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Slaughter in the wards

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October has bitter memories for Jaffna’s people. Ten years ago they fled their city as a Sri Lanka Army offensive neared. Eight years earlier, Jaffna had been the target of another military onslaught, that time by the Indian Army.

Last month a remembrance ceremony was held in the town’s teaching hospital to mark the 18th anniversary of the slaughter by advancing Indian troops of several doctors, nurses and patients in its wards and officers eighteen years ago.

As Deepavali was celebrated by Tamils around the globe this week, many recalled that the joyful occasion fell on a bloody October 21 in 1987.

At the memorial service last month to honor those slain in the massacre, several surviving doctors recalled the atrocities carried out troops of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) when it overran Jaffna.

The massacre occurred amid a full-scale IPKF assault on Jaffna town intended to disarm and destroy the Tamil Tigers as a fighting force.

Having fought their way past bitter resistance by the Liberation Tigers, Indian troops reached the hospital treating civilians wounded earlier by their heavy weapons.

The troops indiscriminately opened fire in the wards of the hospital, mowing down doctors, nurses and labourers alike. Patients were shot in their beds. 21 people were killed outright and 55 seriously wounded.

The pitiless and wanton slaughter has remained at the forefront of Tamil memories of India’s role in Sri Lanka, having become emblematic of the Indian Army’s conduct there.

“Point blank gunfire and grenade explosions were how the Indian ‘peace-keepers’ responded to staff with raised hands as a gesture of peace and surrender,” Adele Balasingham, who was in the northern town at the time, wrote in ‘A Will to Freedom’, her account of her times with the LTTE.

In contrast to the Sri Lanka Army’s conduct, it had been expected Indian troops would honour international humanitarian law stipulating hospitals and other civilian targets be protected in times of war.

As such patients and staff were unconcerned at the IPKF’s approach, believing the troops would enter and, upon being presented proper identification, would move on peacefully.

However, witness accounts described doctors such as pediatrician Dr. Sivapathasundaram attempting to surrender and being immediately gunned down.

Some reportedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to save themselves by proclaiming their support for Indian Premier Rajiv and his pro-Tamil mother, Indira Gandhi.

Some argue the victims’ expectations were naively unfounded and point to the IPKF’s use of heavy weaponry against the densely populated town - despite a campaign by leading citizens of Jaffna who pleaded with the Indian Embassy to cease the shelling.

When confronted with claims of massacres and killings of civilians, the Indian government flatly denied any wrongdoing.

“The IPKF were given strict instructions not to use tactics or weapons that could cause major casualties among the civilian population of Jaffna, who were hostages to the LTTE,” Premier Rajiv Gandhi declared 19 days after the hospital massacre.

“The Indian Army have carried out these instructions with outstanding discipline and courage, accepting, in the process a high level of sacrifices for protecting the Tamil civilians,” he declared.

Even the anti-LTTE University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J), describing a climate of terror by the IPKF, said: “it left us among the dead, the debris and the crumbling structures. The smell of putrefaction clung to the fresh morning air. The terror of the army on every street corner, molestation and even rape became facts of life.”

Covert Indian involvement began at the time of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, when Delhi’s intelligence service provided training and arms to build the Tamil independence movement.

The objective was to exploit the Tamil insurgency to pressure the Jayawardane regime in Sri Lanka into a negotiated settlement that would accommodate Indian geopolitical interests.

The strategy was successful with both states concluding the Indo-Lanka Accord which offered limited devolution as the solution to the ethnic trouble, gave Delhi control of Trincomalee and obliged the uninvolved LTTE to disarm.

However, both the Sinhalese and Tamils opposed the Accord and the introduction of IPKF troops into Tamil areas to ensure its implementation.

With the LTTE refusing to settle for the terms laid out in the Indo-Lanka accord and disarm, the IPKF moved to destroy the organization, sparking a guerilla war with horrific consequences for the Tamils.

“The Indian troops behaved as an occupation army and committed war crimes that shocked the Tamil nation, which had previously looked to India as guardian and protector” LTTE political advisor Anton Balasingham wrote in his book ‘War and Peace: Armed Struggle and Peace Efforts of Liberation Tigers.’

Having been fought the IPKF to a stalemate on the battlefield, the Indian government was politically outmaneuvered by the LTTE, which entered into peace talks with the new Premedasa regime, which under simultaneous pressure from anti-Indian Marxist insurgents, ordered the Indian troops out of Sri Lanka.

The Jathika Vimukthi Peruma (JVP) led a rebellion against the Sri Lankan government had used the presence of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil as a powerful mobiliser amongst Sinhala nationalists.

In March 1990, the last of the Indian troops withdrew from the humiliating historical experience Delhi’s intervention in Sri Lanka had become.

After the Indian withdrawal, the LTTE released a publication titled ‘The Satanic Force’ that included eye witness statements of rape, torture and unprovoked violence that revealed the severity of the human rights abuses by the IPKF.

On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi, now out of office, was killed by a suicide bomber whilst campaigning at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

India blamed the LTTE for the killing and banned the organization. The LTTE has denied involvement.

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