‘Sethu Samudram’ (Palk Straits) divides the republics of India and Sri Lanka. Sethu Samudram is the 30 odd km sea space that separate Rameshwaram and Dhanush Kodi, at the southeastern Indian peninsula, from Talai Mannar on the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka. Besides what it says in the ‘Ramayan’, the grand epic of the Hindus, the map and satellite photos indicate the series of islands that connect the two countries. Geologically speaking, similar island connections exist between the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, Andaman northwards to Burma as well as Carnic southwards to Banda Aceh in Indonesia, though not as distinct as in the Sethu Samudram. After recent earth quakes and the Tsunami with epicenter near Banda Aceh, there is proof that the shuffling of the tectonic plates tilted the seabed causing the water level to rise by about fifteen feet near ‘Indira point’ lighthouse, at the southernmost point of littoral India, in the Andamans. Rock erosions found at Galle (southern tip of Sri Lanka) indicate that around 9th or 10th century, there was a similar earth quake and Tsunami that lowered the sea bed and raised water level. It is therefore quite possible that this chain of islands was a narrow strip of land that connected India and Sri Lanka before the 10th C. The shifting of the sea bed could have submerged parts of that strip to form the chain of islands as it is today. I have flown over this historic land link several times, sometimes as low as ten feet above the sea. Sometimes, when the tides are low, the islands emerge out of the water, the highest point around three or four feet above water, horse shoe shaped mounds of corral and sand, no sign of the rocks that Hanuman flung into the sea. When high tide returns, most of the mounds disappear below water, but one can see the dark and light blue patches underwater, that distinguish the east to west corral strip, completely blocking and dividing the Sethu Samudram into two parts, making it totally non navigable except for flat bottomed fishing boats that usually ply in these waters.
To placate the multitude of my Hindu countrymen and women whose moral edifice is built around Ramayan, I am happy to concede that monkeys built this chain of islands. I note with much concern that even in 21st C India, after many decades of tinkering with the education system, monkeys are building bridges and tunnels, and doing heart surgery, so I am prepared to believe that monkeys built the Ram Sethu. However, beyond religious belief, I am convinced that this land link, an umbilical cord of sorts, will remain a ceaseless ‘Quest of Ram’, a provocation that will continue to plague Indo Sri Lanka relations, and lead to fights with or without monkeys and space age sages from the US, unless we dredge the Sethu Samudram, create a deep water passage and permanently severe this umbilical cord of discontentment.
I first heard of Sethu Samudram in 1954, when I was about four years old. Once a year, after the Monsoons passed, my father or mother would read ‘Ramayan’ very loudly in a harmonious sing song manner for an hour before sunset. The ‘Ramayan’ that my parents read aloud was a very old, thick, hard bound and frayed book, always kept open with reverence, on an ornate hinged wooden book holder in the prayer room, where I was usually not allowed to go and play. Hence, the prayer room and Ramayan was usually one of my childish targets, just because I was not allowed to go there or play with it. As a four year old, I probably made a face while using herculean strength to lift Ramayan, probably around 15% of my body weight. My two elder sisters, then aged 18 and 11 probably found this very funny, and told me of the story of ‘Sita Swayamvarm’ in which Ravan found it difficult to lift the bow and hence could not claim Sita, while Ram was a body builder and weight lifter of sorts and could do it easily. They would dress me up either as Ram or Ravan, give me a mock bow and ask me to enact Sita Swayamvaram, which I probably did with Oscar winning élan, always being rewarded with another story, another scene to enact, and yet another story. Then my only brother ‘Vishnu’, older than all my siblings and who was by then a mechanical engineer, came home on holiday. I proudly told him that I am well versed with Ramayan. I even sang a verse that I had picked up, either from my father or from my paternal uncle, ‘Parvatham kutti parichidinal, pari, pari, pari’. My brother laughed aloud and gave me a back kick which offended my sensibilities and when I asked him why he had kicked me, he grabbed my crotch and said, ‘That is your Pari’. Soon afterwards, when my father twisted my ears for something mischievous, in my anger and frustration, I called him a ‘Pari’. Besides two tight slaps, my father then conducted an immediate enquiry lining up my three elder siblings to find out who had been teaching me unparliamentarily language. My brother got a severe dressing down and my sisters cried all day. After such a trauma, since I was just four years old, I lost complete interest in Ramayan and Sethu Samudram, at least for a while
My brother, about 18 years older than I, was an exceptionally gifted man. By the time I was old enough to remember, he was already a mechanical engineer and working at Malampuzha Dam in Kerala. By the time I was eight, he was sent by the govt of India to Russia to learn the art of making steel. On his return, he was part of the core team that designed and constructed the Bhilai and Vizag steel plants. In 1964 he received the coveted ‘National Metallurgy Award’ for engineering excellence and outstanding contribution to nation building, and for designing the venturi tunnel and sluice gates / shutters of the Farakka Dam. I never quite realised that he was a national hero till I was much older. As a four or five year old, when he was 22, he taught me how to re-engineer my dad’s discarded dentures, fit an old spring and gear mechanism cannibalized from an old and discarded ‘waking dog’ toy, and converted it all into a “Packman” like toy that went around snapping it’s teeth. It used to frighten my tiny younger sister and make her squeal like a siren. My brother taught me how to make my own toys, catch water snakes and not to be afraid of the dark. One particular toy that I remember most was a propeller that was made of coconut leaf, with it’s shaft made of a stick from my mothers favorite broom, and the crank made of the hollow stem of a ‘Papaya’ leaf, which went round and round at high rpm when I ran with it. It was the beginning of my aeronautic and engineering pursuits, and a staunch belief that one had to run to get anything going in life.
I first saw Sethu Samudram thirty years later, in 1984, when I went to ‘Rameshwaram’ with my aged mother, and my brother in a ‘Horlicks’ bottle. While my mother and I let go my brother out of the bottle and performed the last rights, sending my brother off on his last journey to eternity, I was overwhelmed with sorrow, each childhood event playing in my mind like a nonstop tragic Hindi movie. After my mother and I returned to our hotel room, unable to withstand the nonstop weeping and tears of my mother, I decided to go for a walk, trying to take a grip on my own sorrow. I walked along the coast line, all the way to Dhanushkodi, hoping that the wind and the waves of Sethu Samudram would help me find peace and solace. That was not to be, another adventure awaited me, and completely cured me of the grief and sorrow.
As I walked along the deserted beach, at a distance, I saw a lone army Sergeant (Havildar) with three stripes on the sleeve of his olive green camouflaged fatigues. He was standing motionless, with his hands on his hips, peering intently at the waves. As I approached, he suddenly blew into a whistle, a sharp and long piercing blast. Suddenly about hundred odd female cadre of LTTE emerged from the waves and ran forward towards me. I was so frightened and taken aback that I dived into the sand and started crawling along the beach. There was another shrill blast of the whistle and the wet nymphets were all around me, crawling along with me, laughing at my dog crawl and haste to get away from them. The whistle blew again and the girls got up and ran forward. Every time the whistle blew, they would fall on their face and crawl forward, on the next whistle they would get up and run, after a long blast of the whistle the girls would run back into the sea and submerge themselves into the waves. I sat on my haunches in the sand and watched this endless routine for a while, till the final whistle and the girls came out laughing and joking and flopped all around me for well earned rest. The girls were LTTE cadre, being trained by an Indian army Sergeant. In the evening, before sunset, I went back again. This time I saw about three hundred young boys doing the same drill, running out of the water and charging up the beach, being trained by another muscular person in green pants and a white sports T shirt. The boys were from PLOT cadre, they were carrying 303 dummy rifles, with a yellow band on the butt.
‘I am a serving officer of the IAF’, I introduced myself to the instructor when they broke up for rest. ‘Who are you ?’, I enquired good naturedly.
It turned out that the gentleman was regular army, on deputation to the RAW at their recruitment training centre at Chakrata, up in the Himalayas at the opposite end of the country. We sat there for a while gossiping, and afterwards when I was walking back, I saw another group of around five hundred odd boys and girls in camouflage fatigues huddled together on the beach. All of them in the age group of 16-20, very young recruits. This time, a very professorial looking gentleman with a goatee beard, with a thick framed spectacles, in pants full sleeve shirt worn outside, and ‘chappals’, was conducting political indoctrination using a black board. He would say something sonorous, like reciting poetry, and the group would repeat it loudly. I walked past at some distance and there was a strong breeze. Hence, I could not make out what was being said, except that they were talking in Tamil and a single word was repeated again and again, ‘Eeeeelam’, they shouted again and again. At that time I had no idea of what was going on except that our top secret external intelligence RAW was training the Tamil cadre for precipitating some kind of revolution in Sri Lanka, across the Sethu Samudram. Immediately afterwards, after dropping my mother to Madras, I went to join my new job at the Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) at Bangalore. Once again Sethu Samudram went out of focus.
Sethu Samudram popped up again in my life, three years later, in mid 1987, in the middle of hyperactive preparations for an ultra secret military operation for capturing Sri Lanka !!! The situation necessitating the annexation of Sri Lanka arose all of a sudden.
In quick succession, after the LTTE victory at Elephant Pass end 1986, the Sri Lankan Army commenced a blockade of the pass, triggering starvation of Jaffna and massive exodus of Tamil refugees across Sethu Samudram to Tamil Nadu. Due to apparent political pressure from MGR faction who was then in power in Tamil Nadu, as also probable brief from MEA / RAW / JN Dixt (Envoy in Colombo), Rajeev Gandhi the then PM foolishly decided to send an unescorted Red Cross ship from Madras to Jaffna with humanitarian aid. Half of Tamil politics also boarded the ship with the ubiquitous press, and BBC broadcasting a minute to minute reality show. The Sri Lankan Navy denied access, and when their warning was not heeded to by the red cross ship, they fired a few rounds across the bows. The ship turned around immediately with the political and radio jockeys trailing yellow smelly stuff from fear and cowardice all over the Sethu Samudram. Rajeev Gandhi then had no other choice but to save face, call for IAF to air drop the same stores over Jaffna on 4 Jun 87. This was done using five modified (back open) AN 32 aircraft with Mirage fighter escort. The press was once again onboard and a reality show broadcasted once again by BBC. The operation was planned and launched from ASTE dispersal, where I was then the senior test pilot.
The relationship between India & Sri Lanka quickly worsened. Sri Lanka consigned Tricomalee fuelling facilities to the US Navy in return for military aid, followed by a military pact with Pakistan. In the overall national interest, India was left with no choice but to annex Sri Lanka as it’s 27th province, much like what Indonesia or Australia had done a few years earlier, sorted out their own pain in the a**, with lesser provocation. In those days every one in GOI had balls and thought big !! The military plan that was worked out, involved complete neutralising of the Sri Lankan AF and airfields to achieve air superiority, sending the commandos to do an ‘Entebe’ on Colombo to take out important Sri Lankan political including their President, air dropping of No 54 Inf Div all over Sri Lanka to take control. In retrospect, it was a very foolish plan with constraints on the force level as well as consequences. However, there was no choice. An assault by sea, like Normandy landing in World War, conveying a larger force and huge amount of stores across the Sethu Samudram was more practical and desirable and also more operationally effective. However, the Navy vetoed this saying that they were out of depth in Sethu Samudram, to operate anything other than landing craft, which they did not have in adequate numbers. So the entire IAF transport command, about 120 odd transport aircraft, 150 odd helicopters, many Indian Airlines Aircraft, about six squadron of fighters, all these were requisitioned from the north and parked all over the southern peninsula, right in the open, at Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Sulur, Cochin etc. 54 Inf Div was mobilised from Hyderabad and bivouacked at the airfield, in the open, along with the aircraft at all these locations. The Navy mobilised their fleet and the warships were positioned in the Indian Ocean at striking distance from Sri Lanka. Two days prior to the D Day, US satellites picked up this large concentration of the force and their ominous intensions. It is also quite possible that the venerable Raman, the spook extraordinaire in RAW, who had excellent rapport with the CIA, had a purposeful ‘tet-a-tet’ with his counterpart in CIA and let the cat out of the bag in order to avoid a military confrontation. I am told that the then US envoy in India, John Gunther Dean, flew into Colombo the next day in a CIA Gulfstream and within two hours got President Jayewardene on a ‘Lanka Air’ charter aircraft heading for Delhi. I am told Dean gave Jayewardene a choice, either make peace with India or be prepared to spend rest of his life in Tihar jail. Strangely none of the civil aviation or IAF radars picked up the ‘Lanka Air’ charter aircraft heading for Delhi. When this aircraft was over Nagpur it called up Delhi approach and informed them that it has President Jayewardene on board and that he wishes to meet Indian Prime Minister on landing. Whether JN Dixit, the astute and very dynamic Indian envoy in Sri Lanka, and the RAW, had any inkling of all this, or whether they had stage managed this blood less coup of sorts, I do not know. I only know that after the aircraft landed at Delhi, Jayewardene was rushed to Rajiv’s house where he met him in his pyjama’s. There was a hurried tet-a-tet between the two heads of state and the infamous peace accord was signed, conditional to the Indian military being sent to Sri Lanka for peace keeping. No one asked the military what they thought about it. So the Indian army was sent to Sri Lanka on the D Day as planned, not to annex Sri Lanka, but to aid it’s non viable integrity. A complete role reversal, leading to total consternation and discomfiture of the armed forces. Like when you lift a skirt with very charged emotions and arousal and find that under the skirt is a man !!! In the collective view of the armed forces in mid 1987, Sri Lanka was a thorn in India’s a**, till such time they would not amend the preamble of their constitution, which said that “Sri Lanka is a Republic of the Sinhalese”. It was our opinion that the ethnic Tamil problem will continue to fester as along as their constitution does not recognise Tamils as citizens. Sethu Samudram continued to remain in my peripheral vision all through 1987-90, during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, reminding me of the centuries old conflicts between the two nations, the continuous quest of Ram. The land link (chain of islands) hampered military operations and the Naval assets could not be manoeuvred freely in Sethu Samudram.
In 1991, while undergoing senior commander’s course, we went to visit the Navy at Vizag as well as at Port Blair in the Andamans. We were there in the Adamans when Babri Mazjit in UP was demolished by the Hindu fanatics. Due to the consternation that followed on mainland India, an op alert was issued by the three services HQs that froze movement of all personnel. So we were stuck in the Andamans with the FORTRAN (Fortress Commander Andamans). The poor Navy had to take care of about 50 of us, for 5 days, and for want of anything else to do, sent us around to have a drink on board everything from battle ships to leaking ‘Dingys’. The highlight of the visit was FORTRAN’s briefing on the lack of success the Navy had for blockading arms smuggling by LTTE. I recollect his punch line, that one of the things required to ensure economic and maritime integrity of Tamil Nadu coast line, and prevent smuggling of any sort including arms into India, was to dredge the Palk Straights, create a channel that would permit the Navy to petrol the coastline using ships that had some offensive capability. He talked of a hundred encounters with LTTE where they got the better of the Navy and Coast Guard because the Navy could not bring adequate force to bear in that area. I was reminded of the 1987 war room problems of launching the navy across the Sethu Samudram.
There was a demonstration model that the Navy had in Andamans those days which showed how the mythical Ram bridge was built, not by the monkey brigade of Hanuman and Sugreeva, but by the army of millions of Corals over millions of years. I thought of my aged mother. If I had to chose between the FORTRAN’s perceptions and those of my mother, good sense vs blind faith, I would have been in a moral dilemma.
Soon afterwards, in 1994, I retired and my perceptions as a soldier withered. Nevertheless, due to discussions by strategic think tanks in India, and in the media, I noticed that Sethu Samudram continued to be a phantom that plagued National Security of India and the concerns have grown in several more dimensions. LTTE is dead, and Sri Lanka is now militarily stronger. It is no longer easy or wise to think of a military adventure to annex Sri Lanka. The ethnic problems of Tamils continue and it is only a matter of time before it flares up again. Another round of IPKF operations is not a farfetched apprehension for Indian military, especially if bad politics and human rights violations create another round of exodus by refugees from Jaffna. Navy’s concerns still remain, they need an easier passage between the eastern and western fleet as also better patrolling of Tamil Nadu coastline by the Coast Guard. In addition, four rounds of ‘National Exploratory Licensing Policy’ (NELP) have produced immense amount of oil and gas off shore, all the way from Kakinada to Pondicherry. The next four rounds of NELP (tenders) will see feverish exploration along Sethu Samudram and the coast line around Cape Comerin and Kerala. For establishing littoral integrity, and for safeguarding national assets, besides a free and fair shipping lane for maritime commercial activity, it has become imperative and inevitable that we need to dredge Sethu Samudram, create a passage and severe the umbilical cord with Sri Lanka, put an end to the ceaseless quest of Ram, the eternal conflict. However, if India were to voice such strategic thoughts, the Sri Lankans would create a shindig and send de-marches, that we were dredging the channel for military purposes to take over Sri Lanka. They are not stupid, they benefit by the land link in more than one way. It is in their interest to prevent the dredging as much as it is ours to dredge it. So in my opinion, it may be better to bowl a googly and make it sound like a peaceful maritime requirement. How about the line that, “We need to dredge the channel for making it easier for the turtles in Indian Ocean to navigate their way to Orissa for their annual mating ritual”. I think it is a perfectly ecological and irrefutable argument that Sri Lanka may find difficult to bat. I think the Hindu fundamentalists in India may find that rather palatable and very kind, in line with the ethos of ‘Dharma’ and ‘Karma’.