Brig. R.R. Palsokar, author of Ours Not to Reason Why: With The IPKF in Sri Lanka
Even when you first wrote this book in 2012, you had the benefit of hindsight. How has your understanding of the IPKF, its military limitations and political compulsions evolved between the first edition and this one?
When I first wrote the book, the aim was to record the performance of the Brigade I commanded and in particular the bravery and dedication of the men and officers. This I felt must be recorded for posterity else no one would ever have known what had really happened and there were enough stories floating around as to how incompetent the IPKF had been. I was very clear that we had done our job, irrespective of how our seniors painted it to hide their own shortcomings. The military limitations and political compulsions though at the back of my mind, was not my concern at that time.
Subsequently, after the book was published and a number of officers gave their views particularly as to what could have been done which resulted in the article which was published in FORCE in February 2018. What I have said there has never been contested. Now that I look back it is not surprising that we were doomed to fail from the very start because the aim, if there was one, was hardly thought through. That the intervention did not turn into a disaster is testimony to the dedication to duty and ability of the officers and men who fought there.
In the same vein, how has your understanding about counter-insurgency operations evolved?
We were not right to think that by dominating territory we had the situation under control. We had to fight for the hearts and minds of the local populace. We succeeded in dominating territory but miserably failed in the second, our emphasis was on kills rather than winning the locals over. It was a non-winning strategy. The manner of American withdrawal from Afghanistan has proved that my basic understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka was correct. In Afghanistan, the US and its allies failed in both for a variety of reasons, some relevant to us others not so, but that is another subject. One lesson from Sri Lanka must stand out—rushing in cannot help.
After we returned, I wrote a series of articles in the (then) Combat Journal on counter insurgency. This helped me in clarifying my own ideas on the subject. I have done a lot of reading since then, both about the American experience in Iraq and later Afghanistan. Nothing that I have read contradicted the basics of counter insurgency that we have learned in the Indian Army. That we did not learn from our earlier experience and manage to apply it with suitable modification to the situation in Sri Lanka, must remain as the main lesson we brought away. Having said that, let it be clear, we were led by our senior leadership into a lose-lose situation, howsoever it may have been justified then or later.
Do you think it was the dissonance between the political and the military objectives that led to the disaster that IPKF eventually turned out to be? Have any lessons been learnt in both quarters?
It should have been understood by our decision makers that in a politico-military situation that Sri Lanka was, the solution can only be political. Neither the military nor diplomacy can do so, these can only be enablers. So, the basic point is that there was dissonance when the politicians thought that the military could achieve a solution. No doubt that the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) subscribed to and encouraged such a view.
I do not think any lessons have been learnt, one has only to look at the newspapers then as well as now, every kill is an occasion for exultation. The aim will always be political and not military, is a lesson that does not have seem to be internalised by anyone. Look at the latest incidents in Nagaland and Manipur that have occurred in November and December of 2021, as an example of this thought process.
How was the process of writing this book? Did you rely largely upon your own memory and notes, or did you run them by with other officers who were with you during the operations?
Part memory, part a sketchy diary I maintained for much of those two years and part a brief historical record written by our Brigade Major (not that I think anyone ever read it, bar the two of us!). But once you have been in intense operations for any length of time, every day, every event remains etched in memory.
Are there any ‘if only’s’ that bother you?
This is a difficult question to answer for the simple reason that our task itself had failure built into it, if only the powers that be and the then Chief had given enough thought to it. But I think hubris on the part of the Chief led us into this situation, because there was no way that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could have been defeated in two weeks’ time.
Returning to the question and the underlying query behind it, my opinion is that if only we had not been rushed into this operation, taken time to prepare, train, equip the force being sent in, may be a different message would have gone to both the LTTE as well as the Sri Lankan government. But then, this is conjecture.
At the lowest level, we were always being hustled and I use the word advisedly, to show results. What did that mean? How many LTTE cadres have been killed, how many weapons have been captured? The fact that our opponent had an inexhaustible supply of both, men and material, seems to have escaped our leadership. In the book, I have quoted General Officer Commanding, Indian Peace Keeping Force (GOC IPKF) who is reported to have said that as long as the idea of Eelam remained, the LTTE would have no shortage of volunteers. Remember that the Sri Lankan Army ‘exterminated’ the LTTE and they did this without a thought to human rights violations or collateral damage. Whether this has sown the seeds of a future conflict, is hard to say.
If only we had been allowed to take time to understand the local situation, the aspirations of the people, spend time on ameliorating their difficulties and in doing so alienated them from the LTTE who only knew the rule of the gun, maybe we could have handled the problem better. This does not obviate the security measures we would have had to take because the LTTE would have interfered extensively. The point is, our focus should have been different. Any commander who proposed going slow, and this applies to me particularly, would have had to leave in disgrace and suffer ignominy all his life.
Did you ever consider writing your experience for the wider readership? Why did you think the readership needed to be restricted?
I never realised how interested the lay reader would be in our experience. It is only when wives of my friends and other acquaintances who read the book said that they found it interesting that it occurred to me that the book had a wider appeal. It is subsequently, when many non-military readers contacted me to say how much they liked the book, that realisation dawned on me, late I suppose but at least it did. Now the book has gone into a third edition which suggests there is still an untapped readership.
If I have to now revise or re-write the book, it would contain more human-interest incidents, of which there were plenty, a little bit about the natural beauty of the area where we were fighting and also about the abundance of flora and fauna including birds, particularly the last, which is my hobby.
There is another book out there waiting to be written, I like to think! Also, at the cost of sounding out of place, it must be mentioned that the FORCE magazine has encouraged me to think beyond my usual horizon and by giving space to my views has instilled more confidence in me that others are interested in subjects that I may not have credited to them.