Memories of an IPKF peacekeeper
The story of Operation Pawan (Indian Peacekeeping Force, IPKF) is the story of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement, to support which the Force was created.
I was on sabbatical in London, UK for a fellowship with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) when I received a message from Brigadier (now Lt Gen) Satish Nambiar, the military attaché in London to call the army headquarters. I did this from his office and was informed by the military secretary that the Army Chief of Staff (COAS) General K. Sundarji wanted to speak to me. I was put in touch with COAS who asked me how long my scholarship was going to last because they needed me. When I asked him when he needed me, he usually said “like yesterday”. I told him I would end my scholarship with immediate effect and come back, which I did. It was the start of my odyssey with IPKF and Sri Lanka.
At the time, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka was made up of some of India’s “best and brightest”. The High Commissioner, MN Dixit would later become the NSA, the Political Consular Chief Hardip Singh Puri is now Union Minister and the First Secretary, Dr S. Jaishankar is now Foreign Minister.
1987 INDO-SRI LANKA AGREEMENT
With a Sinhala population of 74 percent, Sri Lanka had by the mid-1980s become a Sinhala Buddhist state. The 18 percent Tamil minority, which was the dominant community in the northern and eastern provinces, was politically marginalized and suppressed. The Indian government, then headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was under political pressure to intervene.
India forced the government of Sri Lanka under President Junius Richard Jayewardene to sign the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Agreement literally at gunpoint. The Air Force’s Operation “Poomalai” to drop humanitarian aid over Jaffna was an effective power projection.
SRI LANKA’S COMMITMENT
T‘Accord committed the government of Sri Lanka to merge the predominantly Tamil northern and eastern provinces (comprising 17,000 km² of the country’s 65,600 km²). It is important to note that these two provinces are also the most fertile part of the country.
Subsequently, the newly formed Northeast Province was to be vested in power by changing Sri Lanka’s political structure from its Westminster model to a federal one.
The unachievable nature of the Peace Accord is evident from the demographic implications of the Accord which forced the Sri Lankan government to give the Tamil minority (roughly 1/5 of the population) up to a third of the total area of the country and also its most fertile part. The Accord was therefore doomed to failure.
The Accord was hailed in India as a masterpiece of Indian diplomacy. For its part, India was under an obligation to place military force at the disposal of the President of Sri Lanka to keep the peace during the implementation of the Agreement. It is for this purpose that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was created.
Many wonder why we were fighting when it was a peacekeeping role.
Asking a soldier why we were fighting in Sri Lanka takes me back to the Crimean War of Balaklava in 1853. The British General, when Queen Victoria ordered him to the seemingly impossible task of attacking Russian forces and capturing Crimea, said to his men: He succeeded and is inscribed in the annals of world history as “The charge of the light brigade”. Decisions are made in Delhi, the soldiers just obey.
Peacekeeping operations were incongruous as a civil war raged between Tamils and Sinhalese supported by Sri Lankan government forces. The immediate task of the IPKF therefore became to conduct military operations to achieve peace and security for all communities. Therefore, the IPKF had to fight for peace first. Ultimately, the IPKF was to allow the conduct of elections in the northern and eastern provinces, which was a prerequisite for their merger.
Although authorized and projected by the Committee of Chiefs of Staff as “Command of the three service forces”, support from the Navy and the Air Force was limited, although both contributed to effort – the Navy sometimes hired commercial vessels with the Air Force. assuming several other roles as well. Functionally, the IPKF was directly under Army HQ for operations, intelligence and civil affairs and under Southern Command for logistics.
From the strength of one division in 1987, the IPKF built up to the size of five divisions in March 1988, having a task force of nearly 75,000 troops. The IPKF led the process of creating a secure environment for the holding of elections in the northern and eastern provinces at the cost of more than 1,200 soldiers. The provincial elections which were the prerequisite for the merger of the two provinces were duly held and on December 10, 1988, the elected chief minister of the northeastern provinces was sworn in by the president of Sri Lanka. That same day, as the force commander, I told the Indian government: “Mission accomplished; wait for other orders ”.
Political relations between the governments of India and Sri Lanka were handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA). At this point, the story took a turn, as the MEA failed to secure political dispensation for the Northeast Province from the Sri Lankan government. Seeing the failure of the Accord, the Indian government passed the “baby” to IPKF, ordering it to continue helping the provincial government “establish strong roots”. The consequences of the failure of the Accord claimed the lives of over 1,200 officers and soldiers in India.
IPKF ‘A LOT ON ITS OWN’
Initially, we were fully supported by the Sri Lankan government and operations were going well. However, in the general election in Sri Lanka on January 2, 1988, R. Premadasa was elected president and he was against the Accord from the start and wanted the IPKF to be withdrawn. He even refused to allow time for the Indian High Commissioner (HC) to present his credentials, which is essential when a new president is installed. The HC therefore had to be changed and Dixit was recalled and replaced with a new HC. Thus, the IPKF was left to the President’s “pity”. Nevertheless, I continued my task since the mission assigned to me was to implement the Agreement. The Indian government was “mom” when it came to IPKF.
One day I received a call from the new HC that the President was sending me a letter with all the legal jargon of “hereby”, “hereby” and “hereby”, asking me to confine my troops. to the “barracks” and leave the shores of Sri Lanka in 24 hours. He offered no advice. Simultaneously, I received a call from the president’s office that he was sending me a letter by courier. I told him that I would show up at Trincomalee airport to receive him. Trincomalee was my HQ. I immediately called our PMO and spoke to Ronen Sen, the Prime Minister’s advisor, and asked for his advice. I used to get calls from him often about the situation in Sri Lanka. He said, “Bossman went on an election campaign and he couldn’t say anything. I said to him, “In that case, I’ll do what I have to do.”
I was at the airport to receive the President’s messenger and saw Lieutenant General Hamilton Wanasinghe, Chief of the Sri Lankan Army, exiting the plane. We were good friends and we shook hands warmly. General Wanasinghe then suggested that we take a walk to the airfield. He then said he wanted my opinion; his President had ordered him to issue an ultimatum to me to confine my troops in our barracks and take back the area which was under IPKF jurisdiction (North-East Province). What should he do? I replied that if I were him, I would obey the orders of my president. He then asked me what I would do in this case. I replied that I would fight to keep my mandate. He then left without delivering the President’s letter.
Word about it had been leaked to the media in Colombo by the president’s office. Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent, had had an idea of what was going on. He chartered a plane and was at my HQ when I reached my office.
I was in a dilemma; however, I was clear that I would not let my national flag be dishonored or my soldiers or equipment injured. I also knew that I had enough troops to face the Sri Lankan army. I felt the time had come to call a spade a spade. At my HQ, listening to the Sri Lankan liaison officer with the IPKF and also to Mark Tully, I dictated my order of operation. In essence, he was saying that if we were attacked by Sri Lankan forces, the IPKF would launch operations to capture Anuradhapura in phase 1, orders for a new advance will be issued later (involving Colombo). I was concerned about the air cover, so I called our air chief, ACM “Polly” Mehra, who was my main classmate and asked her to “ring” the airfields at Trincomalee and Jaffna ( IPKF jurisdiction), which he very graciously obligated with the Canberra and Hunter planes. Sri Lanka’s OL suddenly disappeared. Later I found out that he was talking frantically in Colombo. Nothing more was heard from the Sri Lankan President.
At the same time, the general election results in India came out and the opposition party coalition led by VP Singh won and he was sworn in as Prime Minister. His electoral manifesto included the “withdrawal of the IPKF”.
Shortly thereafter he ordered the IPKF to withdraw and on March 24, 1990 I was the last person to leave the shores of Sri Lanka and board the ship while waiting to bring the last contingent of soldiers home. him.
It doesn’t matter how a conflict begins; it is important to know how it ends.
In securing the Accord, the MEA neglected the first principle of intervening in civil unrest, namely that most conflicts have political dynamics and ultimately require political resolution. It is only the government of a country that can give political dispensation to its citizens and not an outside power.
Before intervening in such conflicts, the intervening country must ensure that the commitments are guaranteed by the host government. If the host government subsequently renounces its commitments, the only remaining alternative would be to resort to “regime change”.
The exit plan must be ready before entering. India’s foreign minister was summarily sacked. Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated a few years later.
The famous German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, had a sign above his desk that read: “Most people learn from experience, I learn from the experience of others”.
Unfortunately, great countries have ignored this wise advice and paid the price – Afghanistan and Iraq being the most contemporary examples. (Sunday Guardian)
(Lt Gen AS Kalkat (Retd), SYSM, PVSM, AVSM, VSM is a former commander of the IPKF.)