Goa Chronicle brings to you the second article of the series- covering the vexed Indian involvement and military deployment in operation Pawan, Sri Lanka, of which not much is known and is lesser understood by the public.
To read “The Curates Egg” Part-1, visit:
IPKF Induction from Madras Port to Trincomalee
It’s nigh 34 years since the signing of the Indo – Sri Lanka Accord on 29 July 1987 and the consequent deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. The deployment was designated as a supposed peacekeeping operation in a neighbouring friendly foreign country, having established governance and effective security infrastructure, and yet rife with ethnic, linguistic, and communal strife, between the predominantly Sinhala (Buddhist) community and the Tamil community. The latter felt that their interests were not looked after adequately by the pro-Sinhala Government and that they suffered discrimination in all areas such as education, jobs, and related opportunities.
That the accord was poorly negotiated, also needs no gain saying, as it failed to safeguard the geopolitical interests of India. Continued military defiance by LTTE, forced India into an armed confrontation with the former. Sri Lanka initially consented to the accord, as it was facing two major insurgencies, in the North by LTTE and in the South by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It utilized the interregnum of the Indian military operations against the LTTE, to finish off JVP in the South of the island nation. Thereafter the SL Govt in concert with LTTE by way of actively arming it, and diplomatically applying a push back for withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), in accordance with the terms of the accord. A 180-degree role reversal of India had occurred from being the saviours of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka to being perceived as their oppressors. We were diplomatically outmanoeuvred.
It was an inherently flawed accord, the consequences of which are even today posing policy dilemma to the Indian state in safeguarding its geostrategic interests against rising Chinese geopolitical influence in Sri Lanka. The reluctance to undertake overseas military involvement in the future by India is dubbed as “IPKF syndrome” in some circles.
The rifle-butting by a Sri Lanka naval soldier at Colombo airfield of the visiting Indian Prime Minister on 30 July, just one day after the signing of the accord, while reviewing the Guard of Honour, was an ominous portent of the things to come. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the dominant Tamil rebel group in Sri Lanka, too was reluctant to support the accord and was coerced by the Indian government to stall it and to acquiesce reluctantly.
The operation was jinxed politically since its inception and resulted in a loss of 1248 IPKF soldiers Killed and almost thrice (3500) as many grievously injured.
‘Operation Pawan’, the code name assigned to the Indian military operations in Sri Lanka, under the Indo Sri Lanka Accord, was the outcome of a heady mix and match of policy options propagated by the Prime Minister Office (PMO) based on leading inputs from Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) led by its representative Shri JN Dixit the Indian High Commissioner at Sri Lanka, and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) advised by Gen K Sundarji, the Chief of Army Staff. A last-minute change in operational tasking from military intervention to a peacekeeping role, initial confining of fighting units to camps after induction, lack of suitable going maps, voids in intelligence gathering, all indicate ad hoc policy decisions based on individual preferences rather than a calibrated institutional response.
Goa Chronicle spoke to Colonel RS Sidhu, Sena Medal a veteran from the Army’s Mechanised Infantry Regiment who served in operation Pawan at all locations, while deployed there from 1987 to 1990.
He is a strategic thinker and an author. Apart from his hands-on experience of dealing with LTTE in active anti-terrorist operations in Jaffna, his write-ups on strategic affairs have been published in magazines and journals of repute. He is also the author of two books, ‘Success from Being Mad’ on entrepreneurship ventures by veterans, and ‘Elephant on the High Himalayas’ on India China discourse.
Colonel RS Sidhu’s blog: ‘Mechanised infantry in operation Pawan in Sri Lanka’:
A webinar is also planned on IPKF.
While speaking to Goa Chronicle, Col RS Sidhu gave us a background on IPKF and Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 29th July 1987
There is always a certain amount of dismay in accepting the fact of India emerging from the aftermath of the Indo – Sri Lanka Accord of 29 July 1987, as the principal loser, despite being the main driving force behind the signing of the accord.
The accord was ill-conceived to the extent that, without first building domestic political consensus within India, its armed forces were pushed into conducting their first overseas military operations under the Indian flag. Also, the operations were designated as peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka, a country having an established governance organization, an effective security infrastructure, and yet rife with ethnic, linguistic, and communal fervour.
The accord was signed in undue haste without generating a broad consensus between the warring parties, as neither the Government of Sri Lanka nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the dominant Tamil rebel group in Sri Lanka, were keen on it. The rifle-butting by a Sri Lanka naval soldier at Colombo airfield of the visiting Indian Prime Minister, while reviewing the Guard of Honour, was an open indicator that the Indo-Sri Lanka accord was not acceptable to a large component of the Sri Lanka society. The dragging of feet by LTTE in surrendering the arms and ammunition held by it, following terms of the accord, points to its reluctance to support the accord. That the accord was still signed despite the reluctance of the two main protagonists is attributable to the persuasive might of the Indian state.
That the accord was poorly negotiated, also needs no gainsaying, as it failed to safeguard the geopolitical interests of India. Continued military defiance by LTTE forced India into an armed confrontation with the former. Sri Lanka initially consented to the accord, as it was facing two major insurgencies, in the North by LTTE and in the South by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It utilized the interregnum of the Indian military operations against the LTTE, to finish off JVP in the South of the island nation. Thereafter in concert with LTTE, it pushed for the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), in accordance with the terms of the accord! A 180-degree role reversal of India had occurred from being the saviours of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka to being perceived as their oppressors. We were diplomatically outmanoeuvred.
The Indian state was clear that the establishment of an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka was not in its best interest. That left resolving the dispute within the framework of the Sri Lanka constitution as the only viable option. Despite inherent flaws of the Accord, under the given circumstances, it did extract the best possible concessions from a reluctant Sinhala-dominated government for the Tamils on their principal demands of the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces to meet the demand of a Tamil homeland, devolution of powers towards provincial self-governance, and inclusion of Tamil as an official language of Sri Lanka.
Goa Chronicle: Why were the LTTE not happy with accord? What specific provision of the accord were they against or what did they want incorporated?
Col RS Sidhu: For greater clarity, it first needs to be grasped that the LTTE as an organization was committed to a totalitarian and absolutist ideology. It looked at itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Sri Lanka Tamils and brooked no rivals. This dogma propelled them to launch violent fratricidal wars to the finish, against other Tamil rebel organizations and is a validation of this reflection. The LTTE supreme leader V Prabhakaran, military leader Mahathya, and political ideologue Anton Balasingham were firm in their opinion that an independent Tamil homeland was the only permanent solution to overcome state-sponsored ethnic repression of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Indo Sri Lanka Accord of 29 July 1987 merely promised greater autonomy and merger of Tamil majority North and East Provinces, within a broad democratic framework under the Sri Lanka constitution. To the LTTE sharing political space in a democratic system of governance was anathema to its political ideology. The accord also fell far short of their political aspirations of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
Goa Chronicle: “Operation Liberation” also known as the “Vadamarachchi Operation” was the military offensive carried out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in May and June 1987 to recapture the territory of Vadamarachchi in the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE. Does the SL Army claim that for Indian intervention they would have captured Jaffna and eliminated LTTE?
Col RS Sidhu: The Sri Lanka state was ruthless in its conduct of military operations in the Jaffna peninsula and employed the full might of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), including artillery and air force, in its attempt to decimate LTTE as a fighting force. Complete stretches of densely populated built-up areas in Velvettiturai, Point Pedro, and adjoining areas of the Vadamarachchi region had been bombed to rubble, and civil population interred in concentration camps. Whereas the SLA may have been confident enough in 1987 to finish off the conventional capabilities of the LTTE as a fighting force, the latter had adequate resources to continue to wage a guerrilla war from the Mullaitivu, Alampil, Killinochi jungle tracts. The LTTE at that time enjoyed a strong support base within India, and the SLA lacked the expertise to conduct counter-insurgency operations in thick jungle terrain.
It was only in 2009, almost two decades post-deinduction of IPKF, that SLA could augment its combat potential to finally overcome LTTE. By then the LTTE involvement in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had caused it to lose its support base in India, as also the geopolitical support enjoyed by it due to the soft influence of the Tamil diaspora in key Western bloc countries.
Goa Chronicle: What was the final role of the IPKF- was it peacekeeping or peace enforcement? Why did we underestimate the LTTE’s ability to fight when India itself had trained them?
Col RS Sidhu: Here it would be relevant to first peruse the contents of para 6 of the Annexure of the Indo Sri Lanka Accord. It states, “Indian peacekeeping contingent may be invited by the President of Sri Lanka to guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities if so required.” This clarifies the role of the IPKF to encompass both peacekeeping and peace enforcement responsibilities. Thus, whereas the IPKF on its induction in July 1987 set out as a peacekeeping force, by October 1987 it had to transform its military operations to a peace enforcement role when confronted with overt military defiance from LTTE.
The LTTE leadership was all along averse to accept the Indo Sri Lanka Accord and conceded to give its support only under duress from the Indian state. Continued intransigence by LTTE to surrender all its arms and ammunition, in accordance with the terms of the Accord, should also have cautioned India towards the possibility of LTTE reneging from the agreement. Lack of clarity on national strategic aims, confidence in own military superiority, and failure of intelligence cycle of collection, collation, assessment, and timely dissemination of intelligence inputs, collectively led to the Indian establishment being surprised by the LTTE decision to oppose IPKF militarily.
Goa Chronicle: What is the impact of the 13th Amendment introduced by SL Parliament to incorporate Indo SL agreement provision as law, for granting autonomy to the North-East provincial councils with autonomy? Has it been effectively implemented? What is the fate of this Act on granting autonomy?
Col RS Sidhu: The Indo – Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 aimed at ending the endemic cultural, administrative and political discrimination against the Sri Lanka Tamils, by promising them greater autonomy in provincial administration, while reiterating the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Politically the Accord required Sri Lanka to amend its constitution to integrate the Tamil predominant North and East Provinces into one Province subject to a referendum to be held at a later date, hold Provincial Council elections, devolve administrative and financial powers to the Provincial Council to enable local self-governance, and include the Tamil language as one of the official languages of Sri Lanka.
To fulfil its commitments of the Indo Sri Lanka Accord, the Sri Lanka Government, on 14 November 1987, passed the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka and Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987. Nine Provincial Councils, including the merged Provincial Council of North and East Province, were established under the amended provisions with powers over subjects of education, health, agriculture, housing, land, and police devolved to the provincial administrations. The amendment also enabled Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages while preserving English as the link language. However, the financial powers devolved for self-governance are negligible, thereby heavily diluting autonomous self-governance by the Provincial Councils. Financial power continues to rest with the Centre. The power over the subjects of Police and Land has also not been devolved to the Provincial Councils.
The merger of the North East Province into one administrative entity has subsequently been undone in 2007 following an adverse verdict by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Whereas Provincial Council elections in the East Province were held in 2008, the elections to the North Province Council were not held due to the ongoing Tamil insurgency. They were finally held in 2013, after the decimation of LTTE and sustained pressure from India.
The 13th Amendment continues to be a bone of great contention in Sri Lanka polity. It is opposed by the Sinhala nationalist opinion for being against their national interests and an external imposition by a dominant neighbour, whereas the nationalist stream of Tamil polity looks at it as inadequate to address their concerns of safeguarding them from the threat of Sinhala majoritarianism, cultural chauvinism, and economic discrimination.
However, viewed dispassionately, it does assure a measure of devolution and to that extent is a distinct improvement over the past discrimination faced by the Tamil minority.
Goa Chronicle: Is the National Security Council created by us almost 10 years after the IPKF intervention, in its present form sufficiently empowered to provide oversight for such out country interventions, considering there is some pressure on India to deploy in Afghanistan with the impending withdrawal of the US later in the year this September?
Col RS Sidhu: The National Security Council (NSC), even twenty years down the line from its inception is still a work in progress. At the highest level, the NSC comprises the political core, followed by Strategic Policy Group (SPG) headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA), the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) staffed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).
It lacks the institutional presence of armed forces at the apex level, has only an advisory role, and is too unwieldy. The key weakness of the structure is it being staffed by bureaucrat heads of respective Government bodies, rather than domain experts, the majority of the latter also being retired civil servants. Large numbers of its functionaries are involved in dual roles, thus detracting from effective contribution. The body in its present form is ill-equipped to address new-age threats, as is evident from the handling of the COVID 19 pandemic, and the Chinese transgression of 2019 in Northern Laddakh.
Then there is also the issue of broad political consensus on Out of Area (OOA) operations which are lacking in the current highly fractured domestic political environment. Mid-stream course corrections arising out of political compulsions are bound to fail and may further impede national geopolitical interests, as happened with the premature deinduction of IPKF from Sri Lanka.
Coming to the second part of this question, considering a military deployment in Afghanistan at this juncture would be highly imprudent. Afghanistan is landlocked, with only feasible access being through Pakistan and Iran, and both countries are unfavourably disposed towards promoting Indian interests. The NSC in its present form lacks the desired military expertise essential for exercising oversight on a sustained OOA military intervention, as even the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is not in the operational chain of command as per the assigned charter of duty.
For greater details and understanding of the query raised you may like to peruse Col RS Sidhu’s blog ‘Republic of India internal security portends 2021-2025’ on below link: – https://valleysandvalour.blogspot.com/2021/01/republic-of-india-internal-security.html
Goa Chronicle: What is the road map for the future as per current thoughts and trends in SL politics which could impact accord implementation?
Col RS Sidhu: As the clamour from highly influential sections of Sinhala to abolish the constitutional provision of the 13th Amendment increases, Shri Gotabaya Rajapaksa the President of Sri Lanka, and Shri Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister is officially non-committal on their stand on the subject but actions speak louder than words. Sarath Weerasekera, a former Naval officer and an ardent supporter of the repeal of the 13th Amendment, is now the Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government, and Milinda Moragoda, also a strong supporter of repealing the 13th Amendment, has emerged as a strong contender to be the next Sri Lanka High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to India.
This is bound to increase the unease in India on the continuation of this constitutional provision as it provides the only legal framework to safeguard the Tamil polity against rising majoritarian Sinhala chauvinism. Shelving of this provision under any pretext will bring the clock back full circle. With the current confrontationist geopolitical situation in India’s immediate neighbourhood, coupled with increasing Chinese influence and presence in Sri Lanka, and rising Sinhala chauvinism synonymous with nationalism, the Indian strategic establishment is confronted with hard choices in formulating their response.
The government must honour and restore the legacy of the 1258 IPKF warriors Killed in action during OP Pawan and commemorate their memory suitably.
DISCLAIMER: This article reflects author’s view point. Goa Chronicle may or may not subscribe to views of the author