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Indian Intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War
Part of the Sri Lankan civil war
Date 1987 - 24 March 1990
Location Sri Lanka
Result Tamil Tiger Victory. IPKF retreat from Sri Lanka, civil war continues. Strategic victory for the Sri Lankan Government.
Flag of India.svg Indian Peace Keeping Force
Coat of arms of Sri Lanka.svg Military of Sri Lanka
Tamil-tigers-flag.svg Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Casualties and losses
IPKF: 1000+ killed
Sri Lanka: Unknown
LTTE: 1300+ killed

The Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1987 - 1990) was deployment of the Indian military contingent Indian Peace Keeping Force intended to perform a peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka. It was formed under the mandate of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord signed between India and Sri Lanka in 1987 that aimed to end the Sri Lankan Civil War between militant Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military.

The force was initially not expected to be involved in any significant combat by the Indian High Command.[1] However, within a few months, the IPKF became embroiled in battle with the LTTE to enforce peace. In the two years it was in northern Sri Lanka, the IPKF launched a number of combat operations aimed at destroying the LTTE-led insurgency. The IPKF began withdrawing from Sri Lanka in 1989, following its military fiasco and the election of the Vishwanath Pratap Singh government in India and on the request of the newly-elected Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.[1] The last IPKF contingents left Sri Lanka in March 1990.


The Indian intervention

The LTTE had enjoyed support from India until the IPKF started getting inducted.[2] However, not having been party to the negotiations leading up to the accord, it agreed to the truce only reluctantly. The Tigers had rejected the Provincial Council framework as inadequate and Prabhakaran had protested against the Indian military intervention.[3] The Tigers resisted the spread what was deemed India's self-serving aim of binding Sri Lanka into India's geo political sphere of influence,[3] as well as a symapthy for Sri Lanka's ruling Sinhala community in India outside the support-base in Tamil Nadu.[3] With the induction of the Indian troops, the Tigers initially complied by surrendering arms along the terms of the truce. However, the opposition to the induction of Indian troops soon flared into active confrontation. Along with this, there developed an increasingly brutal confrontation within Tamil factions, with allegations that the LTTE, predominantly a Northern Tamil powerbase, was attempting to destroy both the PLOTE and the EPRLF, which represented more of the Eastern provinces.[4][5] The LTTE boycotted the elections that were held in October and November 1988 along the lines outlined in the accord.[6] The Indian administration had not expected opposition from the Tigers[1] and was initially taken unaware. The support for Tamil Nationalism in India also raised the spectre to the Indian Govt. of a possible situation of Tamil secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu[3][5][7] However, faced with growing diligence from her erst-while partner, India adopted a strategy of aiding alternative Tamil power bases, including the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front,[8] which ultimately emerged strongly in the November 1988 elections, and at the same time continue negotiations with the LTTE.[8] At the same time, however, Sinhalese nationalists, led by the JVP loathed the foreign presence on their soil.[1]


Conflict with the LTTE

Two incidences that occurred in September-October 1987 marked the turning point of Indo-LTTE relationship. The first of these was the hunger strike and subsequent death of Lt. Col. Thileepan, a popular political wing leader of the LTTE, on 26 September 1987. Thileepan had begun his fast in protest against what was termed the failures of the Indian forces to satisfy the political demands of the Tamils,[2] and his death was mourned throughout the Tamil community and fuelled a growing dissatisfaction and impatience with the pace of promised reforms. In addition it was a huge propaganda victory for the LTTE, which started taking an increasingly hard line in the negotiations for the Interim Provincial Council.[5] The talks broke down.

However, on 4 October 1988, the Sri Lankan Navy captured an LTTE boat off Point Pedro with seventeen Tigers, including some high-profile leaders of the movement, onboard.[9] The Colombo government alleged the boat was involved in smuggling arms across the Palk Straits and on the grounds denied immunity to these captured Tiger rebels.[9] The LTTE denied this claiming the rebels' movements were in accordance with the truce, being in the process of transferring documents for shifting the Tigers Headquarters from Madras to Jaffna. The Sinhalese government intended to bring a number of the rebels captured, including Pulendran, Kumarappa and others, to trial in Colombo for allegedly masterminding the massacre of a hundred and fifty civilians.[9] The Tigers, who were at the time still in negotiation with the Indian authorities, appealed for enforcement of protection by the IPKF. The rebels were at this time in IPKF custody at Palay Airbase pending transfer to Sinhalese authorities. Although the Indian authorities insist that they had explained the possible repercussions[8] of such an action on the fragile truce and exerted considerable pressure on the Sinhalese authorities to desist from proceeding,[9] ultimately the IPKF withdrew allowing the Sri Lankan forces to proceed with transferring the captured rebels to Colombo. The detainees however, attempted mass suicide by swallowing cyanide- a common LTTE practice when faced imminent capture. This singular event marked a total break-down of the truce. The night of 5 October saw large scale slaughter of Sinhalese people who had returned to Jaffna,[9] including eight soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army who were at the time being held hostages by the LTTE. These coincided with armed confrontations between the Tiger Cadres and the Indian Troops in and around Jaffna.[9] On 8 October, the LTTE carried out a number of mortar attacks and ambushes on the IPKF.[10]

In the face of this deteriorating situation, President Jayawardene threatened the visiting Indian Defence Minister and the Chief of Army Staff to re-induct the Sri Lankan Army to protect Sinhala interests if the IPKF did not take actions against the LTTE. The Indian government, already accused of inaction in the face of a failing accord, was forced into a position of having to enforce peace in Jaffna by force.[9][11] By 7 October, the COAS had issued directives to the IPKF, laying down its operations parameters in the directive[11] as:

  • Seize/destroy the LTTE radio/TV transmission equipment in the Jaffna Peninsula;
  • Seize or jam LTTE communication network;
  • Carry out raids on LTTE camps, caches and strong points;
  • Personnel manning LTTE offices in the East be detained and interrogated to gain information. In case of resistance,force to be used;
  • Actions to further consolidate hold of IPKF in the region.

It was declared on 9 October that the IPKF was to launch a final campaign against the LTTE.[11] This was the point of no return.

Operation Pawan

The first of the major IPKF operation was launched on 9 October 1987. Codenamed Operation Pawan (Hindi: Wind), it was expected to neutralise the LTTE operations capability in and around Jaffna. This included the capture or neutralisation of the LTTE's chain of command.[12] which was expected to leave the rebel movement directionless in the face of the impending assault on the LTTE strongholds by the IPKF. On the nights of October 9 and October 10, the IPKF raided and captured the LTTE radio station at Tavadi and TV station at Kokkuvil, while the printing presses of two LTTE sponsored newspapers were destroyed.[11] These operations also led to the capture of nearly two hundred Tiger rebels.[13] In retaliation, the LTTE ambushed a CRPF convoy near Tellipallai, killing four jawans, as well as an IPKF post at Tellipallai with automatic and mortar fire on IPKF post. Later that day, the Tigers hijacked a 10 Para Commando jeep on patrol, killing all five occupants.[11]

On October 10, the Indian 91st Brigade, consisting of three battalions and led by Brigadier J. Ralli, began its push into the city of Jaffna.[14][15]

The Jaffna University Helidrop

The first battle signalling the real beginning of Operation Pawan was the Heliborne assault on Jaffna University head-quarters of the LTTE by a detachment of Indian Para Commandos and the Sikh LI on the night of 12 October. Jaffna University was the tactical headquarters of the LTTE. This was planned as a quick commando raid to capture the top LTTE leadership and local commanders who, based on Indian Intelligence, were supposed to be in the building at the time.[10][16] and was thus expected to cut short the Battle for Jaffna. The plan was to land a company of 70 men from 10 Para Cdo. to secure the football field. A second wave was to follow with a company of the 13th Sikh LI. The heliborne troops were to link up with 4/5 Gorkhas of 72 Brigade and the Sikh LI troops advancing on the ground.[14] However, the operation ended in disaster as the LTTE, having intercepted IPKF radio transmissions, set up an ambush. The helidropped troops came under intense LTTE fire as they were inserted which, while increasingly vicious fire from LTTE positions hit and crippled the Mi-8s enough to force the insertion to be terminated midway through operation. Over the battle that lasted through the night, twenty nine of the entire Sikh LI contingent of thirty troops and six of the one hundred and twenty commandos were killed before detachments of the 65th armoured regiments were able to extract the Paras from their defensive positions.[17] The Sikh LI radioman was shot by LTTE snipers early on, with the unit losing contact with the Indian High Command at Palay Air base and the lone survivor of the Sikh LI detachment, Sepoy Gora Singh was taken prisoner by the Tigers. It was not until his release later during the conflict that the fate of the unit was known.[10][18]

Battle for Jaffna

As the battle for Jaffna proggressed, the IPKF advance came under intense and vicious opposition from the Tigers. Fighting in built-up and an as-yet unevacuated Jaffna, the Indian High command insists that the slow advance was, in addition to Tiger resistance, more a result of reluctance on the part of the IPKF to use heavy weaponry to clear LTTE defences.[15] Furthermore all the approach roads had been armed with Claymore mines or explosives by the Tigers in its years of fighting with the Sri Lankan army.[14] The Tigers also made extensive use of IED[14] which could be remotely detonated from over a kilometre away. During this time, the Indian Navy, supported by the Coast Guards was key in establishing a 300-mile long blockade around the Northern Sri Lanka from October 1987 to disrupt the Tigers' supply and communications routes.[19] In addition, it was around this time the MARCOS commandos of the Navy first went into action. Detachments of the IMSF (Indian Marine Special Forces, as the MARCOS was then known), along with a battalion of the 340th Independent Brigade of the Indian Army, provided beach reconnaissance around Jaffna and Batticaloa.[20] The 340th Brigade was one of the first IPKF units to be deployed, and served until operations in the Trincomalee area were complete. The IMSF, at this time, also provided security patrols along the coastal road west of Jaffna until the 41st Brigade took charge later in November.[20]

On October 15/16, the IPKF advance stopped its advance to stabilize the front. In addition, Palay, the major operations headquarters for the 54th Infantry Division, was secured from Tiger attacks. At this time the Indian Air Force undertook a massive airlift to reinforce the 91st with three brigades and heavy equipments including T-72 Tanks s and BMP-1 fighting vehicles. The improvised controllers worked round the clock to fly in troops and equipment. In addition, the Indian Airlines is said to have contributed, with its Boeing 737s transporting troops.[14] In addition, this short interval saw the induction of the Mi-8s and the first induction of the Mi-25s of the No. 125 Sqn, along with the HAL Cheetahs. By end of October the IAF flew 2200 tactical transport and 800 helicopter sorties.[14]

Now reinforced, the IPKF resumed the battle for Jaffna town. The tanks and armoured fighting vehicles are said to have been an effective protection against the anti-personnel mines.[14] However, even with this protection, the IPKF advance was torturous in the face of the Tigers' sniper fire. The rebel snipers would take positions along rooftops of buildings, treetops and even coconut palms. Equipped with powerful telescopic infra-red sights, the Tiger snipers were able to selectively take out officers and radiomen, taking a heavy toll and bringing the advances to a grinding halt. In addition, Helicopters flying below 2000 feet also remained vulnerable, with at least five shot at and damaged before the Mi-25s took up their offensive role. The IPKF adapted quickly, with its officers taking off pips of their ranks, wearing slouch hats and carrying oversize back packs. However, as advances got bogged down, the battalions, instead of maneuvering around the defenders, were forced to commit more troops under orders from New Delhi.[14] In addition, the LTTE increasingly started the use of anti-tank mines, taking a further heavy toll on IPKF casualties. A frustrated IPKF cut off power to Jaffna to counter these.[14] In addition, the IPKF communications lines were extensively mined by the LTTE, which further compounded the sometimes perilous situations that the Indian troops faced. It was not before the IMSF commandos broke out of the besieged Jaffna port and cleared the heavily mined Navanturai Coastal Road, that a crucial link up between 1 Maratha Light Infantry in the Jaffna fort and the advancing troops of 41st Brigade could be established that secured the Nallur area.[14] On 21 October 1987, the commandos conducted a successful amphibious raid against a LTTE base at Guru Nagar.[20] It was also toward the end of the Jaffna campaign that the IPKF started the use of Mi-25s for close air support[21] when they flew against LTTE positions in Chavakacheri village on October 23, 1987.

Ultimately however, after two weeks of bitter fighting, the IPKF had wrested the control of Jaffna and other major cities from the LTTE, but operations were to continue well into November, with major operations coming to an end with the fall of Jaffna Fort on the 28th of November.[15] Through the duration of Operation Pawan, the casualties suffered by the IPKF has been put at varying figures between 600 [1] and 1200.[3][4] In addition to the LTTE's defensive tactics alluded to above, the IPKF's problems were compounded by the fact that the Tigers, using classical guerrilla strategy, blended in with the local population. In addition, the IPKF came face to face with the child soldiers of the LTTE, something it had not expected.[14]

By the time Jaffna fell, however, the LTTE had merely exfiltrated out of the town, moving south to the jungles of Vavuniya. Its hard core fighters moved to the safety of the jungles by skirting the coast of Jaffna from Point Pedro to Elephant Pass, sheltered by the impenetrable jungles and criss-cross waterways of the Nittkaikulam jungles.

This was however only the first of the IPKF's three year campaign to neutralise the LTTE.

The IPKF at this point still consisted mostly of an overstretched 54th Division. Following the Jaffna Operation, the 36th Infantry Division was inducted, along with two additional brigades, to take over the Vavuniya sector and the Trincomalee-Batticaloa axis. This relieved the 54th Division which, led by Brigadier Manjit Singh, could now focus on consolidating the Jaffna sector.[22] The 4th Mountain Division and the 57th Infantry Division were inducted still later in February 1988 to take charge of Vanni and Batticaloa from the 36th.

Within Jaffna sector, although the LTTE had shifted out of the town itself, it nevertheless harassed the 54th's efforts to consolidate its positions using IEDs and anti-personnel mines. In turn, however, the IPKF was able to disrupt the LTTE's activities with regular raids that led to capture of large caches of Rebel weaponry.[22] Brigadier Manjit Singh was later replaced by Brigadier JS Dhillon, under whom the 54th underwent considerable modifications of its operations routine. Small highly mobile units became the staple of the 54th's operations.[22]

Operations Viraat and Trisul

The major force of the Tigers' fighting capacity had retreated to the jungles of Vavuniya following Operation Pawan.[23] By December 1987,the LTTE was able to build up a network of a large number of camps in the jungles that allowed it to regain a position of power within the local population, instituting taxes and revenues.[23] The Vavuniya sector was strategically and geographically key to accessing the North-South as well as East-West communications routes.

The LTTE was able to withstand the IPKF operations here as well, owing to natural cover from the dense jungles, an intimate knowledge of the terrain, and a low density of population which also probably held sympathy for the Tigers. The Vavuniya sector remained the most active sector throughout the IPKF's deployment and its casualties in this area were the highest after those suffered during the operations in Jaffna. The LTTE also managed to carry out a large number of successful ambushes against the IPKF patrols in the dense jungles.[23]

By summer the following year, the Indian High Command had evolved its doctrine from holding key strong points to conducting extensive search and destroy missions against LTTE strongholds and bases, denying them ground. In April 1988, the IPKF initiated two near simultaneous operations through the jungles of Northern Sri Lanka. These, codenamed Operation Viraat and Operation Trishul, were launched in the provinces of Mannar to Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass to Vavuniya[22] and utillised approximately 15,000 troops of the IPKF, including armoured corps, Paratroops, as well as the infantry troops and army aviation. These achieved some success in disrupting LTTE operations, seizing weaponry and inflicting limited casualties among the LTTE cadres. During Operation Viraat, the IPKF uncovered well prepared LTTE defenses, including concrete bunkers with electric generators, as well as caches of arms and reserves. The IPKF also suffered in this unconventional warfare, with the LTTE frequently ambushing IPKF convoys and patrols. By the end of summer 1988, however, the Tigers were forced to move to another stronghold, when it started to operate out of Nithikaikulam and adjacent riverine areas.[22]

Withdrawal from Sri Lanka

Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President on 2 January 1989 and he on April 1989 demanded the IPKF withdraw within 3 months from Sri Lanka. In the 1989 elections both Premadasa and the SLFP wanted the IPKF to withdraw. They got 95% of the vote and Sinhala public opinion was against the accord.[24][25]

Consumed by his hatred for the Indians, Premadasa even opened up secret channels to the LTTE to arm them against the Indians. Premadasa demanded that the IPKF leave the island and asked the Sri Lankan Armed forces to throw them out. Any movement of the Sri Lankan forces outside their barracks would kill the still alive ISLA. Lt. Gen. A. S. Kalkat warned that the IPKF would retaliate if fired upon by the Sri Lankans. IAF squadrons moved to the South while naval units moved off the Sri Lankan coast. Thanks to the professionalism of the Indian and Sri Lankan armed forces a conflict was avoided.[26] Rajiv Gandhi refused to withdraw the IPKF in a situation which clearly showed the failure of his Sri Lanka policy both diplomatically and militarily. Rajiv believed that the only way he could succeed was to politically force Premadasa and militarily force the LTTE to accept the accord. In December 1989 Indian elections V. P. Singh became the Prime Minister. He viewed Rajiv Gandhi's Sri Lanka policy as a miserable failure as it had cost over 1100 soldiers, over 5000 Sri Lankan lives and cost over 20 billion (2000 crore) rupees of Indian tax payers money in over 32 months and both politically and militarily it was a stalemate.V. P. Singh withdrew the IPKF and the last ship left on 24 March 1990. The Tamils were now paradoxically unhappy at the IPKF's departure but had to bear the start of a new ordeal. IPKF's arrival in India was boycotted by the Tamil Nadu government headed by Karunanidhi.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d J N Dixit (ex-Indian Ambassador to Colombo) speaking to
  2. ^ Research and Analysis Wing.
  3. ^ a b c d New Delhi & the Tamil Struggle- An Amoral Role. A Post Mortem on the Indian Intervention.
  4. ^ "History of the Organisation." University Teachers for Human Rights.
  5. ^ a b c Sri Lanka in 1987: Indian Intervention and Resurgence of the JVP. Pfaffenberger B. Asian Survey, Vol. 28, No. 2, A Survey of Asia in 1987: Part II. (Feb., 1988), pp. 137-147.
  6. ^ The day the elected government was in place, the military role of the IPKF was over. Lt. Gen A S Kalkat, speaking to
  7. ^ Jain Commission Interim Report.Growth of Sri Lankan Tamil Militancy in Tamil Nadu.Chapter I - Phase II (1987-1988)
  8. ^ a b c Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah!. Gen Harikat Singh speaking to Josy Joseph on the IPKF role.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Background to the Breakdown of the Accord. University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Sri Lanka
  10. ^ a b c "Tamil Armed Resistance & the Law". Tamil Nation. Unknown.  
  11. ^ a b c d e Jain Commission Interim Report. Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement: Evolution and its Aftermath. Chapter II - Indian Peace Keeping Force. Sourced from Tamil Nation
  12. ^ Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead in Colombo. Gen Harikat Singh to Josy Joseph.
  13. ^ Accord, Airlift, and Discord.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Operation Pawan- The Battle for Jaffna.
  15. ^ a b c The Tamil Militants-Before the Accord and After. Hellmann-Rajanayagam D.Pacific Affairs, Vol. 61, No. 4. (Winter, 1988-1989), pp. 603-619.
  16. ^ Descent Into Danger. The Jaffna University Helidrop.
  17. ^ "Operation Poomalai - India Intervenes"
  18. ^ Operation Poomalai - India Intervenes.
  19. ^ Operation Pawan. Indian Navy.
  20. ^ a b c India.Marine Commando Force.Special Operations.Com.
  21. ^ Crocodiles into the Attack.No. 125 Helicopter Squadron.
  22. ^ a b c d e Shifting to the Jungles.
  23. ^ a b c Jain Commission Interim Report. India-Today
  24. ^ Sri Lanka Truth
  25. ^ Consolidation, Elections, Victory and Withdrawal
  26. ^ Exchange of Letters: India - Sri Lanka


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