Ultimately the soldier was humiliated
Read General Kalkat's interview by Josy Joseph from the beginning.
India suffered a huge casualty. Some of it could have been avoided?
You cannot avoid casualties in fighting, in war. Whether they could be reduced? Somebody is wearing a flak jacket, he wouldn't die. My soldiers didn't have any. There were none. You cannot ask for something that was not there. Initially, we did not have good detectors for mines, for booby traps. We asked for and our army slowly and slowly acquired them. That is why I said, even our army was ill-equipped, not just the IPKF. It was different from fighting the Nagas. You were fighting, in the American assessment, one of the deadliest militant force. There to send your unsuspecting soldier, it was tough, isn't it?
Why was air power not properly used against the LTTE?
Air power would have only destroyed civilians. We had gone there to rehabilitate civilians. If we had used air power, it could have been the other way: we would have rendered more homeless. It is totally counterproductive. It is counterinsurgency, the application of military force has to be controlled. Even artillery, we used it sparingly, only in jungles where there were no civilian population.
We had that rifle, your old SLR, which is not designed for counterinsurgency. It is so cumbersome. Our army did not have any better. We tried sawing up half the barrel so that it wouldn't get caught in the branches. No army in the world uses such heavy, cumbersome rifle with such slow rate of fire.
Then, we didn't have the modern devise of night vision. Our radio sets were heavy. And communication was a problem. But slowly we overcame these. As far as the rifle went, I told my soldiers, if they capture AK-47s you can use them. So a lot of my soldiers were using it, they were captured. Then I ran short of ammunition. I had to arrange for ammunition. That is the way it was. The communication too was very bad. How do you command a force like that?
What were the most touching incidents during your command?
One was the six, seven days when Jaffna had to be captured. I had to move two battalions fast to attack from the rear. At some point they got into a fight with some LTTE group. There was concern. We got through, it was there we won the Param Vir Chakra. That was a tricky time.
The most critical time was when we were fighting the battle of Neethikaikulam, part of Vaani jungles. It is east of Vavoonia, a thick jungle. It was a major hideout of the LTTE. It was the month of August 1988, and I had planed my operations in a manner to clean up the area because we wanted elections in September. From Batticaloa in south to Jaffna in north. We cleaned up Batticaloa district, then we cleaned up Trincomalee, then we cleaned up Jaffna top.
The enemy had withdrawn into the jungles. Their backbone had to be broken. They were a potent force and so by a series of operations we got into the jungle. The battle was joint and that is the time when paracommandos went there and entered the tunnel and [LTTE chief] Prabhakaran escaped through the second tunnel from the right. We destroyed the LTTE headquarters.
There were a series of bunkers connecting to the tunnel. When they entered the first bunker, he was in the second bunker and he entered the third bunker and escaped. We captured a lot of their leaders, destroyed their leadership, captured a lot of headquarters papers.
You told your men to shoot Prabhakaran if he was caught?
No. I didn't tell them to kill him. I told them to capture him.
If you had caught Prabhakaran, what would have you done?
I would have treated him like any other militant. We had a concentration camp or whatever you call, where we put the militants under detention. Of course, if Prabhakaran was caught, what to do with him would have been a political decision.
You are taking a politically and morally right position.
No, no. This every soldier is to be taught. Soldiers are not to be assassination squads. One army has done it, to their discomfiture. The Indonesians did it. Military soldiers fight a war in a military manner.
Where were you when this particular operation was going on?
Right at the place of action. They were keeping a watch on my movements. Their code name for me was Eagle, the Tamil for it. I took off from Trincomalee. I said it was a tough battle, I should go there. I had a general there, General Goel.
As I was taking off, they [the LTTE] said, Eagle has taken off. I was landing right inside the battle area. Fighting was taking place all over. They had identified me, and they opened up rockets. While touching down, we hit the rocket and my helicopter burnt. I jumped out. It was hovering. Totally burnt out, and they had surrounded this place.
For the next two hours, there was firing all around. It is all part of the game. It was after this battle that I announced the time was now right, the situation is under control, the last command of the LTTE has been destroyed, and now I am ready for elections. It was that announcement that forced the Sri Lankan government to announce the elections.
That was the closest you came to death?
No. I came even closer to death. A number of times. Once I was driving into Jaffna, I was going on the road. There was this old black Morris car parked there. Some boy went and checked this car. When they checked, it was found that this car was ready to be exploded as I passed by. It was detected beforehand.
Once I was with General [Ashok] Mehta, the operation was going on in his area, Batticaloa. We saw the fighting from a helicopter. I saw some movement of Indian troops down below, I said, I must meet them. There were some LTTE there. They [Indian troops] knew I was there. I told my pilot, to go down and keep the rotators flying. The senior-most steps down first, and I jumped out. The pilot of the aircraft, he was a little worried, it was not a secure helipad. As I jumped out, the LTTE was sitting in ambush all around. They opened fire. I did not realise it because of the sound of the helicopter.
But the pilot realised, smoke and flashes coming out. He said, Come back, sir, so I got inside fast. And then the pilot put in what they call 'power retro' or something, I have never been whisked up in a helicopter so fast. Soon after, our troops rushed in and opened an elixir of fire. After 10 minutes I said I must go back. A commander cannot be seen as going back from the scene of action.
You interacted with key figures. What was your impression of them, especially of Prabhakaran?
The LTTE could not interfere with the elections, they could not assassinate even a single of our candidates. After that I said at Neethikaikulam that we marginalised the LTTE militarily, and in the elections they were politically marginalised. Then I got a message from my head of intelligence, he was a South Indian, a very good man. He said someone had been contacted by Prabhakaran's number two, Mahathiah, who had come around somewhere in Trincomalee. He wanted to contact the IPKF, no, Prabhakaran wanted to meet him.
I said I would meet him, I am a military man but if we were to meet for political discussions, I would not. If he wanted to meet, I would come. I can only talk about my military, I can't say terms of the Accord be changed. I think they got the message that I wouldn't get involved in talks, again the same old talks. So he backtracked.
Were some of your field commanders reluctant participants?
No. In fact, if anyone felt so, the choice was always there. He could have gone back. He could get another posting.
Did you come across any incident of people asking for leave?
Yes, indeed. Not for this reason. Not everyone is made to withstand rigours and dangers, battle fatigue gets hard. In protracted insurgency, these things come up, not just there, but anywhere. In counterinsurgency, there is no front and rear, the enemy is all around. I am aware that some people's performance dropped.
Any psychological disorders among your soldiers?
No... there may have been cases. But nothing did come to my notice. There was not a single case of desertion, no absent without leaves.
How was your relations with [then Indian army chief] General Sunderji?
I had no problems. In fact the fact that he picked me up is the right indication. He might have been influenced by my performance. Obviously he had confidence in me.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw refused to go into war when Indira Gandhi wanted. Don't you think General Sunderji could have done something like that?
Sunderji as a chief is functioning within a government, what problems it was facing I had no preview. My sum total is that the Indian army that went to Sri Lanka was ill-equipped and unprepared for the kind of task that was undertaken. I say it categorically. The question is whether such a task was envisaged, I am not qualified to comment on that. You can ask people who took the decision. What was their understanding? What political understanding were they given?
The DMK and other Tamil parties were supporting the LTTE. What did you feel about that?
You know what happened? The government was dismissed. All of them were apprehended. They were put into jail, all those shops were closed. Earlier, the LTTE was there, they even participated in the elections there pasting posters etc. Mr [P C] Alexander was the governor. Earlier it was funny. All the local police were told to assist them when they were smuggling things in small boats. Such contradictions were adding to the problem. The policeman said, Earlier by assisting them I was becoming a martyr. Today I am a criminal. Where do I stand?
Did you expect Rajiv Gandhi's murder?
I did not think they would carry it across the shores.
The Americans and Israelis were providing active assistance in Lanka. How did you react when you reached there?
There was no American assistance. Israeli assistance was for the Sri Lankan special force. Their training camp was on the edge of Batticaloa district, my soldiers had discovered it. And I straight away took up the matter, if they don't leave in 24 hours, my soldiers will deal with them. And in 24 hours they left the place lock, stock and barrel, both Israeli trainers and Sri Lankans.
Was Rajiv Gandhi's assessment of the situation right?
By the time I was there, the assessment was history. On operational matters he listened to me. He was supportive.
Did the nation treat the IPKF well?
In the IPKF the number of bravery awards were totally commensurate with any such operation. Legal obligation of the government was fulfilled. You got the pension and all that. That was the part of the terms and conditions of service.
Whereas in the case mobilisation of nation and people, it did not happen. Initially it happened at lower levels in Tamil Nadu. Women's organisations used to come up, they did little little things. Over a period of time it needs mobilisation from the top. That did not happen. The IPKF operations fell in the same pattern of 1971. The mobilisation of the national support for the cause becomes more and more important today.
Do you have any major regrets?
The only thing is, if the Premadasa government was not allowed to get away the way he went back and, consequently, the IPKF had stayed on, then I think in six months time the government would have become efficient in the north-eastern province. After that, the Tamil parties in Sri Lanka would have been able to handle it.
So ultimately the soldier was humiliated.
Yes. The government in Delhi did not [humiliate him]. The prime minister received me. The government in Tamil Nadu did.
How do you assess the present situation in Lanka?
The problem has come to a stage where both parties realise that there is no military solution to the problem. For the LTTE, they can carry on fighting, but ultimately all that will be left will be Tamil babes-in-arms, no young men. The Sri Lankans, they can't also carry on fighting, it has economically hit them so badly. In the South, the JVP which had been wiped out once, will end up coming back due to poverty. And they will end up destroying their own systems. So for both of them, the future is doomed if they carry on fighting.
Both having understood that, I feel they would like to resolve it. The present president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, has shown a great amount of willingness to come down. Perhaps the realities of the political system has stopped her from showing so much of willingness. But in my heart of heart I am convinced that if she has to give in some, she will give in to resolve the issue.
The LTTE, if it can have some kind of face-saving, that we fought for Eelam, we couldn't get it, but we came the closest to it because it is Tamil Eelam, or otherwise it was not the end, but that was the means. The end was where the minority Tamils have their rights, their culture is protected, their religion is protected, everything is protected. That is the aim. Now the concern of the Tamils will be, even if a honest broker comes, what prevents the agreement? Even if they today amend the [Lankan] Constitution, what prevents a brute majority from changing it?
Today the broker, I believe, is Norway. Earlier on, the attempt was under the aegis of the International Alert, it is an NGO based in London. The critical issue is whatever the agreement is going to be, who will underwrite it? It will have to be a party acceptable to both the sides. I do not see any western country taking on the responsibility of underwriting it.
The IPKF in essence was really India committing to underwrite an agreement between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government. Obviously, there may be or there will be pressure trying to get back India as the country to underwrite such an agreement. And I strongly feel that we must avoid giving any such undertaking or taking on any such commitment.
For the reason I explained, we have tried it once by sending out our soldiers. But one of the parties decided to break the Accord. And when national sovereignties are involved, it becomes very difficult for a third party to enforce it.
Secondly, the position taken by all the political parties other than the Congress is that it is wrong to involve ourselves in Sri Lanka. Those parties will not go back on that today.
ON TO PART 7
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