It is now a fading 33 years plus, when in 1987 the Indian defence forces made their foray into the island nation of Sri Lanka. At that point in history, things had taken a turn for the worse with the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) a terrorist organization embroiled in a bloody battle with the Sri Lankan Army.
The LTTE was pushed into a corner and its end appeared imminent, till India intervened to rescue the Tamils of Sri Lanka at part behest of Tamil Nadu considering their ethnic affinity. An airdrop of relief supplies under code name OP POONAMALAI on 04 Jun 87 was executed by India, to break the blockade put in force by the Sri Lankan army which had ringed around Jaffna. From supposed rescuers of Tamils to the sinister epithet “Indian people killing force” the label coined by the local Tamils there was a sea change in perception. What had gone wrong? India in October 1987 decided to hand over a group of captured 17 LTTE militants to the Sri Lankan government for criminal proceedings which were viewed with deep anger by the former. Most of these militants committed suicide by partaking in cyanide. Understandably so, as the RAW with its machinations had trained and equipped LTTE with arms to combat the SL Government. The militants viewed it as a betrayal of their cause. Moreover, Prabhakaran the LTTE supremo viewed the Sri Lankan peace accord with disdain and derision in equal measure as he wanted full independence and not autonomy per the terms of the Accord.
The bad blood between LTTE and India quickly congealed into a messy war, with the former refusing to lay down their arms to facilitate the peaceful process of elections as per the Accord. The fighting capabilities of LTTE to wage a war were discounted by the Indian Politico-military establishment an excusable lapse, considering that RAW was their handler and the Indian Army their trainers. To add to the woes of IPKF, a dirty war of providing weapons to the riff-raff militant groups by RAW was hatched, depending on ascendancy and dynamics of the concerned militant groups (there was a host of them apart from LTTE such as EPRLF, TELO, and ENDLF etc.) Not to be outdone, the Sri Lankan Government to armed LTTE in a bid to blunt the IPKF, which became acute, more so when Premadasa ascended to power. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Army was confined to barracks as per the terms of the accord. The IPKF was saddled with archival weapons such as single-shot SLR inducted after the 1962 War with China, and the useless 9mm Carbine or toy gun as it was later derisively called by the African rebels in Somalia a decade later. The LTTE was a deadly foe and gave no quarter preferring to partake cyanide rather than be taken captive. They fought with cunning and fully utilised the underprepared nature of the IPKF for the war waged by hard-core LTTE cadres which comprised amongst others non-uniformed civilians, girls and boys.
The IPKF provided considerable support to the civilian administration in Sri Lanka. Restoration of amenities and power in Jaffna post the pitched October 1987 battles was a major achievement. The elections to Provincial councils of NE was also well conducted in 1988/89. Containing the LTTE in the jungles of Vavunia, Batticaloa and keeping them away from the towns and urban centres areas was a difficult job but was done with dedication and after incurring several casualties. The valuable respite was given to Sri Lankan Government to tackle the JVP a Sinhalese Militant group snapping at their heels. The provision of medical relief to the traumatised civilians was another accomplishment achieved with very thin resources. The stellar contributions of Brig RIS Kahlon, the then Town Commandant (Later Lt General) to restore civil administration as town Commandant was of particular note.
The disastrous engagement that followed OP PAWAN, as it was christened would leave 1158 Indian soldiers killed plus 3000 wounded in its wake. IPKF finally exited Sri Lanka in March 1990 after VP Singh became Prime Minister.
The LTTE was a ruthless enemy. Later they would hunt down and eliminate the most prominent Sinhalese leaders and politicians of the times. This included Gamini Dissanayake, Lalita Athulamudali , Ranjan Vijeratne, President Premadasa and later our PM Rajiv Gandhi. They also eliminated field leaders and supporters of IPKF from the splinter militant groups such as EPRLF and ENDLF. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi was a tipping point after which LTTE sealed its own fate. In 1997 US banned LTTE, flagging it to be a terrorist organization. In 1999 they attacked President Kumaratunge who escaped with an injured eye. In 2000 the Norwegian Peace initiative proved a failure. In 2002, the SL Army military fought LTTE to a stalemate in Jaffna.
In 2007, the SL court declared the merger of North East provinces as constitutionally invalid, a blow to the Indo SL Accord of 1987. A supposed request by SLA to Indian Army earlier to intervene in quelling the LTTE was turned down. In 2009 the LTTE was defeated in Mullaitivu and Prabhakaran killed by SL Army. Such was his cult that his body was burnt and ashes scattered in the sea to avoid symbolic real estate representation by way of a memorial, quite the same way as Osama Bin Laden s body was disposed off. The war was won at an enormous cost of loss of life. Sri Lanka to this day is still smarting from alleged Human rights allegations over unaccounted deaths and disappearances of many civilians.
Prominent Indians thought leaders and illustrious decision-makers cut their teeth in Sri Lanka. Among these -Current Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane, Journalist Shekhar Gupta, EAM Jaishankar, Hardeep Puri Civil Aviation Minister former COAS General Dalbir Singh Suhag and General V.K Singh to name a few.
History is never ‘’done and dusted’’ its lessons and meanings need to be continuously distilled and imbibed and martyrs duly honoured and legacy preserved. The Lankan Government constructed a Memorial in Colombo in 2008, only to be reluctantly followed by the Indian establishment later in Bhopal in 014. The memorial at Colombo constructed by Sri Lanka in 2008, aptly cites the legacy of the IPKF s. “Valiant were their deeds, Undying be their memories”.
However, there is no official commemoration day earmarked by India for these brave martyrs nor is there any mention of the IPKF memorial on the Indian Army’s Official Website. In Army museums too IPKF achievements and history has been conveniently erased or overlooked. In 2012 in sharp contrast, the Indian Army finally acknowledged the role of the martyrs in Indo China War in 1962 after 50 years of a collective memory lapse and felicitated them by wreath-laying at Amar Jawan Jyoti on 20 Oct 2012. It is noted that IPKF won One PVC, plus six MVCs in operation Pawan apart from various other awards. It is hoped that the powers that be do needful in honouring our martyrs. As the well-known cliché says “It is never too late”.
Now a group of veterans have come together in a bid to restore the legacy of the IPKF. A small get together was organized In Delhi, on 28th March 2021.
Left to Right: Col MK Channan, Lt Gen GK Duggal, Col V Dutta, Col Ravi Singh, Lt Col Atul Kochhar, Col Praveen Singh, Lt Col Ravi Nair
It is hoped to wake up the current establishment from its ‘’generation of forgetfulness’’ as China comes knocking on our doors to the North and also in Sri Lanka. A book is being released in 2021 by o veterans Lt Col BR Nair and Lt Col Atul Kochhar to honour the martyrs and preserve their legacy.
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