27 Dec 2018

WHAT IS UP, WHAT IS UP ?



(Art Of Writing Letters in Rimc)


My father was a compulsive letter writer and seeker of news, ‘What is Up, What is Up ?’, like the present day fingering decease of ‘What’s App’ on mobile phone. Dad couldn’t, and wouldn’t, leave anyone alone for more than a week, without imperious gazetted court of inquiries, ‘What is Up, What is Up ?’. If I didn’t write home for more than ten days, he would berate venerable SP, the Principal, with gazette notifications, ‘What is Up, What is Up ?’ SP didn’t like show cause notices and writing explanations, especially tell anyone what was daily happening in Rajwada camp, called ‘Are You MC ?’ by Punjabi Doscos like Amrinder Singh.  SP the Princy loved whacking our bottoms with a four feet long Malacca Cain. During one of those whacking, I accidentally lost my one ‘L’, and hence became a wounded Rimcolian, while everyone else are proud Rimcollians, with two ‘Ls’. 

Dad was past his prime at 52, a suave Asst Commissioner of Travancore Devaswam Board when I joined Rimc in 1962. He was MA (Hon) in mathematics too, from Oxford, mind you. Therefore, Dad was more English than the British. He had the same bad habits. He always wrote letters in ‘Inland Letter’, which by Govt decree got rid of the necessity for self-attested writing paper / letter pads, as well as envelopes and the tedium of ‘licky-lick’ postage stamps.  He always wrote in Bradley Hand (ITC) script, size 8 font, which required a magnifying  glass to read. In Rimc and NDA, we were taught precis writing and the religiosity of brevity. But before Rimc, my father had taught me the art of writing the entire 1000 page Ramayana in an inland letter using ‘Bradley Hand ITC script, size 8 font’ assuming that  everyone had a microscope at home. Reason why I failed in Staff College in later life because the DS didn’t have a microscope at home and was myopic about my suggestion to apply air power like SP’s Malacca Cane.

Dad’s letters always gave a comprehensive coverage of news from home, to make sure that I didn’t get ‘home sick’ and run away from Rimc. His letters were like a newspaper, starting with headlines and ending in sports. It gave me a complete picture of what is happening at home. ‘EMS Namboothiri-pad was behaving like Rasputin’, Dad’s headline read, then went on to discuss local politics. Then came routine stuff, laments that Mom fed him good food daily despite PL 480 and severe rationing. ‘Economics’ of supply vs demand, creating fluctuation of price of go-go nuts, which paid my tuition fee in Rimc. Which tree went nutty or fruity, gossip about how many ltrs of milk ‘Sita’, our cow, produced daily,…..things like that. He asked for advise too, whether he should plant ‘Palmolive Tree’ instead of going nutty. Then came ‘what is up’, with family news. About two nephews, one a future Rimcolian (Balaji), and the other a stalwart of SS Kazhakootam (Gopi). That they had jumped out of their cribs and had begun to totter about, run away;  qualities that would stand them in good stead 8 or 9 years later, when they grew to be 12 yrs old and followed the footsteps of their wayward ‘Ankle’.

Dad believed that his share of parenting responsibility was only 51%. So he used only 51% of the Inland to write letters, which also covered the flap, and external reverse space meant to write address of sender. He didn’t want the postal department to return any of his laboriously written letters, and hence secretively wrote 15% of news and views in this space too, to convey the last part, how to mathematically prove ‘zero is not equal to zero’, and how to avoid venerable RCS adjudging me as Zero instead of Hero. He would then hand over the inland to Mom, to do her share of 49% parenting and letter writing. I suspected that Dad cheated and copied; the letters to my brother (Balaji’s father), sister (Gopi’s mother) and an elder unmarried sister then in college hostel, were identical, because my mother sometimes mixed up the letters and wrote complaints about Peter to Peter and Pan to Pan, instead of Peter to Pan !!

In her 49% of the Inland, Mom didn’t know what to write, and usually didn’t have time to write because of her routine of running a small farm single handed and feeding dozens of people who came to meet Dad. So she cleverly invented a Malayalam ‘Font 72’, like headlines of the local ‘Mathru Bhoomi’ newspaper that was so large that even a blind man could read it from 100 feet. It was unusually gibberish, waffling without conveying anything, a trick I learnt to make excuses to dorm coms who ‘shoe racked’ us for some misdemeanor.

Like everyone else, I loved the letters from home, a solitary Inland that came every week to ten days during my days at Rimc and NDA. No one else, in all my life, including my wife and son, or friends, ever wrote any letter to me. Once in a while my Commanding Officer would write show cause notice to me and I became adept at writing fictional stories.  But back in 62 in Rimc, precis writing and brevity was the order of the day.

Just to irritate him, I always ignored Dad when I sat down to write the compulsory weekly reply, in the same ‘Inland’ device which made P&T bankrupt. Because of the  compulsion for brevity, I only wrote, ‘Hi Mom, your loving son, Unni’, that was it. Made my father crazy, but as a force of habit, he never changed his style of reportage, about go-go nut trees that went nutty or fruity, and when the cow stopped lactating and butted Mom when she went to pull Sita’s titties.  Fed up  with my weekly one line sit-reps, Mom instructed, ‘tell  me everything that is happening to you’.   

Letter writing, usually in the evening self-study period, was a bane of my life. We had to submit a letter addressed to someone on Fridays (I think). If we didn’t submit a letter, we would be punished, shoe racked, ‘legs up hands down’, a military manoeuvre taught and practiced in Rimc to biologically migrate the brain to the butt and fill the occiput with previous days dinner. It was the general belief after 62 war that the Chinese cannot torture or interrogate anyone who sits on his brain.

The famous letter writers in my class were Tota, Soli, Suhas and Jasbir. Tota and Soli did simultaneous equations, wrote letters to their anytime money (ATM) dad, mom, siblings, ankles, aunts, knees, …….. individually, the same thing. I suspect that the main theme of the letters would have been ‘send money order c/o Paltu, the waiter’. Hence, they had thick wads of inlands inside their desk. Rascal Jabir never had any inlands, he stole them from Tota or Soli to write same message to his dad ‘send money order c/o Thople, the butler’. That was the beginning, we invented 'Hawala'.

I soon learnt the trick of stealing inlands from Tota’s desk, like Jasbir.  Soli used to hide the inlands in Maths text book to keep an account;  now who would ever do a thing like that, except 'Bawaji' ? Suhas the 'Tant' only bought one inland at a time, clever chap. Since I didn’t have any ideas of my own to write, I used to lean over to take a look, cheat, copy what others were writing. 'Tinda' Arvind was the worst letter writer. He broke nibs of dip dip pen, scratched the inlands and used Egyptian hieroglyphic script to convey ‘send money order c/o Paltu, the waiter’. Once I got a brilliant idea, to write letters with nothing in it, addressed to myself.  My father issued ‘What’s App’ to SP and I got caned again. So I had to find other ways to write letters and for the life of me, didn’t know what to write. Dad was a 'Kanjoos'. He gave me only Rs 5 as traveling allowance for five days journey from Kerala to Dun. It was no use trying the 'Hawala' route. So I invented ways to sign for OP shoes in Mochi Shop, but eat Samosa and drink Vimto in the canteen, a barter system, since the same fellow owned the Mochi shop and Canteen.  As I grew older,  I still  had to write letters, a little more expressive with superior education in Rimc.

‘Dear Mom, it rained here, hope it rained there too’, I once wrote. ‘I have a hole in my socks, I hope you have a hole in your socks too’. Dad loved my superior English education and chutzpah. But it drove Mom crazy. Frustrated after ‘Kakkad Qen’ (Mr Malhotra) gave me a Zero in Maths class test, I wrote to Mom that I love Scotch Eggs and was awarded an ‘Anda’, in Maths. It fooled Mom. Dad immediately scribbled the entire formula of proving zero not equal to zero, theory of Ramanujam. I appealed to ‘Kakkad Qen’, attaching letter from Dad, to treat me a decimal man 0.007. But ‘Kakkad Qen’ was not impressed and re-valuated my test result to minus 0.001. Neither Ramanujam nor Dad ever said that zero can be minus too.

Then one day, I was elevated from cricket score keeper to fielding in the boundary, while Manu bowled and Swapan scored a century. I just stood there on the boundary, did nothing and so helped Swapan to score the century. I became Swapan’s favourite and was further promoted to fielding in the slip, ‘silly midon’, a position designed for morons like me. Soon I became 11th man to bat. We had leg pads, but no guards for the gonads. Manu was a super bowler, an expert; he could bowl at a target and hit it with 100% spherical accuracy, and break gonads.

So that is how I landed up in sick quarter c/o the Matron with a mustache. She would come around 3 times daily to ask ‘how are you ?’, and to inspect my tiny gonads, that had swollen like go-go nuts. 

A standard cyclostyled message was sent by Rimc to Dad; ‘your son / ward, ………………………. (enter name), hospitalized, / wounded / killed  (delete what is not applicable).   …………….(name and signature)………………(date).

For inexplicable reason, someone had forgotten to fill in the blanks, or scratch out the options. When the blank form arrived at Ambala-Puzha at the southern tip of India fifteen days later, Mom went ballistic. Dad ran to the post office to send a telegram to SP.  I didn’t get caned, but was told to write a detailed letter home, describing nature of injury. How does one explain nature of such injury to one’s Mom.  So I emulated Tinda sketching the incident in Egyptian hieroglyphic and wrote to Dad, ‘personal & confidential’ and left it to him to explain to Mom as best as he could without hieroglyphics.  Go go nuts had by then become oranges and matron had stopped inspecting them.

One day when I crossed 16, I found a curly hair between my legs.  It was a proud moment of my life, great achievement. That week I wrote to Mom, ‘I  have grown a mustache’.  She promptly wrote back, ‘shave it off, you are too young to grow a mustache’.  Tragedy of my life.

In all my stay in Rimc 62-66, I never wrote to anyone except Mom and the hieroglyphics to Dad.  But I confess that once, before leaving Rimc, Jas dictated and I wrote, a stupid, mushy, maudlin love letter to Sita Ramaswami of Welhams. Though she did not reciprocate, I dubiously claim my fame ‘# me too’ !!. 

In retrospect I wish I had written to Sita in explicit hieroglyphics !!!



31 Oct 2018

A Strange Travelogue




STROLL THROUGH THE KILLING FIELDS IN SRI LANKA

Since time immemorial, the island of erstwhile Ceylon, because of its diverse flora, fauna, rainforest landscapes, scenic highlands and sandy beaches, and above all the overtly friendly peoples, used to be called the ‘island of serendipity’. It was the place that Europeans flocked for rest, recuperate and suntan, and to find their ‘kama or karma’. Then came their independence from the British in 1948 with ethnic ratio of 75% Sinhalese, 20.5% Tamils (plantation labour imported by the British 300 yrs earlier), and rest minority groups. In 1972, the politically shrewd Bandaranayke changed Ceylon to Sri Lanka (SL) and made a new constitution for ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of the Sinhalese’, which turned 25% of the nation into stateless, hope-less refugee class with no citizenship or civil rights.   This was to eventually lead to three and half decades of the bloodiest civil war fought anywhere on earth, displacing over one and half million people, killing more than two   hundred thousand, and maiming more than a million Tamils as well as Sinhalese, ruining the tiny island’s economy to penury and creating indelible racial  hatred within is diaspora.



We (see box), Dec 1969 batch mates from the National Defence Academy, middle ranking officers in our late thirties n 1987 commissioned in 1970-71, all except me are part of the scarred and mauled veterans of the misadventure of GoI which sent a ‘peace keeping force’ to SL during 1987-90, which soon turned to ‘peace enforcement force’ and finally wound up taking the Tamil guerrillas head on, in the bloodiest war ever fought by Indian Army, Navy and AF. We buried or cremated many of our dear dead friends and comrades in the battle fields in SL, about 1500 of them, and brought back around 12,000 maimed and wounded, in a war which had nothing to do with us At that time we did not know, or reason why, we were ordered to go and die in SL. We believed that someone in GoI in Delhi would know why, or care.

Three decades later, on 10 Feb 18, now approaching our 70s, we once again went to SL, not to imbibe suntan, kama or karma as tourists, but as aged veterans, to uphold our dharma and bounden duty, to take a walk through the old killing fields in Northern SL,  to pay respect to  those whom we left behind.


 We flew SL Air and entered through Colombo like all tourists. A 15 seater, very comfortable mini bus with driver, attendant and an English speaking guide (very resourceful and dynamic Mr Lal), collected us at the airport and stayed with us till we returned to India on 19 Feb.

On 10th Feb we stayed overnight in the excellent Carolina Beach Resort at Chilaw, one hour drive north of Colombo, and drank JWBL on the beach to reminisce our military career, with our wives yodelling like sopranos, because we were behaving like teens !!

Next morning on 11 Feb, the mini bus took us North to Jaffna, a long 7 hrs drive (with lunch stop at Anuradhapura), on the excellent Chinese built double lane Route 28, through Vavunia, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass to Jaffna, all Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eleam (LTTE)’s strongholds of the past, every inch reminding us of old times in a formidable war that we too fought with LTTE with all out might, and did not win.




The photo alongside is that of a water tank used by LTTE in their stronghold at Kilinochchi, as a strategic observation post and sand bagged machine gun nest at its top. It was toppled by SL army commandos using plastic explosives placed at the base in their last round battle, LTTE vs SL Army after IPKF was kicked out unceremoniously by newly elected SL President Premadasa. 

Next door, besides the highway, is another strange war memorial, a larger than life armour piercing artillery shell embedded in a concrete block. They are symbolic and remain as sentinel of the violence of the bitter, long and hard fought war between LTTE and SL army after IPKF left.



In Jaffna, we stayed three nights at the reasonable ‘Tilco’ hotel situated next to the fort and lagoon within sight of the twinkling lights on the modern Allaippidi and Karaitivu causeways built by the Chinese. Seeing the string of lights across the lagoon, I was reminded of Atanu Guru of 125 Sqn, in a Mi-25 on 27 Oct 87, interdicting five LTTE heavy transports carrying massive quantities of ammunition and explosives on old Karaitivu causeway, creating explosions that killed more than 150 LTTE and could be heard 30 km away.

On 12th at sunrise, we went for a walk like good old soldiers around Jaffna fort and incredibly bumped into a most friendly, well informed cheerful and energetic Lankan on a cycle, the SL Income Tax Commissioner of Jaffna!!  


For next one and half hours, on our persistent urging over 'decoction' coffee in a Tamil tea shop, blaring Tamil devotional songs, he gave us the current socio-economic-polico-demographic brief of Jaffna and SL, and efforts to change the demography, encourage farming and fishing, creation of import substitutions. We couldn’t have asked for a more educated insightful briefing on the past, present and future of SL, especially because Rajapaksa (ex-President) had given a drubbing to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe (current President & PM of SL) in the election on previous day, in which the 21% SL Tamil population, still denied citizenship, had abstained from voting.

We started our adventure from the Jaffna fort (built by the Portuguese in 1618) , where Jose was the BM and Mohan the DAAG & DQ of 41 Brigade under Bde Cdr Manjit Singh during 1987-89. Other than the moat and 25 feet thick indestructible outer walls of the fort made of coral and lime, everything inside has been reduced to rubble by repeated shelling and aerial bombing by SL forces after IPKF left.


 Jose took us around and explained how it used to be in 1987, buzzing with hyperactivity as his headquarters, and even managed to locate the old operations room amongst the rubble!! Jaffna fort is now open to public, a well maintained archaeological edifice, with no sign of the terrible war that was fought by SL armed forces to dislodge LTTE from within its strategic confines after IPKF left.





Our next stop was the burnt out ‘Jaffna Library’, the saddest edifice and sentinel of the civil war. This charred and burnt out complex once housed some of the most ancient written history, art, culture, philosophy, theosophy, perceptions of intellectuals of the entire south Asian region.  Now lost for ever during the military jostling between LTTE and SL army for control of Jaffna. 


Afterwards we went looking for the Jaffna University stadium, where the biggest tragedy of Indian special heli-borne clandestine operations in war had taken place.

On the night of 11/12th Oct 87, 120 troop of 10 Para Commando (Special Forces) and 360 from 13 Sikh Li Delta Company (who had just arrived by air at Palali from Gwalior), were tasked to storm Jaffna University, then a strong hold of LTTE, where all the leaders of LTTE including Prabhakaran and his deputy Mahattaya were expected to be present for a meeting. The purpose of the operation was to snatch the top leadership and incapacitate LTTE.

Like all audacious quickly made war plans, nothing went right in this one too, because the LTTE had received prior warning of the attack and were well prepared, creating complete blackout of the area surrounding the university, machine gun nests on top of all surrounding buildings and well sited, well-armed, reception parties around the stadium.

  The Jaffna University operation was launched at 0100 hrs on 12th Oct 87, with half-moon condition, but low clouds that drifted in obscuring the moon.  For one reason or the other, mainly severe battle damage to the four Mi-8s, instead of 120 Commandos from 10 Para and 360 troopers from 13 Sikh Li (total 480), the heli-lift managed to insert only a total of about 148-150 men. Many of them from Sikh Li were butchered by LTTE. There was a huge extrication exercise using tanks and BMPs which followed the un-mined railway line. 10 Para (SF), adept at such clandestine warfare on man-pack basis, went to ground and managed to survive with fewer causalities. Only one or two out of the 60 odd simpler Sikh Li infantry troopers lived to tell his tale. The mission was an ill-conceived disaster by all counts.

After the prolonged battles between the LTTE and SL army after IPKF left, there is now very little left of the old Jaffna University. It is all destroyed and new complex is being rebuilt in fits and starts with foreign aid. The stadium looked the same. An informal cricket match amongst boys was in progress. Life goes on despite cataclysmic predations of man, in his quest for a home land.


We then drove to Palali airfield to checkout; after all, that is where the IPKF story began in 1987. Palali then was simply an 1800 mtrs runway with rudiments of a habitat. It is now a full-fledged highly developed fortified cantonment with an impressive barricaded gate, most modern buildings and manicured lawns. Strangely we didn’t see any Air Force, or airplanes in Palali. It is now the headquarters of the SL Army, Northern Command, with three Divisions of Special Operations Commandos, and the naval base SLNS Uttara at Kankasanturai next door.


Within 20 minutes, we were invited to the officer’s mess for high tea, and even a wooden elephant as a parting memento by the General commanding the Northern Command. 


An escort was provided for us to pay our respect at the impressive memorial for the martyrs of 10 Para (SF), built by 10 Para ten years later using their regimental funds, but immaculately maintained by SL army within Palali airbase complex. Strangely intriguing, we also found six unmarked graves of Indian soldiers adjacent to the 10 Para memorial. Perhaps these were graves made by Indian Army during Op Pawan, without names or head stones. The SL General told us that they were not graves of SL personnel and were made by IPKF. We paid obedience at the memorial as well as the unknown graves. 






We also went to take a look at Jaffna hospital, which had seen some fierce fighting between LTTE and Indian Army in 1987, that unfortunately earned us much negative publicity from 'human rights activists’ world-wide. The hospital too has a new look, the depredations of war has been effaced physically, but remains as scars in the minds of the Tamil populace of Jaffna.



The only thing standing untouched in Jaffna by the civil war in Northern SL, is the famous Nallur Kandaswami Temple for the Tamil deity Murugan. We visited the temple, with all sincerity, to pay our humble obeisance, to the Lord and to pray for our dead brothers, adhering to the local customs and traditions.   


 On 13 Feb, early morning, we set out to visit Point Pedro, Valvedditturai and Kankasanturai, the northernmost parts of SL, where the naval wing of LTTE had  once held fort and which IPKF had to wrestle from them, effectively using tanks, APCs, artillery, Mi-25s and the armed ‘Ranjit’ helicopters of 31 Air OP.  Once IPKF left,  LTTE once again occupied these positions and were their main supply bases for war material and other logistics smuggled from abroad.  The SL army had to do a repeat, a series of prolonged bloody battles to drive the LTTE out. 

At Point Pedro, which once was a busy fishing port, there was nothing left standing except a pole installed by LTTE on which there were markers pointing the direction and distance of every littoral nation in the Indian ocean, all except India just 50 km away, in the direction that I am pointing at in the photo !!! 


At Kankasanturai, there was a war memorial proclaiming ‘Unity in diversity, is the strength of SL’, at the site where Tamil ‘Sea Tigers’ were finally decimated by SL army around 2008, much after IPKF was withdrawn. The beaches were empty of all activity, except a few soldiers dismantling a ‘large pandal’, lights, PA system, and stacking plastic chairs used for some VIP visit during the political electioneering few days earlier.



We then travelled East, to the infamous ‘Elephant Pass’, a narrow flat flood plain, a choke point surrounded by the vast Jaffna lagoon, connecting the road and railway line between Jaffna peninsula and rest of SL, which had repeatedly seen some of the bloodiest battles between LTTE vs SL army (1st round), with IPKF (2nd round) and finally back with SL army (3rd and last round).  During the three and half decades of continuous civil war, military control of this narrow stretch of land was of utmost strategic importance for the survival of the populous Jaffna peninsula inhabited by Tamils.

In a fierce push between LTTE and  SL army on 13 Jul 91, LTTE  used four ingeniously modified bulldozers, with one inch armour plating, fitted with heavy machine guns and filled with explosives to overrun the SL army garrison and road blocks. The last of these monstrous contraptions reached Jaffna garrison around the railway station. Had it been detonated, it may have wiped out half the SL army. There arose an extraordinary 26 years old soldier of SL army, Cpl Gamini Kularatna, from 6th Bn of Sinha Rgt, who managed to climb up the monstrous contraption from the back and lob a grenade, killing all the four man LTTE crew inside, as well as Gamini.  In recognition of his extraordinary bravery, and supreme sacrifice, Gamini was awarded ‘Param Weera Vibhushana’ (posthumous) like Indian Param Vir Chakra, the highest military award.  A memorial next to Jaffna railway station stands testimony.  In a hut nearby, on the press of a button, a large video screen comes alive to show live footages of the war and the action involving the monstrous armour plated bulldozer and how it was neutralised.




 Further down the road, is a massive, strange looking war memorial, encapsulating the final victory of SL army over LTTE at Elephant Pass, a bronze tear drop bubble representing SL, encased and protected within two military hands, symbolises territorial integrity of SL. a rather morbid symbol of Tamil oppression. 



We then went further east to Mullaittivu, where Special Forces of the SL army cornered and decimated LTTE. In the middle of a pond, with white lotus and strange water lilies, stood a huge grotesque memorial that leaves an ever lasting impression on all. The memorial emboldens all, with a huge bronze stature of a SL soldier with an AK-57 in one hand and the SL flag in the other, promising that ethnic strife and civil war will not ever happen in SL, as long as SL Army is in charge. The army plays a significant role in SL politics now.


 There were no sign of policemen in Northern SL, just the army. Silent, unarmed, but watchful, at every memorial, every street corner, even on the highways. The discipline amongst the Tamil populace in Northern SL is visibly discernable. No honking of horns, very orderly traffic that stops automatically if there are pedestrians crossing, no jay walking, no cattle on the roads, no argumentative people now. We saw a silent Tamil funeral procession, on the sidewalk and not in the middle of the road. Once in a while, they let off fire crackers, perhaps to help liberate the soul and accelerate its progress to eternity. Perhaps the fire crackers were to simulate the gun fire of three decades of civil war, to imply martyrdom in war. It was symbolic of a demoralised society, reeling from the aftermath of prolonged civil war, which failed to improve their stateless destitution.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the revolutionary LTTE, his wife and three children, were hunted down and killed on 18 May 2009, at or around Nandikadal lagoon, near Vellamullivaikkal in Puthumatalan (near Mullaittivu), by a select group led by Sgt Wijesinghe from Commando (Special Forces) unit 4VIR, then under the command of Lt Col Aluvihare. That ended the civil war in SL. There was nothing on ground to indicate the end of that terrible saga. 

However, we got to meet ‘Anbu’ and his wife ‘Laxmi’, two LTTE cadre who surrendered to SLA, few of the survivors of that war. LTTE were so motivated for Eelam that they fought till the last man was killed.  Anbu was an exception. He was a weapon instructor and expert in making improvised explosives. His wife was from the infamous suicide bomb squad when they met and fell in love. Fearing retribution from LTTE supremo, they ran away and lived under the protection of SL army till the end of the war. 

Anbu and his wife now eke a living  fishing, living in part of a building, a Tamil resettlement project by Govt of  SL. He offered us a glass of ‘Toddy’, a peace offering, which we gladly accepted. Like all soldiers, we had no personal quarrel with Anbu, his wife or toddler who were enemies of IPKF and had killed or maimed Indian soldiers.




A surprising find, mainly because of our resourceful guide Pal, was a secluded spot off the highway, covered from all sides by impregnable thickly grown palm forest, about a km from the beachfront at Mullaittivu. It was the deserted naval R&D centre of LTTE where an incredible array of ingenious engineering of military hardware was crudely exhibited. 









To begin with, was a dry dock / water tank which could be flooded through a sluice leading to backwaters of the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. A huge wave generator (inclined circular plates on a huge shaft)  was lying aside. This tank was used to test the stability and control of extremely agile, highly hydrodynamic low silhouette fibre glass high speed motor torpedo boats and midget submarines (photos above). Also on display were torpedo tubes, rocket launcher on articulated hinge, powerful marine engines, rockets, bombs, aircraft engines and props etc indicators of LTTE’s incredible indigenous engineering ability to do research and development to produce their own home grown weapon systems and continue the war indefinitely.

 On 14th, we relocated to Rajarata Hotel in Anuradhapura. We stopped at Vanunia air base, Since the base commander was not available, we could not gain entry into the airfield complex to relive incredible memories of our experiences during IPKF days when Vavunia was a most active base for air and ground operations.


During the closing phase of IPKF in SL, when a newly elected President Premadasa found it expedient to make truce with LTTE, and to provide it arms to fight IPKF, then Lt Col Ramkumar, a missile man, was suddenly mobilised from India to go and set up a training camp in Paranthan to arm and train Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a similar bunch as LTTE, to fight LTTE when IPKF withdrew.  Ram does not know whose idea it was. Ram armed and trained 3 batches, with 250-275 EROS cadre in each batch, at a large hastily put together camp at Paranthan, constantly sniped at and harassed by LTTE. He lost his 2nd in command and many trainees in fire fights with LTTE, but did what he was asked to do, till he withdrew from SL with IPKF in 1990. We went looking for his training camp in Paranthan, a few km east of the highway. All makeshift buildings were destroyed in war and the jungles had obliterated all traces of his large old training camp. Ram believes that many EROS trainees of his, who were not killed by LTTE, joined up with them after he left, to fight the SL Army!



Puliyankulam, north of Vavunia astride the road and railway line, was a strategic defensive point, a line of control between North and South; controlled by LTTE, IPKF and SL army, turn by turn. Baljit as a Lt Col was in command of 12 Jat of Indian Army at Puliyankulam in 89-90. He was under constant attack by LTTE, since his job was to keep the strategic south to north road / rail lines open. Ambushes of road opening parties by LTTE had claimed many lives of his men, including his favourite subordinate, Maj Michael Lewis.

Baljit couldn’t rest content till we went to   Puliyankulam. Like a man possessed, he got off the bus and ran into the jungles, in what once used to be his camp, surrounded by barbed wire and anti-personnel mines. We followed him. Baljit took us unerringly through shrub and jungles, old barbed wire fencings, barking dogs, mine field, to a spot where he had buried Michael and cremated large number of his men. I could feel their presence, lined up in a squad with Michael leading. And when Baljit saluted them, I could hear the silent whispers of the dead Jats, ‘CO Sahib did not abandon us, he has come to bid us farewell’. It was indeed the most emotional and poignant moment of our life as old soldiers, raison d’etre of our visit.



Afterwards we went to central Colombo, to visit the well maintained IPKF war memorial alongside a similar memorial for Lankans, to lay wreaths for 1500 odd old colleagues from Army & Navy in whose memory this monument was built by GoI, and pay for its upkeep. Despite the herculean air support for IPKF, the IAF fortunately had no causalities in SL (perhaps it was because LTTE had not yet acquired shoulder fired missiles). Many of the helicopters were shot at, suffered mechanical damages and forced landings, but all air crew survived)
.


 We then travelled, like all tourists  southwards,  to Hikkaduwa, to the Lavanga resort near Galle, to imbibe a bit of the sun, sand and limitless eternity of the Indian Ocean, to forget war and be like all ordinary senior citizens seeking global peace and prosperity for mankind.  Perhaps the trip helped exorcise the ghosts of comrades and enemy from our minds. In the end, we were, and still are, pawns of political ambitions of individuals everywhere. Ours is not to reason why, but to do and die.

To our slain comrades in SL, we raised a toast, ‘Cheers, we may not come back, but will meet you soon in Valhalla’.

CYCLIC


19 Oct 2018

THIS DAY, THAT YEAR (PART - 1)


'MUD MUD KE DEKH'


Friday 15 Oct 62, fifty six years ago.

While on his way to Colombo,  Nehru made an off the cuff highly irresponsible statement to the journalists hounding him at Palam airport. ‘I have told the army to evict Chinese from Indian soil’. In reality he had done no such thing, had neither met, spoken or written to the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Gen PN Thaper. He was in fact procrastinating over an offer made by his friend Chou En-lai,Premier’ of the ‘People's Republic of China’. Chow had conveyed to him, ‘Give us Aksai Chin and take NEFA’, a seemingly fair offer. Nehru was procrastinating because of a no confidence motion that was being precipitated against him led by Firoz Gandhi, husband of Indira Gandhi.  Agreeing to Chow’s goodwill offer would have been a political suicide for Nehru.




‘It is a declaration of Sino Indian war’, trumpeted an equally irresponsible and ignorant press. Spooked by the headlines, and vitriolic opinions espoused by Delhi left right backwards march think-tank paladins, the Chinese envoy in Chanakyapuri immediately conveyed the declaration of war to Peking.    Mao was back in power and PLA HQ was quick to react. They pushed forward their amassed army into Ladhak (Galwan / Chushul) and into NEFA (Thagla ridge and Rima in Walong valley). An eye ball to eye ball confrontation ensued. Troops from both sides began sniping at each other.  A humiliating defeat of the Indian army would begin within five days, lasting till the benevolent declaration of ceased fire by Peking on 21 Nov 62. India would lose 210,000 sq km of territory, 6000 odd soldiers killed, and a similar number severely injured and maimed, besides the indelible political and military humiliation.

This day that year, the army chief (CoAS Gen Thaper) had no clue of the herculean tragedy that faced India. He had neither been to the battle front at Ladhak nor to NEFA, comprehended the terrain, fighting ability and morale of the army deployed there, or received any direct written order from GoI to go to war with China. He was abroad, sipping wine on ‘venue des Champs-Élysées’ in Paris with his family.

Like many preceding days, coded, ‘Top Secret’ messages from formations deployed along the 4056 km of Sino Indian border, began to pile up at the Signals Enclave in Delhi, faster than they could decipher the messages and bring it to the notice of those who had the power to stop the war. Almost all messages were more or less identical in tone and tenor, they were SoS of some kind. So they lay unattended either in Signals Enclave or in South Block basement.

In Nehru’s absence, the next king in waiting, defence minister VK Krishna Menon sat in a high back chair in his spacious office in South block with large French windows, chain-smoking Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes and sipping black tea. As Caesar, he held India by the juggler. Outside his office, Delhi went about innocently observing ‘Nav Ratra’ and preparing to annihilate evil during ‘Dussahera’. There were high cirrus clouds, a precursor of the seasonal pitter-patter rain, while high up in the Himalayas where the Indian soldiers sat huddled in cotton clothing and canvass shoes, hugging outdated WW-II weapons, it was freezing cold and snow fell on them mercilessly.

Waiting in the corridor of South Block on Raisiana hill, to meet and brief the Caesar, were four intelligent, but conceited and ambitious men.  BM Mullick (Dir IB), HC Sarin (JS MoD), Maj Gen Palit (Dir Gen Military Operations) and Air Cmde HC Dewan (Dir Operations Air HQ). Menon had a habit of pitting one against the other and hence, as a routine, he rarely met them together, though the reason for meeting them was common; execution of his foolhardy posturing, called ‘forward policy’; forward patrolling and establishing 48 army posts, at platoon or weak company strength, all along the Johnson’s line (Ladhak) and Mc Mahon line (rest of the border, including one at Bara Hoti in Char Dham area all the way to NEFA). He usually had Sareen besides him, but no notes or minutes were to be taken down by Sareen. Menon despised all such bureaucratic British procedures of record keeping.  All his orders were usually verbal, or communicated to his ‘infamous four’ subalterns on telephone by Sareen, a system designed to belittle the stature of military Hqs and inculcate subservience of Chiefs of army, navy and air force, after the earlier CoAS Thimayya had threatened to quit (thereby topple the Govt), on the same issue, differences in politico-military appreciation and methodology of defending the Sino Indian border, post war gaming in ex Lal Quila conducted at Lucknow.

Due to steadfast opposition of Menon’s forward policy by all military protagonists in the evolving Sino-Indian drama, (Theatre Commanders Maj Gen Grewal, GoC 3 Div in Leh, in control  of Ladhak;  Lt Gen LP Sen, Army Cdr East and his predecessor Thorat, Area Commander Lt Gen Umrao Singh GoC 33 Corps, Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad GoC 4 Div at Zementhang and Brig Dalvi Cdr 7 Brigade at Namkachu), Menon chose to not only ignore military wisdom but also to belittle and usurp the chain of command, by creating a new phantom 4 Corps, under Lt Gen BM Kaul at Tezpur, reporting directly to him, to do as per his bidding. Kaul was asked to debouch the PLA from the 16,000 feet high Thagla massif, presumed to be the Mc Mahon line in an operation named ‘Leghorn’.



For the first time, on 9 Oct, 50 year old Kaul hitched a ride with Sqn Ldr Williams in a Bell 47 helicopter from Tezpur to Tsangdhar (14,500’), went charging 4500 feet downhill to the verdant Namka Chu river basin, 7 Bde HQ, with all intent to ‘Summary Courtmarshal’ Brig Dalvi on the spot. It took Kaul only a few minutes to do a tactical appreciation when he stood at Namka chu and looked up the vertical face of the Thagla ridge 10,000 odd feet above him, and saw for himself the Division strength  PLA deployments on the slopes waiting to come down. Now he realised the folly of it all, about which Dalvi and others had been crying hoarse. Kaul was in a dilemma. He had no senior army officers including army chief to appeal to, and would need to convince Menon in person. Therefore, without much ado, he asked Dalvi and Niranjan Prasad to hold position till he has a chance to appeal to Menon. If he were a stronger man with courage of conviction, he had the power to permit Dalvi to withdraw 7 Bde to the west to east Hathungla-Serkhim-Drokung Samba line, 10 km south of Namka Chu, as Dalvi wanted to do. 
 

While climbing back to Tsangdhar helipad, Kaul was assailed by a mild heart attack and high altitude sickness (pulmonary oedema, formation of water in the lungs) and had to be carried up the slope by relay teams of young soldiers. On arrival back at Tezpur by helicopter, he was immediately taken to field hospital. Kaul sent word to Air Cmde Jaswant Singh in Guhati to requisition a Dakota and flew to Delhi from Tezpur with two doctors attending to him during the long flight in an unpressurised aircraft, without Oxygen pressure breathing, aggravating his medical condition. On arrival in Delhi, he was rushed into the ICU of MH Delhi, where surgeons inserted long needles into his lung to extract fluids. The bed ridden, but restless and agitated Kaul asked for a field telephone in the ICU to make contact with Menon, to seek his permission to allow orderly withdrawal of 7 Bde from Namka Chu. Menon was fighting off the political assault by opposition in parliament and could not be reached.



Meanwhile a very frustrated Dalvi and his ill-fated 7 Bde stood eye ball to eye ball with the PLA division, awaiting someone to order withdrawal. In retrospect, if Dalvi (or his immediate superior on site, Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad, GoC 4 Div) had disobeyed Kaul’s orders to stay put and had withdrawn as they wanted to, it may have avoided the Sino Indian conflict (not deemed a war since no one actually declared a war other than Indian press !!). Dalvi / Prasad may have at worse been removed from command, or court marshalled. But the infamy of such a disciplinary action may have been far less than the humiliation of defeat that they faced afterwards.  It is doubtful whether any disciplinary action would have ensued, because in the first place there was no written order from any quarter to justify the deployment of 7 Bde in Namka Chu.  Dalvi was taken PoW during the war and Prasad removed from command, to be later given another command, where his poor leadership qualities were to create problems and near defeat in 65 war too.

Till a laboriously detailed aerial survey was done around 1971 using  Canberra photo reconnaissance aircraft, in conjunction with AF Int and Survey of India, none had noticed that the representative of Dalai Lama who signed the 1914 Indo-Tibetan trade and border treaty at Shimla had done a bit of mischief and had deviated from the principle of watershed (Mc Mahon Line) at the India, Bhutan, Tibet tri-junction and that the border was actually not Thagla ridge, but near the Hathungla-Serkhim-Drokung Samba west to east line, that Dalvi wanted to withdraw to. The man who made the blunder, and created the casus belli for Sino Indian imbroglio was Maj Gen Palit, predecessor of Dalvi in 7 Bde, who made a wrong hand drawn sketch of the border as Thagla ridge. This hand drawn sketch, enlarged and mass produced in Delhi in his own press,  using ammonia print technology, was freely distributed to  all and sundry including Menon, Kaul, Prasad and Dalvi, as also every man fighting the war in NEFA. It became the instrument of war in Namka Chu. After 62 war, Palit got away clean because he sat down to write history, to defame everyone else other than the ‘infamous four’, which when  repeated and quoted again and again ad nauseam,  became reason to make a Rufus out of the wrong men.


In Ladhak too, unchartered territory, with no border demarcation, the ground reality was no different. Indian forces, J&K militia with quickly beefed up infantry units like 13 Kumaon were concentrated mostly in rear areas of DBO, Galwan and Chushul. The rest of the area east was already in PLA control. 3 Div was to put up a stout defence when attacked on 20 Oct 62.  But the trigger for the 62 imbroglio was the unwritten order to Kaul to run up the impossible Thagla ridge, since Palit pointed that out to Menon as the border. The LAC as in Sep 62 and later on 23 Nov 62 after cease fire are depicted by dotted line, viz the 1865 Johnson Line, that was agreed as a trade boundary by a treaty between the British and temporal head at Lhasa.



(to be continued in parts, the events of next few days that year, till the war started on 20 Oct 62. After that it is a balls up story of defeat, one part with incredible valour across the rank and file, and the other part of fear psychosis and untold mess up by those who had no ability to command, or lead from the front).