Homeland Security

IPKF's Performance in Sri Lanka
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Issue Book Except: Assignment Jaffna | Date : 08 Apr , 2011

The Long War

Used as we are to wars of a fortnight or three weeks, the Cl Ops against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, which went on for nearly two and a half years, proved indeed tough – and to many, too much. Careerists suffered a great deal. Calculations of many went awry and many were ‘found out’ if not found wanting. Large numbers felt uncomfortable, dissipated, disheartened. Some were dispirited, on the verge of tears. The contagion spread to the families of not only officers but jawans also. One common question most earnestly asked was:. ‘When will our husbands return?’ People, village elders, old veterans, friends back home asked: ‘What are you doing in Sri Lanka’? We quietly asked ourselves: ‘What are we achieving?’

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Communication facilities fortunately, in Op PAWAN were indeed well engineered and quite a few could talk to their families at various locations from where formations had moved. This carried some to the other extreme. Talking every day to the families became a ash ion. Eyebrows would be raised if this was not done. And families would gather at central places where telephone facilities existed and talk to their husbands. If he did not call twice or thrice a week, the wife would be in tears. Some wives specialised in finding out details of not only their husbands activities but also those of their superiors: Where they went, what they did, when, in what manner etc! Notes would then be exchanged. Other wives then would feel offended that their husbands did not tell them enough. This is a peculiarity common to most of our officers’ and soldiers’ families across the board.

If he did not call twice or thrice a week, the wife would be in tears.

In my long tenure of nearly three and a half years In Nagaland as a Sector Commander, I had been witness to a far higher degree of this tragi-comic practice. Loose talk would be rampant; security rendered weak; and the soldier would start being influenced, biased or affected unduly. During my spots of short leave I thought it appropriate to talk to all the families in their respective family welfare centres. I told them what the war was about, what exactly their husbands were doing, how everyone who went Into war was not going to die, unless destiny willed specifically (in which case one could die by falling down in the bathroom too, why on the battle field?) and how well their husbands were doing In adversity, which after all was war and would remain so. One could not expect the good life all the time! It had to be death, wounds, hardship, blood, sweat and Interminable toil.

That was a soldier’s life, the soldier’s lot and the lot of his family. I frankly told them that their ‘men’ would not be in a hurry to come back; that they had a job to do; that the thought of their return depended on when the job would be successfully concluded; and that we would come back with honour and fame and success. Would not the wives wish that their husbands returned as brave, honoured soldiers with heads high and chests out? How would the husbands be devoted to their dangerous job and pickup courage if the wives pestered them about their return and expected them to speak on the telephone ever so frequently? At the end of such sessions I would invite questions – any question so that I could give an authoritative reply and squash rumours and loose talk.

It was indeed heart-warming to see the response of tile same family, the same Army wife, who could not hide the fact that she was indeed brave and was determined to be even more so, in her own quiet fashion. Most of them were ignorant and unaware of what was happening on the Island; nobody seemed to have told them what the whole thing was about. Almost all wives of the Commanding Officers and Brigadiers said so. No senior Generals and their wives from higher HQ seemed concerned or thought it fit to speak to the families and explain why their husbands had been away so long.

In the final stages the gunner had to coordinate with the Naval Guns, Air Defence Guns, Armed Helicopter, Mechanised Columns, Infantry rear parties. Air Force, various commanders at different echelons and reserves.

For them it was enough to be photographed with patients in hospitals or while giving sewing machines and solar cookers to the war widows. But what about the large number of families of men who were alive; yearning, tense, apprehensive, shuddering and nervous? Somehow our ideas of a human approach to a soldier’s life, welfare of his family and developing that dynamic of belonging among them are skewed, even absent. We do not go to the root of it, to the practical aspects, relevance and reality. We could have done with much more robustness, professional approach, a greater businesslike attitude and vigorous pursuit of the job on hand on a firm war footing than our predilection for taking shelter under peacetime practices. We fought this war with a peacetime outlook.

This war was fought by the Infantry. It also demonstrated its concomitant overuse. Engineers came very close to Infantry in most of the Infantryman’s domain, a credit I admit to with great admiration. The Sappers were remarkable indeed in almost every sphere, including many of the Infantry’s. The Artillery, though little in quantity, did a good job with the resources they had. It was more a rule that the guns deployed in troops and not conventionally in batteries. That increased the pressure on and demand for larger number of gun position officers and observation post officers. The gunner in great demand was the Artillery Air OP (Army Aviation) since most of the shoots were in the jungle, along the sea coast and lagoon marshes. In the final stages the gunner had to coordinate with the Naval Guns, Air Defence Guns, Armed Helicopter, Mechanised Columns, Infantry rear parties. Air Force, various commanders at different echelons and reserves. It was a unique experiment actually structured, deployed and employed on the ground for the first in the’ Indian Armed Forces combat history.

Communications within the Island and between it and Madras, Delhi and Pune were indeed another remarkable feature of Op PAWAN the Signals had a tricky and difficult job and rose to it manfully. Some highly ingenious structuring, engineering and routing was done. Mechanised forces – the tanks and the mechanised infantry – somehow held back. Terrain and the nature and scale of operations did not enable their classical employment. And that is the aspect their commanders harped upon, saying that there was no scope for their classical use. How can you have massed mechanised forces operating in a Cl Ops environment against armed civilians moving about in small groups in jungle and built-up areas? Mechanised troops perforce had to undertake dismounted action far more frequently, using their armoured fighting vehicles as fire platforms, communication points and in open areas as roving platforms.

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Wherever there were bolder, inquisitive and innovative minds and command encouragement, they improvised tactics, evolved operating methods and took on tasks; even suggested, ‘them to their formation commander. But such leaders were few. Largely they preferred to remain idle, stagnant, wishing for a classical role which would not come their way. The Services too did a conspicuously good job, particularly in adjusting to the hostile environment and an invisible enemy all around. They provided their own protection, shared combat patrol duties. ambushes, road opening, small-scale searches, etc. It was pleasantly reassuring to see an ASC or AOC vehicle with an LMG mounted on it and manned by their personnel, speeding up and down.

A few statistics would be relevant at this stage. In the two and a half years In Sri Lanka more than a hundred infantry units went through operational experience as a result of normal turn over. Of the ten GOCs of the four divisions which operated in Sri Lanka, only one was an Artillery officer, the rest being infantrymen. Of the more than 40 Brigs who went through operations as Brigade Commanders and Deputy GOCs of divisions, only one was from the Armoured Corps and one from the Engineers (both were deputy GOCs), while the rest were Infantrymen. The Armand Corps Brig stayed a few months and went off on a long course. In my 14 months as GOC in Jaffna. I saw three Deputy GOCs!

In HQ IPKF at Madras. Which at long last was sanctioned an organisation in April ’88, out of the eight Brigs who went through the war period, only one was from the Engineers (looking after the discipline and welfare branch), the others being from the Infantry. The post of its Chief-of-Staff (number two in the force, next to GOC IPKF), although sanctioned in the organisation, was kept vacant for over nine months, at the height of the war, for reasons best known to the powers that be! And when one was finally posted in late February ’89, it was Maj Gen who had already commanded a division in Sri Lanka for 14 months. Myself. Similarly, a few Brigs and Cols also who had done their bit in Sri Lanka, were posted to the IPKF HQ.

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The tendency appeared to be to circulate officers internally in the IPKF itself and not give an exposure to other peace-time stalwarts. One wonders why. It was common talk that senior officers were not willing to be shoved into such a cesspool where they would be exposed. I must also hasten to add, in the same breath, that a number of Majs and Cols and a couple of senior officers did volunteer to serve In Sri Lanka, some of them placed in low medical category. Nobody noticed them, except troops and those of us who endeavoured to put our nose down on the ground. They too were not bothered about being noticed; and seemed to have been satisfied with what they saw as their duty, perhaps. God bless them!

 What is all this then if it is not a peacetime attitude and dispensation? Who is to do the fighting?

Among the casualties suffered (both dead and wounded) in Sri Lanka, the share of officers was 20 percent, JCOs 12 percent and jawans 8 percent. JCO casualties signify that they did well Young officers and jawans proved to be the mainstay, the two main pillars of the Army. These commodities, time and again, bailed out their unit and formation commanders’ tactical poverty. Jawans were stolid, steady, phlegmatic, enduring, capable of taking enormous beating and, over time, giving it back in equal measure; but lacked guile and cunning. The Infantry’s rigidity, conservatism, wariness, long time require for its preparation, all proved to be asets, as these very attributes helped it to remain steady, firm, determined to stay put, and fight till the very last.

Many Lt Col CO’s in Op PAWAN did not make the grade for to next higher rank of Col who also do the same job as the Lt Cols. In our Army we have Lt Cols as well as Cols commanding units thanks to the confusion and devaluation created by cadre reviews. There were several Lt Cols who commanded their units in Sri Lanka for periods varying from one to two and half years. All of them commanded, satisfactorily and successfully.

Some were decorated for bravery. And yet, many did not make it to the next rank, while their compatriots sitting in peace stations and peacetime jobs got promoted. Rely on our system to rub salt in the wound – these superseded Lt Cols continued to be retained in their command appointments in war, while the system did not find it fair or prudent to replace them with peace-timers who had made the grade. One simply fails to understand the logic, the rationale, the state of concern and interest!

Should not war performance erase or take precedence over peace-time luke-warmth of the past? No, in our Army it does not happen.

How would the superseded Lt Col feel and continue to do his job? How better is he to prove himself, even after successful command in war? What faith is he supposed to retain in the system? What would the men think of their superseded CO? In short, what does the Army really require? It is indeed difficult to see how a Lt Col, who commanded successfully in war, is unfit to do the same job in the next, higher rank! The Military Secretary’s branch trots out gibberish about such Lt Cols having a few luke-warm confidential reports earlier on in their careers. Does this apology hold water? Should not war performance erase or take precedence over peace-time luke-warmth of the past? No, in our Army it does not happen. That is proof enough of its being a peace-time Army.

Further proof of this was provided by the visible reluctance of officers, particularly at middle and senior levels, to be posted to Sri Lanka or to report as ordered. Many were the cancellations, postponements and down gradation of medical category that decides fitness or otherwise of the person’s employability and the desirability of his being so employed. We brought it to the notice of senior officers, including the Army Chief, more than once. But nothing happened. Few wanted to go to Sri Lanka and get stuck in the quagmire there.

There would be bright chances of being found out. Add to this the attitude of rear logistic detachments, which changed their key personnel every three months. They attempted to provide such back-up on temporary duty basis for the entire 30 months of Op PAWAN. What is all this then if it is not a peacetime attitude and dispensation? Who is to do the fighting?

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