There were many reasons, including strategic and humanitarian, for an armed intervention in Sri Lanka in the form of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The ill-informed criticism that the force received about its operations needs to be corrected
Lt Gen Depinder Singh (Retd)
Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Bikram Singh pays homage to the fallen soldiers at the IPKF memorial in Sri Lanka during a recent visit. — PIB
ON July 29, 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in Colombo. The euphoria this evoked was marred by a sailor from the Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) attempting to hit our then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, while he was inspecting a guard of honour. The agreement had three components — modalities of settling the ethnic conflict, guarantees by India in regard to implementing the Accord and an undertaking by the Sri Lanka Government in regard to India's security concerns. In consonance with Clause 2 of the accord, an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) announced its landing in Sri Lanka on July 30, 1987.
It is not my intention to repeat how the ethnic conflict developed as that aspect is well documented. My aim is to describe why the IPKF went to Sri Lanka and what it did there. It is my hope, further, that this narrative will correct most of the ill informed criticism of the IPKF operations.
Reasons for the intervention
There were many reasons for an armed intervention. I will concentrate on three — strategic, humanitarian and linguistic. Taking the first reason, i.e. strategic, not only is the Indian Ocean vital for India's lifelines but most of the wherewithal needed for its economic development is concentrated in these waters. Our industrial growth, economic development and even meaningful association with the rest of the world depend upon a secure Indian Ocean. For this a friendly and stable Sri Lanka is vital. Moving on to the second aspect i.e. humanitarian, the conflict in Sir Lanka saw many ups and downs. However, till around February 1987, one constant remained - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) dominated the hinterland and the SLAF operated from the coastline where they could be supplied from the sea.
In February 1987, they moved inland, imposed an economic embargo and intensified indiscriminate air, artillery and naval bombardment, resulting in a massive exodus into India. Stories of the inhuman conditions they had faced spread like wild fire, leading to the third season for our intervention. Tamil Nadu, the state most affected, was ruled at the time by a remarkable man, M.G. Ramachandran. He was a staunch ally of the Congress, then in power in New Delhi. To illustrate the power he wielded, let us recall the incident where, from a sickbed in the US, he issued orders for his entire cabinet to resign. Everyone did. His repeated pleas to the centre finally tilted the scales.
I will add one more reason. The SLAF were fighting insurgency in the north and insurrection against the Janath? Vimukthi Peramu?a (JVP) in the south. Understandably, the officers and soldiers were tired. Add to this a high desertion rate and a reluctance to enroll and you have a very dangerous environment, with rumours of a coup being staged mounting by the day. In these circumstances was it any surprise that it was difficult to judge who between the SLAF and the LTTE was more grateful and relieved over the Indian presence.