The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon

Wounded Journey

Ten years ago, Roving Editor Ramesh Menon was in Sri Lanka to cover the unceremonious return of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. What was it like as Indian jawans packed their bags and boarded a ship back to India after a protracted two year war? A decade later, he goes down memory lane.

E-Mail this special feature to a friend The official at the immigration desk at the Colombo airport looked up from my passport. "You have come to cover the packing up of the IPKF," he said gleefully. It was just an apt indicator of the mood in the island nation.

March 17, 1990. In the crowded plush market places of Colombo, Sri Lankans talked of how the Indian army had been given the boot. Somewhere, it hurt.

The early morning sun glowed in the sky on March 24, 1990, as the last batch of over 2,000 jawans of the IPKF in Trincomalee packed their bags and boarded the troop carrier INS Magar. The IPKF was taking no chances. Indian navy frigates flanked the ship as it began its journey back to India. The frigates were watching eagle-eyed for any LTTE movement in the waters. Rumours were afloat that there could be potential suicide bombers lurking in the waters.

A small clutch of the Sri Lankan army played Auld Lang Syne as the ship started moving. One of the greatest disasters of Indian diplomacy was coming to an end. Shortly before he joined his troops on the ship to return home, IPKF commander Lt General A S Kalkat said: "We came as a proud force and are leaving as a proud force." It was just a politically correct statement. Any jawan on board would agree that he was relieved to sail back home. He was weary, he was battered, he was demoralised.

For over two protracted years that seemed like ages, the IPKF jawan had fought a war he did not want to. A war he did not understand. A bush war he was not trained to fight. It had been a grueling experience as many saw their colleagues blown into smithereens by landmines. India had just lost too many of its best soldiers and had gained nothing. As many as 1,155 were killed and 2,984 wounded, according to official figures.

However, the real toll was suspected to be much higher. The force had flown into Sri Lanka with much hype around it. Now it was returning unsung, unwanted and completely demoralised. For the first time, the Indian army seemed to have been wounded, not because of its own fault; it felt used as a pawn by New Delhi. It was also caught in between the crossfire of petty ego hassles of the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing. In no war had the Indian army lost so many personnel.

As the ship set sail from Trincomalee, there was just a small ceremonial group of Sri Lankan jawans to ostensibly bid them good bye. It was more of a formality. Apart from them, there was no one else. Not a single Sri Lankan.

There was absolutely no semblance of gratitude. Here was the Indian jawan who came to fight Sri Lanka's war and was returning without even a thank you. As thousands of jawans waved good bye, I waved back, glassy eyed. It was one of those rare assignments when one got emotional. They deserved a better farewell after laying down so many lives fighting another country's war.

In fact, the then defence minister of Sri Lanka, Ranjan Wijeratne, was bold enough to say that if the IPKF would not leave the Lankan shores, they would be thrown out by the Sri Lankan army. It was one of those disastrous moments for Indian diplomacy since Independence.

It was the LTTE's moment of glory. They had convinced the then president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, that they could talk peace only after the IPKF left. Premadasa fell for the ruse and asked India to leave.

Wijeratne rushed to say that peace on the island would now become a reality. He had also fallen for the LTTE ruse which just wanted the Indian army out so that it could do what it wanted: Take over the north and the east of the country and call the shots again.

Soon after the ship sailed away, LTTE cadres in their Pajero and Nissan jeeps moved out into the streets taking positions. Sandbags and bunkers that were earlier manned by Indian jawans were taken over and checkpoints were set up on strategic points. Clearly, the LTTE was back in control. In fact, they were already in control much before the IPKF technically quit.

In fact, Indian jawans were holed up in their camp for many days before they left. Heavily armed LTTE cadres were already out in the streets patrolling. To the man on the street, the message was clear. The IPKF was no more calling the shots. When I moved out of the camp, it was a Sri Lankan army officer in a battered jeep who escorted me into the heart of town. After dropping me, he drove off saying that I was moving around Trinco at my own risk and it was not advisable to walk into any LTTE camp.

Actually, there was no risk. The LTTE was just waiting to sell their line to a foreign journalist. But if one perceived fear, it was all over. If one wanted to go on with life, one could do it despite gun-toting young boys and girls in battle fatigue moving around. They were wearing their newly designed uniforms and were very visible on the streets of Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Point Pedro and Kilinochchi.

As aggressive-looking cadres patrolled on the streets, both the police and the Sri Lankan army helplessly looked the other way. Obviously, they did not want a confrontation. Policemen in Kankesanthurai in the Jaffna peninsula said that they were actually under explicit orders from the LTTE to only police certain areas and stay away from the others. Said Kailash, 24, a proud LTTE organiser: "The police have to take our permission to move around certain areas. And they do."

The LTTE were smartly dressed in green olive battle dress with machine guns slung on their shoulders. It was a sign of the shape of things to come. But many wore bathroom slippers or were barefooted. There were just no signs that this seemingly rag-tag group had actually fought one of the largest armies in the world, survived, and then used their guile to drive the Indian army out of the country by sheer political skullduggery. While the IPKF claimed to having killed 2,200 LTTE volunteers, the Tigers maintained that only 683 had died.

Flags of the LTTE and the PFLT dominated these areas and it seemed there was no other political entity. At one of the LTTE camps, there was an Indian battle tank displayed that was captured in the war. Volunteers spoke at length on how they were not going to let the Sri Lankan army tell them what to do as Eelam was the goal.

Poet Kasi Anandan drew a thundering applause at street corner meetings when he would say that any foreigner could capture his land, but would not be allowed to rule over it. And that they could defeat the people, but not destroy them. At Killinochchi, Mullatitivu, Batticaloa, Pullumalai, Vakara and Kalmunai, the young and handsome Yogiratnam Yogi, the general secretary of the People's Front of Liberation Tigers, the political wing of the LTTE, addressed packed meetings. He raved that India had signed an accord not to protect the life and property of Tamils, but to secure its geo-political interests. The Tamils were reminded of how over the past four decades they had been discriminated against in jobs, education and other areas. The stress was clearly on the Tamil identity and territorial integrity -- the platform on which the LTTE calculated it would ride to power.

PFLT offices had newly sprung up. It was an indication that they were serious about contesting elections and taking over power. Restaurants and street corners played patriotic songs and speeches praising martyrs and explaining why they chose to fight and die for the Tamil cause. Area leaders of the LTTE held durbars on local problems and even presided over people's courts.

There were hectic moves to pick up arms. Many of them were just dug up from pits left behind by fleeing volunteers of other groups like the EPRLF, ENDLF, PLOTE and TELO. Their offices were empty. The Tigers conveniently moved in. Naturally, these offices overnight became offices of the LTTE. Sidthadthan, who headed PLOTE, complained ruefully: "There is going to be serious trouble now. No group will be allowed to exist."

Mahathaya, who was the second in command, and spoke in pure Tamil, almost said the same thing when he said the people were now against all other groups and would lynch them if they came back. As he and his commandos in Tiger uniforms walked around, there was a sense of awe among the populace. Also fear. It was almost clear that other than the LTTE, no other Tamil group could dream of having a commanding presence.

While Premadasa and Wijeratne were calling upon the LTTE to surrender arms, the Tigers said nothing doing. Their argument vocalised by LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham said that it was in fact imperative for the Tigers to retain arms as the security of the North Eastern Province veritably depended on that. It made a mockery of Wijeratne's proud claim that he would soon make Sri Lanka a gun free country.

All over the north and the east, one could see LTTE cadres positioned on highways, checking trucks and all those who passed by. Instead of security personnel, the Elephant Pass linking the Jaffna peninsula with the island was full of LTTE cadres. They went around with machine guns slung on their shoulders asking for "tax". No one could fool them. They were well-armed with the latest bank balances of top businessmen and professionals. Said a young kid who was walking around barefoot: "We will use the tax to run the Tamil areas." It is not only money from the locals and businessmen that filled their coffers. Money was also coming in from Sri Lankan Tamils in Australia, the UK, the US, France and the Gulf.

Once the IPKF left, it was a psychological war. The LTTE was out to stonewall the government into recognising that there was no other way but to give in. Said Balasingham: "Sri Lanka cannot afford another war with the LTTE. The Sri Lankan army cannot contain us. The best alternative is to make peace with us.

Though the honeymoon between the Premadasa government and the LTTE had thrown up hopes of peace, few had illusions of it lasting. It was more than obvious that the LTTE was just buying time to reorganise itself. The strategy was to affirm itself as the real representative of the Tamils and raise the demand for independence. But Colombo would say nothing doing. And an inevitable armed struggle would start.

In my hotel room in Colombo, EPRLF MP Sam Tambimuttu recounted how he had abandoned his mansion in Batticaloa after LTTE cadres looted it day after day for a whole week. "Will there be peace one day?" he asked, staring at the ceiling as if he was speaking to himself. He had launched a virulent attack on the Tigers in parliament and saw a risk to his life. He was right. He was assassinated soon after.

Sam had created ripples when he released a list of items being taxed by the LTTE and said the people had to be a silent witness to such extortion as the government was too weak to act. I could not help wondering what the future of the surf-washed picturesque island was. The peace loving Sri Lankan in the shopping malls of Colombo had the same fear. Everyone feared the powder-keg would explode any time.

V Sivalinga, 58, a retired government officer in Trincomalee, told me: "The time had come for every Tamil family to give off one of their sons to the LTTE." His son Ravi, 28, had just abandoned his medical studies to be with the LTTE "to fight for the respect of Tamils." The time bomb, he said, was ticking away. He had said this ten years ago. No one could have been more accurate.

Part II: The army fights back!


India's Vietnam

A homeland denied

The Rediff Specials

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