India’s ‘IPKF’ Intervention in Sri Lanka: A Study in Retrospect
The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord (ISLA) was signed between Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi and President JR Jayewardene on 29 July 1987. The fundamental purpose of this pro-active action by the Indian Government (Govt) was to bring about an end to the murderous Civil War going on between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the Tamil Rebel Organisations fighting for independence in their traditional and majority-inhabited areas of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. The atrocities against Tamils in Sri Lanka was having a dangerous echo in India’s large and prosperous ‘Tamil Nadu’ State, and causing a large number of Tamil refugees to move to India to escape the ravages of the Civil War. The main articles of this Agreement were:
- Devolution of Power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka and their subsequent merger after the outcome of a Referendum.
- Granting of official status to Tamil language on par with Sinhala language.
- Ending of “Operation Liberation” launched by the SLAF to recapture the Jaffna Region.
- Sri Lankan troops in Tamil regions were to be confined to their old barracks, and cease military operations against Tamil Secessionist Military Groupings.
- Tamil Secessionist Military Groupings were to disarm and surrender their weapons to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)- which would be soon sent to Sri Lanka.
- India recognised the “Unity” of Sri Lanka and stated that its actions would be that of an honest broker, supporting both the authority of the Sri Lankan Govt as well as guaranteeing the Right to Live in Peace and Security for the Sri Lankan Tamil population, without being subjected to any sort of discrimination.
- Immediate ‘exit’ from Sri Lanka, of military and allied personnel of Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Singapore etc, who were assisting the SLAF in their fight against the Tamil Separatists.
The above historic Accord was well-meaning and gave all affected Parties the best ‘Deal’ possible under the circumstances. However its success and implementation depended very much on the “sincerity” to abide by it, by the Warring Factions in Sri Lanka. Also in keeping with the sensitivities about respecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, there was no overriding ‘clause’ giving the Indian Govt the Right to implement the Accord the way it deemed fit, if there were disagreements on the methodologies, or lack of cooperation by the Warring Parties. The lack of a proper prior “written” Agreement by the Tamil Rebel Organisations with India, to abide by the provisions of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord also came in the way, as subsequent events proved. Every contentious issue or dispute led to prolonged nerve-wracking negotiations and outright “cheating” by the warring Parties, especially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Organisation, led by the charismatic Velupillai Prabhakaran who would settle for nothing less than an independent “Tamil Homeland”, and thought that he could leverage Public opinion in Tamil Nadu to achieve this.
India – LTTE Agreements
According to a US Embassy in New Delhi a cable sent to the US State Dept on April 5, 1988 later made public through ‘Wikileaks’, the Sweeteners offered by the Indian Govt to the LTTE, to abide by the India-Sri Lanka Agreement were:
- Payment of Rs 50 Lakhs per month to compensate for its loss of ‘extortion tax’ income.
- Guaranteed nomination of 7 out of 12 Members of the Northern and Eastern Province Provisional Ruling Council, so that the LTTE has the decisive say in running of the Local Govt.
- Financial Grant (Budgetary Support) of Rs 100 crores per year, routed through the Sri Lankan and Provincial Govt.
- $ 40 million Grant as part of an International Aid Consortium, to rebuild Jaffna.
- Re-training of LTTE Cadres for being incorporated into the Provincial Police Force/ a new ‘Tamil Regiment’ of the Sri Lankan Army, as part of “Rehabilitation” measures.
For obscure reasons and lack of trust between the LTTE Supremo and the Indian Govt interlocutors, this eminently reasonable “Deal” fell through. The LTTE then decided to do “Direct Action” from 6th Oct 1987 to get the IPKF off the Island, through waging of a bloody guerrilla warfare campaign.
Ethnic ties bound Southern India and Sri Lanka. India is home to 60 million of the 77 million Tamils worldwide, whereas only 4 million Tamils stay in Sri Lanka. The Tamil speaking areas of India and Sri Lanka are separated by the 40 kms wide Palk Straits. For obvious reasons, India does not want Sri Lanka to host any of the Great Powers like the USA or China by leasing out its excellent harbours like Trincomallee, which lie in the Tamil part of the country. Any influence of the LTTE in Tamil Nadu’s internal politics, or gun-running, smuggling of fuel, running of workshops in Tamil Nadu to aid the anti SLAF war-effort etcwas considered as a grave security threat by the Indian Govt. The impracticable nature of the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was obvious from the demographic implications which forced the Sri Lankan Govt to give its hated one-fifth population of the minority Tamils control over one-third of the total land area of Sri Lanka, and that too its most fertile, less populated and rain-fed parts, and also having coasts with rich fishing-ground seas. Secondly the LTTE did not trust either the Sinhalese, or the Indians who demanded that it “disarm” and thereby become part of a democratic process! Nevertheless the IPKF carried out its charter by conducting Provincial Elections successfully in Dec 1988 and an elected Provincial CM got sworn in to preside over the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces. The LTTE allied itself with the Premadasa ruled Sinhala Govt from March 1988 onwards, to get the IPKF off the Island.
How the abrupt deterioration of relations between the LTTE and the Indian Govt started was due to the capture of 17 LTTE Cadres who were on their way to Trincomallee being ferried by the Sri Lankan Navy, who were carrying war materials by boat. 12 of them including two key leaders ‘Kumarappa’ and ‘Pulenthiran’ who were the LTTE Regional Commanders of ‘Trincomalee’ and ‘Batticaloa’ had to commit suicide by taking cyanide capsules on October 6th, 1987,when the Sri Lankan Army tried to overpower them at Palaly Airfield in Jaffna and transfer them to Colombo. The LTTE swore revenge on the IPKF for not protecting them.
Prior to this, ‘Thileepan’ (real name ‘Rasaiah Parthipan’) who was the Political Advisor of Prabhakaran, had undertaken a fast unto death on 15 Sep 1987 at the Nallur Kandaswamy (Murugan) Temple of Jaffna. The demands that the LTTE,then made to the Indian Govt were:-
- Ensure the quick release of all Tamil Political Prisoners held under the Sri Lankan Govt’s “Prevention of Terrorism Act” and Other Emergency Regulations.
- Cessation of Sinhala Colonisation of traditional Tamil inhabited Areas under the guise of “Rehabilitation”, until the establishment of Interim Administrative Council for the North & East Tamil Provinces.
- Cessation of the construction of New Police Stations in the Northern & Eastern Provinces.
- Disbandment of the Home Guards (HG) Units and local Special Task Forces (STF) raised by the Sri Lankan Govt, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces comprising of local Sinhalas.
- Withdrawal of Sri Lankan Army/ Police from Schools and Colleges where they had been billeted, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
‘Thileepan’ died on 26 Sep 1987 after 12 days of ‘fasting’, cheered daily by huge throngs of people. Thileepan’s death created a torrent of anti-India feelings amongst the Tamil population, as the LTTE was able to sell the impression that the Indian Govt was siding with the Sri Lankan Govt, and India was not bothered about ensuring the genuine demands of the Tamils should be urgently met, even if they resorted to “non-violent” Gandhian methods.
Oh, How We Fought!
Initially “54 Infantry Division” constituted the IPKF. By mid August 1987, its “91 Infantry Brigade” had been inducted into Jaffna Peninsula, its “76 Infantry Brigade” into Trincomalee Sector and “47 Infantry Brigade” into Vavuniya Sector. Lt Gen Depinder Singh, the GOC-in-C (General Officer Commanding-in-Chief) of Indian Army’s Southern Command was the designated “Overall Forces Commander” (OFC), till Feb 1988. Lt Gen A S Kalkatwas posted as the GOC IPKF in mid October 1987 after the Jaffna University Heliborne Ops debacle, as more Indian Army Formations started getting inducted into Sri Lanka. The IPKF was operationally under Army HQs’ MO Directorate, and logistically under HQ Southern Army Command.
The LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s reluctant acquiescence to the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord had changed by early September 1987. He rejected the idea of surrender of his Organisation’s Arms and War materiel to the IPKF as he thought that that it would make the Tamils vulnerable to SLAF at a later date, when he surely expected armed confrontation to resume. He also comprehensively rejected the idea of the LTTE sharing power with the other inferior Tamil Militant Groups, in the Interim North and East Provincial Govts et-up. At a speech given on 4th August 1987 before nearly 100,000 people at Suthumalai Puvaneshwari Amman Temple, which is at the Northern-most tip of Jaffna peninsula about 1.5kms from Jaffna Fort, and on the Jaffna – Thevady Road; Velupillai Prabhakaran had denounced the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 29 July 1987, and clearly stated that he was not a party to it. All top Members of the LTTE Leadership were present on the dais.He falsely stated that he was asked to go to New Delhi on 24 July 1987 without being clearly told about the details of this Agreement, and when it was shown to him there, he had NOT agreed to it after consulting his Advisers and accompanying LTTE Leaders, as it did not guarantee the establishment of a true “Tamil Eelam” under the LTTE’s exclusive rule, and because all discretionary powers were vested with the Sri Lankan President, including when to hold the Referendum for the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces to provide a distinct “Tamil Homeland”.Yet he also publicly pledged there, that he considered India to be the saviour of the Sri Lankan Tamils and that his Organisation would lay down its Arms to the IPKF believing the assurance given by Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi that India guarantees the protection of the Tamil population from any possible future atrocities by the SLAF.
On 6th October 1987, as a retaliation for the death of 12 captured LTTE Personnel including the ‘Batticaloa’ and ‘ Trincomalee’ Zonal Commanders “Pulintharan” and “Kumarappa” by suicide on 5th October 1987, Prabhakaran ordered that the Indian Army Unit which was guarding the captives at Palaly Airfield viz “10 Para Commandos” to be targeted and taught a lesson. Under the tense circumstances, due to the laxity of the Unit’s Adjutant, a light truck carrying five soldiers of 10 Para Commando Unit had gone out of the Palaly airfield on some sundry errand. A waiting LTTE Ambush Team quickly overpowered the five lax soldiers, then quickly had them tied up and burnt alive, using strips of old discarded tyres!Nothing could stop the ‘tragedy’ and grave consequences waiting to happen, thereafter! The Indian Peace Keeping Force’s only ‘Threat Scenario’ previously envisaged was – having to “Battle the SLAF” due to some misunderstanding(s) which could emerge during the Ground Implementation Stage of the ISLA. Instead, the “Protectors” of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the “Defenders” of Tamil Eelam fought bitterly for the next 27 odd months and became implacable Enemies.
Of Prejudice and Pride!
Could this Adverse Outcome have been avoided? When “Thileepan” the Head of the Political Wing of the LTTE was on ‘Fast’ in September 1987 at Nallur Kandaswamy Temple at Jaffna on the instructions of Velupillai Prabhakaran to pressurise the Indian Govt to take a more ‘Pro Eelam’ stand, the Indian High Commissioner was requested by Prabhakaran to go and meet him. J N Dixit asked Prabhakaran whether “Thileepan” would be instructed to give up his ‘Fast’, if he did so? Prabhakaran replied that such a prior “commitment” could not be given. The Indian High Commissioner then did not comply to Prabhakaran’s ‘wish’. “Thileepan” continued fasting and died. J N Dixit felt very insulted, as this created a mass anti-India wave amongst the Eelam Tamils.
The SLAF through their Signal Intercepts and clandestine Agents got wind that the LTTE was transferring by ship urgently needed arms, ammunition and key Battle Commanders to the Trincomalee Zone, where serious firefights had broken out between the LTTE and SLAF. A trap was quickly laid. 12 handpicked LTTE Cadres alongwith five Boat crew of the LTTE Motor Launch “Seagull” were captured by the Sri Lankan Navy off Point Pedro on 2nd Oct 1987 and they were brought to Palaly airfield by the SLAF for further shifting them to Colombo by plane, and carrying out interrogation. The IPKF quickly blocked such a potentially disastrous move by blocking the Runway with two BMPs and establishing a protective cordon around the prisoners and their Sri Lankan Army guards, using our 10 Para Commandos. Then the ‘parleys’ started. Prabhakaran begged Gen Harkirat, the GOC 54 Division with whom he was on good terms to prevent the transfer of these important Prisoners at all costs to Sri Lankan hands. Gen Harkirat did his best, but he was stonewalled by the High Commissioner J N Dixit who wanted to teach Prabhakaran a lesson for his past non-cooperation in implementing the ISLA. Sure enough, the orders came from New Delhi to hand over these prisoners to the SLAF at 5 PM on 5th Oct 1987. Prabhakaran’s “pride” got badly hurt as all 12 LTTE men including two of his top leaders committed suicide by taking cyanide pills on his instruction, rather than surrender and get subjected to humiliating torture. Prabhakaran who was in rage,ordered that the Indian Unit which had allowed the Prisoners to be taken away by SLAF be taught a hard “lesson”. As mentioned above, the ambush laid by LTTE captured five commandos of 10 Para who were burnt alive. The die was cast for the protracted 27 months War between IPKF and LTTE, which thereafter followed. J N Dixit was considered as the unofficial Indian “Viceroy” in Sri Lanka. His words carried weight and wisdom and was usually always accepted as such, by both Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene and Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi, as the ‘Best Option’. Prabhakaran however was an adamant advocate of Tamil Eelam, who grudgingly listened to the Indian High Commissioner. Mr J N Dixit had by then got exasperated with him, and therefore did not go out of the way to use his influence with Mr Jayawardene and Shri Rajiv Gandhi to find a ‘way’ to save these very important prisoners. His ‘prejudices’ against the ‘self-made’, megalomaniac and successful guerrilla leader Prabhakaran, got the better of his judgement and sincere concern for the pressing National Interests!
How We Botched the Attempt to Neutralise Prabhakaran and the LTTE Leadership
The situation in Sri Lanka had suddenly taken a dramatic turn, and it was impossible thereafter to reverse it. India had intervened in Sri Lanka to protect the indigenous Tamils and prevent the launch of “Op Liberation” by the SLAF in the Jaffna Peninsula, which would have surely seen indiscriminate destruction and slaughter of civilians by the vengeful Sri Lankan Army while they fought the LTTE to the ground. The main operational worry of the IPKF when it went in was, “What if we get entangled to battle the SLAF, if misunderstandings arise during the implementation phase of the ISLA?” And now out of nowhere, the spectre had arisen that we had to battle the very Sri Lankan ‘armed Tamils’- of all people, for whose protection the IPKF had been sent as the primary reason! Yes, and there was no escape from the clauses of the ISLA! Moreover, the prestige of the Indian Army was involved. And Gen Harkirat of the GUARDS Regiment, was a high-flying General of his Batch! Gen Sundarji, the Chief of Army Staff, ordered him to mount an offensive and eliminate the LTTE Leadership forthwith. It was Gen Sundarji who suggested to him to go for a “surprise” preliminary heliborne operational “strike”, as the ground-level advance by the “18 Infantry Brigade”and“72 Infantry Brigade” (originally part of 36 Infantry Division, but hastily rushed to Jaffna) commenced. Gen Harkirat had just two Air Force Mi-8 helicopters at Jaffna airfield to undertake this task! Therefore the heliborne forces could not be dropped in a ‘Single Wave’ to attain shock and surprise.
Under tutelage from the MO Directorate in Army HQs, Gen Harkirat finalised his operational plan by the 10th of October 1987, and orders were issued to the Commanding Officers of the main combat units, at the 54 Infantry Divisional HQ. Its main ingredients were:
- One Team of 10 Para Commandos under Major Rajiv Nair, was to land on a large ground in Jaffna University adjacent to the Medical College building at 2200 hours on 10 October 1987 to secure a Landing Zone (LZ) for subsequent wave of build up forces. In two sorties of two Mi-8 helicopters each, the Para Commando Team secured the LZ and built up their presence at Jaffna University premises by 2300 hours. Their task was to search the buildings for having the LTTE Leadership and decimate them, after being relieved by the 13 SIKH LI Company under Major Virender Singh, which was in the follow-on heliborne Serial. The LTTE intelligence had got wind of the IPKF Plan, through Tamil civilians working in and around the Jaffna airfield, and they started monitoring all Indian Army open communications on Radio Sets. Reaction at Jaffna University was immediate, and LTTE fighters and reinforcements quickly moved into the buildings around the LZ, and started engaging the Indian Commandos.
- The third helicopter sortie came at about 2315 hours and dropped Major Virender Singh and 29 troops of 13 SIKH LI. By then the LTTE fire on to the LZ had become intense. One of the twin-engined Mi-8 helicopter’s engine was hit and became non-functional. Fortunately, as the troops deplaned and loads taken off, it could get airborne and fly back! Additional helicopter sorties were thereafter cancelled, as the LZ had become ‘hot’ and was dominated by the LTTE’s fire.
- The 10 Para Commando Team soon set out for its task of finding out where the buildings hosting the LTTE HQ in Jaffna University premises was. Since no more helicopter sorties were expected to come, Major Rajiv Nair asked Major Virinder Singh to tag along with his Platoon strength of SIKH LI troops that had been landed. After checking up with his Commanding Officer Col Sethi, he declined to tag on with the Para Commandos. The Para Commandos met with resistance and murderous fire from every building that they went near. They suffered six dead and many others injured, but they took them all along. They soon occupied two prominent buildings and fortified themselves by daylight. Strict fire discipline was exercised and they avoided any movement during daylight. They were in communication with their Battalion HQ. Their CO Col Dalvir Singh alongwith another Para Commando Team, a Rifle Company from 13 SIKH LI and a troop of tanks of 65 Armoured Regiment (ex 31 Armoured Division!) led by Major Anil Kaul kept moving onto Jaffna University Campus to rescue the stranded heli-lifted troops. Progress of this column was slow, due to determined LTTE opposition enroute. On night 11/12 October, both sides moved towards Kokuvil village which was nearby to Jaffna University. The tanks avoided the roads as they were mined by the LTTE, and took a route over the rail-line leading to Kokuvil. In the rainy conditions of 12/13 October night, link up was finally achieved before first light
- The SIKH LI Platoon which had been heli-dropped had been assured by their CO that their relief would take place by the next day ie. 11 October! So they remained in the open LZ and did not even move and occupy any of the adjacent buildings, which would have given them good protection and ability to hold on. By daylight, even though a few slit trenches had been dug up for personal protection, they were prime targets for a ‘Turkey Shoot’ in the open and were mercilessly decimated.The SIKH LI soldiers came under constant machine gun fire and sniping in the open.They were forced to respond and so could not adopt strict ‘fire-discipline’, in order not to run out of ammunition. Either their radio operator or their radio set got shot up quite early, as they soon remained out of radio communication. By 11.30 AM, except for one young soldier named “Gora Singh”, who lived to tell the tale as he was finally taken prisoner and thereafter brought back in a Prisoners Swap with the LTTE.
- “72 Infantry Brigade” (ex 36 Infantry Division, which had been rushed to Jaffna) was also tasked to do the link up with the stranded heli-lifted force at Jaffna University, but it too could make little progress due to very heavy and determined opposition enroute.
Ultimately Gen Harkirat had to take the blame for this “hare-brained” and failed advance heli-lift operation and simultaneous planned link-up, which did not achieve its goal of smashing the LTTE’s Command set-up and became an embarrassment to the Indian Govt. Maj Gen A S Kalkat (a seasoned officer from the 8 Gorkhas) who was on a sabbatical at the International School of Strategic Studies, London was called back by Gen Sunderji, and asked to take over as GOC IPKF, on promotion. The Sri Lankan Operations of the Indian Army was formally declared as “OPERATION PAWAN” by Govt Notification, and the area of operations of the IPKF was declared a “War Zone” for all purposes.
The First IPKF Offensive
To regain its honour the IPKF decided to clear the Jaffna Peninsula of all LTTE Elements.
The IPKF which had milked Brigades from the 54 and 36 Infantry Divisions fought a 16 days intense combat from 15 October 1987 to uproot the 2500 odd LTTE fighters from its strongholds in the Jaffna Peninsula. The IPKF admitted to 319 dead/missing soldiers including 15 officers, to achieve this result. Also 1039 other soldiers suffered serious injuries in this intense initial Battle.
‘War’ is no run of the mill job! The side which is armed to the teeth and well prepared to fight, comes out with minimum casualties and is usually successful. The total of 1200 soldiers killed/missing in action and almost 6000 soldiers seriously injured in OPERATION PAWAN. (1971:2307 killed, 6163 wounded, 2163 missing. 1962: 1383 killed, 1047 wounded, 1700 missing, 3968 PsW) Indian Army HQs and 54 Infantry Division should have followed this maxim to the hilt from the onset. For example, the 10 Para Commandos Team had cut down its rations and carried additional Rocket Launcher rounds, when it was heli-landed into the Jaffna University. The 13 SIKH LI Platoon was not even organised as a “composite load”, and did not carry a spare Radio Set or additional Batteries to stay in radio contact with its Battalion HQ and higher Formation HQs. They were not flexible, as dictated by the operational situation. Reputations suffered as a result and the LTTE gained an aura of invincibility. This should never have been allowed to happen during a “First Strike”. The IPKF Operation in Sri Lanka prevented the rise of any separatist tendencies in our Tamil Nadu, which would have been a grave threat to National Unity. The sterling sacrifices made by our Troops doing national duty overseas as ordered, deserves to be recognised and officially commemorated at the National level every July 29th!
Times of India News report dated April 11, 2013,“For IPKF Operations to succeed, India was ready to Pay off LTTE” authored by B Sivakumar.
Hindustan Times News report dated 11 Nov 2011, “India wanted LTTE put in its place: Norway Report” authored by IANS.
The Sunday Guardian, article “Reminiscences of IPKF Operations” by Lt Gen A S Kalkat (Retd) dated 26 June 2021
Jain Commission Interim Report: Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement: Evolution and its Aftermath, accessed from https://tamilnation.org/intframe/india/jaincommission/indo_sri_lanka_agreement/ch2sec8.html
US Command & General Staff Monograph:“The Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90” by Major James R Scudieri accessed – https://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4013coll3/id/1210/
IPKF – 3: The Curate’s Egg – Turn of the Tide (Jaffna Medical University Helidrop) by ShefaliKochhar accessed vide https://goachronicle.com/ipkf-3-the-curates-egg-turn-of-the-tide-jaffna-medical-university-helidrop/
Indian Express article“On Indian Military Decisions of Today, Shadow of a Pyrhic Victory Yesterday” dated 13 Oct 2017 by Mr Sushant Singh, accessed on its website.