The IPKF Misadventure

Thirty years is not too late to honour the sacrifices and heroism of those who fought on ground the LTTE in Sri Lanka

Ravi PalsokarRavi Palsokar

There have never been hosannas or celebrations for the men of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), who 30 years ago were locked in a life and death struggle in an alien land far from home, for a cause that not only they did not understand, nor did possibly those who sent them there.

Battle anniversaries tend to be celebratory and/or oozing with sentimentality but rarely embarrassing. The IPKF episode falls in the last category because it is hardly ever remembered, either within the armed forces or in public consciousness. This, besides being unfair to those who fought there and gave their lives or limb, suggests that the entire affair, because it was perceived to have been unsuccessful, is something to be best swept under the carpet or ignored. This absolves the senior leadership, military in particular, of their part in creating the mess in the first place and then passing the buck on to subordinate leadership.

It is time that a more honest assessment be made of how the IPKF came to be sent to Sri Lanka, what were the tasks given to it, were they attainable, what was the responsibility of senior military leadership in the conduct of the war and how it ultimately came to be wound up. At various times this episode has been called, ‘India’s Vietnam’. Is this a fair judgement? Let the facts speak for themselves.

Aerial view of countryside along the coast with an improvised mounting of a machine gun

 

Background

Thirty years ago, in July 1987, IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka as the follow up of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that had been signed between the Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi and the President of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene. Senior readers will recall the tense circumstances under which the Accord had been signed and the assault on the Indian prime minister as he reviewed a guard of honour, before boarding the plane back to India. The IPKF was expected to keep the peace between the warring Tamil militants seeking Eelam, an independent state, and the Sri Lankan Army.




The Accord was flawed from the beginning due to insincerity of the militants as well as the Sri Lankan government and the naïve acceptance by the Indian government of the bona fides of the belligerents. It is as difficult to fathom today as it was then, the basis and reasoning on which the IPKF was sent in and expected to keep the peace if either or both sides reneged on the agreement. The resultant fighting between the IPKF and Tamil militants cost India the lives of over 1,200 soldiers and more than twice that maimed and wounded.

Who was to blame? Everyone. Political leadership which lacked experience and had shallow understanding of Sri Lanka’s problems; intelligence agencies who thought that they had the measure of and could trust the LTTE to do their bidding; our High Commissioner in Sri Lanka who was totally distrusted by the Sri Lankan polity; an army chief who in his hubris was more confident of his and his army’s capabilities without giving them the wherewithal in terms of equipment and training; and a series of incompetent operational and field commanders and staff officers who put together a force for a task they did not themselves fully comprehend, without bothering to create adequate synergy between the three Services, the army, navy and air force.

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