India Abroad May 21, 2010
I said to myself: this guy is a television interviewer’s dream. What a byte!
And sure enough, throughout the half hour,
on camera, General Fonseka was candid,
blunt, and aggressive by turn. Pleased with
himself and his troops, he gave me one
quotable quote after another, or byte as we
call them in broadcast journalism. Each of the
answer was a potential headline. And sure
enough, we carried many of his replies as
standalone stories over the next few days.
Just a week before I met General Fonseka
for this landmark interview, no one was sure
how the events would pan out in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan army troops pose
near the battle scene where
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran
was killed, May 18, 2009
‘It’s all over, bar the shouting’
My mind goes back to May 15, 2009. That
evening, a source had called from Sri Lanka
saying “It’s all over, you should be here NOW.”
I was not too sure whether Sri Lanka would
find any news space given that the entire
nation was glued to the story of Indian election results in
less than 12 hours from then.
Yet, as a precaution, I told the bosses that the denouement in Sri Lanka appeared to be near and I may have to
rush to Colombo at very short notice.
The next day, May 16, as I prepared to do my bit on elec-
tion results day, another source, in fact a very high official,
called in at 7 am and said, “It is all over, bar the shouting.
Try and be here by this evening.”
Since this official had been dead right with information
in the past too, I decided to take a chance. The bosses were
So, as India was getting the latest election results, I
rushed to the airport at an hour’s notice to catch a flight to
Bangalore and from there to Colombo. By 4.30 pm, I was
in the Sri Lankan capital.
Am I glad I did that? Oh yes! By taking that off chance
and believing in my sources, I was right there when the
biggest war story of the decade unfolded.
A decade ago, one was fortunate to be in Kargil, reporting on the India-Pakistan conflict.
But there is one major difference between 1999 and
2009. I had reported Kargil for Outlook magazine. This
time, I was reporting the war in Sri Lanka for NDTV, a
completely different medium that requires an altogether
different set of expertise and resources.
In less than 12 hours after landing in Colombo, the difficulties of broadcast journalism combined with the obstacles posed by an obdurate and cussed bureaucracy, so very
typical of South Asian nations, became apparent.
My colleague Dhanpal, incidentally a Tamil, reached the
Colombo International Airport early next morning and got
stuck in Customs. They didn’t let him out, saying the
papers for the television equipment that he was carrying
were not in order.
So began a battle of another kind. One was not sure if
Dhanpal had been stopped because he was a Tamil.
Assuming the worst, I made two or three calls and asked
him to wait. Fortunately, a couple of hours later, a fresh set
of requisite documents reached the obdurate customs officer and he let Dhanpal go, albeit reluctantly.
An hour after his arrival, we straightaway plunged into
work. There were pieces to camera to be done, stand ups to
be up-linked and phone calls to be made to different
And then there was the constant stream of demands from
the office. “Do a phone-in at the top of the hour,” “Give the
details of the latest battle casualties,” “Our competitors are
saying the army has sighted Prabhakaran, what do you
In retrospect, it was a timely move to be in the Sri Lankan
capital because from that Saturday evening onwards,
events unfolded with lightening speed and one could keep
pace with requirements of television news only because in
Dhanpal I had an experienced and unflappable colleague.
Prabhakaran with his family
As Eelam War IV neared its climax, there was virtually
not a minute’s respite since one was reporting for both for
NDTV’s English and Hindi channels. Each desk had a different requirement.
The challenge was two-fold: To relay the information by
putting it in the context for Indian viewers and second not
go wrong on facts since NDTV 24x7 is the most viewed
Indian channel in Colombo.
Reporting from Colombo posed another challenge. The
high level of security in the Sri Lankan capital meant that
you couldn’t shoot in the streets. All my pieces to camera
and stand-ups had to be therefore done from either the
hotel lawns or in the hotel lobby, robbing the coverage of
the actual feel of the place.
On a previous trip, me and another colleague, Sukumar,
had been escorted to a police station because we were
shooting on the street! But May 19 changed all that
overnight. Prabhakaran was dead and the LTTE, decimated.
Suddenly it was as if the entire nation was liberated!
Jubilant crowds thronged the streets, bursting crackers,
stuffing the armed forces personnel with sweets and garlanding them. For the television cameras too it was a liberating moment. No one stopped us now.
We walked between processions, on the streets awash
with Sri Lankan flags, local singers singing paeans to the
soldiers at impromptu street corner gatherings, doing our
walkabouts, our pre-recorded interviews and pieces to
camera amidst the celebrations absolutely unhindered!
Not knowing when to quit cost Prabhakaran his life
It was an historic news event, but also a sad one.
Through the day, we managed to remain on top of the
news but as night fell and the prime time bulletins were
over, the reality hit us both.
All said and done, Prabhakaran was
an extraordinary personality. The outfit
that he created and led had no parallel
in the history of terrorism.
As we sat sipping our chilled beers,
Dhanpal recalled, how, as a college student in Chennai in the late 1970s, he
was part of a group that had mobilized
support for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka
and how Prabhakaran was even then a
celebrity in the Tamil brotherhood.
Unlike Dhanpal, I had no such personal memory but as a student of insur-gencies and conflicts, I only had grudging admiration for
Prabhakaran’s military genius and innovative mind. After
all, he invented the suicide bomber; he perfected the
cyanide capsule culture and applied innovative and daring
tactics to combat large professional armies. But in the end,
not knowing when to quit and compromise cost
Prabhakaran his life. So, in different ways both of us, felt
sad at the turn of events.
Over the next three days, we managed to get exclusive,
one on one interviews with Sri Lanka’s defense secretary
and General Fonseka among others. These interactions
helped me confirm some of the conclusions that I reached
about why Eelam War IV was different than earlier military
campaigns in Sri Lanka.
General Fonseka, a battle-hardened veteran of many past
duels with the LTTE, had correctly assessed that the Tamil
Tigers had expanded greatly in numbers, but had perhaps
lost the agility and stealth that had made the outfit such a
The army commander in fact explained to me in detail
the fresh strategy that he adopted. Selecting commanders
who had previous field experience and were ruthless
enough to implement unconventional and brutal tactics,
General Fonseka outwitted and outnumbered the LTTE.
He formed small, highly mobile, independent and lethal
commando teams, who often infiltrated behind the enemy
lines to isolate and then demolish LTTE defenses. Of
course, General Fonseka was lucky to have Gotabaya
Rajapakse, a former course-mate in the army, as the
defence secretary. Gotabaya is also the president’s brother.
So, Messrs Rajapakse and Fonseka had the total backing of
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who set a clear military
objective for the armed forces: Demolish the Tamil Tigers
militarily, no matter what the cost.
As General Fonseka said during the interview, this is any
general’s dream: Total political backing, no limits on buying war materials and recruiting manpower.
Sri Lanka took in 80,000 new recruits in the armed
forces in the last four years. It secured a steady supply of
weapons and ammunition from countries like China and
Pakistan after India refused to help Colombo under domestic political compulsions.
The Tigers, on the other hand, were still stuck in the old
mindset, employing conventional tactics like trying to hold
on to territory. They finally paid heavily for those outdated
In less than a year, the Rajapakse brothers and General
Fonseka are sworn enemies. The war hero now faces a
court martial and is under military custody. Mammoth
egos and insecurities have led to such a sorry state of
So what next for Sri Lanka? There are several unan-swered and unresolved questions over the rehabilitation of
the Tamils and more importantly a reconciliation between
the Sinhalas and Tamils.