35 years and forgotten, Op Pawan – Indian Army’s deadliest conflict on Sri Lankan territory

The success of a military campaign is evaluated based on the degree of achievement of planned goals and objectives through combat and noncombat operations. This is determined when one of the belligerent military forces defeats the opposing military force within the constraints of the planned resource, time and cost allocations.

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji India Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

India has been celebrating its victory on the creation of Bangladesh and the capture of 93000 Pakistan Army prisoners of war; OP VIJAY has taken precedence over the 1971 war being more recent and, since 1999, has been celebrated each year.

In OPERATION VIJAY, the casualties suffered were 527 as available in the public domain. To commemorate this victory, bicycle and motorcycle rallies and many public events are held at various locations, culminating at the Drass War Memorial.

Conversely, OPERATION PAWAN was launched on 30 July 1987 on the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord between Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President Junius Richard Jayewardene. 

Thirty-Five years later, 1300 killed in action and approximately 3500 grievously injured have been kept away from public memory on the sacrifice of the Indian Servicemen in a foreign country. 

This was the first overseas tri-service peacekeeping operation launched to bring relief to the Tamils of Sri Lanka who were under duress. The local laws had been amended by an act of parliament to bring the stature of the Sri Lankan Tamil to a status of a second-grade citizen. 

The Tamil youth took to the gun, and this movement was supported by the Sri Lankan Tamils overseas, who launched a campaign for an Elam (freedom) from the shackles of the Sinhala regime.  

The political parties of Tamil Nadu provided a haven in the state and gave their whole-hearted support to their country cousins in Sri Lanka. The Central Government at the centre was under an inexperienced Prime Minister who was keen to see India as a regional power. In 1984 the Prime Minister, after the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, got elected on a popular sympathy vote. Egged on by his close coterie of friends, he wanted to take rapid strides by engaging with Pakistan and China. 

mood of the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran
The Indian and Sri Lankan leadership failed to read the mood of the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

China wanting to test the waters, attempted an expansionist movement in the Sumdrong Chu area; Exercise Chequerboard negated this; to blunt the Chinese land grab.

Indian Army simultaneously undertook the Brass Tacks series of exercises, culminating in Exercise Brass Tacks IV, which involved the mobilisation of India’s offensive corps in the deserts of Rajasthan along with the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy. 

The Tamil rebel groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Sri Lankan Army. The Sri Lankan Government launched an offensive in Jaffna at the end of May 1987. The local population was denied food and medicines, which resulted in India launching humanitarian aid through Tamil Nadu fishers on 19 fragile 32-foot-long, 96 horsepower fishing boats bearing Red Cross flags. Each boat carried two tonnes of cargo; pulses, kerosene, bread, matchsticks, tamarind, vegetables, milk powder and salt. But the main article was rice, 27 tonnes in all. The Sri Lankan Navy contested this as these boats attempted to enter the Sri Lankan waters.

As a contingency plan in anticipation of a blockade at sea, five AN 32 transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) took off from Bengaluru, heading for Jaffna, 450 km away. There was excitement among the seven journalists on board the lead aircraft, flying at 12000 feet. They were escorted by four Mirage 2000 aircraft for protection/intervention by the Sri Lanka Air Force. 

During this period, India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), selected regimental centres of the Indian Army were training LTTE cadres to take on the Sri Lankan Army. The LTTE cadres would proudly wear the uniforms; several LTTE leaders also accorded themselves self-styled ranks of the Indian Army. 

The Indian Government had initially considered launching an offensive operation and was banking on the support of the LTTE, akin to the Mukti Bahini during 1971 operations in Bangladesh. The wily Sri Lankan president offered the olive branch of a peace accord, which made the PM of India and the Sri Lankan President look like statesmen. The only factor the two leaders did not take into consideration was the defiant mood of the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

All attempts to get Prabhakaran on board were failing. Prabhakaran was flown by his R&AW handlers from Chennai to New Delhi to meet with the PM in the last resort attempt. Prabhakaran refused to change his stance, to consent to the peace accord. The LTTE supremo was left to himself to manage his way back to Jaffna. This insult was not forgotten, and the revenge was taken on 21 May 1991 at Sri Perumbudur, where a suicide bomber targeted Rajiv Gandhi. Recently the co-accused were released from jail, having completed their prison terms.

Post the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord on 29 July 1987 at Colombo, the first troops of the Indian Peace Keeping Force landed at Jaffna on 30 July 1987. The Indian Army was accorded a hero’s welcome at Jaffna. 

The quick-changing operational orders had the military leadership at its wit’s end to know when the amendment to the orders passed would come in. The load tables were in disarray, and some operational loads went by ship to Trincomalee, and the troops flew into Palali airfield of Jaffna.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was kept from going into Jaffna town. The mood was relaxed. A bonhomie developed between the local population, LTTE cadres and the IPKF. 

The LTTE was to surrender its arms and ammunition, and the Sri Lankan government pressured the IPKF to carry out its mandate to disarm the rebel groups.

The Sri Lankan Navy apprehended 17 LTTE cadres on the high seas and brought them to Jaffna airfield to be taken to Colombo. This deportation was prevented by surrounding the Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft. The apprehended cadres went on hunger strike; LTTE leadership requested that food packets be allowed to be sent in, which allowed the smuggling of cyanide capsules resulting in the death of the cadres. This blew the lid off the peace accord as LTTE reneged on all promises made and an armed confrontation commenced on 10 October 1987. The Indian Amry units were without intelligence or maps and had no knowledge of the terrain.

Infantry units were surprised as the battalion support weapons and ammunition was stored in a peace environment, and “friends of yesterday were enemies of the day”.

Armour and Mechanised Infantry had been held back on the mainland, as offensive equipment had no role in peacekeeping operations.

An Army trained to fight in a conventional operation overnight was engaged in fighting a fleeting and nimble enemy in built-up areas and jungles; which operated in half a dozen numbers and were agile to target the troops from coconut tree tops and change positions frequently, thus creating a decision dilemma in the commanders at all levels on the actual strength engaging the Indian Army (IA).

The LTTE had, in anticipation, blackened out all the road signs in English; reading Tamil was a challenge. The smart use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to knock out tanks, infantry combat vehicles and soft-skinned vehicles took a heavy toll. The improvised claymore mines based on the U.S. design but more devastating took their toll on the troops moving on foot.

Its kudos to the Indian Army’s junior military leadership and its troops for quickly learning on the job to innovate their battle drills and procedures as well as minor tactics to more than match the LTTE. The men rallied behind their officers who led from the front; the ethos of Naam, Namak our Nishaan (Name, Salt and sigh) was at play.

Many a heroic engagement was fought, some good, some bad. Unlike 1999, there was no direct broadcast of the battles being fought; the era of cell phones was far away. Logistics was at its poorest in Jaffna. 

The Military planning, the performance of all ranks was at its lowest ebb. Brig Manjit Singh, commander of 41 Infantry Brigade, took the bull by the horns and led his troops from the front.

My regimental tanks were flown in piecemeal on IL 76 Gajraj and, upon landing, were ordered to move towards Jaffna without a map or clear orders. The Infantry units would use the tanks to lead their advance. 

In the first 72 hours of operations, there was a ‘fog of war’

Casualties suffered and inflicted were many. Own battle casualties were flown by IAF aircraft to Madras; LTTE battle casualties too were reportedly being treated at Madras in the best of private hospitals.

The Indian Army was engaged in full-fledged operations. Simultaneously, R&AW was engaged in supplying the LTTE with all warlike stores, reflecting on the conflict in the Indian Political Leadership ably assisted by its intelligence agencies in a stark difference on order being passed to the troops on the ground.

What is the success of a military campaign?

The success of a military campaign is evaluated based on the degree of achievement of planned goals and objectives through combat and noncombat operations. This is determined when one of the belligerent military forces defeats the opposing military force within the constraints of the planned resource, time and cost allocations.

To amplify each action fought would be impossible to narrate in a short article. The list of Honours and Awards starting from a Param Vir Chakra to Sena Medal Gallantry and Mention in Dispatches, is adequate to state that the Government of the day awarded the bravery and sacrifice of the men in uniform.

The gallantry and sacrifices made in OPERATION PAWAN were no lesser than that displayed during OPeration VIJAY.

To my mind OP PAWAN was a success, keeping in mind the tasks allocated to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) IPKF.

  • The LTTE was inflicted heavy casualties, and it had to flee from Jaffna to the jungles of Vavuniya. Their supply lines were disrupted; however, due to support from Tamil Nadu’s mainland and cross purposes of the intelligence agencies, this was not completely choked off.
  • Peaceful elections were conducted in the Northern and the Eastern provinces.
  • Rehabilitation and aid to civil authorities restored most of the civic agencies to start functioning.
  • The Sri Lanka Armed Forces and police were restricted to their camps and safe from annihilation by the LTTE.
  • The Sri Lankan Army was able to concentrate and fight against the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the Southern States of Sri Lanka.

The political leadership had changed, and President Ranasinghe Premadasa sent his Army Chief to tell the GOC IPKF that he should de-induct the IPKF from the island. GOC IPKF politely told the Sri Lankan Army Chief that he didn’t take his orders from the Sri Lanka Government. The missive in a letter from the President of Sri Lanka was carried back undelivered.

This emboldened the LTTE and Sri Lanka Army, once foes, to join hands. LTTE commenced launching operations from Sri Lanka Army bases close to IPKF deployments.

GOC IPKF tasked his Combat Group commanders to be prepared to launch assaults on Sri Lanka Armed Forces camps and move towards Colombo with the first objective on the IPKF boundary line with the central provinces.

Op Pawan - IPKF Tank Crew, T-72 hidden among the trees
Op Pawan – IPKF Tank Crew, T-72 hidden among the trees. Image: Special arrangement

The change in the Indian Political leadership at the centre and the pull out of IPKF were ordered, which commenced at the end of 1989 and was completed by April end 1990.

The heroes of 1987 in Tamil Nadu were not given a ceremonial welcome; the military leadership of the day distanced itself since that day to date. The Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, the Army day Parade commemoration of all battles fought, has given this Operation a miss by a barge pole length. Leadership across the board relegated the killed in action to an anonymous funeral pyre on the island and the mainland. 

The memories of the bloodshed and the valour are only in the minds of the Veterans of OPERATION PAWAN, who are determined that before fading away in history; they have made a strong resolve to bring this legacy to the knowledge of future generations and regain their rightful place in the annals of military history.

With the failures of the political leadership, the arrogance of the Indian High Commissioner, the duplicity of the intelligence agencies, the connivance of the Tamil Nadu police force, and the animosity of the Tamil Nadu local population, in hindsight, seems that India as a Nation was prepared to Fight its own Army and defeat it on foreign land.

To acknowledge the collective defeat of all the agencies against the tenacity and valour of the Indian Army perhaps shames all of them collectively, who have failed India as agencies later during OP VIJAY and in recent times OP SNOW LEOPARD against China ( in 2020)

The Indian Armed Forces can deal with an external enemy; the enemy inside is more dangerous. Is it worth fighting for an ungrateful lot, is a question that probably comes to mind often? The Chetwood Oath remains supreme as the commitment given is for life and not a moment, even as one has hung his spurs and become frail in body but not in mind.

Lastly, when will we learn to respect the sacrifice of those who were killed in OPERATION PAWAN? A war memorial in Sri Lanka is an acknowledgement of the bravery of our Bravehearts. Sadly the country implodes, for which once the Indian Defence Forces fought to keep it united and peaceful.


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