Around 2 pm on October 13, 1987, exactly 30 years from today, 97 para commandos of the Indian Army returned to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) base in Palali in northern Sri Lanka. There were 103 of them when they had left 37 hours earlier, and with them were 30 Sikh Light Infantry soldiers. Their daring heliborne mission was to land in Jaffna University, the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), eliminate the top leadership of the Tigers, and capture Jaffna.
Six para commandos did not return; none of the infantry men did. The Tigers took one infantryman PoW, the bodies of the 29 others were never found. Another 35 men, including a Gorkha battalion CO and his officers, were killed even as the IPKF mobilised brigades, tanks and helicopters to rescue the para commandos whom the LTTE had trapped in a residential locality. The IPKF’s first major offensive against the LTTE ended in a huge setback.
In brutal and ugly battles that followed, neither the LTTE nor the IPKF emerged winner, but India lost heavily. The dent to its military reputation led to the Sri Lanka mission being described, with valid reason, as India’s Vietnam. This was to become one of the major arguments against sending troops to Iraq in 2003, and often used to support the policy of staying away from direct military involvement in Afghanistan.
The origins of the Sri Lankan problem lay in the persecution, over years, of the minority Tamils by the state machinery dominated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. By the late 1970s, dozens of militant groups had emerged, demanding autonomy or independence for the country’s Tamil regions.
After M G Ramachandran came to power in June 1977, the Tamil Nadu police started to provide limited support to some Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups. With Indira Gandhi’s return as Prime Minister in 1980 — MGR was her ally — New Delhi started training, equipping and financing the Tamil separatists. India’s initial support was for 38 such groups, but the LTTE soon emerged as its favourite — and the most powerful of the Tamil militants. Following the wholesale massacre of Tamils during the “Black July” riots, Sri Lanka descended into civil war. Indira’s efforts at pressuring Colombo to restore peace made little progress.
Rajiv Gandhi sought to project India as the impartial mediator. India was keen on autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils, but was wary of the possibility of independence leading to demands for a greater Tamil land that included Tamil Nadu. Neither Colombo nor the LTTE, which had become even stronger by now, was interested in New Delhi’s mediation, as both believed they could win militarily.
The Sri Lankans had access to classified information on Indian activities in Sri Lanka. The R&AW station chief in Madras, KV Unnikrishnan, had been compromised by a PanAm airhostess, and the information he shared with her reached Colombo through an unknown intelligence agency, most likely the CIA. Sri Lanka remained unamenable to compromise until Unnikrishnan’s arrest in mid-1986.
In January 1987, Jaffna was put under martial law, and food and medicines were cut off to the entire Tamil North. As the conflict escalated, in May, India asked Sri Lanka to lift the embargo on humanitarian grounds. President J R Jayewardene refused, and on June 2, Sri Lanka’s Navy forced back Indian relief ships headed to Jaffna, triggering triumphant celebrations in Colombo. Rajiv Gandhi responded by sending relief by transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force, accompanied by Mirage-2000 fighters.
The demonstration of military power and political will brought Jayewardene to the negotiating table, resulting in the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987. India had kept Sri Lanka united and prevented any foreign intervention in the region. But it had not worked out the games of the Tigers who, despite having been forced to agree to the accord, had never fully come on board. As Sri Lankan forces moved out of Tamil-majority Northern Sri Lanka as part of the accord, the IPKF headquartered itself at Palali near Jaffna to maintain law and order.
Initially, things were fine — LTTE leaders visited IPKF camps and vice versa, including visits to the Tigers’ base on the Jaffna University campus. The 54 Infantry Division from Hyderabad, commanded by Major General Harkirat Singh, had no plans for major combat operations. They didn’t carry much ammunition or heavy weaponry, and spent time in beautifying their camps.
Things changed sharply after the Sri Lankan military detained the LTTE’s Batticaloa commander Pulendran and its Trincomalee commander Kumarappa at Point Pedro in Jaffna in October. They were kept in joint custody of the IPKF and the Sri Lankan Army at Palali. The Sri Lankan government asked them to be moved to Colombo, the LTTE warned against it and India backed the Tigers, but the unavailability of High Commissioner J N Dixit led to a situation where the IPKF agreed to hand them over to the Sri Lankans. Pulendran and Kumarappa swallowed cyanide and suddenly, the protectors, IPKF, and the protected, LTTE, were at war.
Army Chief General K Sundarji asked the IPKF to smash the LTTE and capture Jaffna; in Colombo, he declared that the LTTE would be crushed in a week. He had earlier assured Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that it would take “72 hours to 7 days” to finish the Tigers.
Maj Gen Harkirat Singh’s decision to launch Operation Pawan, helidropping the para commandos and Sikh Light Infantry soldiers — who had arrived in Sri Lanka only hours earlier — on the grounds of Jaffna University, was taken without maps or Intelligence. The consequences were tragic: the LTTE shot the helicopters, many of the men couldn’t reach the landing site, bad orders were passed, and all 30 infantry men bar one were killed. The para commandos were surrounded by the LTTE in a built-up area, and had to fight their way back. The brigade-level forces and tanks tasked to rescue the commandos also suffered heavy losses.
Between 1 am on October 12 and 2 pm on October 13, the IPKF lost 70 men, the bodies of some of whom were never found. It was one of the biggest losses suffered by the Indian Army in a single operation. The IPKF soon returned to Jaffna and, after 20 days of fierce fighting, captured the town. But the main force of the LTTE, along with its leadership, escaped to the jungles of Vanni in the north. By the end of October, 1,100 rebels were killed, but the IPKF also lost 319 soldiers, and 1,039 were wounded. It was a hollow, bitter victory.
India was now in Sri Lanka for the long haul. Dixit built diplomatic pressure on Jayewardene, R&AW tried to coerce the LTTE to come to the negotiating table, and the IPKF fought a difficult campaign against an innovative and proficient enemy. Jayewardene lost the elections in 1988; Rajiv in 1989. Prime Minister V P Singh called the IPKF back, and the last of the Indian soldiers returned in March 1990, ending a three-year campaign that had cost the Indian Army nearly 1,200 men.