*War on terror revisited : Part 142June 4, 2013, 7:44 pm
Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) troops are pictured engaged in road clearing operation. Eelam conflict intensified in July 1983 with an unprecedented attack on the I SLLI. At the end conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, the SLLI Regiment consisted of 17 regular battalions, a Regimental Headquarter battalion and 09 volunteer battalions. The Regiment lost 165 officers and 3,648 others;112 officers and 4,479 others were disabled. The dead included 41 officers and 981 other ranks killed during eelam war IV (July 2006 to May 2009)
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Having destabilised northern Sri Lanka, India stepped up pressure on the then President J. R. Jayewardene to agree to a settlement with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and Tamil terrorist groups.
JRJ was briefed on the Indian proposals on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in New Delhi in November 1983, in the wake of the Black July massacre. President JRJ was under heavy pressure to reach an understanding with the TULF and terrorist groups, particularly due to the exodus of Tamil speaking refugees to Tamil Nadu.
In the run-up to President JRJ’s visit to New Delhi, the then Indian Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao visited Colombo to express India’s concern over the deteriorating situation. Rao was followed by G. Parathasarathy, a veteran diplomat as well as a close associate of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The TULF and terrorist groups encouraged civilians to flee across the Palk Straits to Tamil Nadu. Indian intervention was justified on the basis of atrocities committed on the civilian community in the immediate aftermath of the Black July massacre. Western powers turned a blind eye to what was going on in Sri Lanka. They conveniently overlooked how India had systematically destabilises Sri Lanka, to pave the way for its intervention.
Interestingly, a few weeks before President JRJ arrived in New Delhi, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had stayed at a secret location in Pondicherry, where he met senior officials representing the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee in Colombo, was on record as having said that India’s premier intelligence outfit had offered to train 200 LTTE cadres in Dehradun.
India proposes merger of N and E
Veteran diplomat and one-time Foreign Secretary, Bernard Tilakaratna has alleged that India never allowed Sri Lankan officials access to refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, hence the then government couldn’t at least verify the actual number of people accommodated there. In a piece titled, The Sri Lanka Government and Peace Efforts up to the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord: Lessons and experiences (February 1998), Tilakaratna explains the circumstances under which Parathasarathy pressured President JRJ to accept, even if tentatively, proposals, which included the merger of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province. The first set of Indian proposals unveiled in the wake of the intensification of the eelam conflict was called ‘Annexure C’. It was primarily aimed at merging the two provinces into a single administrative unit.
Tilakaratna, who had been directly involved in peace initiatives in Colombo, New Delhi, Thimpu and Bangalore in the 1980s, asserted that President JRJ’s decision to establish a state-of-the-art Voice of America (VOA) relay station, selection of a grouping of Singaporean, West German and Swiss companies to restore the Trincomalee oil tank farm and as well as backing British military action against Argentina following the latter’s invasion of the Falklands on April 2, 1982 had angered the Indian political establishment. The Argentine forces surrendered to the British naval task force on June 14, 1982.
Although JRJ convened an All Party Conference (APC) in January 1984 to discuss ‘Annexure C’ along with other proposals, he couldn’t convince the grouping of the need to merge the Eastern Province with the Northern Province. Major political parties representing the APC, while accepting the need to devolve powers to regional bodies, reiterated that the unit of devolution should the district. In spite of President JRJ’s efforts to reach a consensus on a peace formula, the peace bid collapsed in December 1984. The much-touted ‘Annexure C’ was quietly dropped. Tilakaratna categorised it as the first formal Indian effort to work out a tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, India and the representatives of the Tamils.
At that time, the TULF remained the dominant representative of the community, though Tamil groups were in the process of gradually consolidating their power. Although the TULF realised the growing threat to its position, it couldn’t interfere with the ongoing RAW project to boost the terrorist grouping. India cleverly used both the TULF and Tamil groups to step up pressure on JRJ.
The tiny Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) and the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) lacked the required assets to thwart terrorist groups operating across the Palk Straits. With the deployment of newly trained terrorists, the situation in the Jaffna peninsula continued to deteriorate with the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), finding it extremely difficult to bring the situation under control.
Although JRJ had authorized a military crackdown in the Jaffna peninsula, security forces couldn’t contain the rapidly expanding terrorist operations in the Jaffna peninsula. The security forces got outmanoeuvered with India stepping up a training project on its soil. Indian personnel would have had clandestinely visited the Jaffna peninsula with those fighting under their command in the early 1980s, though Sri Lanka couldn’t prove it.
Unfortunately, atrocities committed by a section of Sri Lankan forces, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, facilitated the Indian project. The SLA couldn’t overnight adopt strategies to counter brutal tactics employed by terrorists. Landmine attacks against the SLA and the police were meant to provoke reprisals. Those who had absolutely no experience in fighting a high intensity insurgency, reacted indiscriminately to hit and run attacks. Terrorist groups thrived due to atrocities committed by troops. On many occasions, senior officers could not prevent troops from going on the rampage. The failure on the part of the military high command to instil discipline caused a rapid deterioration of the ground situation as more Tamil youth joined terrorist groups. By the middle of 1984, Tamil groups had the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula. Effective use of landmines restricted the movement of the military. The military and the police could never tackle landmine warfare during the early years of the conflict. The military couldn’t maintain regular mobile patrols due to constant landmine attacks. Although the military had some armoured personnel carriers at that time, it did not have them in required numbers for effective deployment.
The government established the Special Strike Force (SSF), in the early 1980s, to meet the growing terrorist threat in the Jaffna peninsula. Although the SSF died a natural death due to negligence on the part of the then administration and police top brass, its successor (the STF) rapidly developed into an extraordinary fighting force. To the credit of JRJ and successive UNP administrations, the STF received much needed state backing.
A landmine blast on Sept. 1, 1984 claimed the lives of four STF personnel at Tikkam on the Point Pedro-Valvettiturai road. Constables, Chandrapala (2539), Ekanayake (4100), Nanayakkara (3928) and Sumanasekera (13089) were the victims of the first landmine attack directed against the STF.
Although the SLA gradually increased its presence in the Jaffna peninsula, it couldn’t neutralise the terrorist threat. The enemy had easy access to bases in Tamil Nadu. They could bring in reinforcements from Tamil Nadu at will, though the SLN maintained patrols in the northern seas. Those wounded in action were swiftly moved across the Palk Straits to medical facilities in Tamil Nadu. During Lieutenant General Weeratunga’s tenure (Oct. 14, 1981 to Feb. 11, 1985), the SLA lost control of the Jaffna peninsula, in spite of having a substantial ground forces presence there. Weeratunga was succeeded by Lieutenant General G. D .G. N. Seneviratne on Feb. 11, 1985. The change in the SLA command took place amidst the rapid expansion of the SLA. However, the SLA still couldn’t match the tactics employed by terrorist groups, particularly the LTTE, which emerged as the main group.
The military and the police couldn’t come to terms with rapidly developing mine warfare. Thanks to India, terrorists had the expert knowledge to produce a range of mines, including anti-personnel mines and boobytraps. Terrorists quickly developed a strategy to infiltrate areas dominated by security forces to mount attacks. At the behest of the then Indian Premier, Indira Gandhi, RAW conducted a full scale destabilisation campaign against Sri Lanka.
Enter Rajiv Gandhi
The assassination of Premier Indira Gandhi on the morning of Oct. 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards at her New Delhi residence, as a mark of protest against the Indian Army assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in early June 1984, fuelled speculation that India might call off the destabilisation plot directed against Sri Lanka. It was ironic that Premier Gandhi ordered ‘Operation Blue Star’ to flush out armed Sikhs from the Golden Temple, claiming they posed a serious security threat to India, whereas her government trained terrorists for deployment across the Palk Straits. India remained paralysed as mobs killed over 3,000 Sikhs.
The JRJ administration felt that India could change its position vis-a-vis Sri Lanka with the change of the Congress leadership. There was hope among political parties here that the new Indian leadership would suspend the anti-Sri Lanka operation and take meaningful measures to facilitate a dialogue between President JRJ and the TULF. The government felt India wouldn’t continue sponsoring terrorist groups in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Although there had been hope of an amicable settlement in the immediate aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi succeeding his mother, the situation quickly deteriorated. Although Premier Gandhi made a cautious move to reach an understanding with President JRJ, those spearheading the anti-Sri Lankan project persisted with it.
The massacre of 62 Sinhala civilians at Kent and Dollar farms on November 1984 should be examined against the backdrop of the change in administration in India. The massacres––the first of a series carried out by the LTTE, compelled JRJ to intensify military operations amidst rising anger amongst the Sinhala community. However, the government prevented a backlash, though many feared there could be widespread attacks on Tamil speaking people living in the South. Perhaps, those spearheading operations across the Palk Straits believed that the massacre of civilians could cause widespread attacks on Tamils, much to the embarrassment of Sri Lanka and to the discomfort of President JRJ. The massacres were timed to ensure that Premier Gandhi and President JRJ could never pursue a dialogue.
The July 23, 1983 LTTE attack on the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (ISLLI) or I CLI (Ceylon Light Infantry) as it was also known, which prompted indiscriminate attacks on Tamil people, revealed India’s hand in training terrorists. The LTTE could never have achieved the sophistication required to mount that particular attack without Indian help.
The previous article which dealt with the issue, inadvertently identified the Commanding Officer of the I SLLI at the time of the incident as Lieutenant Colonel Upali Dharmaratne. The formation deployed in the Jaffna peninsula was under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Upali Karunaratne. The then Army Commander, Lieutenant General T. I. Weeratunga ordered I SLLI out of the peninsula in a bid to stabilise the situation in the peninsula, at the onset of major confrontations. Weeratunga served as the Commander from Oct. 14, 1981 to Feb. 11, 1985.
New initiative gets underway
Responding to Premier Rajiv Gandhi’s overtures, JRJ sent the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali for discussions with the Indian leader. The government felt Premier Gandhi could be persuaded to abandon his predecessor’s destabilisation campaign against Sri Lanka. On behalf o JRJ, Athulathmudali requested for the immediate launch of joint Indo-Lanka naval patrols to prevent illegitimate boat movements across the Palk Straits. Minister Athulathmudali also emphasised the need to prevent terrorists from using Tamil Nadu or any part of India as a launching pad for attacks. At that time, all Tamil groups had their headquarters and separate training facilities in various parts of India, though some wrongly assumed such clandestine activities took place only in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the need for joint patrols would not have arisen if India had disarmed the terrorists. Premier Gandhi raised the contentious issue of devolution, while inviting President JRJ for talks in New Delhi.
In spite of India and Sri Lanka agreeing to continue high level consultations to explore ways and means of settling the ethnic issue, the destabilisation project continued. By then it was no longer a clandestine operation. The global community knew what was happening. The Indian External Affairs Ministry took an extremely tough position with the then Minister, Khursheed Alam Khan dismissing President JRJ’s call for joint naval patrols.
The SLN fought a losing battle to stem the flow of arms, ammunition and trained cadres from India. Much to the dismay of President JRJ, who strongly believed India would suspend the ongoing destabilisation project consequent to the change of leadership in New Delhi following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, India stepped up assistance for terrorists. By early 1985, terrorist groups were in a commanding position in Jaffna.