Island Sept 17, 1988).

Had the LTTE accepted the Indian offer, it could have had an opportunity to join the provincial administration.

LTTE resumes attacks

One day after the lapse of the 10-day ceasefire, the LTTE resumed operations with an attack in the Trincomalee District. The LTTE triggered a claymore mine explosion targeting an IPKF patrol before firing small arms. The attackers fled leaving three IPKF bodies. Four IPKF personnel suffered injuries. The people of Trincomalee launched a protest on the morning of Aug. 25, 1988 calling for an immediate ceasefire between the IPKF and the LTTE. The decision to launch the first major attack on the IPKF in Trincomalee was a signal to Tamil speaking people not to interfere with its strategy (Call for IPKF-LTTE ceasefire––The Island Aug. 26, 1988).

On Oct. 1, 1988, the LTTE killed an IPKF doctor and seriously wounded five other personnel close to the Monkey Bridge, Trincomalee.

The IPKF remained confident that it could ensure security, though the LTTE would make every effort to disrupt the election scheduled for Nov. 19, 1988. Overall Commander of the IPKF Lt. Gen. A.S. Kalkat assured the then Defence Secretary Gen. Sepala Attygalle that the IPKF was fully geared to provide security for the election in spite of LTTE threats (IPKF assures security for N-E poll––The Island Oct 2, 1988).

Although the then Elections chief Chandrananda de Silva announced that nominations would be accepted at kachcheris from Oct. 3 to Oct. 10, 1988, the LTTE ordered staff not to report for duty. Except for the Ampara and Trincomalee kachcheris other offices remained closed. Ahead of nominations, the IPKF moved the top leadership of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) from Chennai to Sri Lanka in a special Indian Air Force flight. Subsequently, the IPKF made arrangements for those contesting the election to hand over their nominations (EPRLF fails to file nomination papers––The Island Oct. 4, 1988).

First recovery of missile

In the run-up to Nov. 19, 1988 polls, the IPKF recovered a shoulder-fired missile and a launcher during an operation conducted at Nallur in the Jaffna peninsula. The then Deputy Indian High Commissioner Nerupan Sen expressed concern over the possibility of the LTTE receiving the missile of Soviet origin through an agency or an organisation hostile to India. The recovery was made by Indian commandos (LTTE SAM was of Soviet make––The Island Aug. 5. 1988).

JRJ meets media

President JRJ rarely called a press conference to explain his position. On the afternoon of Oct. 5, 1988, the writer had the opportunity to cover a hastily arranged presidential media conference due to the absence of any of senior journalists at that time. President JRJ was flanked by the then Education Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe, Chief Minister of the Southern Provincial Council M.S. Amarasiri, Defence Secretary Sepala Attygalle and IGP Ernest Perera.

President JRJ lambasted the SLFP for not backing his efforts to quell the JVP insurgency, though the UNP had thrown its weight behind Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime during the 1971 insurgency. Whatever the criticism of those aligned with the JVP campaign of death and destruction, the government and the governing party, President JRJ vowed, would not in any way compromise national security and democracy. The President declared that the JVP had absolutely no popular support; it only had the SLFP’s backing. The UNP leader said that both the North and the South were in turmoil with a sharp upsurge in violence and the JVP seemed hell-bent on achieving its objectives and obviously did not believe in half measures, while reiterating his commitment to preserve democracy (JVP does not believe in half measures––The Island Oct 6, 1988).

During the briefing, JRJ never indicated the possibility of a fresh attempt to bring the JVP back to the political mainstream. In fact, he strongly backed the police for their efforts to quell the insurgency under extremely difficult circumstances. JRJ suspended police and military operations on Oct. 20, 1988 to facilitate a dialogue with the JVP. The government resumed operations on Nov. 1, 1988 in the wake a series of attacks. The resumption of government operations coincided with a major JVP attack on the Auxiliary Force Training Camp at Pannala. The attackers killed four personnel, including Lieut. Lanka Thalgahagoda. Although the attackers lost four men during the raid, they seized 447 weapons (Pannala training camp attacked––The Island Nov. 2, 1988).

Instead of responding positively to JRJ’s overtures, the JVP intensified attacks. The UNP, too, hit back hard. The JVP felt that JRJ could be brought to his knees through violence. The JVP exploited the IPKF’s presence as well as the merger of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province as a rallying point against the UNP. The JVP strongly believed the armed forces would ultimately turn their guns on the government. Although the UNP managed to recruit some members of the armed forces, it couldn’t attract a sizeable number to its ranks.

The JVP’s attempts to infiltrate at least the middle level officers, too, failed, though at one point it felt that the Indian intervention in the wake of Operation Liberation to regain the Jaffna peninsula, would cause an armed forces revolt. The JVP wrongly asserted that the attack on Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi by a naval rating at a guard of honour at President’s House immediately after the Indian leader’s arrival in Colombo was an anti-JRJ action.

IPKF causes fresh controversy

In the run-up to the provincial council election, the IPKF announced a controversial plan to form another para-military force on the pretext of providing additional muscle to the local police. President JRJ had no option but to accept the Indian proposal. The IPKF was to recruit, train and deploy several thousands of men throughout the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The IPKF asserted that the new force would perform a task similar to that of the home guards (New para-military force for N-E––The Island Nov 6, 1988). Although the military and the police realised the danger of forming another armed group, no one dared voice his concern. The IPKF openly promoted the EPRLF as its choice at the PC election. The IPKF threw its full weight behind the EPRLF to ensure its victory against the UNP. The proposed armed force was to provide security to the EPRLF administration. The Colombo based diplomatic community turned a blind eye to what was going on in areas under IPKF control. The UNP was struggling on the Southern front. President JRJ’s administration lacked the strength to oppose the Indian move to further militarise the northern and eastern districts.

The first indication of the IPKF’s new move came to light in the last week of Oct. 1988, though it was being discussed at the highest level in New Delhi. The IPKF told some members of the BCC of its decision to recruit about 300 youth from the Batticaloa District to augment the new para-military force.

On the eve of the Nov. 19, 1988 election, violence claimed the lives of two jawans, three civilians and ten LTTE cadres. The LTTE also fired at the Valaichenai police station.

The IPKF mobilised its entire strength to thwart LTTE plans to disrupt the election. At the behest of its political masters in New Delhi, the IPKF rigged the election for the benefit of the EPRLF. The UNP and the SLMC couldn’t challenge the EPRLF’s superiority. The IPKF’s military might made the EPRLF ‘invincible’. In spite of being the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, JRJ was helpless.

The EPRLF won the first NE provincial council polls comfortably.