During Operation Pawan, I was deployed with my battalion in the Batticaloa sector of Sri Lankaas part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). I was then a major, commanding Alfa company (A coy), which was located in a large, disused rice depot in the village of Valaichennai. The other three companies were positioned to our south, at Kiran,Murukkodenchennai and Eravur.
When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find that every single item of our food had to be shipped across from India. I found this incomprehensible. I remember once, in the Vavuniya sector, flying in MI-8 Helicopter that continued more goats than soldiers ! Why couldn’t the Sri Lankans provide us with our rations, I wondered. The Indian military presence was massive. Surely, they ought to have jumped at this golden opportunity to land such a lucrative contract? As for us, we would receive fresh vegetables, fruit and milk, rather than stuff that had been lying about in ships, planes, lorries and transshipment points for several days. I reckoned that the cost of transportation from India alone, never mind the value of the commodities, would have exceeded the total amount we would have paid Sri Lanka by way of a contract.
When I Examined the matter a little more closely I realised, to my surprise, that the Indian armed presence on the island exceeded the total strength of the Sri Lankan armed forces and para military organisations. How could their government cater to such a large population, even if they’d wanted to? And I rather suspect they didn’t want to, because it was no secret that there was no love lost between the two sides!It is ironical that despite the raging conflict with the Tamil Tigers, most Indian officers and men were staunchly pro Tamil. Indeed, my jawans would often tell me that they would much rather fight with the LTTE against the Sri Lankan Army (SLA).
Be that as it may, it fell to our lot to protect convoys moving between Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. A convoy comprised thirty or forty large lorries carrying most of our needs such as rations, arms, ammunition, equipment, fuel, mail and reinforcements. The convoys had instructions to crawl forward at walking speed, to enable the accompanying infantry to move ahead and search the road and surrounding area for land mines and the tell tale wires used to detonate them from a distance. If we came under rebel fire, the convoy would halt until we had eliminated or dispersed the opposition. It was a nerve wracking exercise that sorely tested our physical endurance and mental resolve.
The convoy returning from Batticaloa early in the morning would be handed over to me at Valaichennai by Delta company. My task was to take it 20 km north to Punani (P), where the Tamil inhabited areas ended. From there it travelled to Trincomalee without escort,at its normal speed. We would spend the night in a defensive position near Punani and get some rest – if the rebels didn’t attack us. The next morning, we would start walking back with a fresh, incoming convoy.
The standard procedure was to leave one platoon behind to guard my base and move out with the other two.One morning, as I prepared to move out with a convoy, my Commanding Officer rang to say that I should spend the night at Punani with the SLAs Fourth Gajaba Regiment (4GR, not to be confused with the Indian Army 4 GR or Fourth Gorkha Rifles).
‘For a change, you’ll be able to relax in a completely safe and secure environment. No need to worry about any LTTE activity at night,’ he enthused. ‘There’s a motorable track going off to your right at about a km away.’ I wasn’t too pleased to hear this and neither would my men be, given their attitude towards the SLA. However, without incident and allowed the convoy to proceed towards Trincomalee. A little later, we were in front of the main gate of wooden logs interspersed with strands of barbed wire. A sentry stood inside, looking at us in bewilderment.
I informed him.
I do not have any information about the arrival of Indian troops,’ he said disdainfully.
‘Hadn’t you better find out then,’ I suggested.
He looked at me suspiciously for a moment, then strode off to the sentry hut nearby, presumably to phone his superior and seek orders.
Company Havildar Major (CHM) Sumer Singh hurried to my side.
‘The blighter didn’t salute you, sahab!’ he muttered indignantly. ‘Nor did he address you as ‘sir’.’
Its all right, Summer relax we can handle this.’
When the sentry reappered at the gate a minute later, his manner had changed completely.
Saluting me smartly, he said, ‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, sir. I’ve just spoken to the adjutant and he’s asked me to let you in at once.’
summer chuckled with satisfaction.
The gate was pulled open. We walked the short distance to theirlines, where the adjutant, a young captain, was waiting to receive us. He apologised profusely for the delay at the gate, then began the process of accommodating my men, for whom he had set aside two barracks. A little later, their second in command (2IC) appeared on the scene.
‘I’m afraid the CO’s away at a meeting in Fort Frederick, Trincomalee. But not to worry, I’m here to do the honours.We will provide your chaps with bathing me. I stopped and waited for them. They came to a halt before me and saluted.
facilities, dinner and packed meals for tomorrow.’
‘It’s very kind of you,’ I said.
Although we had carried our own packed food, I wouldn’t turn down the offer of a hot meal.
After my men had been settled in, I asked if I could be given a bed nearby.
‘Surely not!’ said the 2IC, his eyes widening in astonishment. ‘You are an officer. I cannot let you bunk down with your men. I’ve had a guest room prepared for you in the Officers’ Mess. Let’s go there now.’
Since it was a matter of only a night, I thought it would be ungracious to insist. The 2IC escorted me to a comfortable room and asked the civilian waiter standing outside to attend to my needs. ‘I guess you’d like to turn in early, so could we expect you in the Mess for dinner at 7 pm?’ asked the 2IC.
‘Yes, thanks.’ I emerged from my room a little before seven. As I walked towards the mess building, I saw Subedar Balbir Singh and CHM Sumer sprinting frantically towards
They looked extremely agitated.
‘At ease! Is anything wrong?’ I asked
‘I’m afraid there is, sahab,’ said Balbir
‘There is a cow outside the SLA kitchen. They’re going to kill it.
What! I cried in azazement.’Are you sure?’
‘Yes, sahab,’ said Sumer. ‘They’re going to slaughter it for their dinner.’
I was shocked. Why I Assumed that no Buddhist eats beef?
‘Look, I understand your distress, but we must remember this is their country. They don’t need our permission to do anything.’
‘Yes, sahab, but we are Rajputs,’ said Balbir. We’ll chop their heads before they can lay their hands on the cow.’
It was not an idle threat. An ominous situation was developing. I had to remain firmly in control.
‘That’s no way to talk to an officer,’ I reminded Balbir, a trifle pompously.
‘I’m sorry, sahab’ he said, springing back to attention, ‘but you are a Kshatriya, too.
we cannot allow them to commit this sin in our presence.’
What are the men doing?
We have them to remain calm asked not react to any provocation,’ said Sumer. ‘Good thinking. Now listen, I’ll try to do something in a moment.’
When I entered the mess drawing room the SLA officers rose respectfully to greet me.
Welcome to the 4 GR officers Mess,’said the 2IC, coming forward to shake my hand,”you looka bit tense.What would you like to drink?’
‘If it’s no trouble, any fruit juice will do me fine, but before that, I’d like a quick word with you in private.’
‘Yes, certainly,’ he said, detecting the note of urgency in my voice. ‘Let’s go to the billiards room. It’s empty now.’
When we were by ourselves, I apprised him of what was happening him of what was happening.
Looks like we’ve made a nuisance of ourselves by coming here,’ I ended apologetically.
‘No, no, it’s alright. I can well appreciate your men’s religious sensibilities.We must nip this in the bud. What do you think?
‘If I might make a suggestion, could you postpone this activity?’ I said, recoiling from using the term “cow slaughter”.
Why not? Good idea
We Want to the nate room, where he picked up a field telephone and rattled off some orders in Sinhala.
‘There, I’ve cancelled the program,’ he said, replacing the receiver. ‘Are you happy now?’
Yes, very,’ I said, as I felt an oppressive weight lift from my shoulders.
‘Come, let’s watch the news on Rupavahini and have dinner.’
‘Thanks, but give me a minute first. I’ll be back in a jiffy.’
I went outside and gave Balbir and Sumer the good news. They were ecstatic and overcome with gratitude.
‘Don’t thank me. The credit goes to their 2IC,’ I said, but they weren’t listening.
Back in Valaichennai the next evening, I informed the CO of everything that had happened. He congratulated me for having defused a potentially explosive situation.From then onwards, I was never asked to stay the night with 4 GR; I took my chances out in the open.
When I recollected the events of that day, I realized that it had been touch and go. I shuddered to think what would have happened if the 2IC had been adamant and refused to listen to me? Mercifully, everything had passed off peacefully.As the Duke,of wellingtonn might have said, it had been a damned close run thing.
Col Arun Sarkar is a veteran army officer based in Secunderabad.