By Ashok Mehta –
This day, 25 years ago, the India-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) was signed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Junius Jayawardene to end the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka peacefully. India willy-nilly became the guarantor for the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) disarming the LTTE in lieu of Sri Lanka devolving power to the minority Tamils.
Invited by Sri Lanka, IPKF became the instrument for implementing ISLA. Two and a half years after the accord, with 1200 soldiers lost and nearly 2500 wounded, the IPKF was unceremoniously withdrawn with ISLA in tatters. Then Tamil Nadu CM M Karunanidhi renamed the IPKF as ITKF — Indian Tamil Killing Force. That is the residual public perception of India’s first out-of-area military intervention and coercive diplomacy.
Three years ago, with India’s passive and active help, Sri Lanka finally disarmed the LTTE through a comprehensive military defeat but the ethnic question, the rationale for ISLA and IPKF, remains unresolved. In a letter written to the author after the military victory, a serving Sri Lanka army commander wrote: “The work started by you has been finished by us.” Lt Gen Hamilton Wanasinghe, the Sri Lanka artillery (SLA) chief during the IPKF days, had earlier written in a letter that “were India to leave us alone, Sri Lanka would sort out the LTTE.”
Not without its inherent shortcomings, especially with one hand tied at the back, the IPKF was made the scapegoat for the failure of India’s coercive diplomacy. New Delhi’s decision to intervene in Sri Lanka was triggered by overarching strategic reasons: the presence of foreign military and intelligence agencies inimical to India; domestic politics in Tamil Nadu; the dangerous internal security situation likely to arise in south India from the Sri Lankan army operations against the LTTE; and generally not mentioned — deflecting attention from the Bofors scam.
The ISLA ceremony in Colombo was marked by the assault on Gandhi by a Sri Lankan sailor of the Honour Guard. Dissent within the United National Party government over ISLA was suppressed. Both Jayewardene and LTTE supremo Prabhakaran were inveigled into accepting the accord, though some claim it was the other way round. India was drawn into a trap to do Colombo’s dirty work.
The ISLA was signed in great haste with India becoming not only the signatory but also its guarantor. President Jayewardene was strangely nominated CinC of IPKF which was dispatched with equal haste, lack of preparedness and abysmal intelligence. The flawed assessment claimed that the LTTE would surrender their arms whereas it waged a well-planned insurgency which completely surprised the IPKF.
Lacking forethought, a clear mandate, proper contingency planning, a decisive chain of command and an exit policy, the IPKF arrived with much fanfare in Jaffna. Absence of a political consensus and popular support at home were to compound its problems. For example, no one had factored in that ‘friend’ LTTE would turn foe and that elections in both countries in 1989 would result in change of governments. Conscientous objector, Ranasinghe Premadasabecame president and soon did a deal with Prabhakaran to evict the IPKF. As CinC, he ordered it to withdraw— or face the SLA.
Despite these enormous hurdles, IPKF did a commendable job: prevented Eelam and the breakup of Sri Lanka, with India underwriting its sovereignty and territorial integrity; restored the democratic process and institutions in the Tamil north and east, illustrated by holding of three elections; maintained the merger of the north and east through ISLA enabled the 13th amendment and formation of the northeast provincial council which gave Tamils the first taste of self governance. And, most of all, while IPKF weakened the LTTE, it allowed the SLA to defeat the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna urban insurgency in the south.
The month-long conventional battle of Jaffna and the 20-month short counter-insurgency campaign produced tactical lessons for the Indian Army, especially from LTTE’s brilliant use of IEDs which were responsible for 70% of IPKF casualties. The Indian government blundered over its political calculations on time and resources required to alter the behaviour of the LTTE. Lack of a cohesive policy at the apex level and inadequate coordination at the operational level robbed the IPKF of greater success in its mission. Unfortunately, the lessons of the expeditionary campaign, like previous military encounters, lie buried in government closets.
Protesting Buddhist monks outside the Indian high commission in Colombo have demonstrated Lanka’s prescient India policy: after the deal with Prabhakaran in 1989, their placards read ‘IPKF go back’; following the catastrophic defeat of SLA at Elephant Pass in 2000 it was ‘IPKF come back’. And during the military rout of the LTTE in 2009, ‘IPKF stay out’. Still, Sri Lanka has constructed a memorial to the IPKF in the heart of Colombo. India not doing the same is the ultimate ignominy for the IPKF.
The author is a retired major general of the Indian Army, a former GOC IPKF South and founder member of Defence Planning Staff
The Times of India