By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 15: The Blackbuck, a rare variety of deer, is an endangered species and in 1998, popular Bollywood actor Salman Khan was given a 5-year prison sentence for killing a blackbuck in a hunting adventure in Rajasthan.
In contrast, the two-legged “Tigers” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who killed hundreds of Blackbucks in Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu in 1986 went scot-free. This story was revealed last week by Lt General Baljeet Singh, then Additional Director General, Military Operations of the Indian Army, in an article published in The New Caravan on 7 February 2021.
He recalled a meeting with Dalip Mathai, who then headed the Wastelands Development Authority, an initiative of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. “The purpose of his visit was related to his being the founder trustee of WWF-India (World Wildlife Foundation – India) and his concern of the moment was that the last surviving population of about 300 blackbucks upon an isolated patch of scrub-land on India’s east coast was on the verge of being exterminated altogether,” Lt Gen Singh revealed in his article, aptly titled, ‘With whom the buck stopped’.
Mathai went on to elaborate that the 17 sq km delta of Cauvery river at Point Calimere (midway between Chennai and Kanyakumari) was among the smallest wildlife sanctuaries in the country. In the absence of natural predators, over a period of time, the population of ungulates (blackbuck, cheetal and wild boar) had increased exponentially. For instance, in 1967, blackbuck numbers were pegged at 750. But by 1986, their headcount had mysteriously plummeted to 320. The Bombay Natural History Society ruled out epidemic and even poaching as the cause of the sudden decline because the sanctuary was small and the watch-and-ward infrastructure was both adequate and so well motivated that poachers simply could not go unnoticed.
“The mystery deepened but remained unraveled till one among Dalip’s wide circle of conservation enthusiasts learnt that a guerrilla training facility inside the Point Calimere sanctuary had been set up to train the fighting cadres of the LTTE. And that probably, at the point of the gun, they had neutralized the watch-and-ward staff and were now wantonly shooting all animals, especially the blackbuck.
“Could I help prevent the massacre? As luck would have it, I was to take a brief to the Chief (Indian Army Commander, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji) that very afternoon and knowing his indulgent nature, I was hopeful that he would react to the crisis positively,” Baljeet Singh writes.
Denying LTTE training camps in India
General Sundarji was Army Commander from 1986 to 1988. He was the last former British Indian Army officer to command the Indian Army. During his army career. He had commanded Operation Blue Star under orders from Indira Gandhi to clear the Golden Temple shrine (of Sikh militants). Gandhi was killed by a Sikh bodyguard taking revenge for the Blue Star operation which the Sikhs considered a sacrilege.
The LTTE camps operated with Indian military support in Tamil Nadu, Gurgaon, near Delhi, and in Dehradun in Uttarakhand, formerly part of Uttar Pradesh. However, India always denied the existence of LTTE training camps on Indian soil.
Lt Gen Baljeet Singh said in his article, “I shared the grim news from Point Calimere with Gen Sundarji with special emphasis that India has been the one and only home of the blackbuck on planet earth! Without a moment’s hesitation, he told me to accompany him to a meeting at the PMO’s Secretariat late that evening. Once there, he led me to a gentleman and said, “He is your man.” (This reference was to the Prime Minister’s Special Secretary who liaised with LTTE). The meeting got delayed and the Chief turning to me said, “Baljeet, if you have conveyed your concerns, you may hand the brief to me and go home.”
“Four days later, my man gave me the news the LTTE cadres were indeed shooting blackbucks but not for venison; rather, the blackbuck running at full stretch over the pale sandy sea shore presented the perfect, regulation bull’s-eye target for honing the skills of their sharp-shooters! My heart sank at this. In the next breath, he told me that he had got a firm assurance from the LTTE that henceforth they would neither target the blackbuck, nor other wildlife species in the sanctuary. Indeed, they kept their word. And the blackbuck numbers gradually began rising once again,” the former Additional Director General, Military Operations of Indian Army stated in his article, inadvertently admitting the existence of Indian military-run LTTE training Camps in the 1985-1987.
I was a junior diplomat in New Delhi when then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali came back to the Sri Lanka High Commission after a meeting with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and told us in a voice mixed with anger and disappointment: “I gave him (Rajiv) a full docket of documents to prove the existence of Tiger camps in India and he simply denied there were camps and said with a smile that the Government would certainly look into our complaint. What rubbish,” Athulathmudali said in exasperation.
Ironically, both Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who allowed Indian Army training for LTTE militants became victims of terrorism unleashed by extremists. Indira Gandhi was killed by Sikh extremists on 31 October 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE terrorists on 21 May 1991.
It is ironical that on the day Lt Gen Baljeet Singh’s article appeared in The News Caravan Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit signed the papers to release the convicts serving a life sentence for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and forwarded the documents to New Delhi for obtaining the final decision from the Supreme Court. The seven accused had been convicted in May 1999, with four — Perarivalan, Nalini Sriharan and Sri Lankan nationals Murugan and Santhan — sentenced to death and three to life. Nalini’s death term was commuted to life in 2000, and that of the three others in 2014.
The LTTE training camps in India and the invasion of Sri Lankan airspace by Indian fighter jets took place in an era when Indo-Lanka relations were at the lowest ebb. It was a different era. As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said last year: “We have to put those behind and move forward. And with PM Modi, I think it is possible.” The recent magnanimous act by India to gift 500,000 COVID-19 vaccines is a very clear sign of India’s friendly disposition towards its southern neighbor. The two Governments must work to improve the age-old ties with a genuine desire at heart.