This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Memories of another "Surge"

For an allegedly peaceful nation, we Indians have had a pretty blood soaked time in these last sixty years.

We've fought and "drawn" (well, at least we did not unconditionally surrender, so I guess we can claim victory in the good old Indian tradition) wars over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965 against Pakistan; defeated the isolated and almost defenceless Tibetan enclave of Tawang in 1951 and the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1961; beaten Pakistan in 1971 in Bangladesh and fought an alleged war in Kargil in 1999 to an alleged victory. In between we've also found time to destroy the Khalistani separatist movement and fought much moe aggressive insurgencies in Kashmir and North East India to a standstill. And we picked a fight with China in 1962 and quite rightly got our asses soundly whipped.

That last, 1962, war remains the only one we dare admit was a defeat because even our propagandists can't spin that to sound like anything else.

In all this, we as far as possible avoid mentioning another, and most embarrassing, defeat.

In 1987, Sri Lanka was mired deep in civil war between the Tamil population of the North and East of the country on one hand and the arguably racist and fascist Sinhala government on the other. India, which had spent much time cosseting and training the Tamil rebels, finally brokered a "peace agreement" between the Sri lankan and Indian governments (conveniently leaving the Tamils right out of the picture) which involved the dispatch of a force of Indian soldiers, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to "ensure the implementation" of the agreement.

The relations between the Indian Army and government and the main Sri Lankan Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of whose soldiers is in the photo, soon disintegrated as the Indians were seen as colonial occupiers (and proxies for the Sri Lankan regime, which they undoubtedly were). In October 1987 the Indian Army launched a major attack on the Tamil capital of Jaffna, called Operation Pawan ("Wind"). It was expected to be a cakewalk.

The LTTE resisted brilliantly. They fought the IPKF to a standstill, with a precursor of the events of the film "Blackhawk Down" occurring at Jaffna University, only even more disastrously. Indian officers, striding forward in dress uniform out in front of their troops like the British at the Somme in 1916, were picked off like lollipops by LTTE snipers in palm trees. One unit, I remember, had so many of its officers killed it was completely immobilised till fresh officers were flown out of India to take command (the Indian Army does not encourage its noncoms to take the initiative or command. It's a very officer dependent army.)

Although Jaffna ultimately fell, after shelling and airstrikes and punitive power cuts imposed by the attackers, it was at enormous Indian cost while the T
amil rebels managed to evacuate virtually without casualties to bases in the thick jungle. There they fought the Indians for the next two years, with bombs, mortars, rockets, snipers, AK47 rifles that made mincemeat out of the IPKF soldiers with their single shot FN FAL rifles. It was, depending on your viewpoint, a triumphant or disastrous campaign.

So what did the Indians do? Answer: the Indians obligingly "surged" three more divisions (at first the IPKF had included just one), adding up to a hundred thousand men, as well as naval and air force units. There was no political debate. It did not matter anyway. They still did not manage to beat the guerrillas.

All this time the Sri Lankan military gleefully sat and watched the Indians do their fighting for them.

When demands began to be raised in India for the return home of these troops, Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister who sent them there, and who in 1991 was blown away by an LTTE suicide bomber, vehemently refused to contemplate it until the "job was done".
Does all this sound, er, familiar?
It took an election defeat and a change of government before the soldiers were withdrawn in 1990 - and the war in Sri Lanka was still on. It goes on to this day.

Did someone just say "history repeats itself"?

Oh, while I am on this point - I remember in the early days of this farce, the Indian media used to daily quote official statements that went something along these lines: "Today three (or five, or twenty seven) Indian soldiers were killed in Sri Lanka. The total number of Indian dead is now eighty two (or five hundred and ninety)" Then, as time went by, the total number of dead began disappearing from the daily announcements, though the daily number was still being announced. I kept on adding them up and found they were already above 2000, when the totals began - sometimes - to be announced again. And, somehow, each total was lower than the last! To this day no one knows how many IPKF soldiers died. The guesstimates range from six hundred to two thousand, and shrink and swell according to who is doing the guessing. Time magazine guessed that it cost India some five thousand dead in comparison to five hundred Tamil rebels, and that figure may not be too far from the truth. It certainly fits the first person accounts of Indian survivors of the IPKF I met, including a lieutenant colonel who nearly lost an eye to an LTTE grenade and a soldier from this town who was the sole survivor of his thirty two man platoon.

And another little gem: somewhere in 1988, I remember that TV news began referring, invariably, to the IPKF as the PKF. Why was the "I" missing? As a concession to Sri Lankan sentiments? To reduce the impression of being an occupation force? No.

It was, believe it or not, because some idiot or other had told the government that the Tamil for "Peacekeeping Force" sounded more poetic than that for "Indian Peace Keeping Force". OK, I know this is a jaw dropper, but it is too ridiculous to invent. Gives you an idea of the IQ of our military and of our civilian bureaucracy.

IPKF or not, Indians spend much energy rying to forget that particular "splendid little war".

Butting into other peoples' conflicts is most certainly not worth it. 

(March 2007)

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