The strength of the IPKF, drawn from the Indian army and stationed in the North‑Eastern province of Sri Lanka, is put at between forty and one hundred thousand men. Following the last triumph of Indian arms in classical battle formations in 1971, in what was then East Pakistan, it has been playing an increasingly active role in the containment of insurgent activity within. Many of the men and officers of the IPKF bring with them experience of having served in Indias trouble spots. These include the Punjab, Assam and Hyderabad. Experience gained here will certainly be carried back across the Palk Straits for application in India. The Indian armys performance within India had not come up for close public scrutiny, partly because the problems had not got so conspicuously out of hand; and also because of a strong patriotic element in Indian journalism. But the deployment of the Indian army in Sri Lanka is an international event, which has attracted a relatively high degree of press reporting and comment from around the world. This is being treated rather defensively by the Indian army.
In the classical scenario for the deployment of the Indian army in a troubled situation, it is taken for granted tht the army is a crude instrument that will quell the troubles in a short time while normal civil law is suspended. The political assumption is that the scene will then be set for a quick political settlement, enabling the army to withdraw to barracks. Conditions in Sri Lanka highlight a new and potent tradition in sub‑continental insurgency. The JVP has carried this to unprecedented extremes. The strategy consists in exposing the political weakness and oppressive potential of the state on the basis that people do not matter. The latter are reduced to helpless anger. Civil law ceases to exist and armies do not get back to barracks. There are signs that other parts of India may join the list of trouble spots if the security apparatus continues to be used in this manner.
This short sketch raises some issues pertaining to the performance of the IPKF. The life of an Indian soldier is indeed a harzardous one, consisting of routine patrols in staggered formation where the initiative of attack is with the enemy. In the nights he drives along in trucks, seeing only the front and not knowing what lies on either side of the road. The strain on the men is understandable.
Concerning the armys performance and the reactions to it, an officer expressed himself with strong feelings: People talk only about the bad things we do. But not about the good things. Our feelings, the strains we have to undergo are not appreciated. A man spends more time with the men in his unit, than with his family. The army is his home, and his feelings of comradeship are very strong. It is hard to appreciate the strength of his feelings when he sees his companions lying dead and mangled in pools of blood. When such things happen, it is difficult for us to face our men. We restrain them most of the time. But sometimes there are excesses. At times a man goes and hides himself in a crowd shocked by what he had done. In normal battle conditions, a man who withdraws without returning the enemys fire is courtmartialled. The jails of India are full of courtmartialled men. Later, when you have time to reflect, you will feel that the Indian army made great sacrifices and did you a lot of good. Of course blunders have been made and you can criticise the politicians for them. But I feel really hurt when onesided attacks are made aginst the Indian army. These Nepalese boys are fine soldiers. They are really above board. In my opinion, the army is the greatest thing in India.
While such feelings contain elements that deserve sympathy at a human level, they pinpoint a key element in the whole tragic saga. There is little evidence that the army had any understanding of the extent of reciprocal civilian feelings, when unarmed and evidently harmless men, women and children are murdered in reprisals by a well armed and all powerful army. The insensitivity is made all the more evident when reporting is considered tantamount to incitement. Many officers talk of reprisals as if the right to reprisals is something on par with the Geneva Conventions. Some even talk about the use of minimum terror. The reader can judge from our reports. The restraint shown by the army in Mannar after the incident of 9th August is a welcome development. It is still too early to judge.
The most potent element in the weakness of the Indian army here, and the general failure of counter‑insurgency in both Sri Lanka and India, stems from an insensitivity to basic elements in the law. While fighting men under stress have a strong subjective element in their judgement, the law imposes a restraint through ingrained tradition, preventing us from acting on the subjective. Subjective actions can be most destructive and irretrievable, when they are backed by armed might. It is in this context that assumptions by national states that the law is a luxury that can be suspended in troubled times, opens the door for all kinds of abuse heralding the destruction of the state itself. That such a damaging notion has gained a measure of respectability in the cultural milieu of the South Asian elite is evident in the nature of current problems. The destructive intolerance inherent in the atmosphere is instanced by the Indian Prime Ministers use of Republic Day speech to attack the opposition as traitors. Army officers, administrators and even perhaps academics are part of this unimaginative elite.
When the obligation to the law goes, every apparent temporary expedient appears in the light of an ingenious strategic imperative. Then go obligations to truth and rationalitiy; brute power becomes the sole defence against consequences of contradictions. Explanations which sound clever to themselves sound equally ridiculous to others. The army as an institution discredits its own authority and its self image becomes vastly different from how others see it.
We give instances of how this happens in the day to day experience of ordinary people:
1. The IPKF has repeatedly told the population that anyone can hold any political opinion, even pro‑LTTE opinion, and that action would be taken only against those using arms against it. It is often the case that when someone is shot or killed in an unjustified manner, Indian officers would offer the excuse that the victim is a confirmed LTTE activist. Even if this was true, issues like whether he was questioned, whether he carried a weapon and if so whether he attempted to use it, are all forgotten.
2. The responsibility of the IPKF for law and order in the North‑East is an internationally recognised obligation. When it comes to killings and press ganging of youth by groups under IPKF supervision and living in premises adjoining IPKF camps, the IPKF considers it adequate to say that it has nothing to do with it. The general populace regards it as a patent game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
3. The Town Commandant : The army often complains that it lacks public contact, and hence knowledge of the civilian population. The Town Commandants office is the only institutionalised contact with the public. If it is to be effective, the Commandant must not only wield authority, but must also understand civilian sensibilities and communicate on civilian terms. Inquiries concerning arrests are meant to be made to the Town Commandant. In practice, it has turned out in known cases, that the operational command has long delayed releasing persons against whom they admittedly had nothing, on the barely concealed grounds that the Town Commandant, rather than themselves, was first approached. The office of the Town Commandant vested with public relations is thus discredited by inter‑service rivalry. When it comes to the conscription issue, the Town Commandant appears to be completely at sea.
4. In known cases detainees against whom there were no charges have been further detained and even beaten, simply in a naive attempt to discredit the person who went to ask for his release. The reason for the prolonged detention was also stated as because so and so came to release you. Such cases may be few, but it is reflective of a readiness to use power for a petty, vindictive end.
5. Media Coverage: After a serious incident involving civilian casualties, All India Radio and the Indian High Commission in Colombo would be quick to be out with a completely misleading story. Intelligence reports would claim that the victims are hardcore LTTE, before even their names are known. The people are left gritting their teeth in anger and contempt. This makes it all the more attractive and challenging for the foreign media to break through the veil of propaganda and publish the story. The Indians are left looking defensive and discredited. On the other hand if they immediately held an inquiry into the incident, allowed the truth to come out and took visible steps to curb recurrences; the public would be reassured and the level of atrocities would be much less. There would also be reduced attraction for a journalist to come and get a story. Because of this habitual prevarication, Indians are seldom believed. Consequently, even when the Indian army behaves with credit, such as in the Mannar Hospital incident, there is little media interest. When the Indian army complains about unfair media coverage, it has mainly itself and its High Commission to blame.
6. Complaints to the High Commission: When such complaints are made by civilians, one would expect that in such a crucial situation where Indias image is at stake, the High Commission would have some independent machinery for investigation. In known cases complaints involving the IPKF have heen referred back to them. It is understandable when those who complained found themselves under pressure to withdraw them.
7. Hostage Patrols: There has been recently in Vadamaratchi a marked tendency for patrols to take along with them civilians they meet on the road and release them later on reaching their destination. Some civilians, taken along in this manner have died during the course of an incident [Top]
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