223 Indian soldiers kept captive by a bunch of rag-tag rebels for 75 days: that sounds unimaginable now, but it was just 17 years ago, in 2000, that a company of Gorkha soldiers serving in a UN peacekeeping mission underwent this ignominy, 10,000 kilometres away from India, in Sierra Leone. Fortunately for them, the military commander of that UN mission was an Indian Major General, V.K. Jetley, and there was a substantial Indian military component in the mission.
Even then, the rescue operation was not easy to get underway, let alone execute. UN missions have their own unique — and complicated — dynamics between officials, military commanders, contributing countries and the UN Security Council in New York. On top of these complexities, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was from West Africa, and took a keen — some may call it meddlesome — interest in that mission. The Nigerians resented the Indians as they considered Sierra Leone to be in their sphere of influence, and seemed to derive sadistic pleasure from the Indian discomfort at the hostage crisis. The Americans and the British made all the right noises but were unwilling to support New Delhi’s call for military action to end the ordeal of the captive soldiers.
The situation was further complicated by the legal status of the UN mission, and its limited mandate to actually use force. The UN was keen to somehow negotiate with the rebels through diplomatic channels to secure the release of the Indian soldiers. New Delhi had also initiated negotiations with the rebels through the Liberian president and notorious war lord, Charles Taylor. (Taylor was later convicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Supermodel Naomi Campbell would testify against him and tell the court about his ‘dirty-looking stones’, referring to blood diamonds.)
In exchange for giving Taylor’s two daughters admission in an undergraduate course in a prestigious Delhi college, the release of another 23 Indian soldiers kept hostage by Sierra Leonean rebels, in addition to the 223 mentioned earlier, was organized. But when negotiations through Taylor stalled, there was no choice for Jetley but to launch a military operation to rescue the 223 men. The Indian government agreed, and an all-party meeting, too, gave the go-ahead. Annan’s concurrence was less unambiguous: it is your call, he told Jetley. Subscript: if you succeed, everything will be hunky dory. But if you fail, it will be your head on the chopping block.
Using mainly Indian troops and equipment, including a team of 2 Para Special Forces, Jetley launched the operation, which was nominally under the UN flag. 2 Para had managed to embed an officer amongst the rebels, as a driver-cum-helper to a rebel leader, during the negotiations, which provided invaluable intelligence to Jetley. Operation Khukri is the story of what transpired before and during this mission overseas, and how things eventually turned out.
After the dust of the operation had settled, a question that Dr Manmohan Singh, then the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, had asked at the all-party meeting hung in the air: ‘Why are we there in Sierra Leone in the first place? What strategic interest of ours does it serve?’ This question would trigger a re-think on how India chose UN assignments. But that was in the future.
First, 223 Indian soldiers had to be rescued from the steamy tropical forests of West Africa.