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Why Rajiv Gandhi Sent IPKF To Sri Lanka And How LTTE Played Both Sides

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By Madhur Sharma / Outlook India

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord with Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayawardene in 1987. Under the pact, the Indian military was deployed as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. Soon after the deployment, the circumstances changed and IPKF was engaged in combat by the Tamil armed group LTTE.

    IPKF-Indian Peacekeeping Forces-soldiers w. jeep, outside HQ in Jaffna.
    IPKF-Indian Peacekeeping Forces-soldiers w. jeep, outside HQ in Jaffna. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

    In 1987, the Indian security and intelligence apparatus is believed to have assured Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that Tamil armed groups in Sri Lanka would surrender to the Indian military within 72 hours.

    In 1991, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) sent to Sri Lanka was back in barracks in India with over 8,000 casualties, Sri Lankan Tamil leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was stronger than ever, and India was mourning the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed in a suicide bombing carried out by Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

    The IPKF’s deployment to Sri Lanka remains the only occasion when the Indian military was deployed overseas on a long-term basis. Otherwise, Indian personnel have only deployed overseas as part of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions or have operated for short durations, such as in wars with Pakistan and in the limited 1988 operation in Maldives to foil a coup against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. 

    The IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka under the India-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Rajiv and Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayawardene in 1987. Contrary to popular perception, the IPKF’s deployment was not the purpose of the Accord but an outcome of it, and that too, at the request of Jayawardene. 

    Broadly, the Accord was aimed at cessation of hostilities in Tamil-populated Northern Sri Lanka by ensuring surrender of armed groups and holding elections in the region. India was to extend all help in the process, including military assistance if requested.

    “In the event that the Government of Sri Lanka requests the Government of India to afford military assistance to implement these proposals [in the Accord] the Government of India will cooperate by giving to the Government of Sri Lanka such military assistance as and when requested,” said paragraph 2.16(c) of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. 

    The Rajiv-Jayawardene pact was signed on July 29, 1987, and Indian contingents began landing in Sri Lanka within days. Upon landing in Sri Lanka, the LTTE representatives came to meet Indian Army personnel and a rapport soon began to develop between the two sides. The two sides were not yet at war. That would change within months.

    Origin of the LTTE movement in Sri Lanka

    While the LTTE emerged as the main Tamil armed group in Sri Lanka, it was neither the only one to take up arms nor was it the first to start a movement for Tamilians in the island nation.

    Rajiv Gandhi

    The LTTE was founded on May 5, 1976, but Tamils had begun to mobilise socially and politically in early 1970s. There were also other groups, all of which were eclipsed by Prabhakaran’s LTTE. Some of these were Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

    The Tamil movement, which later came to be helmed by LTTE, thus began as a civil unrest and transitioned into an insurgency. The LTTE turned it into a terrorist movement, becoming an example for terrorists across the world. 

    “The Tamil movement, starting with civil unrest, gradually escalated to open confrontation with the civil administration. The Sri Lanka response to this was to seek a military solution by launching military operation designated War of Liberation against the militant Tamil groups. The Tamil parties upped their demand to independence (Tamil Eelam) and a separate Tamil state,” notes Lieutenant General (Retired) Amarjeet Singh Kalkat in an article, who served as the overall IPKF commander in Sri Lanka. 

    The main reason for the Tamil unrest was the majoritarian policies of the Sri Lankan state. The Sinahalese people are in the majority in Sri Lanka and Tamils are in the minority. The Sri Lankan government made Sinhala the official language and later passed laws that curtailed educational opportunities for minority Tamils.

    “The genesis of the LTTE can be attributed to discriminatory state policies and oppression of the minority Sri Lankan Tamils at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, which often included island-wide ethnic riots. The conflict escalated when, in 1971, the policy of standardisation was introduced by the government to curtail the enrolment of Tamil students in certain universities across the nation,” writes Anirudhya Mitra in his book Ninety Days: The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins. 

    The Tamil cause, helmed by the LTTE, received support from the Tamil diaspora the world over, including in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where many Sri Lankan Tamilians were arriving to escape the strife-torn homeland. The inflow of refugees, rising sympathy in India for Sri Lankan Tamils, and the threat of instability of Sri Lanka spilling over into India and the wider South Asia region meant that New Delhi could not sit idle, says Sanjay K Bhardwaj, Professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

    Why did Rajiv Gandhi send military to Sri Lanka?

    Contrary to popular perception, the Indian military was sent to Sri Lanka at the request of Sri Lankan President Jayawardene. While military deployment overseas might appear to be an aberration of longstanding Indian policy of non-interference, Bhardwaj of JNU’s Centre for South Asian Studies tells Outlook it was not the case. 

    Bhardwaj says there were many factors behind Rajiv’s decision to get involved in Sri Lanka. These factors, says Bhardwaj, were borne out of concerns for India and South Asia at large.

    “The Nehruvian policy of peaceful co-existence, cooperation, and Asian brotherhood evolved into a pragmatist policy by 1971, which can be called Indira Doctrine. This pragmatism regarding China had already set in after the 1962 India-China War but it properly came into being in 1971 when India fought Pakistan over the liberation of Bangladesh,” says Bhardwaj. 

    India helped the Bangladeshis fighting the Pakistani regime in Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, when Pakistani oppression was driving a large number of refugees into India and was creating a humanitarian disaster in the region. The Indian external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) trained the Bangladeshi rebels against the Pakistani regime and, eventually, India fought an overt, full-fledged war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. 

    When a similar ethnic crises emerged in Sri Lanka, which found resonance in Tamil Nadu, it was expected that Rajiv would act as there was already a precedent for such an involvement. 

    “In 1971, a policy of reciprocity came into being. Under the policy, India would not intervene in other countries and would expect that others too would not intervene in India. It was also expected that no neighbour would bring extra-regional powers in regional or internal disputes which might compromise the regional security scenario,” says Bhardwaj, adding that New Delhi had been asking Sri Lanka to address Tamil community’s concerns and solve its internal crises long before 1987. 

    As foreign powers began to get involved in Sri Lanka and as the crises began threatening to spill over into India, New Delhi could no longer sit in isolation. Initially, for several years, RAW helped LTTE and other rebels in Sri Lanka. When conditions escalated to the extent that covert activities could no longer fulfil Indian interests, New Delhi went overt.

    “The Pakistani spy agency ISI was active in Sri Lanka. It  doesn’t matter whether ISI was on the side of the Sri Lankan government or the LTTE, but it was definitely against Indian interests. It was disrupting attempts at peace in Sri Lanka and was working to destabilise India,” says Bhardwaj to Outlook.  

    Besides Pakistan, the Cold War actors and factors were also involved in Sri Lanka and New Delhi at the time was not entirely trustful of the two. 

    Therefore, says Bhardwaj, to prevent foreign powers, particularly Pakistan, from setting up a base in Sri Lanka and to prevent the spilling over of Sri Lankan crises into India and the wider South Asian region, New Delhi had to act. Therefore, Rajiv sent the IPKF to Sri Lanka. 

    Therefore, says Bhardwaj, to prevent foreign powers, particularly Pakistan, from setting up a base in Sri Lanka and to prevent the spilling over of Sri Lankan crises into India and the wider South Asian region, New Delhi had to act. 

    The botched IPKF mission

    While laden with noble intentions, the IPKF mission was full of troubles. The foremost was that there was no clarity to Indian military commanders on the ground about their mandate. They were thrown into a conflict without any thought-out planning. 

    “Apart from a vague brief that we were in Sri Lanka to enforce ‘peace’ between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE, we actually had not been briefed as to what the role of the IPKF was supposed to be…Information, especially pertaining to our role in Sri Lanka, remained sketchy and nebulous,” writes former Indian Army chief General (Retired) VK Singh in his autobiography Courage and Conviction. Singh served in Sri Lanka as a company commander. 

    Singh further notes that, for four months, the ground commanders of the Indian Army did not have updated maps of the region they were operating in. The maps available to them, writes Singh, were from the 1930s when Sri Lanka was under colonial rule. 

    In hindsight, it can be concluded that Rajiv deployed the Indian military to Sri Lanka without considering all aspects. The main flaw in the well-intended plan was that it relied on everything going according to the plan. There was no exit plan and no bipartisan guarantee over the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord by Sri Lankan leadership.

    “In securing the Accord, the Ministry of External Affairs overlooked the first principle of Intervention. In civil unrests, most conflicts have a political dynamic and ultimately require a political resolution. It is only the government of a country that can give political dispensation to its citizens, not an outside power,” notes Lt. Gen. Kalkat, the overall IPKF commander, in an article for India Foundation. 

    Bhardwaj of JNU’s Centre for South Asian Studies says, “It is definitely the case that not all aspects were considered while signing and executing the Accord, but the intention was not bad.”

    Indian forces in Sri Lanka suffered massively and several operations went astray. JN Dixit, who was the Ambassador of India to Sri Lanka when Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed, said they were told that Tamil armed groups were “boys” of Indian intelligence agencies and could never rebel against them. The LTTE began an offensive against IPKF within months of deployment.

    “Intelligence agencies did not analyse it from that point of view at all. They said these are boys who were trained by us from 1977 or whatever…They did not look at it from that angle at all. They said these are our boys, we know them very well, they owe so much to us, so once they say yes, they will not fight us, they won’t. That was their judgment,” said Dixit in an interview with Rediff News in 2000.

    The IPKF mission cast a long shadow on Indian strategic thinking, with the debacle cementing the Indian belief to not get militarily involved overseas. 

    “Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan operation ended in disaster and, with the IPKF pulling out without achieving its objectives, it became the most powerful argument against future Indian military involvement overseas. The ghost of Operation Pawan hung over the proposals for similar Indian missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and, recently, against ISIS,” writes former Indian Army officer and journalist Sushant Singh in his book Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military.

    LTTE playing both sides, cost paid by India

    The IPKF and the broader Indian stabilising mission was not just opposed by the LTTE but also by the political classes of India and Sri Lanka. 

    Following the signing of the peace pact between Rajiv Gandhi and Junius Richard Jayawardene, both the countries had a change of guard. Rajiv was succeeded by VP Singh and Jayawardene was succeeded by Ranasinghe Premadasa. Both were opposed to the Indian presence in Sri Lanka. Premadasa cut a deal with LTTE as both sides planned to benefit with the Indian departure from the island, according to IPKF commander Lt. Gen. Kalkat. 

    “President Premadasa thought that after the IPKF left, his Army could then take on a considerably weakened LTTE as a result of IPKF operations, while Prabhakarn was sanguine that he could defeat the Sri Lankan military if the IPKF was not around,” writes Kalkat in an article. 

    He also writes that Premadasa also supplied arms and ammunition to LTTE to aid their war against the IPKF. 

    Ironically, the LTTE assassinated Premadasa in a suicide bombing in 1993 — similar to the one that killed Rajiv in 1991. 

    When IPKF returned to India, Rajiv was not the prime minister. The election campaigning was on and he was also on the campaign trail. It was widely believed at the time that Rajiv would emerge victorious in the elections. One line of thinking says LTTE assassinated Rajiv because it feared he might send the military to Sri Lanka again upon re-election. 

    While the IPKF suffered losses in Sri Lanka and the mission could not be termed a success, the LTTE too suffered some significant losses and this line of thinking says LTTE did not want to risk repeating such losses with a second round of Indian military deployment. 

    “For the extremist organisation [LTTE] struggling for Tamil Eelam, this meant a possible re-induction of the IPKF in Sri Lanka and a certain crackdown on the elaborate LTTE network established in Tamil Nadu…The LTTE had made up its mind to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from regaining power even if it required the ultimate deterrent — his assassination,” reported Mitra in 1991, the author of Ninety Days.

    Bhardwaj of JNU’s Centre for South Asian Studies does not agree with the line of thinking that says LTTE killed Rajiv as it feared he might send IPKF to Sri Lanka again. 

    “There was not a possibility of IPKF’s return to Sri Lanka. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was more of a retribution by LTTE and Prabhakaran for his involvement in Sri Lanka,” says Bhardwaj. (Courtesy: Outlook India)