IPKF in Sri Lanka: War

This is the fourth post (Part 3) of a six-part series telling the story of India’s intervention in Sri Lanka. You can read other parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 2.5

From left: Prabhakaran, Dixit and General Harkirat Singh. Ten days after this picture was taken, they will be fighting a war against each other.

From left: Prabhakaran, Dixit and General Harkirat Singh. Ten days after this picture was taken, they will be fighting a war against each other.

At first, Major General Harkirat Singh had it easy. In July 1987, he had been sent to Sri Lanka to command Indian Army’s 54 Infantry Division, essentially making him in-charge of the IPKF in the Tamil North. At first this had meant protecting Tamils from the Sri Lankan army and cajoling LTTE and other Tamil insurgent groups into keeping their side of the Accord. The duties were mostly ceremonial and the biggest worry for officers was to have enough games and activities going to make sure that the soldiers don’t grow bored. Meanwhile, IPKF command was making friends with the Tamil insurgents. LTTE leadership was often in and out of IPKF HQ. Indian officers attended weddings of LTTE families. General Singh hoped to be back home by December. All in all, it seemed an easy assignment. Sadly, the good days were not to last.

Behind IPKF’s backs, LTTE had been steadily preparing for a war with the IPKF. Weapons were being smuggled in and hoarded; anti-India propaganda was quietly being circulated. LTTE was also assassinating rival Tamil leaders, getting rid of the competition from other Tamil insurgent groups. Parallel to it, Prabhakaran was slowly sabotaging the negotiations, making excessive demands from the Sri Lankan government. India’s High Commissioner in Colombo, JN Dixit, who had been taking care of the political side of the Accord, was the first raise alarm. But General Singh and IPKF command, sympathetic to LTTE, were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

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IPKF in Sri Lanka: Coup

This is a sidetrack to the five-part (now a six-part) series on Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka. Consider it Part 2.5. Although not technically set in Sri Lanka, it is nevertheless an important and interesting part of the story. You can read the previous parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

International Conspiracy: India-trained Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka invade Maldives

International Conspiracy: India-trained Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka guarding the NSS Complex

They had been at the sea for three days now. Sri Lanka, where they had spent most of their lives fighting a war for the cause of Tamil liberation, was hundreds of miles away. India, where they had been secretly trained in the trade craft of warfare years ago, lay even further off. They were eighty in number, huddled in four stolen fishing boats. They were armed to the teeth with AK-47s, grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars, but had run out of food and water. Hungry and thirsty, they had been searching for land for hours. They finally saw it at 11 am on the night of 2 November 1988, a tiny red light on one of the buildings off the coast. The leader, a young guerrilla nicknamed Vasanthi, ordered his men to check their arms and ammunition, as they approached their destination. They were here to invade Maldives.

At first, the invasion went without a hitch. The Tamil militants landed in Male, capital of Maldives, at 4 am on 3 November 1988. Maldives didn’t have an army, only a 1400-strong National Security Service that served as police, fire fighting service and military, all rolled into one. The first task for the invaders was to neutralise it. After a half-an-hour fire fight, they had taken over the NSS complex, killing a few NSS guards but losing Vasanthi. Next they took the harbour, the power grid, and TV and radio station. By noon, they were in control of Male and in effect the entire Maldives. Only the Maldivian president Maumoon Gayoom eluded capture, but all in all, the operation had gone without much trouble. The 30,000 or so bewildered Male residents could only watch as lungi-clad Tamil militant looted their shops for food and booty.

However, the success was short-lived. In afternoon they heard BBC radio announce that help for Maldives was on its way. The radio was reporting a military contingent of hundreds of commandos flying in to liberate the country. In the evening, the militants heard a fighter jet zoom over their heads. This was more than they had bargained for. Leaderless, the militants began to panic. Indian forces were coming for them.

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Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka: Accord

This is the second post of a five-part series telling the story of India’s Sri Lankan adventure. You can read other parts of the series here: Part 1, Part 2.5, Part 3

Feared LTTE leader Prabhakaran, flanked by Indian guards

Feared LTTE leader Prabhakaran, flanked by Indian guards

The crisis was not long in coming. In January 1987, Sri Lankan military started a new offensive, putting the Tamil city Jaffna under martial law. The entire Tamil north was put under embargo, stopping supplies of even essential like food and medicine and creating famine-like conditions. The government also started using its newly-acquired air power for air strikes. Undoubtedly, these were highly brutal tactics, causing incalculable harm to the innocent Tamil civilians.

While Indian government sought to defuse the situation, both LTTE and Colombo kept escalating it by attack and counter-attack. By May, the situation had become intolerable. Faced with growing pro-Tamil sympathy at home, Gandhi decided to issue an ultimatum. Jayewardene was demanded by India to end the military offensive. But the Sri Lankan president was ready to call Gandhi’s bluff. “India can go to hell,” he told his advisers. When Indian diplomats stressed on their demands, he told his advisers, “what is the worse [sic] that India can do? It will invade Sri Lanka. I will cross that bridge when it comes.”

Given Jayewardene’s stubbornness, Gandhi was forced to take more drastic measures. On 2 June, the Sri Lankans were informed that in a few hours India will be unarmed ships carrying food and medicine for the embargoed Jaffna city. The Indian ships will be sailing through the Sri Lankan naval blockade and delivering the relief supplies to the distraught Tamils. However, by this point, Jayewardene was too committed to turn back. The nationalist Sinhalese population (including the Buddhist monasteries) were goading him on to take on the big Indian bully.

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Indian Peacekeeping Mission in Sri Lanka: Origins

What remained of Tamil areas in Colombo after Black July

What remained of Tamil areas in Colombo after Black July

This is the first post of a five-part series telling the story of India’s Sri Lankan adventure. You can also read other parts of the series here: Part 2, Part 2.5, Part 3. This is for Shivangi Singh who asked me to explain the whole IPKF story. 

The plane was late. The Sri Lankan president JR Jayewardene had been anxiously awaiting its arrival for hours, but to no avail. It was a delay that the president couldn’t afford, for the plane carried the dead bodies of thirteen soldiers who had been ambushed and killed by the Tamil insurgent group LTTE the day before. Earlier in the day, the president had overruled his advisers and decided to have their funeral in Colombo. Now it was proving to be a fatal mistake. Every minute that the plane was late, the crowd outside the cemetery swelled even further, demanding retribution against the Tamils. By the time the plane arrived, the restive mob had grown to 10,000. The police, concerned about law and order situation, decided to use its riot squad to break up the crowd. Instead it brought the situation to a boiling point, and almost instantly ethnic riots engulfed Colombo. Within a day, the riots spread across the country. For the next seven days, Tamils were targeted, looted, killed by hordes of angry Sinhalese. By the end of what became known as Black July, more than 100,000 Tamils had been made homeless, most of them fleeing to refugee camps in India. Within days of Black July, ranks of Tamil separatist groups like LTTE began to grow. What were until now basically just terrorist groups, started to build armies of their own. In the following months and years, these groups unleashed the level of violence unprecedented in the entire South Asia.

The Sri Lankan Civil War had begun.

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