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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Shed no tears for Tigers

Even as the LTTE is crushed,it is important to understand how ruthless the Tigers were

Written by Shekhar Gupta | April 25, 2009 9:57:49 pm

At the peak of the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka in the winter of 1987,when the Indian army was still suffering more casualties than at any time during the war in Kargil,I had a conversation with then-Lt Gen (and later chief of army staff) Bipin Joshi,its director of military operations. “These LTTE people,” he said,“were just macho young people with no other purpose in life but to kill and die.” I thought,then,that it was in fact Gen Joshi’s remark that sounded so much like a macho soldier talking. And this was after the LTTE had already inflicted on his army several hundred casualties,in some cases annihilating entire platoons or fighting patrols,and blowing up armoured personnel carriers on landmines so big their one-and-a-half-tonne doors would land a hundred yards away. Five brigades advancing on Jaffna,with tanks and Mi-24 helicopter gunships (though only one brigade commander used these,famously on the bazaar in Chavakacheri,an LTTE stronghold on the axis he was pursuing to Jaffna. The risk of a few civilian casualties,he reckoned,was worthwhile if it saved his soldiers’ lives. Of course his was the brigade that got to Jaffna with a fraction of the casualties the others suffered.).

To me,in fact,it was the Indian army that had looked arrogant and macho to the extent of being imprudent. Gen Sundarji,then army chief,had a dashing style that rubbed off too easily on his protégés and sometimes created a “bash on regardless” mindset,as if the enemy did not matter. I had seen this in Operation Bluestar where he lost nearly 140 men in one night in the Golden Temple. In Jaffna too,infantry assaults were launched on a still largely unknown and well-defended city,in some cases by units that had landed a couple of hours earlier from India. The tanks looked good,but did not have the high-explosive ammunition they required. They carried,instead,the tank-busting,titanium-tipped ammunition called,in acronym-heavy army parlance,APFSDS (armour-piercing,fin-stabilised,discarding sabot). But behind that impressive description,it was useless in Jaffna. As an officer in the battle zone had told me,if you fired it at a house where an LTTE group was hiding,it would go clean through the walls,leaving the marauders unharmed. Plus,they would know where you were. So it was our own army that had gone in under-prepared and under-gunned against a largely unknown enemy,had suffered initial setbacks and casualties,and Gen Joshi was calling the LTTE macho and irrational!

Bipin Joshi and I had many conversations on this subsequently,particularly after he took over as army chief (and where he died,tragically,of a heart attack while still in service). He still argued he was right in his description of the LTTE. If they were not macho and irrational,he said,why would they defend Jaffna against a full-fledged army in a conventional manner,a battle they were destined to lose — which they did. No clever,well-led guerrilla force would commit such a blunder,you can’t create a Stalingrad with sneak and ambush,he would say. The LTTE’s (ultimately) disastrous defence of Jaffna,he said,was the starkest example of this cruel,macho irrationality that cared little for human life,theirs or the enemy’s.

In this moment of the LTTE’s destruction and defeat you can’t but reflect on that. What kind of people take on an entire nation’s modern army,in the face of total worldwide opprobrium to their terrorist ways and unmindful of the plight of the Tamils whose cause they professed to be fighting for? Only people driven by violent madness,militaristic fascism,the suicide-bomber cult,for whom killing is not a means to the end,but the very purpose of living. Over two and a half decades,the LTTE has killed literally tens of thousands,a majority of them Tamil. They invented the human bomb and used one to kill the one man (Rajiv Gandhi) who staked his name and reputation and his country’s might and resources to find for their fellow Tamils a peaceful and just settlement. But obviously,that is not what the LTTE and its megalomaniac supremo had wanted. All they wanted was killing,killing and more killing. For Prabhakaran,peace talks were just a cynical tactic to recover,regroup and rearm whenever the going got tough. When the IPKF,under Lt Gen Amar Kalkat,had got the better of him decisively and controlled all inhabited areas,driving him into his Kilinochchi dugout (from which the Sri Lankans have just prised him out) he made common cause with President Premadasa,one of the cruellest and most pathologically anti-Tamil Sinhala leaders ever. Together they got rid of the IPKF — with help from a sudden turn in Tamil Nadu politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat and the arrival in power,in Delhi and Chennai,respectively,of a hopelessly lily-livered V.P. Singh and a Karunanidhi almost as cynical as Vaiko is now. That done,Premadasa too was blown up by a teenaged LTTE human bomb,and how bomb and target got into such close proximity is a story too sordid to be told in a family newspaper even in these permissive times.

I once wrote a piece in this newspaper (‘To know courage…’,IE,August 1,1999) describing how,of the 28 names that figured in my reporter’s notebook from my first Sri Lanka story in early 1984,only eight had survived. None of the 20 had died of natural causes. Most had been killed by the LTTE. Most were also Tamils. Most of them were also men of peace,fighting and campaigning for a better deal for their fellow Tamils. That piece was inspired by the killing by a human bomb that morning of Neelan Thiruchelvam,a middle-ground MP from Jaffna and a man of peace with a heart of gold; a man who only spread warmth,affection and generosity,and fought tirelessly not only for Tamil rights,but also for peace — which is why,in the LTTE’s penal code,he deserved capital punishment. The bomber threw himself on the bonnet of his car as I waited to join him for breakfast in the lobby of the Intercontinental. Yogeswaran and his wife Sarojini,Padmanabha and Yogasankari,Sam Thambimuthu and P. Joseph,all elected MPs from Tamil territories,all as Tamil as Prabhakaran or Vaiko or Karunanidhi,were assassinated by the LTTE for the same crime: questing for peace. Joseph,a most loveable man who wouldn’t harm an insect,was shot during Christmas mass in his native Batticaloa in 2005. There was nothing Prabhakaran hated more than peacemakers. They created dissonance,disruption in a world of murder and deceit. He was,indeed,macho,arrogant,irrational,fascist. If you don’t bow to me,I will send a teenager,a child,maybe a woman,with a bomb-belt,to embrace you.

As this article is written,Prabhakaran is still alive,and free,even if cornered. So my use of past tense (“was”) for him is not accurate. But I use it because whatever happens to him now,even if he escapes for now,his cult of ruling by suicide-bombing is now over. Not just India,but all humanity,and particularly Tamils around the world,have to be grateful for that. And this stunning defeat would have been brought upon him by the same irrational arrogance that Gen Joshi had talked about — in retrospect,with such prescience. He eschewed a negotiated settlement at every stage. But it is also a time when Rajapakse’s government has to be firmly told to ensure his army does not make the mistakes victorious armies usually make. The Tamil population must be comforted so they can breathe freely after decades of LTTE subjugation,and assured that this war was as much about their own dignity and rights as about Sinhala pride and Sri Lankan national integrity. This is where India,now and after elections,has to play a key role,not in finding Prabhakaran and his last surviving thugs an escape or reprieve.

sg@expressindia.com

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