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India’s ‘dirty little war’ in Jaffna, heroism amid ineptitude & new friendships under fire

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30 Years after IPKF: The passing away yesterday of Col. Anil Kaul, decorated hero of Op Pawan, brings back the truth of a military disaster.

India’s unexpected war in Sri Lanka caught me on the wrong foot by 12,000 km. I was still finishing the last month of my sabbatical year in Washington when the fighting broke out. And as I returned home, the media was full of coverage, often loaded, of the IPKF disaster in Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula.

Loaded because the Bofors scandal, and many other missteps, already had Rajiv Gandhi under widespread attack. Sri Lanka was therefore seen as “babalog” political stupidity, rather than military incompetence. In the process, we were guilty of both, insensitivity to Indian soldiers, their courage and sacrifice, and also conveniently overlooking the complacence of our higher commanders. Now, this was obviously not a war we were going to ever lose, although my friend Hardeep Puri, who was by then our first secretary in Colombo under J.N. ‘Mani’ Dixit, sometimes tells you, sort of semi-lightheartedly, that there was one evening so tense that it felt as if Palaly (Jaffna airbase and the IPKF’s 54 Infantry Division HQ) was going to fall. Hardeep had just seen the truce agreement he had so painstakingly drafted and signed with Mahattaya (Madras Cafe’s Mallaya) fall apart.

It is creditable how much of that initial messiness Shoojit Sircar got accurately in his film. The fact that early IPKF patrols were routinely ambushed, pinned down and annihilated. How its officers were picked out by snipers. How the LTTE seemed to have inside information on all IPKF moves (more about this a little later). The most creditable footage in his film, however fleeting and sensitively handled, is of the Tigers ransacking Indian soldiers’ bodies and picking weapons, souvenirs and trophies from them. Note, particularly, a boyish Sikh soldier sitting, frozen in rigor mortis. That quality of research you didn’t expect from a mainstream Indian filmmaker, and we will shortly explain why.

On my return to India, I was deeply saddened even offended by the celebratory coverage of the war. Cover pictures of Indian soldiers’ bodies, close-ups of Tigers displaying caps, identity cards, boots of dead Indian soldiers. You had never seen an Indian war covered like that, you haven’t since, and you never will. Of course, I also felt rotten having missed out on the big story which, for the magazine, was covered by my friend and colleague Anita Pratap, who later worked for Time and CNN. The photographer accompanying her, Shyam Tekwani, was my frequent travelling partner in Sri Lanka subsequently, and now teaches at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii. I did get into many arguments in our newsroom on how we had covered the story and why it was necessary to now reconstruct what exactly had gone wrong, and the lessons learnt, etc.

My reward was being assigned that story. And in the third week of December 1987, I landed in Colombo, having been briefed (lectured, more like it!) by Gen. Sundarji, his DGMO Lt. Gen. (later Army chief) Bipin Chandra Joshi, and his staff.

Since association by events is sometimes the safest way to remember dates, particularly if you do not maintain elaborate notebooks—as in my case, hardly, and notoriously the sketchiest ones—I can tell you I was on way to Jaffna from Colombo in a rented Mitsubishi Lancer on 24 December and had just crossed Vavuniya when everything came to a standstill.

Angry, grieving mobs blocked the streets. MGR had just died. That’s how I know the precise date. A bandh had been declared by Tamils. I couldn’t go forward or back, knew no Tamil, had no food or shelter, and you know how early the winter sun sets that far in the east. But I was lucky again, as an IPKF patrol of Maratha Light Infantry Regiment passed by and its leader, then a very young Captain C.K. Menon, offered me shelter in his camp.

From him and his colleagues that night, in that small camp in the danger zone, I heard my first stories of the ordeal Indian soldiers had just been through.

We connected decades later at the ITC Grand Central Hotel in Mumbai, where he was serving in a senior capacity, having left the Army as a colonel (he has moved up the ladder in ITC hotels now).

And if that isn’t sufficient evidence that the myth called reporter’s luck is a reality, let me tell you who came to my rescue similarly on the drive back, now caught closer to Jaffna with the prospect of crossing the infamous sniper and mine-infested lagoon at dusk. A patrol of the Gurkha was passing by and the wiry young Captain leading it suggested I take shelter with him at his camp overnight. He said his company had just lost several lives in an ambush in the same area. I had mostly forgotten about the incident. Until, at the annual Hindustan Times Leadership Summit dinner in November 2015, the then Army Chief, Gen. Dalbir Singh, asked me if I remembered the young Gurkha officer who had sheltered me. It was he, wiry as then.

True enough, after absorbing the initial setbacks, they had taken and secured the entire Jaffna peninsula. But the price had been shocking: 350 killed and 1,100 wounded in this month-long charge. The casualty rate, at 7 per cent of all troops involved, was twice as high as in our wars against Pakistan. One of the five brigades that assaulted Jaffna, the 41st, which was airlifted on 17 October and was launched straight on the coastal road axis leading to Jaffna Fort, had 272 casualties, or 17 per cent of its strength.

The 72nd also suffered heavy casualties, including its deputy brigade commander, Col. D.S. Saraon. The heavily armoured BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicle he was riding was blown up by a 200-kg mine. The 13.2-tonne vehicle was tossed more than 30 ft and its doors, each weighing more than 250 kg, were found more than a hundred yards away. Another illustrious battalion, 4/5 Gurkhas, had its commandant and all but one of its majors killed one afternoon. This is not a war anybody had expected and, regrettably, prepared to fight. I wrote a five-page reconstruction and analysis headlined ‘In a rush to vanquish’ (India Today, 31 January 1988).

T-72 tanks, Mi-25 helicopter gunships had come without ammunition, infantry had been airlifted from places as far as Gwalior and thrown into battle without even three hours of familiarisation. There is no excuse for this kind of complacence.

The IPKF’s first casualties were five soldiers from its finest unit, the paracommandos. Waylaid by the LTTE while casually going to collect provisions on 8 October, they were burnt in public view with tyres thrown around their necks. That disastrous beginning spilled over into the most talked about setback then: the combined, heli-dropped paracommando and infantry raid (11 October) on the Jaffna University campus where Prabhakaran and his top aides were living.

It went wrong from the word go. Only two-thirds of the commandos (10 Paracommando) could be landed and the infantry company (13 Sikh Light Infantry), which was to secure the landing ground, the football field from where IPKF helicopters used to routinely pick up LTTE commanders for talks, failed to fetch up, and the special assault forces contingent was reduced to fighting a battle for survival instead.

As for Sikh LI, only a platoon could be landed, and in the wrong playground, several built-up lanes away. The rest of the company could not land as helicopters came under medium machine gun fire. The platoon, led by Major Birendra Singh, a close relation of diplomat-politician K. Natwar Singh, was encircled and wiped out after a valiant fight. Only one of the 30, Sepoy Gora Singh, survived, and was taken prisoner by the LTTE. It is believed Prabhakaran displayed him to his fighters, kicked him in public and said, let him go, so he will tell them not to fight us again. Gora Singh, however, brought back the story of one of the Indian Army’s most poignant battles ever, where, out of ammunition, the last three survivors even carried out a final, suicidal bayonet charge. The LTTE looted and stripped all the bodies, piled them in the nearby Nagaraja Vihar Temple on public display. Then it cremated them after simply throwing a barrel of petrol over them. That’s why it’s been so revolting now to see Tamil Nadu politicians feeling so sorry for the Tigers.

This is why we had said earlier that Madras Cafe’s footage of the first battles, along with the young Sikh soldier (remember the Sikh LI platoon) in rigor mortis and the LTTE boys plundering the bodies, was so remarkable. It was the first instance of Indian filmmakers challenging the old Haqeeqat-Hindustan ki Kasam-Border notion of Indian war cinema. I walked around that ground weeks later and still found shreds of the Sikhs’ uniforms. In the nearby building, there was more evidence of the sickening plunder of those bodies: pieces of Sikh LI battle fatigues, cross-belts, boots, water bottles, epaulettes, all mixed with .50 mg MMG shells, sometimes ankle-deep. That tells you how much fire that one lost platoon withstood in the course of those valiant 12 hours.

The commandos, separated in the football ground, had done a little better, with six killed and nine wounded. They were finally rescued in an audacious and brilliantly innovative operation by their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Dalbir Singh, covered by three T-72 tanks of 65 Armoured Regiment.

Since by now it was known that the Tigers had mined all approaches, Maj. Anil Kaul, the tank commander (his father had first raised this regiment), remembered a railway line skirting the campus and decided to drive the tanks on the rail tracks instead, for once surprising the LTTE. But his own tank was hit on the turret by an RPG shell (or an MMG burst) and he lost his eye and hand as he bravely peeped out to navigate. His inspired troops put him on morphine, fought on, and brought about that heroic rescue of the stranded commandos.

The Col. Kaul with an eye-patch that we’ve been seeing on our TV channels, usually furious over some military issue or the other, and who once famously demanded that I be hanged upside down from a tree and flogged (after our story on the Army movements on the night of 16 January 2012, that spooked Raisina Hill), was the same valiant cavalry man. He also wrote me a warm email in 2013, reminding me I had visited him in hospital where he was reviving then. He also said he now wanted to contest elections in 2014 as an independent. I failed to dissuade him despite trying.

He passed away this Wednesday, 27 December 2017, and his friends and fans joined his family for his ceremonial funeral at Brar Square, Delhi Cantt, on Thursday. His passing away made us swap the sequence of the second and third parts in this series of ‘First Person, Second Draft’.

Pardon me for leap-frogging the calendar, but Col. Kaul’s latter day anger apart, in Sri Lanka I got nothing but large-hearted access, affection and hospitality from the Indian Army. I did have only one tough scrap, although well meaning.

This was in Batticaloa in September 1989 where, after a briefing and lunch with the GOC of 57 Mountain Division, I was stepping out to go to the city. As Tekwani and I came out of the general’s ops room, we found three army trucks and a jeep, machine guns mounted, tarpaulins ripped and battle-ready Sikh soldiers spilling over from each one.

“This is your escort,” said the general. We protested that we were safest as journalists, and going out with such a convoy would endanger our lives and the soldiers’, as the LTTE may just presume we were some Indian VIPs. The argument became heated. And the irritated general gave up on us, saying, “alright, then you are on your own, and I am taking the chopper to an outpost. Then, if something happens to you in this area, at least I will not be responsible. But you are being stupid anyway”.

He was, of course, speaking from sincere concern. He was a wonderful soldier and his name is Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, who is now one of your more sensible and articulate TV generals. Yet another aside: he subsequently married prominent political journalist Aditi Phadnis. I can make a disclosure now, the original tip-off on the Tamil rebel training camps in India, that led to the first story of March 1984, had come from Aditi’s mother, Urmila, a highly respected international affairs professor at JNU. Now don’t say that reporters’ stories are filled with digressions.

Shoojit’s film suggests that the LTTE knew all about the IPKF’s moves because some traitor was leaking to them. He was only halfway right. There were no traitors, but the LTTE knew for sure. As the IPKF later discovered, the LTTE’s communications, electronics and eavesdropping ability was on par with modern armies. An Army College of Combat team later researched the disasters, particularly at Jaffna University, and concluded that the Tigers had intercepted the IPKF wireless on that assault night. Even the range and height settings of their machine guns were perfect when the helicopters arrived.

The five brigades that converged on Jaffna moved at different speeds and suffered a varying, but high, number of casualties. But the brigade that suffered the least, the 18th, also reached Jaffna the fastest.

Why, I learnt during those many conversations over long nights spent at the regrouping and recuperating units’ field headquarters. Its commander, Brig. J.S. “Jogi” Dhillon, spoke at length about jujitsu, of how to turn your enemy’s strengths against him. So his troops moved only at night and only through the fields and lagoons, avoiding all roads, thereby skirting minefields and snipers.

But most importantly, he showed the courage and military dash to use the most potent weapon in the IPKF’s armoury: the deadly Mi-25 helicopter gunships, the only time that weapon has been used in our history. His brigade had to take the Tiger stronghold of Chavakachcheri (where Prabhakaran executed Mahattaya and his 257 soldiers on this day in 1994 – 28 December), and heavy casualties were anticipated.

He prevailed on the high command to let him use Mi-25s. All they did was fire just 32 rockets at the Chavakachcheri bus station, supposed to be the LTTE nerve centre. He took the town with just three casualties. There was the predictable outcry that many of the 28 Tamils killed by Mi-25 rockets were innocent civilians. But Jogi’s point was, so what were they doing there? He quoted the Chetwode Oath to me, which made the safety and well being of his troops next only to his nation’s security for an Indian Army officer. “As the Americans used to sometimes call Vietnam, Shekhar, this is a dirty little war and people will die, ” he said, “and because many will die, they better be yours rather than mine.” Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket had probably not released in India by then, so I am not sure he borrowed that line from the young marine there, although spoken in a different context.

Dhillon, Brigadiers Manjit Singh (of the battered 41st) and B.D. Mishra (72nd) spoke of other experiences and lessons. How the Tigers had rigged Chinese-made sniper chairs on the top of palm trees where sharpshooters waited entire days with rifles equipped with telescopic sights, how they expertly picked out officers from Indian columns: a skill taught to them, sadly, by our own Army instructors when we were hand-in-glove with them. Also, their expertise with electronics and explosives and their ability to marry both. At one point, the IPKF was so harassed by IEDs electronically detonated from afar that it cut off power to Jaffna for several days.

On the way back from Jaffna and on subsequent visits to Sri Lanka as well, I was given generous audiences in the newly built chancery, a monument to disastrous CPWD architecture and L-1 construction at such a premium ocean-front spot, by High Commissioner ‘Mani’ Dixit, who once had chided me for that 1984 training camps story but was now so genuinely affectionate.

The Sri Lankan media mocked him as “viceroy”, and Mani smirked as only he could as he cleaned and dusted his pipe and looked out of his window at the two Indian navy frigates routinely anchored close enough for you to see the markings and ensigns. “Sadly, Shekhar, you’ve proven to be right and we so wrong with the Tigers,” he said, “These thugs were never to be trusted and I am sure nobody ever would.”

Not much later, Premadasa did, and paid with his life. But Mani also said another important thing. He said the IPKF experience had told him India was still not ready to be a big power. “The first evening of fighting, and I knew we were not yet ready for force projection overseas, and willing to pay the price, politically and militarily, for it. We are a long way from being a big power,” he said.

Of course, over two decades, we became close friends as our paths crossed in Pakistan (when he was high commissioner there) and later, when he served as foreign secretary, he wrote a regular column for The Indian Express when I edited it and then returned to South Block as the UPA’s first national security advisor. But you could see that he was somehow stressed in that job. The Mani Dixit smirk and twinkle were now missing. At a dinner at my home for Fareed Zakaria on 2 January 2005, I asked Mani why he looked so stressed. Then he spoke that other line which I have borrowed often, in many contexts as a political journalist. “It takes you a lifetime learning the ways of this benighted city,” he said, “and by the time you learn them, it is too late in life to be of much use to you.” As more guests came in, he said we should meet again at leisure and he would explain.

That was not to be. Dixit had a heart attack later that night and next morning so many of us, friends, fans, admirers and sometimes sparring partners, were at his funeral. Frankly, he would have been a much, much better man to tell you the story of that bloody period in Sri Lanka than any journalist watching from the sidelines, or filmmaker skirting political minefields.

Epilogue: I got some lashing in the Colombo press in 2013 for saying at the India-Sri Lanka Society Independence Day banquet that the country seemed to be missing the real peace dividend that should have followed the successful completion of a long war.

Where is the creative, liberal, civil society renaissance that usually follows such wars? I said the army was still too big and, with 4 per cent of the able-bodied Sinhala male population still in uniform (India has around 0.2 per cent), the political and institutional balance was skewed unhealthily. I also spoke of the need to celebrate diversity and to build stronger institutions as, in a democracy, that was the natural protection against majoritarian excess.

I got calls from Colombo journalists saying I had challenged Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and attacked its judiciary, etc. This is fallacious. I believe, on the contrary, that Mahinda Rajapaksa made a historic contribution to his nation and did a great favour to India and Tamil Nadu by ridding us all of the cruellest, most deceitful, fascist force in our history. He deserves India’s gratitude. And the LTTE deserves nobody’s sympathy. But Sri Lanka’s peace dividend should not be confined to a construction boom.

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  1. The jingoist reporter looks more like a Bowliwood film reporter and is blowing his own smelly trumpet of life in the US as a wide-eyed bumpkin.

  2. it’s a one side story, India as a regional super power fail to protect tamils and resolve our conflict !!! LTTE is no longer and that doesn’t mean everything is solved at north and east…..now tamils are treaded as a third class citizens of srilanka,
    Now north and east under iron fist of Sinhala military, anyway poor Kupta was not aware of current situation in Sinhala Lanka
    Now Sinhala Lanka is under Chinese influence and India is struggling ………
    Mahinda Rajapaksa sold Sinhala Lanka to China and Now poor Indians are surrounded by full of threat…
    Mr. Kupta must be updated !

  3. In the loss of Col Anil Kaul,VrC we have lost a great war hero,who knew more than anybody about the Jafna university helidrop.May his soul rest in peace.

  4. All being said, India and the IPKF did lick its wounds. India had no business in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi Armed and trained the LTTE, Rajiv Gandhi expected them to lay down arms, akin to candy being taken away from kids. At that time in 1987 the Sri Lankan forces, were pounding the LTTE strongholds in Vadamarachchi, had that continued for a few more months the LTTE would not have survived, yes their would have been casualties of war. But that bloody war would have been long over and not continued for another 20 plus years. South Indian Politicians played their aces that ensured Center got involved. India forced the Sri Lankan government to enter into a peace agreement with the LTTE, by threatening to invade Sri Lanka. In the end the Protector became the hunted.

  5. India is a shit….. it does not protect the TAMIL people.
    terrorism arises from continuous suppression and oppression of a particular cornered race by another because of its might and thus the germination of a TAMIL cause. India cannot solve anything and further more it does not fit to be in the SARC it just sucks.Until today India is just like a drunken demoralized incapable leader and with lots of bollywood and kollywood dreaming nature.

  6. Thank you for making me relive those Sri Lanka days. I was a part of Lt Col Dalvir Singh’s force ( 10 Para Commandos ) and still serving. I read every narration of yours on IPKF with great interest and each story has gripped me for its realism and accuracy. Events come alive in a magical way and I find myself transported emotionally to that period when as a young officer I have witnessed and been a part of the tragedy that was the IPKF but also the sacrifice, resilience, fortitude and bravery that defines the Indian Army.


  7. Sir,

    With all due respect, its really fascinating (with some sadness) to learn about the hardship Indian army faced in Lanka. But i am deeply disappointed about you not covering any political details about that Lankan crisis. I am from TN. I was a kid when Rajiv was assassinated. All i hear (keep hearing) about LTTE were all one sided version (obviously glorifying LTTE) of the lankan civil war. so it would be good if you can shed some insight into some of the events that led to assassination of Mr.Rajiv gandhi . Was Rajiv genuinely thought LTTE was bad? Whats the true nature of Prabhakarn? with BJP’s raise combined with the absence of any strong leaders in my state (Post Jaya and karuna) Tamil Nadu (more specifically youth) starting to cultivate a separatist mind set . It would be more than useful if a person like shed some insight on what actually happened from 84 to 2009 when LTTE was vanquished. Thanks

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