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The Rediff Special/Anvar Alikhan
The forgotten uprising
Today, with the prospect of India getting caught up in the Sri Lankan civil war once again, people remember, with apprehension, the great IPKF misadventure of the 1980s. But, strangely, nobody seems to remember -- or even know about -- an earlier Indian military involvement in Sri Lanka.
The year was 1971. Late one evening, an Indian naval ship apparently radioed Colombo harbour. "Am having engine trouble. Request permission to put in at the harbour." The port authorities readily agreed.
Immediately another message came in: "Have sister ship with me as well. Request permission for that too to put in." The port authorities, once again, agreed. After all, they had no reason not to.
The next evening, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was at a cinema show when she got an SOS from her security people: extremist uprisings had suddenly broken out all over the island. The Sri Lankan Army was called out, but with little effect. The armed revolution -- reportedly an extreme-Left, Trotskyite initiative aided and abetted by North Korea -- soon began to get out of control.
The armed forces admitted they couldn't handle the situation. The Sri Lankan government started to panic. Mrs Bandaranaike finally got on the phone and called up her good friend Mrs Gandhi in Delhi, requesting her to send military assistance.
Back came the reply from Delhi: "By a strange coincidence, there happen to be two shiploads of Gurkhas sitting in Colombo harbour right now. They are at your disposal to put down the disturbances."
Very clearly, it was no coincidence. Indian Intelligence had got wind of the Trotskyite uprising long before the Sri Lankans themselves did and India took pre-emptive measures by sending in the Gurkhas to stand by, in case of need.
The Gurkhas swiftly went into action. The uprising -- which was centred mainly in the hills of central Sri Lanka -- was put down with brutal efficiency. Official figures are either very hazy or non-existent, but people will tell you that literally thousands of Sinhalese youth were killed in the process.
A friend of mine, who claims to have had a very narrow escape himself, told me that any and every bearded Sinhalese male aged between 18 and 25 was suspect -- the beard apparently being a distinguishing feature of the Trotskyite movement. They were either summarily shot or jailed or, at the very least, rounded up and harshly interrogated.
My friend (an entirely innocent, but bearded, Sinhalese, 20 years old and on holiday in the hills) was just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now a computer graphics guru in the US, he still shudders at the memory of how narrow a shave he had at the hands of the Indian Army, no pun intended.
Apparently the Trotskyites came fairly close to pulling off their coup, but it was just a combination of timing, luck and good, old-fashioned ruthlessness on the part of the Indian Army that saved the day for Mrs Bandaranaike's government. She was deeply indebted to Mrs Gandhi for her help after that.
That is one of the many reasons why the average Sinhalese feels so bitter about India. "When it's been a question of controlling the Tamil Tigers, you've always claimed an inability to do so. But when it was a question of putting down the 1971 uprising, your army had no compunctions about slaughtering the flower of the Sinhalese youth." This point of view lies very close to the surface of the Sinhalese mind and it is invariably voiced with trembling emotion.
India has made a lot of mistakes in Sri Lanka over the years. Let's hope we don't make a balls-up of things yet again.
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