On 5 October the prisoners asked for some stationery, which was duly supplied by the soldiers of the 54 Artillery Brigade. Around noon came tiffin carriers with lunch for the prisoners. The Indian soldiers allowed in the food after cursory checks, as they had been doing the past three days. But that day they missed a crucial element in the lunch boxes. Buried in the food was something more potent than a Tamil curry: cyanide capsules.
At ten that morning, Major Sheonan Singh, leader of the para commandos team, had received orders from 54 Division to hand over the prisoners to the Sri Lankan army at 4 p.m. Sheonan’s men had laid the MMGs and the grenades as a protective measure, to allow the Indian soldiers to safely leave the building after the handover.
The handing over of the LTTE prisoners to the Sri Lankans had been a contentious issue. The anti-India faction of the Sri Lankan government had demanded that the LTTE men be brought to Colombo for trial. The LTTE said that their men had been granted amnesty and would be tortured if taken to Colombo. The LTTE was hoping that the IPKF would not bow down to Sri Lankan pressure. After all, the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka – for which the LTTE had taken up arms – had been supported by India.
Sheonan understood the political consequences of the orders he had received. He pleaded with the military operations directorate at Delhi not to hand over the LTTE prisoners to the Sri Lankan army – it would lead to a dangerous rupture between the LTTE and the IPKF, and alienate Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and in India – but to no avail. Kumarappa, who overheard his conversation, asked Sheonan, ‘Why are you doing this? Our leaders have told us that if we are handed over to the Sri Lankan army we will have our last meal and write our last letter.’
At the time, Sheonan didn’t grasp the import of what Kumarappa had said; his words would come back to haunt him later.
He looked at his watch. It was 4 p.m. He walked up to the Sri Lankan colonel and, as he handed over charge of the LTTE prisoners to him, said, ‘All yours and I wish you the best.’ Sheonan then informed the Colonel GS – the principal staff officer to General Harkirat – over the wireless radio that the LTTE prisoners were now in the custody of the Sri Lankan army.
Sheonan and his men drove back to their base 500 metres away. Within a few minutes, a staff officer from Division HQ, which was within walking distance, came running. He told Sheonan to return to the building and take back custody of the prisoners from the Sri Lankans. An angry Sheonan retorted that he needed specific orders to do so. Minutes later the Colonel GS, who had taught Sheonan at Staff College in Wellington a couple of years earlier, came personally to ask him to take the prisoners back from the Sri Lankans.
Sheonan’s response was: ‘Am I to open fire if Sri Lankans don’t hand the prisoners back? What am I to do if Sri Lankans open fire on the LTTE prisoners? What if both sides fire on each other?’ He wanted explicit orders to cover all these contingencies. The Colonel GS tried to get through to the military operations directorate at Delhi for answers, but it was already too late. While he was on the phone, Sheonan got a wireless message from the Sri Lankans: Pulendran, Kumarappa and the other prisoners had swallowed cyanide pills. And thirteen of them were dead.
The suicide of the prisoners turned the LTTE bitterly and violently against India and the IPKF. The vacillation by New Delhi on 5 October 1987 was to cast a long, dark and bloody shadow, leading to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in May 1991. But the immediate consequence was a military debacle.
Excerpted with permission from Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military by Sushant Singh, exclusively available on www.juggernaut.in