PR: First, we would like to thank you for joining us. I understand you spent nearly three decades in the Indian Armed Forces and salute you for that and would like to ask how you started and if you can describe your journey entering the Intelligence Services of India (Intelligence Corps), more so become the Chief, which is extremely difficult to do?
RH: Thank you for providing me this opportunity for sharing with you my experience as the head of intelligence (not the chief of Intelligence Corps) of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka for the duration of its existence from 1987 to 90. I belonged to the Intelligence Corps, which is a part of Army’s General Staff Branch tasked to collect as well as deny military information in areas of security interest. It also provides tactical and strategic assessments both in peace and war on security threats including insurgency. I was commissioned as an artillery officer and took part in 1965 war as an artillery officer. Two years later I was transferred to the Intelligence Corps which was expanding in the wake of India-China war 1962.
Of course, as an MI officer for nearly three decades I have worked closely with all intelligence agencies (there are nearly a dozen of them!) including the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s counter intelligence and security agency. For over two decades, as intelligence officer I gained both staff and field experience in COIN operations against about 12 insurgencies including some in Bangladesh and Burma. This could be one of the reasons why I was picked to head the military intelligence effort in Sri Lanka; but more importantly as I was the senior most Tamil speaking MI officer which is an important factor in Sri Lanka.
I served as the first and last Colonel General Staff (Intelligence) at the Headquarters of the IPKF. As the senior most Intelligence staff officer, usually I was required to assess the developing threat almost on a daily basis and give periodic assessments to help plan future operations. However, the MI role in Sri Lanka was unique as it was practically the only agency to collect intelligence on the LTTE in areas where we operated as RAW resources were mainly focused on meeting Government of India’s requirements which were largely political. All military field intelligence units in Sri Lanka operated under my direction were a great help in meeting the military requirements. Of course, my work involved close interaction and cooperation with the RAW, IB, Sri Lanka’s National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and Tamil Nadu state police and at times with Sri Lanka police.
PR: Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was of the view that what was taking place in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s was indeed a genocide and India should not be a simple spectator which is why many claim the RAW trained the Tamil Tigers. First, why was the IPKF dispatched to Sri Lanka, what was your role and day to day activities during that period?
RH: There are several parts to this question:
1. Genocide Issue In 1983:
Was the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka genocide? Qualitatively and quantitatively the 1983 pogrom does not match the genocides of Bangladesh (1971), Rwanda or Cambodia. So it might be debatable to call the 1982 pogrom as ‘genocide’ as defined by Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) accepted by the office of the U.N. Special Adviser on the prevention of Genocide (OSAPG). I would leave such debates to legal brains. Probably Ms. Gandhi calling it genocide at that time was part of the political rhetoric connected with the Tamil issue.
2. Indian involvement:
The 1983 pogrom was organised by the Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardane government to cash in on Sinhala sentiments against Tamil insurgents triggered by the LTTE’s killing of Sri Lankan (Sinhala) soldiers in an ambush. There were probably three reasons for Ms Gandhi to directly get involved in Sri Lanka in its aftermath.
a. Real politick:
In 1983, over 100,000 Tamil refugees landed in Tamil Nadu triggering a popular sympathy wave. Indian Prime Minister Ms. Gandhi needed to strengthen her political base in Tamil Nadu which was weakened after the 1971 Emergency. So she used the situation for her political advantage. And her son Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded her after her assassination in 1984 continued to go by her narrative.
b. Cold War priority:
Ms. Gandhi saw Sri Lanka was getting cosy with the U.S. even as the Cold War climate heated up in South Asia after Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty was signed in 1971. When Soviet army entered Afghanistan to support Mujibullah regime, Cold War was joined in the sub-continent with Americans involved in proxy war against the Soviets. The U.S. probably wanted to gain yet another foot hold in India’s neighbourhood. The U.S. was perceived as using Sri Lanka as a cat’s paw for this purpose. Ms Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi wanted to nip it in the bud by sending a strong message of intervention in Sri Lanka.
c. Self Image of Ms. Gandhi:
Ms. Gandhi’s spectacular success in helping the creation of an independent Bangladesh added to her confidence and she probably saw herself as a saviour of the oppressed people everywhere. So the plight of Sri Lanka Tamils fleeing the country struck a sympathetic chord and induced her to strongly react. But actual intervention in Sri Lanka was ordered by her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi after his sincere efforts to mediate between the Tamils and Sri Lanka government failed to yield results. And the Indian intervention came about with the concurrence of Sri Lanka President after the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) in 1987.
3. Training of Tamil militants:
Training of Tamil militants was organised by RAW and not the army. I am not sure of the details because army was excluded from the whole project. Of course, the instructors included army men. They were mainly used for weapons and tactical training. As officially there is not much of information on this, there is a lot of misinformation about army’s involvement. And when the army took on the LTTE it suited both the LTTE and the strong anti-India Sri Lanka lobby to perpetuate this myth. The rationale for Indian action stemmed probably from its experience in training Bengali freedom fighters in the run up to 1971 liberation struggle for Bangladesh. Probably this was part of Ms Gandhi’s tactics to bring pressure on Sri Lanka President J.R. Jayawardane to force him to evolve a just solution for the Tamil minority’s grievances. In 1984 I learnt of Indian involvement in training Tamil militants. Based upon my intelligence experience in insurgency areas, I have always considered the training insurgents of another country by democratic countries as a counter-productive strategy. When I drew the attention of MI Directorate to this aspect, I was asked to advise them only when asked for; in any case, it was not relevant because army was not training Tamil militants, they said.
4. Despatch of IPKF to Sri Lanka:
Initially India sent a division minus troops to Sri Lanka the day after the signing of India-Sri Lanka agreement in July 1987. It was ostensibly at the request of JR Jayawardane to give confidence to him to help disarming of Tamil militants in terms of the ISLA. It was also to ensure Sri Lanka government (J.R. Jayawardane) adheres to its promise to introduce a level of autonomy to Tamil minority. It was to be a short term measure. The IPKF was formed only when India decided to use force to neutralise the LTTE which refused to lay down its arms in terms of ISLA and started killing members of other Tamil militant groups.
5. Experience with LTTE Chief Prabhakaran:
Thanks to our family connection with Jaffna, I had fairly long (three decades in 1987) exposure to the complexities of Tamil-Sinhala ethnic friction. Many Sri Lankan government officials and Tamil personalities knew our family linkages with Sri Lanka. However, professionally for me it never came in handy as MI never considered Sri Lanka as a potential area of military conflict. So MI had no use for my knowledge till 1987. Among the Tamil militants the LTTE leader Kittu, who had a long convalescence in Chennai after he lost a leg in an internecine conflict, knew my kin. So the LTTE knew who I was when I landed in Sri Lanka in August 1987. Some of the local journalists and political small timers considered close to the LTTE maintained some link with me all along. In spite of this, I never tried to meet Prabhakaran separately as MI was not involved in political palaver with him. It was left to our Army Generals and Brigadiers on the ground. However, as intelligence officers tend to do, even when Indian army was in talking terms with Prabhakaran, we had collected all details of his style of functioning, security, movement, and his associates though I never imagined we would go to war with them when we landed.
PR: I believe the IPKF were cordially welcomed by the Tigers in the beginning but things turned in the wrong direction after claims of abuses by the IPKF against Tamils in Sri Lanka which led to conflict between the two. What is your take on that, did IPKF commit any atrocities, and what is your view of this scenario in general?
RH: Initially, LTTE was neutral and aloof in their dealings with the IPKF unlike other militant groups which were quite friendly. The allegations of abuses by Indian troops came only after the operations against LTTE were launched not before because we were merely spectators as LTTE took to streets against India, even while Prabhakaran was negotiating. He wanted the whole cake and not a piece of cake offered to him in the interim administration.
We never considered him as a freedom fighter though Indian forces were very sympathetic to the Tamil plight as second rate citizens. Prabhakaran had mercilessly killed leaders of other Tamil militant groups and Tamil political leaders who did not toe his line. I remember recovering a Gestapo style documentation of 102 civilians who were executed (in LTTE parlance it was called ‘dumping’ because dead bodies were dumped in garbage pits) after a ‘military court’ tried them for crimes like soliciting outside Sinhala army camp, possessing ten grams of cocaine, acting as a pimp, working as a police informer etc. Of course, there was no appeal and execution was swift. On Day 1 of conflict with Indian forces, a hapless Rupavahini TV (National TV channel) crew caught by LTTE were tied to a lamp post with tyres around their neck and set fire. We had seen the smouldering fires of their half burnt bodies. I lost even the little enthusiasm for the leadership of Prabhakaran and his concept of Eelam when I saw them. LTTE losing the war in 2009 was a logical consequence of Prabhakaran’s fixation of resolving issues only by force of arms; otherwise one cannot understand the logic of walking out of the 2002 peace talks when he was controlling more or less of the whole of Tamil majority areas in North and East.
There are a few issues involved in analysing the allegations of atrocities by Indian troops after 25 years. In COIN operations there are always innocent civilians killed, usually described as collateral damage in the fire fight between two sides. This happened in Sri Lanka also. But there were specific instances where serious allegations were levelled. I remember two of them: massacre of patients and doctors by troops in Jaffna teaching hospital and retributive killings in the site of an ambush in Valvettithurai. I think both the army leadership and government failed to institute transparent investigations to get at the truth and disprove them or punish the culprits. But in 1987-88 human rights was not a big issue world wide as it is now. India was no exception to this. Bigger killings were taking place in Afghanistan where the U.S. was fighting a proxy war against Soviets. India itself did not pay much attention to human rights accusations against it. But all this is hindsight wisdom. There are practical difficulties in carrying out counter insurgency operations (COIN) and ensuring adherence to rule of law unless special powers are given to return fire on unconventional forces of civilians firing on troops, without a magistrate giving clearance for such action as required by law. So those involved in COIN should have legal protection as well as have a watch dog mechanism that would follow up allegations of human rights violations. It existed in IPKF as in other military units only as a command responsibility which was not adequate. Now Indian army has a mechanism to deal with such allegations and transparency is taking place, though the story is not the same in other wings of government.
PR: Do you feel that an international investigation into the alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka in 2009 is justified and what do you make of the recent comments by the Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka Lalith Weeratunga that if such an investigation were commenced, IPKF must also be investigated?
RH: Yes, I think there is sufficient ground now to determine the extent of war crimes committed by both Sri Lanka government and the LTTE and fix culpability of authority and responsibility of perpetrators of the crimes. As Sri Lanka has dithered in impartially investigating the allegations, probably an international inquiry is required. To be meaningful, it will require not only the concurrence but also the cooperation of Sri Lanka government. International real politick will ensure economic sanctions are subverted, so it’s no option for quick results. It can come through only by international pressure and not by threats.
Lalith Weeratunga as Chief Secretary was an executor of President’s orders. So he is only inventing new ways to evade Sri Lanka’s responsibility to investigate allegations of war crimes in 2009. I am not surprised he has raised the issue of investigating IPKF’s alleged war crimes. As a CEO of the government of Sri Lanka for the last 11 years he is within his rights to order an inquiry into IPKF allegations so that the veracity of the accusations can be established.
It is 25 years since IPKF operated; so why does he remember the issue only when Sri Lanka is asked to be responsible for his conduct now? His intention is clear: Sri Lanka does not want to carry out an impartial investigation. It wants to evade responsibility for its deeds during the war. That is the bottom line. Even President Premadasa who colluded with the LTTE to throw the IPKF out of the country and no lover of India did not seek such an investigation.
Even if you examine it from the point of view of national and international human rights watchdogs, why have they failed to internationally raise this (allegations of IPKF) an issue now? They have not done so because it will only deflect the efforts take Sri Lanka to task for its lack of accountability for human rights violations and war crimes which is at a critical stage in UNHRC. So this is neither the time nor suitable environment to raise the issue; it would further delay the process by distracting global attention.
Even with my sympathy for victims of human rights violations and as a serious advocate of improved accountability of law enforcement agencies and armed forces, I feel commonsense approach is required to sell any proposition related to historical issues. This issue is one of them as many players of that time including those of the LTTE are no more or nearing the age when dementia sets in (I have fortunately escaped it I think.)
There is no reason for India to want an investigation now. It is a functioning democracy which has progressively tried to improve its human rights record. Moreover, it does not serve India’s objectives in Sri Lanka which are two-fold:
1. Ensure integrity of Sri Lanka as a single entity and discourage all efforts to create an armed insurgency to violate it because it will have security repercussions in India’s national security architecture.
2. To see that Sri Lanka Tamils’ grievances are removed and their confidence is restored in participating in mainstream political democracy in Sri Lanka on equal terms.
So fundamentally any action other than those that serve India’s objectives will not be encouraged or initiated in India. Such a demand would be ignored in India as it is going through a delicate pre-election campaign and it would suicidal for any political party let alone Tamil Nadu ones to accept it.
PR: Do you see a re-emergence of the LTTE or any militant groups in Sri Lanka?
RH: No. It took five decades for a powerful insurgent body like LTTE to emerge because the local and global environment favoured it. It produced Prabhakaran, Padmanabha and Sri Sabaratnam and a whole genre of leaders who believed in militancy. Now the environment is changed; ideology is on deathbed in politics. Sri Lanka is no exception to this. Globally insurgents except the Al Qaeda kind are passé and even Jihadists are operating with the support of international patron-nations. And Tamils are simply tired of war after losing two generations of their kin. They have nothing left except their identity. Survival and livelihood are their priority. In spite of all the brave words of fringe elements of Diaspora, they have little to show on ground that the call for Eelam would attract local population to wage yet another insurgency war.
PR: As there have been calls for legal “international protective mechanisms” for the Tamils of Sri Lanka due to the expectation of the UNHRC passing a resolution for an “international investigation”, do you see a role for the Indian Armed Forces in this as usually peacekeeping forces are sent during these international investigations to protect the population providing information?
RH: International protective mechanism (IPM) has not saved the beleaguered Palestinians from Israeli attacks as and when Israel chooses to carry out. IPM can at best be useful as a temporary measure in a situation when the hostile lines are drawn against each other. This is not the case in Sri Lanka. It is not Gaza strip or even Lebanon for that matter. The real protection can come only from a level of amity between the communities in conflict. India would not dream of sending its army again to Sri Lanka as it had courted (in the past) enough displeasure from everyone including Indians. In any case protection of population giving evidence has to be undertaken by the government of Sri Lanka; unless it accepts this responsibility no external agency can carry out investigation within the country as it involves evidence of many kinds, not merely witnesses.
PR: Do you have any final words for your listeners throughout the world, especially in terms of the mission of the IPKF, the dream of Tamil Eelam by diaspora organizations, and what you feel would be the best political solution to this ongoing drama today since the independence of the nations of South Asia?
RH: I am no oracle. But let me take a try. Due to its internal war Sri Lanka lost three decades of development; otherwise it could have emerged as the only Tiger in South Asia. If India despite its huge burden of poverty, illiteracy and disparities could forge ahead in last decade there is no reason why Sri Lanka cannot do so. It requires people to think ahead rather than look backward. Political rhetoric and hypocrisy has to be given up by all and build a win-win situation rather than trying to revive the cadaver of separatism or encourage the paranoia of resurgence of Tamil insurgency.
Time is the essence if Sri Lanka people want to rewrite the story for a happy ending. It requires a national movement rather than the efforts of Kandyan elite, Jaffna intellectuals or Southern conservatives and of course those looking at the Eelam template in Paris or London.
I think the youth have it. It is time young leaders who have a stake in the future replace Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghes to bring the sad tale to a happy ending.