Hotwash: Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Operations in Sri Lanka By Team STRIVE



The Strive and SVIF in collaboration with IPKF Veterans organized a webinar on 04 Jul 2021 on the IPKF Operations by the Indian Armed Forces in Sri Lanka from 29 Jul 1987 to 24 Mar 1990. A total of about 80 participants were part of the webinar, which was also live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube.

The operations undertaken by the IPKF of the Indian Armed Forces were first of their kind in the History of Independent India. Although not mandated by the UN, but it met the basic criterion of consent, impartiality and use of minimum force as per Chapter- VI of the UN Charter and was in pursuance of the Indo- Sri Lankan Peace Accord of 1987.

The basic task of the IPKF was to facilitate the end the civil strife between the Sri Lankan Tamil Militant Groups and the Sri Lankan Army. However, the mission of ‘Peace keeping’ somewhere along the line got changed to ‘Peace enforcement’. There is a need to analyze the cause for such a change and also its effect. Also, there were 1300 Indian soldiers who gave the supreme sacrifice during the operations. The nation remains indebted to these brave hearts, who, by their act of valour added new chapters in the glory of the Indian Armed Forces. Regrettably, it is important to appraise that India did not achieve any of the political objectives/ military missions in Sri Lanka.

The aim of the Webinar was to get a bit of clarity on the subject and for that, the Team STRIVE felt that the experiences of those veterans, who were part of the IPKF and were in the thick and thin of the operations for two years, seven months, there weeks and three days, would help the current generation of the Armed Forces to draw certain conclusions for future reference.

Before the details of the webinar are taken up, the ‘Team STRIVE’, would like to put a disclaimer that the views expressed by the speakers are their personal views and The Team STRIVE takes no responsibility for them. However, the analysis is definitely based on the views expressed during the Webinar.

The format adopted for the conduct of the webinar was as follows:-

  • Key-Note Address- Lt Gen NK Kapur, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) ,who was initially BGS Civil Affairs in the HQ IPKF and later it’s Chief of staff.
  • Geopolitics and domestics political backdrop of intervention- Maj Gen Jose Manawalan, AVSM (Retd) who was BM of one of the Formations.
  • Military Challenges during induction- Col R S Sidhu (Retd), a mechanized infantry officer who was part of initially inducted troops.
  • Intelligence aspects of the planning and the execution of the intervention- Col Manoj Channan (Retd), an Armed Corp Officer, who was part of the intelligence set-up of the IPKF
  • Anchor of the Programme- Col AK Singh (Retd), an honoured member of the STRIVE.

Issues Flagged by the Speakers                               

Lt Gen NK Kapur, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) – The Key-note speaker put in perspective, issues leading to induction of the IPKF into Sri Lanka. The major issues flagged by the General were as follows:-

  • India was committed to the Unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. At the same time, India was also for supporting the just cause of Sri Lankan Tamils within the framework of Sri Lanka.
  • On one side Sri Lanka was engaging with India to address Tamil grievances but simultaneously was raising a force with the support of Pakistan, South Africa and Israel to crush the Tamils.
  • A left-leaning ultra-nationalist organisation Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) came up in Sri Lanka, who were anti-govt for being soft on Tamils and that created a situation wherein the then President of Sri Lanka himself felt threatened. This threat and threat of India coming in support of Tamils, post-Indian‘ Bread bombing’ (humanitarian food dropping at Jaffna to break the economic blockade of Sri Lanka by India: Op Poomalai) forced The Govt of Sri Lanka to ease the blockade and agree to talk to Tamils. However various Tamil groups were pulling in different directions and at this stage, the LTTE decided to eliminate all other groups and be the sole representative of the Tamils.
  • A draft accord was prepared by Sri Lanka after being nudged by India. Three points of the accord were important, and these were cession of hostility, surrender of weapons by Tamils and finally devolution of power to provinces and merger of North & East Provinces ( subject to referendum) and official status to Tamil Language. The draft agreement was rejected by LTTE and there was widespread opposition against it in the Sinhala majority South too. However, the agreement was finally signed by India (based on an assurance by the R&AW that they will be able to convince the LTTE to accept the accord ) and Sri Lanka on 29 Jul 1987 at Colombo. Thus, India took upon itself to get an accord implemented which was neither acceptable to the Sinhala Majority nor Tamils and intentions (as proved later) of the  Sri Lanka Govt was far from honest. It indeed became clear from the very beginning that the accord had no future.
  • The Indian Peace Keeping Force got inducted with an Adhoc Command and Control Set Up without much planning. Initially, the IPKF was welcomed by Tamils including LTTE, who surrendered their weapons but only those which were provided to them by India (thus remained reasonably armed. Probably they knew the Govt of Sri Lanka and SLA much better than India).
  • After the incident of 03 Oct in which 12 LTTE cadres were apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy and who committed suicide, the LTTE unleashed a pogrom in the East and a sizeable number of Sinhala people got killed.
  • On 07 Oct IPKF was asked to use force to disarm LTTE. Thus, the military mission got changed from Peacekeeping to Peace enforcement. Although, Jaffna was captured in 17 days& the LTTE got pushed to Vani Jungles but the resistance of the LTTE continued.
  • What was most intriguing in the support base of the LTTE, which remained intact in Tamil Nadu, where they kept getting moral/ emotional support, financial support and medical support. It was strange but true that they kept buying explosives from Siva Kashi.  This only showed that the planners had failed to factor in, the support base that Sri Lankan Tamils would have in Tamil Nadu. Also, the hostile attitude of the Tamil Nadu government affected the supply Chain of the IPKF badly.

Maj Gen Jose Manawalan, AVSM(Retd) – The general traced the political history, of Sri Lanka, from its independence in 1948 to the induction of the IPKF, which clearly highlighted how the successive govts of Sri Lanka were unfair to Tamils and how Tamils had been reduced to the status of the second class, citizens in their own country. The important point of his talk in relation to IPKF operations included the following:-

  • IPKF fought with one hand tied behind its back and despite a heavy casualty of 1300 over the period of its stay in Sri Lanka nothing substantial was achieved.
  • The traditional good relations between Tamil Nadu and Northern Sri Lanka were highlighted which appears to have been glossed over by planners of the Indian intervention in the Island Country.
  • Sri Lanka had 26% Tamils before the ethnic cleansing from the Island Country.
  • In 1983 Civil war commenced for Tamil Eelam with the safe sanctuary that Tamil organisations had in South India.
  • LTTE was well organized with a clear-cut Organisation having a leadership role well defined. On the contrary, the IPKF organisation was rather loose having too many bosses. Change of mission from peacekeeping to peace enforcement midway further added to the confusion.  R&AW and Indian High Commission was in the Chain of decision making but accountability rested solely with the GOC of the formation initially inducted.
  • Since the JVP had started becoming a threat to the then President of Sri Lanka, the Southern Command of the Indian Army was asked to study the contingency of an armed intervention. However, it was not a thought-through study, as such, vital aspects of terrain study maps, intelligence and logistics were not given adequate thought.
  • The PMO asked to draft an accord to address the issues of the Tamils. The draft accord did not address the aspirations and the demands of Tamils. However, the draft was signed despite the same having been rejected by the LTTE, the premier Tamil organisation working for the Tamil Eelam and also strongly opposed by a large section of the Sinhala Community. The Accord was flawed. Also, the intention of the Sri Lankan Government was also dubious which subsequent event proved when she reneged to implement some of the vital provisions of the Accord, which were there in the accord, to meet the promise of devolution of power. The LTTE was equally disinterested in the Accord, which they right from the beginning felt, did not meet their aspirations. This clearly brings out a question as to ‘What did we achieve with the accord?’ There was a clause, smartly introduced in the Accord that the ‘IPKF operations were contingent to Sri Lanka’s request’. Later this clause was used by the new govt of Sri Lanka in the beginning of 1990 to ask India to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka.
  • The LTTE cadres were highly motivated and also were good at Jungle Warfare. R&AW badly misjudged the potential of the LTTE and also their hold over the LTTE and particularly on Prabhakaran. On the contrary, the troops inducted were from offensive formations as such had neither trained nor were equipped and finally had no rehearsals for either the original task (peacekeeping) or final task (peace enforcement) which essentially entailed Jungle warfare in an obstacle-ridden terrain. In fact, the tasking changed from an offensive task to peacekeeping only after reaching the Air Strip.  This lack of clear cut defined military objective, which also kept changing was one of the root causes of the confusion (lack of) planning and poor execution. Since never before India had planned any intervention in Sri Lanka, even maps of the area were not available with the units and formations. Units and formations took many outcomes for granted and generally it was thought that operations would be over in 72 hours but when that did not happen the entire planning process became too adhoc for it to become successful. Even the induction was planned in a very casual manner from four mounting bases, with very little coordination among these mounting bases which saw troops reaching Sri Lanka with a total lack of coordinated induction, which affected the subsequent operations. Also, since for this kind of peacekeeping task and that too in a foreign country India had no past precedence, therefore, the operating procedure had to be developed from very basics, as such,  Troops initially for four days were not aware as to what was expected of them.
  • The attitude of the SLA was ambivalent. In fact, once the IPKF went for peace enforcement, they took a sigh of relief because now the IPKF was doing the dirty work and they were in the barracks.

Col RS Sidhu, SM (Retd) – Some of the highlights of his talk were as follows:-

  • The mission of troops getting inducted was changed at the Airfield at the time of Takeoff. As such, for first four days troops did not know what their role was, and the scope of that role.
  • No time was given for coordination.
  • Initially, the equation with the SLA was uneasy but the welcome by the local Tamils was overwhelming. However, when orders changed to peace enforcement (to fight with the LTTE), it became a little difficult to reorient.
  • Fighting troops were initially confined to camps and as such, no reconnaissance was possible, and it turned out to be a big handicap.
  • SLA Battalion stopped IPKF to do their mandated task which turned out to be the trigger for the escalation of operations.
  • There was again a perceptual incongruence. While IPKF was working Para 2.11 of the accord which assured general amnesty, the SLA wanted Para 2.09 to be the basis of the operation of the IPKF which stipulated LLTE to surrender its weapons, which LTTE was not ready.

Col Manoj Channan (retd) – He addressed various elements of security and intelligence. Some of the important issues raised by the speaker were as follows:-

  • At that point in time there was no specialized agency like National Security Secretariat. The highest decision-making body of the government was Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) and it worked through Cabinet Secretariat.
  • IPKF never contemplated that it would get into a hot war.
  • There was no mandate to go beyond the border for intelligence acquisition till 1981-82. R&AW was the lead agency, which was entrusted to coordinate with other external agencies. R&AW went absolutely wrong in their assessment of LTTE going rouge. IB was working on their own and refused to share the information with them. Also, at that point in time there was no dedicated agency to disseminate/ share intelligence. HQ Southern Command also failed to provide any worthwhile inputs/ assessment to the field forces.
  • There was no dedicated section in the Military Intelligence Directorate to deal with Sri Lanka and there were no subject matter experts in the entire Intelligence Corps.Also, there were not many people in the Int Corps who were knowledgeable in Tamil, as such there were hardly any functional resources with the officers in the Intelligence corps.
  • Some other shortcomings noticed in the Intelligence Set up were as follows:-
    • There was no prior intelligence deployment in Sri Lanka.
    • Intelligence NCOs were below power and some of the Intelligence officers in the formation HQ were in low medical category.
    • No intelligence inputs were available from Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.
    • Media sources were not exploited.
  • However, there were some positives due to the dedication of ground-level intelligence operatives and these were as follows:-
    • Between Aug and Oct 1987, a number of sources were developed which came in handy when operations commenced.
    • MI came to knew about the AD resources of the LTTE which was a useful input.
    • MI also came to know about the collusion between President Premadasa and LTTE, which again proved to be a useful input.

Summary of Points raised

  • The entire saga is a story of unplanned operations based on over-optimism of the R&AW & IB senior military leadership forgetting to say when the operational judgement demanded that and deceit of LTTE and Sri Lankan Govt for whom the IPKF was only a means to settle their own scores.
  • Changes in the political objectives of offensive action in the support of Tamils to peacekeeping  to peace enforcement and consequent changes in the military mission confused the junior formations and troops. However, it is to the credit of the junior leadership of the Indian Armed Forces that they quickly freed Jaffna from the clutches of LTTE and kept LTTE confined essentially to Vani Jungles.
  • There was a perceptual incongruence between the GoI and the Tamil Nadu Govt as to how to deal with the LTTE. The LTTE continued to get material, medical and emotional support from Tamil Nadu Govt and the Tamil people in general. This aspect of the emotional connect between the Tamils of the two countries had not been factored in the planning process by the GoI/ Intelligence agencies/ Armed Forces.
  • Neither an institutional arrangement appeared to have been existing to collect and collate intelligence about Sri Lanka/ Sri Lanka Army, nor any special effort was made to acquire intelligence about the capability of the LTTE before going for operations against LTTE.
  • India appeared to have been used by Sri Lanka, on whose behest India went to get an Accord implemented and same Sri Lanka managed to make India fight their war and told India to get out of Sri Lanka unceremoniously when it did not suit them to continue having IPKF in Sri Lanka.
  • There is no need to get too much into, “What if”, it is more important learn from the mistakes committed at various levels so that in similar situations these are not repeated. One of the major issue was short-circuiting the ‘Military Chain of Command’ by way to issuing directives to the field commander’s directly.

What did we achieve at such a heavy cost, needs to be answered and for that a revisit of this kind  (holding Webinar with those who were part of the operations) is necessary. One of the issues whose centrality was realized was ‘Military Diplomacy’. The GoI in conjunction with the Armed Forces needs to pay attention to this aspect.

STRIVE– WEBINAR Sr- 7 (IPKF-1 ‘OP PAWAN’)… ( Full Video)    on Youtube


Compiled by STRIVE  (Col AK Singh (Retd) and Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the respective author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that they belong to or of that of STRIVE

5 thoughts on “Hotwash: Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Operations in Sri Lanka By Team STRIVE

  • July 24, 2021 at 1:03 am

    In case of another webinar in the series I would like to join if possible. I was in Mannar sector in 1988, I could add a bottom-up perspective.

  • July 23, 2021 at 7:56 pm

    I was in Mannar sect in 1998, inducted in by ship from Haldia.
    1) Quite rightly pointed out our Army was geared for large scale combat, not small unit jungle warfare. In fact when the Brigade moved from Trinco to Mannar and an IED was blasted the whole coloumn reacted like a CAPF being ambushed.
    2) We were quick to learn and got the hang of not being outsmarted by the LTTE. Getting on in 198i the aim in our minds was to ‘vanquish’ the LTTE, it became an us vs them situation at the cutting edge.
    3) I was the civil affairs coordinator for the area, and interacted with the locals -sporadically- whose lament was that the IPKF could not protect them at night in the villages from the LTTE, if they were suspected of “collaboration”. They narratithe dcorched earth policies of the Sinhalese SLA against the Tamil areas, the one sided beuaracratic hurdles in dealing with Mannar.
    4) We saw first hand the relatively well developed Sinhalese region, sided by Japan, and the utteryneglected infrastructure in the North be it roads, electricity, water supply or local Government.
    5) The supply chain slowly stabilised from only dry rations to heot supplied fresh, MOH from boats across the Mannar straights, and milk in tetra packs which was a first.
    6) RAW used to fly in and out in Pawan Hans Dauphins occassionally to met their contacts, but we were kept out of the loop.
    7) It was a tough slog to move in road opening stages over days from and to Mannar and Trinco when moving in and out of SL.
    Those are some recollections from bottom-up.

    • July 23, 2021 at 8:00 pm

      Please correct the typos, sorry sent in some haste.

  • July 15, 2021 at 10:32 am

    These are the observations of Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee, PVSM, AVSM, YSM.
    Very interesting views, contrary to views expressed by speakers.
    Three points were made by Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee:
    a. I was in the first lot to go when conflict with LTTE began, 12 Dec 87, last to come out Apr 90. I should know.
    b. It is usual and very satisfying to be critical & judgemental. How many operations are begun with full planning & preparation? How much do the plans remain valid after a day or two?
    c. It was easiest & entertaining to parrot the LTTE sympathizers’ massive propaganda & rue over our supposed Sri Lanka debacle. The fact, after so many years, facts should have been digested.
    d. Facts are:
    Insurgency/revolt in Tamil Nadu was avoided, Sri Lanka’s integrity was sustained, Pakistan was prevented from settling in Sri Lanka.
    Finally, it was one of the most significant military victory when a rebel army, stronger than the national army, was defeated by a foreign army in its home ground and driven to hiding in jungles, throwing IEDs here & there – in flat two months, Jan 88.
    Yes, it could be argued as a political failure, or was it really? No neighbour today dares to get into any hostile camp or invite foreign military intervention.
    Consider, please.

    • July 15, 2021 at 11:04 am

      Thank you Sir! These indeed are views which are contrary to what was spoken by the speakers during the webinar. Needless to add that these takes give another perspective of the IPKF operations and help us to think little differently.
      I request other readers also to come with their views and observations so that a healthy debate is ensued which will help the Team STRIVE to come out with a more balanced assessment of these operations.

Comments are closed.