There were many reasons, including strategic and humanitarian, for an armed intervention in Sri Lanka in the form of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The ill-informed criticism that the force received about its operations needs to be corrected
Lt Gen Depinder Singh (Retd)
Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Bikram Singh pays homage to the fallen soldiers at the IPKF memorial in Sri Lanka during a recent visit. — PIB
On July 29, 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in Colombo. The euphoria this evoked was marred by a sailor from the Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) attempting to hit our then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, while he was inspecting a guard of honour. The agreement had three components — modalities of settling the ethnic conflict, guarantees by India in regard to implementing the Accord and an undertaking by the Sri Lanka Government in regard to India's security concerns. In consonance with Clause 2 of the accord, an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) announced its landing in Sri Lanka on July 30, 1987.
It is not my intention to repeat how the ethnic conflict developed as that aspect is well documented. My aim is to describe why the IPKF went to Sri Lanka and what it did there. It is my hope, further, that this narrative will correct most of the ill informed criticism of the IPKF operations.
Reasons for the intervention
There were many reasons for an armed intervention. I will concentrate on three — strategic, humanitarian and linguistic. Taking the first reason, i.e. strategic, not only is the Indian Ocean vital for India's lifelines but most of the wherewithal needed for its economic development is concentrated in these waters. Our industrial growth, economic development and even meaningful association with the rest of the world depend upon a secure Indian Ocean. For this a friendly and stable Sri Lanka is vital. Moving on to the second aspect i.e. humanitarian, the conflict in Sir Lanka saw many ups and downs. However, till around February 1987, one constant remained - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) dominated the hinterland and the SLAF operated from the coastline where they could be supplied from the sea.
In February 1987, they moved inland, imposed an economic embargo and intensified indiscriminate air, artillery and naval bombardment, resulting in a massive exodus into India. Stories of the inhuman conditions they had faced spread like wild fire, leading to the third season for our intervention. Tamil Nadu, the state most affected, was ruled at the time by a remarkable man, M.G. Ramachandran. He was a staunch ally of the Congress, then in power in New Delhi. To illustrate the power he wielded, let us recall the incident where, from a sickbed in the US, he issued orders for his entire cabinet to resign. Everyone did. His repeated pleas to the centre finally tilted the scales.
I will add one more reason. The SLAF were fighting insurgency in the north and insurrection against the Janath? Vimukthi Peramu?a (JVP) in the south. Understandably, the officers and soldiers were tired. Add to this a high desertion rate and a reluctance to enroll and you have a very dangerous environment, with rumours of a coup being staged mounting by the day. In these circumstances was it any surprise that it was difficult to judge who between the SLAF and the LTTE was more grateful and relieved over the Indian presence.
What were the tasks given to the IPKF?
Separate the two warring groups — SLAF to withdraw to pre-February 1987 positions and Tamil militant groups to "surrender" their weapons within 72 hours. Impose a cease fire.
Formation of an interim administrative council IAC) to administer the northern and eastern provinces as a prelude to elections to an administrative council. Devolution of powers by Sri Lankan Government.
Referendum by the end 1988 to ascertain whether or not the eastern provinces would like to merge with the northern provinces.
A little later, when rioting started and I refused to intervene as the maintenance of law and order was not my job, another task, maintenance of law and order was added and a battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force was allotted to the IPKF.
The force structure of the IPKF kept fluctuating depending upon envisaged contingencies. Since the intervention was by invitation, the force level, keeping in mind the peace keeping nature of the operation, was about a division plus, with minimal air and naval components. A neutral posture was adopted. SLAF were provided all assistance in their re-grouping including security to ensure they were not engaged by the LTTE. Concurrently, a massive rehabilitation programme was started to get the towns and villages, completely devastated by the fighting, into habitable entities. Jaffna town was the model, brought back to its fractioning feet by the tireless efforts of Brigadier R.I.S. Kahlon (later to rise to the rank of Lieutenant General and, alas, no more).
This achievement needs to be studied in greater details so that those who run our cities and towns can learn valuable lessons. This and many other steps taken to win the minds and hearts of the local population proved effective and paid the IRKF dividends in the form of information regarding the LTTE, arms caches and so on.
Meanwhile, consultations on the formation of the IAC continued apace and after much "chopping and changing" an acceptable formula was knocked out and an agreement signed by the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE on September 28, 1997. Before the celebrations could commence, a message was received from the now deceased LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran in Jaffna, that the LTTE would not accept the agreement. What promoted the change of heart was a mystery as Prabhakaran had himself signed the agreement after all his objections to the original draft had been met. Was this another instance of LTTE obduracy?
The LTTE’s turnaround
A little earlier, whispers from the local population started coming in indicating LTTE directions to the locals to stop fraternising with the IPKF. When I confronted Prabhakaran with this respect, he denied it completely. He did, however, tell me that he heard reliable reports indicating that one of our intelligence agencies was instigating the other Tamil militant groups to stop handing over of weapons and when the LTTE was sufficiently weakened by handing over their weapons, they would be signaled to take revenge from the LTTE for all past massacres. This was, of course, news to me and all I could do was tell him that I would check with Army Headquarters. I did this and was informed the next day that there was no truth in the apprehension.
When I explained this to Prabhakaran, be smiled and said that he still stood by his allegation. The truth will have to be ascertained by someone else. As far as I was concerned; this was the event that created the rift between the LTTE and the IPKF.
On October 10, 1987, the LTTE turned against us and the fighting started. The writing had been on the wall and so reinforcements started pouring in. Overconfidence led the LTTE to initially fight set piece battles, but after Jaffna fell on October 20, 1987, LTTE cadres melted into the forests and fell back on tactics that had borne fruit earlier i.e. guerilla operations. For some days the messages we intercepted indicated desperation. Calls for medicine for causalities would be met by the reply, in code, "Give him cyanide." Calls for food would receive the reply that there was no food. Later, as succour arrived; the situation improved in LTTE ranks.
I returned from service on February 29, 1988 and thereafter from being in command I had to rely on media reports. These showed that despite the vicious fighting, the IPKF continued to display professionalism and gallantry while completing all tasks entrusted to it with admirable efficiency.
I will conclude with a few observations. Higher direction lacked focus and this was summed up admirably by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in the foreward he wrote for my book, quoting the Bible, "For if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle." To my mind there should have been no ambiguity. While the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka was important, the national integrity of Sri Lanka was vital. National policy is formulated by the Centre, not by states in relation to neighbouring counties.
The evolving of the LTTE from a handful of school dropouts to the fearsome militant group that it eventually became deserves study. Except when Karuna broke away in the east, they maintained their cohesion and their motivation and discipline. In the process, to quote Dr Rajini Theranagama from his book, "The Broken Palmyra", the LTTE religion was hierarchal. Militants from other groups, whatever their contribution, were counted as criminals. Only LTTE members could make sacrifices, be counted as martyrs and become Gods. The power of such a religion to captivate men's minds, make them forget all norms of civilisation and morality and to hold them together as a hysterical and destructive force is enormous".
The writer was GOC-in-C Southern Command and Overall IPKF Commander till February, 1988