The Indian paratroop major cut an imposing figure. Pressed combats, stiff back, trimmed moustache. He had a British Special Air Service cap badge pinned to his breast, about which he was coy. “Spent time in Hereford then?” I asked. He pokerfaced, in the way that particular brotherhood do when quizzed by civilians.
But there was nothing so enigmatic about his mission. It was October 1987. His Gorkha commandos were then busy overseeing the ethnic cleansing of the city surrounding the giant semi-derelict port of Trincomalee. He told me that his grand project was to see the Sinhalese population of the city moved out and the district put under the proxy control of allies among the local Tamil separatist rebel groups.
Then, he said, Sri Lankan Jaffna Tamil refugees who had fled across the straits into Indian Tamil Nadu could be sailed down the coast and resettled in their empty homes. I thought then he was overstating to impress. Had his plans become public knowledge the news might have brought down the government of Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, the cynical hack who had permitted the major and the rest of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to land on Sri Lanka.
It wouldn’t have done much for the career of Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi either, the man who had sent the troops in the first place. It was a salutary experience hearing a state-sanctioned professional killer confess such political dynamite before forcing you to stay the night. But such was the arrogance of the man and his mission, I doubt he cared what I might report back.
In the end it didn’t matter. Events were moving on elsewhere.
Rajiv Gandhi always did have an unhealthy fascination with the company of soldiers. Over the summer of 1987 they had spun him a pretty tale of India’s almost divine right to regional military and political hegemony, suddenly under threat down in Sri Lanka. There, he was told, the Jayewardene government was sourcing military aid from India’s supposed rivals, China, Britain, South Africa.
To India’s embarrassment, Israel operated a special interest section in the US Embassy in Colombo. Israel’s Mossad and, it was alleged, Pakistani forces, were training Sri Lanka’s military. Blackwater-style mercenaries were servicing counter-insurgency operations in the island’s south and east. India, its military said, was losing its grip on its own backyard.
The most sensitive issue was the proposed redevelopment of Trincomalee, a huge natural harbour on Sri Lanka’s east coast that had hosted the British Navy in WWII but had since fallen into decline.
The reported awarding of a contract to renovate the port’s giant fuel bunkers to Pakistani engineers convinced India that Sri Lanka was about to turn the port over to the US military – maybe even the Pakistan Navy, then in the process of doubling in size during the 1980s. It was even alleged that the CIA were going to monitor Sri Lankan military broadcasts from a Voice of America relay station by the port.
Gandhi obsessed about Sri Lanka as the linchpin of a “Washington-Islamabad-Beijing axis” completing a ring of steel around India. He yearned for the clutter of turn of century power, the covert operations, the ‘humanitarian’ interventions, the regional hegemony, the neo-imperialist confidence.
The result was the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord on 29 July 1987. It brought a temporary truce and the arrival of the IPKF to the island to “guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities”. He sent his toughest troops to Trincomalee where they soon entangled with the most potent of the Tamil separatist forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The LTTE, whose powerbase was in the north, had its own ambitions for control of Trincomalee. The city was then largely run by their rivals from the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).
The LTTE quickly turned a Life of Brian style ‘Peoples Front of Palestine’ row between them into a war of death squads. PLOTE and EPRLF were soon partners in patrols with Indian special forces. Armed confrontation between the LTTE and the IPKF became inevitable.
The PLOTE patrol that had picked me up on October 6 had not been friendly. After a few hours I was keen to confess something, anything really, that would explain why I was padding about behind their lines. So I claimed that I was looking for a friend at a local hotel. Which one? I gave the name of the city’s most famous, the Seven Islands.
I was unaware of the IPKF’s covert links with PLOTE. I didn’t know then that Indian special forces were billeted in the abandoned club. They all dropped their fists and hung back at once. We had friends in common, apparently. Mercifully, the major took me in when the PLOTE squad dumped me on his doorstep that evening.
He wanted an audience for his sub-geopolitical dabblings. But as the US Army would say in Iraq in later years, decisions were being made elsewhere that were “above his pay grade”. The mass suicide of LTTE prisoners under Sri Lankan eyes, the killing of captured Sri Lankan soldiers, the murder of civilians and LTTE attacks on IPKF patrols had rendered India’s strategy untenable.
New Delhi ordered a surge and strike policy against the Tamil rebels that same night, October 7. Presaging the US military’s own surge in Iraq 20 years later New Delhi hoped a major offensive would salvage its failed political strategy and enforce peace with arms.
Communications networks were to be targeted, LTTE camps attacked and prisoners sought and interrogated. The major’s grandiose plans for ethnic redistribution of land and single-handed resolution of an intractable conflict were ended overnight. The IPKF were immediately embroiled in a brutal guerilla war that was eventually to claim the lives of some 1,100 of its men. Thousands more civilians died. There were hundreds of reports of human rights abuses.
But that night, on the eve of battle, the major had time to change from combats to a dressing gown. He had a terrified hotel chef dragged out of the cellar to serve me cold chicken curry and warm beer so he could share his views on India as a global power.
He despised the low caste Indians who he’d seen working the terminal on his way through Heathrow to Hereford (“The worst of our race”); the English (“a degraded people”) and his nominal host, President Jayewardene (“a fool for allowing us here”). Then he got out his guitar. He gave Give Peace a Chance a shot but couldn’t get the chords right. So he settled for a few verses of Kumbayah.
Next day the battle began in earnest, a bloody trek north to the city of Jaffna opened by the slaughter of Indian airborne troops in a bungled raid on a LTTE HQ. I never saw the major again.
I had to wait six years and Bosnia before seeing ethnic cleansing of the like attempted in Trincomalee in October 1987, albeit with much more ruthlessness. About the same period of time to see LTTE-style suicide bombings in Palestine and Afghanistan. But I had to go to Iraq between 2003 and 2005 to see that kind of combination of hubris, duplicity, misdirected military force and plain weirdness.
Rajiv Gandhi resisted withdrawal from Sri Lanka to the bitter end, unwilling to concede that his Sri Lanka policy had failed both diplomatically and militarily, accompanied by a flurry of accusations of human rights abuses. He was opposed by the government he was supposed to be supporting and unable to defeat the local insurgents, even with the use of one of the world’s most powerful armies.
It was a cynical bid for hegemony over a strategic region, backed by suspect claims to legitimacy, a military adventure brought to a humiliating end by a relentless insurgency. Those who think that the US has a monopoly on neo-imperialist folly should remember India’s intervention in Sri Lanka, and its own ‘surge’ that marked the beginning of its end 25 years ago this month.
In December 1989 Gandhi was replaced as prime minister by V.P.Singh, who regarded the whole Sri Lankan adventure as a dull waste of taxpayers’ money and called a prompt end to it. The last IPKF jawan left Sri Lanka barely three months after Singh took power. Gandhi, of course, was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber in May 1999. The war in Sri Lanka rolled on mercilessly for another decade.