‘India’s Vietnam’: that is how Indian military involvement in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s has been described, and rightly so. The origins of the problem in Sri Lanka can be traced back many decades, when the Tamil ethnic minority was actively discriminated against by the Sri Lankan state at the behest of its Sinhala Buddhist majority. As a result, dozens of militant Tamil separatist groups had emerged by the late 1970s, which started demanding autonomy or independence for the Tamil regions of the country.
When M.G. Ramachandran came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1977, he started supporting these groups — the state’s police provided help to certain militant groups. When Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister in 1980 — MGR was her political ally –- New Delhi started training, equipping and financing the Tamil separatists. India was providing support to no less than 38 such groups, but the LTTE — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — soon emerged as its favourite and the most powerful Tamil militant group. After the 1983 ‘Black July’ riots in which Sri Lankan Tamils were massacred across the country, Sri Lanka descended into civil war. While Mrs Gandhi put diplomatic pressure on Colombo to make peace with the Tamils, little headway was made.
Rajiv Gandhi’s stint as prime minister saw renewed efforts for peace in the strife-torn island. Unlike his mother, he did not take sides but projected India as an impartial mediator between the warring parties. India was keen on securing autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils but not independence, as it could lead to demands for a greater Tamil homeland that included Tamil Nadu. Colombo and the LTTE, which had become even stronger by then, did not respond to New Delhi’s overtures as both sides believed that they would win militarily.
Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardane signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987.
In January 1987, the Sri Lankan military started a new offensive. Jaffna was placed under martial law and the entire Tamil north was put under embargo — even food and medicine supplies were stopped. The LTTE responded by escalating, and Colombo’s counter-escalation was equally brutal. In May, India asked the Sri Lankan government to lift the embargo on humanitarian grounds but President Jayewardene refused. On 2 June, unarmed Indian ships carrying relief supplies for Jaffna were stopped by the Sri Lankan navy and returned to India, leading to jubilant celebrations by Sinhalese in Colombo. Rajiv Gandhi responded by sending relief supplies by air. This time, the Indian Air Force’s transport aircraft were accompanied by Mirage-2000 fighters.
LTTE leaders including Prabhakaran (third from left) at Sirumalai camp, Tamil Nadu, India in 1984
This demonstration of military power and political will brought Jayewardene to the negotiating table, resulting in the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987. Rajiv Gandhi had achieved two things: one, Sri Lanka remained united, and, two, intervention by other foreign powers, a potential strategic threat for India, was repelled. But he had not counted on the games that would be played by the LTTE, which had been arm-twisted into agreeing to the accord, though it wasn’t fully on board. As part of the agreement, Sri Lankan forces moved out of the country’s north, and India sent troops to maintain law and order in the Tamil-majority region. This was the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was headquartered at the British-era airbase of Palali near Jaffna.
The 54 Infantry Division from Hyderabad, commanded by Major General Harkirat Singh, was moved for the mission but with no plans to undertake any combat operations. They didn’t carry much ammunition or heavy weaponry, and spent much time beautifying their military camps in the initial weeks. But soon the IPKF found itself in bitter confrontation with the LTTE. ‘Our boys’ had become ‘our enemies’. But what happened?
The event that catalyzed the hostilities was the arrest by the Sri Lankan military at Point Pedro in October of two of the LTTE’s top leaders: its Batticaloa commander, Pulendran, and its Trincomalee commander, Kumarappa, along with other LTTE men. They were kept in joint custody of the IPKF and Sri Lankan Army at Palali. But the Sri Lankan government wanted them to be moved to Colombo for trial, a move the LTTE was dead against. When the IPKF handed over the prisoners to the Sri Lankans, the arrested LTTE men swallowed cyanide capsules and committed suicide en masse. The IPKF and LTTE were now on the warpath.
Rajiv Gandhi was assured by the army chief, K. Sundarji, that it would take his men only ‘72 hours to 7 days’ to finish off the LTTE. But the IPKF had no proper maps or intelligence, and troops that had landed in Sri Lanka just hours before were launched into Operation Pawan against the LTTE. In Operation Pawan: Massacre at Jaffna, I lay bare what exactly happened in the dreadful first 37 hours of the operation – a heli-drop into hell — a story never told before, when the IPKF lost 70 men, the bodies of some of whom have never been found. Operation Pawan, in fact, lasted for 30 months and 1,200 Indian soldiers lost their lives in it – not to forget Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated as retribution for India’s misadventure in Sri Lanka.