Sri Lanka`s conflict is doom to many but boon to some. It keeps many a retired general turned armchair defence analyst going in twilight years. Every time a shell drops in this country, a former military big gun fires a comment from the other side of the Palk Strait and that travels several times around the globe on the Net before the next shell falls.
At present we have them commenting on Thoppigala. One of the retired Indian military bigwigs, Ashok Mehta, has claimed Thoppigala is of no strategic importance. Therefore, he says, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) only destroyed the LTTE facilities there and did not want to occupy the terrain. He has told The Hindustan Times: `Thoppigala was a vast jungle area which did not lie on any major line of communication. It was basically a hide-out for the LTTE. It had hospitals, prisons and training camps. I have personally led operations to destroy these facilities. But, we always came back to base, as there was no need to occupy the areas. There was nothing to occupy.` (The LTTE has, however, said the IPKF set up camps in that area in the late 1980s.) He appears to have obliquely countered Minister Keheliya Rambukwella`s claim that even the IPKF failed to capture Thoppigala.
What Mehta tells us may be true from India`s point of view. India may not have thought it strategically important to occupy Thoppigala, as defeating the LTTE or finishing the conflict was never on India`s agenda. India only wanted to contain the LTTE and allow the conflict to continue at a manageable level so that she could further her geo-political interests at Sri Lanka`s expense. But, the capture and control of Thoppigala is of strategic importance to Sri Lanka.
Mehta is not telling us the whole truth about the importance of Thoppigala, as evident from his lapsus linguae: He admits the LTTE had hospitals, prisons and training camps in that area. The training facilities at Thoppigala were of great import to the LTTE because it was there that it trained most of the cadres conscripted in the Eastern Province. The outfit also used that seemingly impregnable stronghold to co-ordinate its operations in that province.
It could thus be seen that LTTE didn`t use that terrain for picnic purposes or playing hide and seek.
The loss of Thoppigala means a lot to the LTTE, as, in such an eventuality, it will be without the means of training the forcibly recruited cadres in the East. It will be next to impossible for those recruits to be smuggled into the Wanni for training. That alone will make the loss of Thoppigala a crippling blow to the LTTE, which is facing a severe manpower shortage in the Wanni. On the other hand, the outfit will also suffer a devastating psychological blow. We saw how the fall of Elephant Pass devastated the morale of the security forces, who took years to overcome the loss.
Another reason why India didn`t want to hold Thoppigala could have been the superior combat capability of the LTTE, where guerrilla warfare is concerned. Mehta et al may not have wanted to take unnecessary risks by prolonging their stay in that treacherous terrain with an elusive enemy on the prowl.
A question that needs to be posed to Mehta is: If Thoppigala is of no strategic importance, why on earth did the LTTE put up fierce resistance, when the army moved in? The LTTE couldn`t have done so for the fun of it, given the manpower shortage and difficulties in replenishing its military supplies. Tigers tried their best to repulse the onslaught but failed, didn`t they? What Mehta doesn`t tell us is that a vital road linking the East and the Mullativu District lies through the Thoppigala area. They are dependent on this route owing to the domination by the navy of the eastern seas.
It is strange why former Indian military heavyweights who possess a wealth of battlefield experience don`t offer their expertise to their motherland and help her battle terrorism on her soil effectively, without expending, if not dissipating, their energies and time on commenting on their neighbour`s conflict.
Their services are needed most at home. Never mind Kashmir, which is a different kettle of fish. The forest brigand Veerappan reigned supreme and there was little that the Indian security forces could do to stop him. He was captured and killed only after he went blind and needed hospital care. In March, Maoists guerrillas killed 50 Indian policemen in one fell swoop, surrounding as they did a security post in Chhattisgarh State. The militants seized a large haul of weapons from that post where dozens of policemen, soldiers and local militiamen were based and disappeared into the jungle! Some of the attackers were reportedly armed with improvised weapons and Molotov cocktails. Naxalites are running their own parallel administrations and justice systems in some areas.
The emergence of the so-called Red Corridor, a swathe of Maoist militancy from Nepal to the sea via Indian territory is a frightening proposition for India. Assamese militants are also aggravating the woes of the Indian military. A similar situation prevails in Nagaland and elsewhere. But, India`s former soldiers are busy with the conflict here!
Defence analysts anywhere in the world are like eunuchs guarding a king`s harem, as we have said on a previous occasion. They have seen it done and know how to do it but given an opportunity, they cannot do it!
Worse, they proffer opinions like divorced agony aunts, who tell others how to lead a happy married life!