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Lanka lauds India peace force, finally

world Updated: Aug 16, 2010 01:19 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Number: 165645-T Rank: Marine Engineer. Name: IIMS Joshi. Died: 17/01/1990.

Joshi was probably among the last Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) personnel to be killed in action in Sri Lanka. More than 20 years later – and after being reviled by many in this country and forgotten by most in their own land -- Joshi and 1200 fellow soldiers are finally being honoured for laying down their lives on foreign soil.

On a blustery Sunday, Indian High Commissioner, Ashok K Kantha laid a white wreath at the IPKF memorial in Kotte on the outskirts of Colombo. It was the first official memorial service for the soldiers who died between 1987 and 1990 fighting the LTTE when the IPKF operated in the northern and eastern parts of the island.

Personnel from the Sri Lankan navy band played the Last Post as a Border Security Force contingent stood guard and traffic outside the memorial complex slowed down.

The monument made of black marble with the names of the soldiers engraved on it was built by the Lankan armed forces. Maintaining it will now be India’s responsibility.

"Through their peace keeping, they contributed in a significant manner in preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Their ultimate sacrifice will be cherished,’’ Kantha said. The ceremony, he added, will be held every Independence Day from this year.

The idea of an IPKF memorial was mooted by President Premadasa in the early ‘90s. Incidentally, it was under his Presidency that the force was ordered to leave Sri Lanka. Subsequently, it was discussed during President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s rule but was finally ready only in 2008.

It remained unattended till few weeks ago, when Indian navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, paid a quiet visit to the memorial during his six-day Lanka tour. Verma’s visit wasn’t publicised though it was the first by an Indian serving chief.

Diplomats said that the memorial service had to wait till the war got over. But it is also true that the IPKF landed in Lanka under a complex political agreement and ended up fighting the LTTE in the north and public anger in the rest of the country. Even 20 years later, their role remains controversial.

"It is too little. Too late. After all, we were invited. Someone from the Sri Lankan side should have been there (for the ceremony),’’ Major General (retired) Ashok Mehta, who served with the IPKF, told HT from New Delhi.

It is probably too little and too late. But for personnel like Joshi, Sunday’s memorial service ensures that they will always be more than just a name, rank and number.