Just read a post making a comparative reference of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) pullout from Sri Lanka in end 1989/early 1990. Provokes me to set the record straight, and include additional narration that may be of ‘human’ interest, as it were. Without dwelling on the politics or merits and outcome of our intervention operations in Sri Lanka.
In July 1989, after command of a Division, I was posted as Additional Director General Military Operations (ADGMO) at Army Headquarters. The DGMO was Lt Gen VK Singh of the Madras Regiment (a fine professional and good friend), the VCOAS was Lt Gen VK Sood (another super professional), and the Chief was General VN Sharma.
By the time I arrived at my new assignment, the newly elected President of Sri Lanka R Premadasa had already made strident calls for the termination of the Indian presence in his country, and for the pull-out of our forces from Sri Lanka. And there was also a churn in the politics in Delhi that led to the formation of Janata Dal Government headed by PM VP Singh in early December 1989. One of its first decisions was to pull out the Indian forces from Sri Lanka without further delay.
As soon as the Government decision was conveyed to the Chief, he directed us in the Military Operations Directorate to immediately to put up a draft Joint Operational Instruction for issue. We had already been working on this possibility over the previous few months in consultation with our Naval and Air Force colleagues and subordinate Headquarters including HQ IPKF, and were therefore able to submit a draft to the Chief within a matter of 24 hours or so.
He made some marginal changes, and asked us to run it past the other two Chiefs - Air Chief Marshal PK Mehra and Admiral JG Nadkarni, who was also the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, for concurrence. We worked on the suggested modifications over the next 24 hours or so, and got the Joint Operational Instruction ready for signature and issue. I was given the dubious privilege of getting it signed by the three Chiefs.
Took it first to General Sharma, who had a quick glance, signed it, and gave it to me with instructions that it should be sent off the next morning. By the time I got the Air Chief’s signature it was well past normal working hours, and Admiral Nadkarni had gone home. On getting back to the Directorate, I received a query from the Chief’s Secretariat whether I had obtained the signatures.
I walked across to the Chief’s office and got the usual blast when I informed him that I had yet to get the signature of Admiral Nadkarni, the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. “I do not care how you manage it but I want the Operational Instruction out tomorrow” or words to that effect, was the missive thrown at me.
It was common knowledge that Admiral Nadkarni was a golf enthusiast who was out on the Army Golf Course every morning. Being a sort of golfer myself I had often seen him on the Course. I therefore set off the next morning (a Sunday I think it was) with copies of the Joint Operational Instruction in a folder tucked under my arm, and landed up at the Golf Course to catch the Admiral and his playing partners in the Breakfast Room as he walked in on completion of the first nine holes.
On seeing me the Admiral enquired, “Satish, what brings you here”. I apprised him that I was there to get his signatures on the Joint Operational Instruction for the pull-out from Sri Lanka that was to be sent out that morning. With a twinkle in his eye, he reached out for the folder I was carrying and the pen I proffered, signed the papers, and handed them back to me with a remark I shall always remember – “Here you are Satish. This is probably the first and only Military Operational Instruction to have been signed on a Golf Course. We are creating history”.
Thanked him with a smart salute and was soon back at the Directorate in South Block. Where my colleagues were waiting to place the papers in appropriate envelopes duly addressed and sealed, to pass it on to the couriers who were standing by to deliver them to the intended recipients.
So let us be quite clear. The pull-out from Sri Lanka was a properly organized and executed military operation. It is another matter that it was possibly implemented under an unpleasant set of political circumstances, and that the State authorities in Chennai (to their eternal shame I may add) did not consider it appropriate to accord our returning forces a proper welcome home.
Having warmed up, I am inclined to say a few words about our then Army Chief General VN Sharma. In my view, like General TN Raina, he was a largely ‘under-acknowledged’ Chief. While he may not have had the charisma exuded by Chiefs like Thimmaya and Manekshaw, or the ability to impress like his immediate predecessor Sundarji, the abiding truth is that he steered the Indian Army through a very trying period during his tenure from mid 1988 to mid 1990.
The para borne intervention operation in support of the Maldives Government in early November 1988 was a classic, well executed operation that is attributable to his stewardship. His handling of the concern caused by the large scale mobilisation of Pakistani forces for Exercise Zarb-e-Momin under the shadow of the turmoil in the Punjab in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star was most commendable.
As was his handling of the upsurge of insurgency in the Kashmir Valley in the wake of the abject capitulation of the Indian political establishment after the Home Minister’s daughter was taken hostage by a group of militants. There were also the rumblings by the ULFA in Assam.
And of course the commitment in Sri Lanka, and the subsequent pull-out of our forces from there. Notwithstanding the fact that I was often at the receiving end of some of his tantrums and biting comments, I developed a healthy regard for his capacity for decision making under the trying circumstances he had to contend with. But what struck me most and drew my admiration in full measure, was the fact that he was one of the few Army Chiefs who maintained the dignity of that high office in full measure.
Whether it was in briefing the political leadership with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi or VP Singh in the Operations Room at Army Headquarters, or inter-acting with Chief Minister Karunanidhi in Chennai, he always clearly stated what they needed to be apprised about, and not what they would have liked to hear. And of course, he never allowed the civilian bureaucracy to meddle in the affairs of the establishment of which he was the Head.
And finally, a tribute to the family he was part of. Three sons of Major General Amar Nath Sharma. The eldest, Major Somnath Sharma; killed in action on 3rd November 1947 at the age of 24 at Badgam on the outskirts of Srinagar, the first recipient of the Param Vir Chakra.
The second, Lieutenant General SN Sharma rose to become an outstanding Engineer-in-Chief of the Indian Army; someone I did not know while in Service, but had the good fortune of getting to know well and receiving affectionate guidance from, when I was the Director United Service Institution of India.
And of course General VN Sharma, who I had the great honour and privilege of serving with. What a family! I do not think there are too many other families in this great country of ours that can match such commitment, dedication and devotion to duty.
About the Author
Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and is a highly distinguished General of the Indian Army who served as the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of United Nations Protection Force, during 1992-93. He is a renowned academic, associated with the world's top defence Think tanks, leading strategic journals, and was the former director of the United Service Institution of India.
(Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India.)
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