As the commanding officer of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), Lieutenant General Amarjeet Singh Kalkat was the last to leave Sri Lanka’s shores on March 24, 1990. Chennai-bound INS Niligiri set sail and MI-8 helicopters took off from Trincomalee's China Bay harbour to take home the remaining, weary IPKF personnel; they left behind 1200 soldiers who died in the 30-month operation.
"We were given a send-off by (deputy) defence minister, Ranjan Wijeratne. The deadline to leave was March 31," Kalkat said from New Delhi. By then, IPKF's position had considerably soured. A wave of anti-IPKF anger had swept the country and Colombo had secretly armed the Tigers to fight them. During a stand-off between Kalkat and President R Premadasa, the latter had even threatened to call it an "occupying force" though the IPKF was "invited" to tackle the Tigers in the north and the east while the Lankan forces took on a left extremist insurgency in the rest of the country.
A long 18 years after that, sometime in 2008, Kalkat was approached by the Lankan High Commission in New Delhi to be part of the inauguration of an IPKF memorial built outside Colombo.
Kalkat then got a call from South Block to suggest people who could attend the ceremony. "I suggested the widows of IPKF soldiers and retired officers who took part in the operation," Kalkat said. But the connection went blank after that and he was never approached again. "Maybe, they thought it was too sensitive."
I called Kalkat for his reaction to the first ever IPKF memorial service held here on August 15. He deflected questions about the politics around the force but shared interesting facts. I didn't know that the force not only comprised soldiers but also officials from the Tamil Nadu state electricity board, Indian railways, Indian Red Cross, the Indian telephone department and few IAS and IFS officers.
At its peak, its strength was more than 70,000 including two CRPF battalions and a company of women personnel. India though is yet to set up a memorial for the fallen IPKF soldiers. There's one built by the soldiers of 21st corps in Bhopal, which is what the IPKF was converted to after returning home.
"One built by the Indian government? Let me know if you hear of one."