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.
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.
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. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987, Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord, Liberation of East Pakistan, India's military intervention, 13th Amendment, Pakistani military dictatorship, devolution of powers, LTTE, Pakistan Army