Op Pawan: The intervention in Sri Lanka that India chose to forget

July 29, 2021 2:40 PM

For the Indian soldiers, it was a thankless war surrounded with ambiguities; but even then our soldiers fought, in their finest traditions, gloriously.

Opertation pawanA nation that doesn’t honour its braves can never be a great power.

By Maroof Raza

There are few people in India, who know or talk about the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka, that began on 29th July 1987 thirty four years ago, and lasted for 967 days, having taken the lines of 1155 brave Indian soldiers, and left over 3000 injured – some permanently so, and without a limb or worse – who returned home only to learn that they’d fought a war that India had chosen to forget! In fact even our dead soldiers were mostly cremated in Sri Lanka. Worse still, it took twenty years after Indian soldiers were bloodied in their battles in Sri Lanka, that a memorial to the gallant Indian soldiers was constructed at the outskirts of Colombo, in Sri Jayawardenapura Kote in 2008. And it took another two years before the first official memorial service was held on 15th August 2010 by the Indian high commission. Now they visit the site every Republic and Independence Day of India. There are few if any memorial services in India to those unsung heroes. Compare this to the Kargil conflict- where India lost half the number of soldiers compared to Sri Lanka – which gets mentioned regularly. It is the only conflict that our younger generation knows about, because it was televised and remains the subject of modern military folklore in India. Indeed, victory has many fathers but defeat has none. Like the Americans in Afghanistan recently, the Indian Army wasn’t defeated in the sense that Pakistan was in 1971 or at Kargil in 1999, but its morale was damaged when it pulled out in March 1990, having been unable to achieve enough. The Indian establishment has refused to officially comment on that botched up conflict, throwing the memories of the gallantry of our soldiers into the dustbin of time! So why were Indian troops sent to Sri Lanka?

Even though the Indian armed forces had been alerted to the possibility of an intervention as early as May 1987, there was little clarity about what their mission would be. Moreover India’s geo-political goals and the mission of the military were constantly changed. The orders that were finally disseminated to the ‘Indian Peace Keeping Force’ (IKPF), when it was inducted on 30th July carried little specifics about the role of the armed forces. Initially the IPKF’s operational control from June 1987 onwards, was effectively concentrated in two centres – with Prime Minister Gandhi’s office and the (then) Army Chief Gen. Sundarji’s office – but the refusal of the Indian Navy and Air Force to subordinate their elements to the Indian Army, was only an initial obstacle in the execution of a difficult and highly ambiguous mission. After the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord was signed on 29th July 1987, the events in Sri Lanka carried an ominous message in it. Apart from the resentment to the ‘accord’ among many Sri Lankan politicians, and the boycott by the LTTE of the signing ceremony, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was lucky to escape a major head injury when a Sri Lanka soldier swung his rifle at the Indian prime minister, during a guard of honour following the ‘Accord’ signing ceremonies. It soon became evident that India was to undertake a peace enforcement mission and not a peace- keeping mission – even though India’s military mission was called the Indian peace keeping force – as the other party to the conflict – the LTTE – was not a signatory to the ‘peace accord’.

India’s initial perceptions of its role in Sri Lanka, was reflected in the name of its operation, named Pawan (which in Hindi means the Wind) – an ironic reflection of the Indian optimism to conduct a whirlwind campaign, with limited resources. Military commanders in Delhi, in particular, didn’t quite expect to get bogged down in a bloody war of attrition. But events were to prove otherwise. Apart from the arrogance of India’s army chief, who even publicly declared that India would demolish the LTTE within three days, President Jayewardene’s decision to suddenly revoke his earlier amnesty (that encouraged the LTTE insurgents to surrender) declaring the LTTE illegal led to violent a surge of brutal attacks with no rules in place. Thus, the IPKF soon faced booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IED) around the 1300 square kilometers of the Jaffna peninsula, accommodating 50% of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Suddenly, the failure of India’s initial attempts to subdue the LTTE – the flawed plans of the IPKF, the absence of its numerical superiority and a lack of medical facilities to treat the wounded – became glaringly evident. India was rudely shocked, and it took fresh stock of the situation. It could neither abandon its role in Sri Lanka, nor fight back decisively. It decided to do the latter, and injected fresh leadership and troops into the IPKF.

The India Army’s operations in Sri Lanka were eventually entrusted to the Southern Command (then) under Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, its GOC-in-C, as the Overall Force Commander (OFC). Maj. Gen. A.S. Kalkat (promoted to Lt. Gen. in 1988) was, however, the commander of the IPKF for all practical purposes. The IPKF headquarters were in the southern Indian Town of Madras. And the task of implementing a deceptively simple brief – to disengage the Sri Lankan army from Tamil militants by interposing between the two, and to clear the mines and booby traps (in Jaffna area)- was given to India’s 54 Infantry Division. As an Indian army reserve division with a role and experience in airborne and amphibious warfare, it was considered most suitable, it was moved with about 6,000 men to Sri Lanka. The units inducted were a part of 54 divisions, often only with 70% of their actual strength and with little or no experience in counter-insurgency warfare – a role which the Indian planners had clearly failed to envisage. The simple truth is that the policy makers in New Delhi were visibly complacent about India’s role in Sri Lanka, which was only much later appropriately described by Lt Gen Kalkat as a ‘blind man’s bluff’.

The Indian Army’s overconfidence was based on amazingly flawed intelligence assessments, (despite a warning of almost six months between May to October 1987), prior to ‘launching’ the IPKF into battle. Having trained and equipped the Tamil insurgents, who were known to number 5,000 or more, it was suicidal to send in an initial combat force of only 6,000 men; logically India needed at least ten times more troops. Eventually the Indian force in Sri Lanka rose to over 60,000, but by 1988, the leadership in New Delhi had lost interest in what eventually became “India’s forgotten War”, which botched up military operations until India pulled its troops out from the island in March 1990. By 1989, the rabid anti-Indian politico-military climate in Sri Lanka had stretched the patience of the IPKF, as even the Tamils came to view it as an ‘army of occupation’. Thus, two years from the signing of the tattered Peace Accord, a new Indian Prime Minister, VP Singh, ensured a full pullout of the IPKF by March 1990.

The conflict in Sri Lanka also became known as the ‘Cyanide War’, as Tamil rebels were all given cyanide capsules that they were to swallow if captured alive! For the Indian soldiers, it was a thankless war surrounded with ambiguities; but even then our soldiers fought, in their finest traditions, gloriously. But the most serious politico-military implication of the Sri Lankan (mis)adventure was India’s inability to project its military power overseas, despite the enormous strategic advantages provided by Sri Lanka’s proximity.. The Indian Army returned to mixed reactions at home; customs officials at their disembarkation points thoroughly frisked our gallant me, adding to their humiliation! A nation that doesn’t honour its braves can never be a great power.

(The has authored books on Low-Intensity Conflicts and on Confronting Terrorism. He also publishes ‘SALUTE’: salute.co.in & maroofraza.com. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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