A soldier’s account of the Sri Lanka war (Book Review)
Title: Road to Nandikadal: True Story of Defeating Tamil Tigers; Author: Major General Kamal Gunaratne; Publisher: Not given; Distributed by: Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Colombo; Pages: 741; Price: Rs 2,500 (SLR)
This is a dense yet gripping account by a decorated Sri Lankan military officer who was in the thick of it all in the long and bloody war that led to the decimation of the LTTE.
Major General Kamal Gunaratne is no ordinary soldier. An infantryman, he led the 53 Division – the most powerful Division in the Sri Lanka Army – that killed the LTTE founder leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in May 2009, bringing the curtains down on a conflict that at one time looked like it was destined to go on and on.
When the dead Prabhakaran was placed before him, “I closely inspected the body of this fiend lying at my feet like a dog, his eyes wide open. Dressed in the striped camouflage uniform of the LTTE, Prabharkaran had not shaven for a couple of days and a growth of greying stubble covered his face. On his forehead was a deep gash spreading up to his skull, but other than that, not a single scratch was seen on his body. The open eyes displayed shock and terror. Having died only about 30 minutes earlier, it was still bleeding from the wound and his ears.”
Gunaratne makes no effort to hide his intense dislike for the Tamil Tigers, whose separatist campaign left tens of thousands dead, maimed many more and left the island nation bleeding for a quarter century. Yet, he credits some LTTE leaders with bravery and single-minded devotion that he, as a soldier, admires. (‘Though they were our enemy, they were true fighters.’)
A proud Sri Lankan and a devout Buddhist, he also does not mince words about successive governments he felt made compromises in the war, leaving the soldiers demoralized. He has contempt for fellow officers who were not eager to fight or had a defeatist mentality. He is full of praise for (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who oversaw the war – for initiating a U-turn in the way the LTTE was fought until then. He credits intelligence agencies and small units of army patrols that successfully operated behind LTTE lines with changing the destinies of the military offensive.
Gunaratne also points out the military mistakes the LTTE leader made, including his failure to escape from Sri Lanka by sea at a time when it may have been possible. While a Prabhakaran away from a victorious Sri Lanka could not have achieved Eelam, he could have kept the Tiger flag flying, even if only for sentimental reasons. Fortunately for Colombo, that didn’t happen.
Gunaratne is disdainful of the radars New Delhi provided to Sri Lanka to monitor LTTE aircraft. They were fit for an Indian museum. At one place, he speaks about “Kashmiri freedom fighters” and elsewhere describes the late Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as “a national hero” of Sikhs. These are minor blemishes, born perhaps out of the anti-India feelings one sees in some Sri Lankans, in an otherwise excellent book. The officer is clearly not in the know of what India covertly did to tame the LTTE, in a sharp reversal of what it covertly did in the 1980s to build up Tamil militants.
(M.R. Narayan Swamy is a Sri Lanka watcher. He can be reached on email@example.com)