Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, ordered the cold blooded murder of V. Pirabhakaran, the Tamil Tiger chief in September 1987. An order was given to this effect to the Indian Army on peace-keeping duty in Sri Lanka at that time.Pirabhakaran was invited by the chief of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Major General (retd.) Harkirat Singh, for a meeting on September 16, 1987 to find ways to implement an accord signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene to bring peace to Sri Lanka.
At midnight on September 14, Maj. Gen. Singh received a call on the special army communication network. The call was from Colombo — J.N. (‘Mani’) Dixit, then Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka, wanted to speak to the general officer commanding, IPKF.
The general was ordered to kill Pirabhakaran, when he would come over for a meeting on September 16, under the white flag, to discuss the formation of an interim administrative council. This despite the fact that no professional Army would kill an adversary called for a meeting under the white flag.
But Harkirat Singh refused to execute the order, because he says, “Good soldiers do not shoot an adversary in the back.”The general, who recounted this episode briefly in his book (Intervention in Sri Lanka) told MAIL TODAY that he had no doubts or no dilemma about what he had to do. He asked Dixit for time and put a call across to his boss, Overall Forces Commander Lt Gen. Depinder Singh. Depinder wanted Harkirat’s assessment. Harkirat said that he would not be party to a murder.
In the autumn of his life, trying to catch some winter sun in his study at his south Delhi home, the 71-year old general still remains resolute. “Killing someone during a war is fine. But killing under a white flag is just not done.” But would his act not have saved Rajiv’s life? After all, without Pirabhakaran, would the LTTE have been able to carry out Rajiv’s assassination? The general had never ever thought about it. “This was something I should have never done. So I never thought about what could have happened had I killed Pirabhakaran.
At that point the order had nothing to do with Rajiv’s life,” reminds Harkirat Singh.Still, that night had its share of drama. After his conversation with his boss, General Depinder Singh, Harkirat rang up Dixit in Colombo. Singh calmly told the high commissioner, “I will not obey your directives.” He tried hard explaining that he had invited the LTTE supremo to find ways to implement the accord signed by the Indian Prime Minister and Jayawardane. And he was coming to meet the general at his headquarters at Palaly airbase in Jaffna.
Dixit would have none of it. He threatened the general: “Rajiv Gandhi has given these instructions to me and the Army should not drag its feet, and you as the GOC, IPKF will be responsible for it.” The all powerful high commissioner was not spewing empty threats. Singh was soon posted out and never promoted. Though he never spoke to Dixit afterwards, he badly wanted Dixit to be around when his book, the tell-it-all, Intervention in Sri Lanka finally came out a few months ago. Dixit unfortunately died in January 2005.“When we met socially for cocktails, he used to tell my wife that the general is still angry. I never talked to him because I didn’t want the conversation to end in unpleasantness. But he was alive when I started the book,” Harkirat recalls.
The two men, Rajiv and Dixit, who ought to contest Harkirat Singh, are not alive. Dixit later went on to become the national security adviser before he died of a heart attack.What Harkirat says is recorded in the War Diary of 54 Division headquartered in Secunderabad and would be part of the military archives. In fact, after every telephonic conversation during a war, the exchange is noted down and passed on to the next higher authority and it reaches all the way up to the chief of Army staff. The very next morning after Singh turned down Dixit’s order, he got a call from the then director-general military operations, Lt. Gen. B.C. Joshi, congratulating him. Then Army chief, General K. Sundarji, thought differently. He was annoyed. But none of them asked Singh to alter the correspondence or objected to the Prime Minister’s name being referred to in the communication.
Though Singh is uncomfortable rekindling the controversy, he still wants to put the record straight. But he said that he waited all this while because he did not want to be harassed by the Army or the government for making these startling revelations. “There is a 3 to 10 year-old security embargo period. That is why I didn’t write my book earlier. Look at what happened to that RAW guy (Maj. Gen. V.K. Singh). I didn’t want them to create problems for me,” he said, as he chuckled. Singh, in fact, doubts whether Dixit was completely honest when he invoked Rajiv Gandhi’s name. “How do you cross check, when somebody tells you that he is speaking on behalf of the President or the Prime Minister," he asked. The Army or the Prime Minister's Office never objectred to Singh's notes in the war diary.
As the general wgho began the campaign, he took the flak for a war that cost India 1,155 of its men, almost double the number of Kargil martyrs.
But he is happy that he did not sully his career like many officers accused of murder during counter-insurgency operations: "I am not one of them. A meeting under the white flag is a well established norm and even the Chinese honoured this in 1962. You have to ensure the safety of those whom you invite under the white flag. It was a wrong concept of Dixit's."
Singh is a contented old man without regrets. After retirement in 1991 he had been advising Ratan Tata and says that he has had all the privileges that he would not have had in the service.