By LT COL MANOJ K CHANNAN,
OP PAWAN was the first operation of independent India in which a peacekeeping force was sent to protect the minority population in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.
The ethnic strife between the citizens was centuries old and was fuelled by the British Rule over that time Ceylon. The educated Tamil was the favourite of the bureaucracy as they bridged the gap in the administration of the country. Post the independence of Ceylon and its subsequent renaming to Sri Lanka and passing of laws that marginalised the Tamils laid the seeds for the communal clashes led by the backward class fishermen villages.
The Tamils of Tamil Nadu have an affinity with their distant country cousins in Sri Lanka. This was supported by the domestic political leadership who now wanted a change in the leadership role by the upper castes.
Early eighties Sri Lanka was a hot cauldron of various foreign governments trying to get a major stake by supporting the Sri Lankan armed forces with military support and training with boots on the ground training instructors to lead the operations against the Tamil Militant Groups.
This activity though approximately 29 nautical miles away from India’s coastline, remained active in domestic politics, however, remained distant from the Military Intelligence and Operations directorates.
The R&AW had penetrated LTTE and offered training of the militants akin to the MuktiBahinibefore the operations in East Pakistan. While East Pakistan was a success, this led to increased ambitions at all levels of the Indian Government. A young Prime Minister was shoehorned into an appointment he never wanted.
The Chief of Army Staff General K Sundarji, was overconfident, having been acknowledged as General fit to command NATO forces or words to that effect by Western Weekly magazines.
The Indian Defence Forces were refurbished with modern tanks and the air force too had the latest aerial platforms.
The Indian Defence Forces were now looking at regional dominance and some of the formations were tasked for out of the area contingencies. A series of Military Exercises were coordinated by the movement of tanks and ICVs in the long haul IL 76 aircraft as well as LSTs of the Indian Navy.
A series of Brass Tacks Military Exercises were conducted and had the Formation Headquarters down to unit level geared up for a “Hot War”.
The Sumdrong Chu incident in Arunachal Pradesh, the occupation of heights to checkmate the PLA had given a “high” all around.
The domestic politics and reasons stated above led to the Government of India engaging with the Sri Lanka government leading to the formulation of the Indo Sri Lanka Peace Accord.
The talks initially encompassed the five main militant groups – the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Army (TEA), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). All these varying groups of militants participated during the earlier stages of the talks but the LTTE alone refused to accept the Accord of 1987.
In hindsight, the Peace Accord was not drafted well and had many lacunae which led to events in which the Peace Keepers were embroiled in a bitter battle with the LTTE, as the violation of the terms and conditions of the Peace Accord allowed the Sri Lanka armed forces to take in their custody militants involved in activities forbidden.
While the Indian Army in a straitjacketed military operation wanted to enforce the surrender of the LTTE, the Military Leadership had not appreciated the situation well and was caught off guard.
Conventional operations were launched in urban fighting in built-up areas; the LTTE was agile and well versed with the fighting techniques as the cadres had been trained by the same army.
The junior leadership geared up and on the job training led to marginalising the LTTE under the maverick leadership of Late Brig Manjit Singh, MVC; clearing the LTTE stronghold in Jaffna.
The Northern and Eastern Provinces – main habitats were cleared off the LTTE and they were pushed into the jungles.
IPKF conducted successful elections and the change of Presidency in Sri Lanka with Premadasa, replacing Jayawardene the architect of the Peace Accord; on being elected, reneged on the Peace Accord and asked for the withdrawal of IPKF while developing a tacit understanding with the LTTE to carry out joint operations against the IPKF.
In the period of its deployment, the IPKF assisted the local administration by carrying out development activities of restoring the railway lines, telecommunications, health care and providing rations to the refugees in the various centres. Winning the Hearts and Minds of the local population was essential to distance them from the militancy of the LTTE.
The de-induction of the IPKF was a quiet affair on the homeland and much to the chagrin of the All Ranks there was hardly a “Shabash” by the Political and Military leadership.
Many writers/ think tanks called it India’s Vietnam moment and a failed operation. On the contrary, the Indian Peace Keeping Force delivered despite the challenges it faced in the initial days.
Over the last 34 years, the Indian Army and the Political Leadership have kept the role of IPKF under wraps, domestic politics surpassed the need to acknowledge the fallen braves.
Concerted efforts by the Veterans of IPKF are on to address some legacy issues which need to be supported by those serving today and give it the rightful honour it deserves.
To commemorate the valour and sacrifice of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, in coordination with CW1, Army HQ, a wreath-laying ceremony was held at the National War Memorial today July 29, 2021 for the first time in 34 years, to honour the Bravehearts.
The ceremony was led by Lt Gen AS Kalkat SYSM,PVSM ,AVSM ,VSM (Overall Force Commander) with the following in attendance Col SP Khanna (Commandant 65 Armoured Regiment); Lt Gen Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & Bar (Company Commander 4 GARHWAL RIFLES), Lt Gen Kanwal Kumar ,AVSM (Adjutant Air OP Flight), Lt Gen Gurmit Singh, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Company Commander 4 ASSAM), Col Ravi Nair (Intelligence Officer Adhoc LU), Col Anil Vaid (first company commander 8 MAHAR, to land at Jaffna), Col RS Sidhu, SM (Company Commander 15 MechInf), Lt Gen Taranjit Singh PVSM, AVSM, VSM & Bar (Adjutant 65 Armoured Regiment), Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Technical Officer, 65 Armoured Regiment), Lt Col AtulKochhar (company officer ,1 JAK LI)and Mrs Gitanjali Kaul daughter of Late Col Anil Kaul, Vr C, who became a Battle Casualty while moving to Jaffna University with CO 10 PARA SF Maj Gen Dalvir Singh AVSM, Vr C, VSM.
Some of the other legacy issues being taken up by the Veteran Group and need the attention of the Indian Armed Forces and the Government of India, Ministry of Defence as under:
•Reinternment of all unmarked and unknown Graves of IPKF in SL back to India. There are quite a few such graves in SL, specifically Jaffna and Kopal.
•Carry out annual Wreath laying by the three service Chiefs at the National War Memorial on a suitable Day such as the day of signing of Indo Sri Lanka Accord i.e. 29 July 87.As of now the Wreath laying by Service Chiefs is restricted to only two battles i.e.the 1971 War and Kargil War of 1999.
•Declare 29 Jul as Indo SL Friendship Day to honour IPKF role in maintaining peace buttressed with appropriate exchanges of cultural, military and commercial initiatives such as through FICCI and other such august bodies.This would cement bonds of friendship also as an adjunct.
•Update the list of casualties of all wars including OP PAWAN in the Official website of the Indian Army and create a repository for easy access by the public. As of now, the NWM repository shows 1171 Killed whereas the figure reflected in various other forums such as the IPKF memorial in Colombo, Sri Lanka is 1200.These errors are glaring.
•Ensure case studies and lessons learnt of IPKF are imbibed and disseminated within the three services. The accounts of battles and achievements should form part of the Military Museums, coffee table books and history.
•Examine the issue of award of battle honours for the Units which suffered a heavy casualty in the initial operations in Oct 1987. It may be noted that Chakra Series gallantry awards were presented to the braves as such recognition of collective achievements would be in order.
The Indian Defence Forces should not differentiate the valour, commitment and sacrifice of its combatants killed, wounded and maimed. Politics and Geo Strategic interests as well as National Interests will change with time.
It is only correct that the valour of the Braveheart’s must be acknowledged by the Political Executive and the Military Hierarchy with the same exuberance as those in 1965, 1971, and 1999 OP VIJAY.
In remembrance and in honour of those who did not come back let us all pray and bow our heads to their supreme sacrifice each year with the finesse of Military Decorum and National Honour.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. He served in OP PAWAN from Oct 1987 at Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa till Sep 1989. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)