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Updated: July 28, 2012 00:15 IST

A tale of two interventions

R. Hariharan
Comment (26)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

A quarter century on, India’s military involvement in Sri Lanka remains relevant as a lesson in poor leadership in contrast to the 1971 war to liberate East Pakistan

The India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987, also known as the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord, completes 25 years on July 29. As a soldier who actively participated in India’s military intervention in both Sri Lanka (1987-90) and East Pakistan in 1971 (that created Bangladesh), I cannot help comparing the two exercises in the assertion of India’s power.

The two theatres, and the environment in India at the time of the two operations, were totally different. In Bangladesh, it was conventional war against the well trained Pakistan army. India went into it after much military planning and preparation. In contrast, in Sri Lanka, the army got embroiled in counter-insurgency combat with Tamil insurgents, for which it was unprepared. Force levels in Bangladesh were much higher. The air force and navy formed part of the overall offensive plan. In Sri Lanka it was essentially a decentralised infantry operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Biggest difference

The biggest difference was perhaps in the tasks given to the army. The objective of the 1971 war was not the capture of East Pakistan, but the establishment of an independent Bangladesh government on East Pakistan soil. In contrast India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka came with a vague mandate to “guarantee and enforce cessation of hostilities” (between the Sri Lanka Army and Tamil militants) as part of the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord. There was no mention of fighting anyone.

There were similarities too between the two outings. In both, India had broader strategic objectives with Cold War connotations to curtail American influence in South Asia. India also thought it in its national interest to help people asserting their rights — in East Pakistan, the Bengalis, and in Sri Lanka, the Tamil minority. Both interventions were preceded by the affected communities rising up to fight their state forces.

The 1971 war served Indian strategic goals by cutting Pakistan’s access, and that of its ally, the U.S., to eastern India. It also met the aspirations of the people who wanted to be freed from the yoke of Pakistan. India did not politically intervene before East Pakistan’s unchallenged leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, declared independence on March 26, 1971. After that it took over eight months to go into the war.

The war lasted barely two weeks from December 3 to 17, 1971. The help of Mukti Bahini — Bangladeshi freedom fighters — was key to the Indian success. It was a tribute to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership and a moment of triumph for General Sam Manekshaw, the army chief, for masterly planning and execution of the war. The Indian armed forces lost over 3,000 lives in the battlefield; over 9,000 Pakistani soldiers were killed and 97,000 taken prisoner. India had sent a strong message in power assertion in South Asia and the nation applauded the achievement.

When thousands of Tamils fled Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the July 1983 pogrom in Colombo against the Tamil minority, at first India tried to engage the Sri Lankan leadership to defuse the crisis. After the signing of the Accord, Tamils built up high expectations based on the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, without realising that the circumstances were different.

Sent to Sri Lanka to help implement the Accord, the Indian Army unexpectedly got entangled in war with the LTTE insurgents who refused to lay down arms and join the political mainstream. The three-year war cost the lives of 1,255 Indian soldiers; thousands of Sri Lankans were killed or wounded. The Indian intervention ended abruptly when Sri Lanka’s democratic process showed the door to the architects of the Accord in both countries.

Both the military interventions hold lessons for India and its armed forces. Firstly, such interventions need dynamic leadership. Undoubtedly, it was Indira Gandhi’s leadership that provided the momentum for success in 1971. She had a nationwide following, beyond the inherited afterglow of Jawaharlal Nehru. Her strong-willed leadership bordered on autocracy, and she focussed on ends rather than the means to achieve them.

She was also a pragmatist; she deferred military intervention in East Pakistan after General (later Field Marshal) Manekshaw sought time to prepare the army for war. Before she went in for the “kill” in East Pakistan, she built strong international constituencies of support. She had a Plan B — the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty — to discount the possibility of American or Chinese military intervention in support of Pakistan. A blundering Pakistani military dictatorship played into her hands and President Nixon blinked when Indian troops moved in and the rest is history.

By the time Rajiv Gandhi inherited the leadership from his mother, Indira Gandhi’s ill-conceived national Emergency had considerably dimmed her halo. He was politically naïve. As he gathered more experience, he had an impatient leadership style, and paid little heed to advice from the seasoned Congress leader and ministerial colleague, P.V. Narasimha Rao, not to go sign the Accord.

When I landed in Jaffna in August 1987, Sri Lankans who knew Jayawardene warned that he would make Indian forces fight the LTTE. I did not believe them then; but in hindsight that seems to have been the plan. Rajiv Gandhi also made unwritten promises that India could not sustain later. When Premadasa gave an ultimatum to Indian troops to quit Sri Lanka, Rajiv had no Plan B.

The second aspect relates to the army. The absence of a national goal in the intervention in Sri Lanka led to warped military thinking. Success in an overseas operation requires the army to be closely involved in the structured strategic decision-making process. The absence of this approach made military sacrifices in Sri Lanka meaningless. The army had not factored in the LTTE reneging on its promise and taking up arms. As a result, forces had to be rushed to Sri Lanka to fight in unknown territory barely a few hours after landing.

The army responded in a knee-jerk fashion to the political leadership’s instant demands without visualising what tasks that involved. When it had to undertake the operation against the LTTE, it lacked intelligence resources, military or civil. In any case, Military Intelligence was not in the loop even as the army was preparing for its role. It was as late as July 23, 1987, when the Deputy Director General of MI informally briefed me, the most senior Tamil speaking officer in the MI, on “possible involvement of army” in Sri Lanka and asked me to meet the Southern Army Commander for further briefing.

When I met the army commander in Chennai on the day our troops landed in Sri Lanka, he expected our role to last no more than a few days or weeks. Civil intelligence agencies played truant; they were reluctant to share information with us for their own reasons. It took nearly two years and the loss of a thousand Indian troops for the civil intelligence flow to improve. By then, it had no worthwhile field intelligence. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, civil and military intelligence had clearly coordinated their operations well in advance.

Strong message

Despite these imponderables, the Accord sent home a strong message to all stakeholders: India would not ignore strategic developments in its close proximity in Sri Lanka, and would support the minority demand for an equitable deal. The most significant achievement of the Accord was the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which provided a degree of autonomy to the newly created provinces. And it still exists as the only constitutional tool available to redress Tamil grievances.

Twenty five years after the Accord, and three years after the Sri Lanka army wiped out the LTTE along with its leader V. Prabakaran in May 2009, two questions come to mind in the changed strategic environment:

Did the Accord serve India’s strategic goals? Can India successfully undertake an overseas military intervention to serve its strategic interests based on lessons from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka?

The Accord failed to achieve its strategic goals in full. The devolution of powers to the Tamil minority promised in the Accord remains unfulfilled despite the 13th Amendment. But the Accord retains the potential as an instrument of Indian influence in the region. As far as the second question is concerned, yes we have a national strategic decision-making structure, though the armed forces are only on listening watch; and intelligence coordination has presumably improved. What India does not have is a dynamic national leadership.

(Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence.

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I reached North East Sri lanka almost a year after the landing of IPKF, I wish to add the following:
By the time I had reached there Tamils used to call Innocent People Killing Force.
Discipline among the common solders were at the rock bottom, with the exception of Gorkhas.
Lack of any mechanism to report cases of atrocities committed by the force.
Supporting Tamil groups with criminal records was much more than a mistake.
Forcefully conscription of Tamil youths for "Tamil National Army" was a fatal error.
Installing a regional Government headed by Bharath Raja with his cronies in Trincomalee was not appropriate step in the right direction.
Inability to protect the Government Agent of Jaffna (Pancha Lingam) had a devastating effect on the safety of those who supported IPKF and
Unfortunately, the gap between what was expected and realized was too wide. Characteristics was more like that of occupying force.

from:  binod sijapati
Posted on: Jul 30, 2012 at 21:38 IST

The long and short of it is India lost to Tamils in SL. Tamils beat
India comprehensively.

from:  Vinoth
Posted on: Jul 30, 2012 at 16:30 IST

Success is always appreciated and a failure is criticised. IPKF fought with LTTE with its right hand tied at the back. It was a total direction less operation. If full liberty was given the result would have been different. It was often told to seek operation. In such unknown jungle territory, with out proper confirmed intelligence, isolated operation by small sub unit was like a sitting duck whose failure was more likely then its success.
What Rajib Gandhi did is a past now. Let us not face similar situation by having another incompetent PM from a congress loved dynasty.

from:  NC Bakshi
Posted on: Jul 30, 2012 at 05:47 IST

With all due respect to the regional fanatics here; stop blaming the Indian Army's role in Sri Lanka during the strife. Ironically its the treachery act of LTTE and its supporters which undid the very purpose IPKF went, normalcy between two communities.

India's blunder during IPKF operation was purely political and not military error. Having camps for LTTE in India and sending IPKF to Sri Lanka at the same time was not ethical and proved a major failure. Will the tamils stop blaming the glorious Indian Army and be grateful for its sacrifices. Treachery and backstabbing has gone hand to hand with LTTE and its supporters. The purpose of organising the so called liberation of tamil land itself was to gain entry in western countries as refugees for economic reasons. Where comes the issue of patriotism here?

from:  SKA
Posted on: Jul 29, 2012 at 18:33 IST

The breakup of Pakistan debunked the 'two nations theory'. It also probably triggered the cascade of events towards a "failed state". Failure to prevent her nuclear capability however has made India's position more dangerous. Bangladesh is alternating between Mujibur Rahman's secular vision and Islamist anti-India foreign policy. The flood of migrants has destabilized India's strategic Northeast.

In Lanka, Jayewardene publicly boasted that he had ambushed both India and the LTTE. India's mistake was to have relied on the 'militants' instead of the elected Tamil leadership, the TULF. Subsequent Indian support to Lanka in the 2009 war and in the UN over human rights abuses have seriously alienated Tamil opinion in India and Lanka. The enlightened leadership and humanitarian efforts of Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalitha have unfortunately been rebuffed by the Center.
"War is politics by other means". The army did its job but the political leadership was wanting at every step.

from:  Thiru V. Ramakrishnan
Posted on: Jul 29, 2012 at 12:28 IST

The article is balanced and informative.Some of the comments are fine
too.I would like to add a rejoinder to this discussion-India has
displayed capable intervention in overseas deployment after the
SriLanka affair.I am talking about the Maldives action when Tamil
militias were kicked out of that country by Indian intervention.I
believe that was ooperation Cactus.Subsequently we have been able to
project ppower in Africa also [as part of UN forces],like in the case
of Operation Khukri.
To summarize,our intelligence and military capabilities have always
been sound and at par with the best.What makes the crucial difference
is the quality of political leadership the nation is having at the

from:  skylarkghosh
Posted on: Jul 29, 2012 at 11:10 IST

Of late,former diplomats and other people involved in the conflict zone of Indo-Sri lanka are writing in the media about the failures of Indian foreign policy strategies towards Sri lanka and throwing blame to the past Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for all still prevailing troubles in the Island nation. It is like five blind men describring about the Elephant,each giving thier own version about the developments taking place in Sri lanka. Why not the former foreign minister A.P.Venakateswaran be persuaded to contribute a writing on this vexed problem with his solution to settle the issue atleast at this stage.He is capable person to tell us what those suggestions offered by late GP-G.Parthasarathy gave in his Annexure -3 report to then PM Rajiv Gandhi which was rejected by him to the peril of India`s security.The country need to be enlightened on this.Atleast Rahul ji who is aspiring for leadership can set right the wrongs done by his father,to Tamils

from:  B.Viswakarman
Posted on: Jul 29, 2012 at 07:58 IST

I feel that there is one important lesson from both these episodes. Never get involved in a
civil war. Sri Lanka was a civil war whereas Bangla Desh was a war of liberation. The whole
of East Pakistan was behind the liberation movement. Hence our job was only to fight
Pakistan. In a civil war, we do not know who the good guys are and even if we know, they
may not be strong. Sometimes it may be the most difficult thing to do - keep quiet when
atrocities happen. Our involvement can only make matters worse for us. One need look no
further than the west involvement in Afghanistan for this lesson

from:  Bala Varadarajan
Posted on: Jul 29, 2012 at 05:16 IST

Why do we blame JR Jayawardene for IPKFs troubles? I dont think JR wanted IPKF in Sri Lanka, it was sent without a request or consent by Sri Lankans for all I know.

from:  chandram
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 19:23 IST

This article fails to mention that India created. financed and armed the LTTE and other armed Tamil militant groups, and that the RAW overtly engaged in a systematic campaign of terror in Sri Lanka prior to the JR-Rajiv accord in order to force the accord on Sri Lanka.

from:  Angelo Peiris
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 18:39 IST

I lived in India for 4.5 years. I saw the genocide committed against
Sikhs after Mrs Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984. Goverment
controlled Hindu gangs in Delhi, Haryana and other regions
massacred(genocide)of innocent Sikhs in violence similar to the
terrible riots in Sri Lanka in July 1983. It is ironic that when the
slaughter of the amazing Sikh people(wholesale rape in Delhi by
Congress-I goons) and Hindus committed atrocities against people
sometimes speaking the same language was horrible. But the difference
was no outside power was playing games like India did with Sri Lanka
by arming,financing and training tamil tiger terrorists under the
arrogant and paranoid Gandhis because Sri Lanka was veering towards
the West and the US. Also there is an arrogant failure specially in
N.India that we Sri Lankans are like Indians or speak Hindi etc.
Sinhalese will never bow their heads to Indian aggression..We have
been fighting Indian invasions from the time of Anuradhapura kingdom

from:  Mano R
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 18:36 IST

Himalayan blunder of India done in the case of Sri lankan Tamils.Not the weapons that eliminated the Tamil rebels there,the treachery of the indian government and the betrayal of DMK,are the real weapons which did the worst there,to the deterimental to the security of India.India will never learn lesson from its past misdeeds.Former Secretary A.P.Venkateswaran, and the Foreign affairs expert G.Parthasaray gave wise counsel to then PM Rajiv Gandhi,he ignored them.Bangaladesh and Sri lankan issues,both are different.As long treachery and betrayal control the affairs of the country,there is no salvation for the winners or loosers.Another war,let God forbid this,as predicted by Norwegian negotiator predicted alone will bring finality to the ethnic strife there,provided men believe in treachery and betrayal are not there.

from:  sundresan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 16:06 IST

Ultimately, it should not have happened. LTTE would have been branded
a terrorist organisation anyway. And a former PM of our country was
But let us be clear - India does not go around looking for wars or
battles. Bangladesh happened primarily because over ten million
refugees had huddled into Tripura, Assam and Bengal. It was more than
even the 1947 partition. Indira had no option but to go in for
military confrontation, and we were a poor country then. That wasn't
the case when it came to the IPKF story - it could have been avoided.

But past is past. Even the Americans withdrew from Vietnam finally by
1975, after a drubbing, and as the legendary Nguyen Vo Giap said, the
combined will of an entire people can never be suppressed or overcome.

from:  G Krishnan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 15:02 IST

The 1971 Bangladesh "intervention" is something that we can be eternally proud of. India intervened to stop genocide and rescue the people of Bangladesh. Our government and PM were magnanimous is being absolutely free of any terriorial ambitions. We also repatriated all the Pak POWs. In comparison, one wishes we could forget the Lanka affair. We not only failed to stop massacre of innocoents, our inept "intervention" actually encouraged, promoted, and facilitated senseless killings and ultimately led to unspeakable war crimes that accompanied the Lanka army's "victory".

from:  witan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 14:45 IST

Indeed Rajiv played in to the hands of Jayawardhane. The LTTEs
were running a parallel government in SriLanka.No doubt, the
creation of the Tamil outfits was the outcome of the post
colonial neglect of the more intellectual and industrious Tamils
and weaning them away from mainstream politics and administration
That started the Tamil separatist outfits particularly the
radical LTTE which intimidated and coerced the Tamil population
to military training and guerilla warfare; they perfected the art
of suicide bombs that created total panic in the Singala
majority. Bangladesh experience kindled LTTE hopes of India
helping them to wrest Tamil Elam from the hegemonic Singala
mainland. Prabhakaran had a meeting with Rajiv; he expected India
to do a Bangladesh act. But Jayawardhana played the master stroke
in seeking India's mediation; naively ambitious Rajiv fell for
the ruse. Prabhakaran doubted the sincerity of Rajiv and rest is
history; IPKF paid the price for the blunder of a naive PM.

from:  M.R.Sampath
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 13:33 IST

has indian made accountable any one in the IPKF for war crimes comitted in sri lanka?...why no body talks about how india trained tamil terrorists agaist another soverign country

from:  billy
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 12:37 IST

There is an important lesson to be learnt from the IPKF fiasco, especially to those who are clamoring for the elevation Rahul Gandhi
to be the Prime Minster. Rajiv Gandhi was immature and impulsive in committing Indian troops to Sri Lanka with out much thought and tragically paid with own life as a result. This is the consequence
when people of extreme incompetency and immaturity are made in
charge of heterogeneous country like our. It takes a great deal
wisdom,experience and baptism under fire to be a supreme leader of
India. Rahul so far has exhibited none of these traits and the sycophants side kicks of Gandhi clan better take note.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 11:02 IST

Bangla desh and Sri Lanka situations entirely different. East Pakistan
people were not having any love towards west. There was misrule and
they were treated as second class citizens. Local people plus Mukti
Bahini were on Indian's side. Also we had the ADVANTAGE OF easy
accessibility, whereas West Pakistan was in a disadvantageous
position, seperated by hundrds of kilometers by land and sea which is
a hurdle for supply / troup movement. India is a giant country. India
had these advantages. Sri Lanka, India had only disadvantages. India
was fighting Sri Lanka governments war - lost both Sri Lanka and
Tamils support. It was a foolish move. How Indian intelligence,
external affairs pundits advised Rajiv Gandhi - God alone knows. More
than Rajiv Gandhi's leadership, it shows his advisor's failure. The
Head takes action / decision based on his advisors input. With wrong
input, you will get a wrong output. By common sense, Bangla Desh was
an easy one.

from:  Gopalan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 10:51 IST

The Sri Lankan fiasco has nothing to do with Military planning as nothing was planned in the first place. It was just an political decision without any foresight taken at the Cabinet Level by people who has /had little knowledge of military intervention and gains/ loss that a nation may suffer in taking up the operation. Army just followed the orders to move in as peace keepers. The only fault that the Army did was not to oppose such a move which had no AIM & OBJECTIVE.
Sri Lankan army never had the will nor the powers to take on the LTTE and moreover LTTE enjoyed the confidence of the local Tamils and also those across the border in India. President Jayewardane an astute politician knew that to defeat the LTTE he required support from India and by proxy the Tamils in India. He was able to turn the LTTE against the Indian Forces which finally led to the assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi and the isolation of LTTE internationally.

from:  Jayant
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 10:39 IST

As a veteran of the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars and an exponent of
International Relations and Strategic Studies, my view about the
IPKF's involvement in Sri Lanka was the result of an unholy
combination of a greenhorn PM and an over ambitious Army Chief who had
the gall to comment that he would finish the LTTE in two weeks' time!
The LTTE's spokesperson Anton Balasingham was totally taken aback at
this. No one really knew what was the actual mission of the IPKF,
resulting in a wily Pres Junius Jayawardene trapping an unwary Rajiv
Gandhi into getting the IPKF to do his dirty work of fighting the
LTTE. The outcome was disastrous for India in general and the IPKF in
particular. The UN charter clearly says that a peace keeping force
must be multinational in character and not have any contingent from
any country that has an interest in the conflict ridden nation.
Presumably our govt was clueless on this vital input or our PM-Army
Chief duo wanted to do "dadagiri" over a small neighbour.

from:  JK Dutt
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 10:02 IST

End result was the Indian Army unnecessarily attacking innocent Tamils
in Jaffna, not knowing who they fight with

from:  ilangai thamilan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 09:46 IST

Rajiv gandhi was a naive, immature and egoist. Any advice from any
corner was not palable to him. The IPKF sent in his regime in Srilanka
fought with the people for whose protection it had been sent. We had
lost more than 1200 sons of soil in Srilanka unnecessarily for the
immature decision of Rajiv. He behaved egoistically when he wanted to
change the foreign secretary Mr. AP.Venkateswaran. In allowing Silanyas
also he miscalculated and rest was the history of demolition of Babri

from:  Raghurama Sarma Bondalapati
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 09:36 IST

There are lessons learned in Indian military interventions in East
Pakistan and Sri Lanka:
(1) Military intervention in countries with common land border is
possible if there is no intervention by China.
(2) Military intervention in countries across the sea is a difficult
task for India.
(3) The concept of Non Aligned Nation (NAN)is a mask used by India for
the choice of military action against the country of choice.
(4) The concept of NAN is applied when ever the trade or political
alliance with a country is strong.
(5) It is easy to make trade deals with dictatorships. Hence NAN
concept applies to dictatorships around the world.
(6) Though India is the biggest democracy in the world, Indian foreign
policy is usually tilted towards dictatorships, rather than democratic
(8) India attacked East Pakistan and Sri Lanka to liberate Bengalis
and Tamilians, respectively. But India forgot people of Indian origin
in Fiji and Myanmar when dictators came to power in those countries.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 08:00 IST

During IPKF opertion in Srilanka "thousands of Srilankans killed" actually these Srilankans are all Tamils.

from:  Rajan
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 06:52 IST

Rajiv Gandhi was naive,immature and egoist. he could not assess that we
had to fight with the people for the protection of whom we have entered
in to the accord. It is rightly said that he was impatient to heed any
advice from any of the seasoned [politicians. He misbehaved in the case
of foreign secretary Sri Venkateswaran also at that time. His wrong
assessment of Srilankan Tamil issue cost India valuable lives of more
than 1200 sons of the soil.

from:  Raghurama Sarma Bondalapati
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 03:45 IST

India is indeed a giant counry. It's enduring geographic and cultural identity, unitary federal structure, entrenched democratic polity, large population and strategic location in the Indian Ocean makes it a potential world leader. Only the blind will deny that it is uniquely positioned to aspire to be a world leader. But to aspire to be a world leader and to be recognized as a regional superpower, it is vitally important to have a strong and vigorous economy. However, the weakness of its political leadership and its inability to break out of the quagmire of systemic corruption are acting as deadweights on the economic front. Whether India will fulfil its destiny depends entirely on winning on these two internal battlefronts.

from:  Cyril A.A.
Posted on: Jul 28, 2012 at 03:10 IST
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