Uncovering The War

Reconstructing the IPKF disaster, piece by poignant piece, brought me face to face with rare courage —and inexcusable complacence.

India's unexpected war in Sri Lanka caught me on the wrong foot by 12,000 km. I was still finishing the last month of my sabbatical year in Washington DC when the fighting broke out. And as I returned home, the media was full of coverage, often loaded, of the IPKF disaster in Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula. Loaded because the Bofors scandal, and many other missteps, already had Rajiv Gandhi under widespread attack. Sri Lanka was therefore seen as "babalog" political stupidity, rather than military incompetence. In the process, we were guilty of both insensitivity to Indian soldiers, their courage and sacrifice, and conveniently overlooking the complacence of our higher commanders. Now, this was obviously not a war we were going to ever lose — though my friend Hardeep Puri, who was by then our first secretary in Colombo under J.N. "Mani" Dixit, tells you, sort of semi-lightheartedly, that there was one evening so tense that it sounded as if Palaly (Jaffna airbase and the IPKF's 54 Infantry Division HQ) was going to fall. Hardeep had just seen the truce agreement he had so painstakingly drafted and signed with Mahattaya (Madras Cafe's Mallaya) fall apart.

It is creditable how much of that initial messiness Shoojit Sircar has got accurately. The fact that early IPKF patrols were routinely ambushed, pinned down and annihilated. How its officers were picked out by snipers. How the LTTE seemed to have inside information on all IPKF moves (more about this a little later). The most creditable footage, however fleeting and sensitively handled, is of the Tigers ransacking Indian soldiers' bodies and picking weapons, souvenirs and trophies from them. Note, particularly, a boyish Sikh soldier sitting, frozen in rigor mortis. That quality of research you didn't expect from a mainstream Indian filmmaker, and we will shortly explain why.

... contd.

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