Op Pawan – LTTE and IPKF – When Everything Went Perfectly… Wrong

What if Prabhakaran was not allowed to leave India till the accord got implemented?

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Lt Col RS Bhown
Lt Col RS Bhown
Lt Col RS Bhown (retd), an Infantry Officer, JAT Regiment, Alumnus of NDA, Graduated DSSC, Wellington and a student of Military History. * Views are personal.

“Many modern-day Metternich and other advocates of realpolitik justify a militarist or power-centred approach to international politics on the ground that the nations, like men, should have their two feet firmly on the ground and deal with the reality as it actually is and not as it ought to be”.  

We were amid hectic wargaming in Delhi, and many heavy shoulders from South Block frequented the Parade Ground area where the Ops Rooms of various Indian Military syndicates were established. Shri Arun Singh, the RM and COAS, General K Sundarji, were directing the much-hyped Exercise, like Brass Tacks. This was the famous ‘Chequerboard I.’ Whispers in the tea corners were catching ears. ‘Will Rajiv Gandhi meet Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo, before flying to Colombo to sign the accord?’ Late in the night, the air got cleared that ‘He did not’. 

To be able to arrive at any sustainable political arrangement in Sri Lanka that could reconcile, to some acceptable extent, the ethnic strife in the island nation logically required the consensus of all major stakeholders. These were Tamil Secessionists (at least LTTE), DMK in Tamil Nadu, besides the Governments of Sri Lanka and India. Despite significant opposition in their own Parliament and domestic pollical environment, Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene decided to proceed with the accord. It resulted in Rajiv Gandhi getting a (rifle) butt from a soldier, and Jayewardene lost his office. The new government later refused point-blank to implement the accord. The reason given was Indian Army failed to disarm LTTE. 

We had 1157 soldiers killed and 3009 wounded. The whole operation, called ‘Pawan’, commemorating lord Hanuman and the expeditionary force of Bhagwan Ram, culminated in vain. For Indian Military, it was a professional challenge, and it faced it upfront. Our soldiers fought bravely in the highest tradition of the Indian Armed Forces. We fight because we are ordered to. That’s it. Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die. 

In the Shoes of Rajiv Gandhi 

(his shoes identified his remains. He wore a lotto, Italian. How funny things get connected)

  1. Gopalswamy Parthasarathy was recognized for his acumen to draw peace accords. Sheikh-Indira, Punjab, Mizoram, and Assam were to his credit already, and he was shuttling between Colombo and Delhi vigorously. Rajiv had inherited him from his mother and was a ready handy, expert diplomatic advisor. 
  2. Tamil Nationalism is not an unknown aspiration of the state in South India. DMK, the prominent party, has its roots and inspirations from the same. It’s of the Indian law of sedition that no political party can demand a separate nation; the DMK dropped its agenda officially but may not be in the spirits. Rajiv knew this well and worried after Elam; it could be ‘ye dil mange more’ (this heart desires more). At the same time, increasing Sinhalese discrimination and persecution of Sri Lankan Tamil was not acceptable being Indian diaspora, come what may. It had domestic ramifications. 
  3. Sri Lanka already had an Israeli section in US Embassy for advising and training their Army in counter-guerilla warfare, Pakistani aid in logistics, arms and equipment was forthcoming, and the US had already acquired an RR facility. India’s worries only increased.
  4. Rajiv had two immediate tasks to accomplish. One, squeeze Jayewardene into accepting a mid-ground, just short of Elam. Two, coerce Prabhakar into unconditionally accepting the accord’s terms and lay down arms. Prabhakar didn’t relent that night. Rajiv chose to ignore him and flew out to Colombo in the wee hours. “We will pacify and assuage the angry boys”, thought our leaders. Indian Intelligence agencies fondly called LTTE and other secessionist organizations’ our boys.” The Boys had gone rogue. Rest is history.

In the Hindsight   

  1. Should India have feared the fire of Tamil Nationalism catching wind from across the Palk Strait? The answer would be that the then experts could have carried out more realistic threat appreciation in a chair, and there was no cause for immediate panic.
  2. Should India be gotten so overly concerned about the foreign presence in Sri Lanka? Was it an alarm sounded by vested interest agencies, like the CIA etc? 
  3. Was India under coercive pressure from the USA to stop supporting Tamil Insurgent groups and mend the mess in Sri Lanka? If yes, shouldn’t we be standing up to it? We did it in 1971. 
  4. As a hypothetical case, let’s assume India increased its support to LTTE instead of donning a hat of Peace Messiah and prepared itself to offset any foreign military manoeuvres in the vicinity of the island nation. Then what? Prabhakar was confident of destroying Sri Lankan Army if IPKF vacated the island.
  5. What if Prabhakaran was not allowed to leave India till the accord got implemented?
  6. IPKF, instead of turning its guns on LTTE, asked Sri Lankan Government first to implement the 13th Amendment to its constitution and had procrastinated laying down arms a little later. 

In the Shoes of Sunderji

  1. After Sam Manekshaw, Sunderji enjoyed a terrific rapport with ‘both’ PM and RM. He had the reputation of an intelligent, scholarly and much-experienced General. Yet, he possibly felt like Mac Arthur or Patton to see fleeting glories in his dreams. He saw an opportunity in IPKF to satiate his professional hunger. 
  2. With decades of experience in the North East, he thought Indian Army would tame tigers in no time. 57 Mountain Division was the immediate choice. 
  3. Army would get another Lt General, and an expeditionary force capability be added to its order of battle. 
  4. He also knew Indian Army fights with what it has and possesses great adaptability and improvisational skills besides operating on an ad hoc basis.
  5. He saw victory and glory on the wall.

Take Home

  1. Realistically assessing the threats to national security is more important than seeing ghosts.
  2. Our NE and Kashmir experience tells us that when ethnic minorities are locked in mortal combat, discretion is better than valour. 
  3. Instead of relying upon chosen advisor, the regular one holding the accountable office is always wiser. 
  4. Political objectives must be defined with clarity before an armed conflict and the military assures their achievability. Sync between the two is the key.
  5. Timing is of utmost importance for enforcing any political decision, within the country or without. 
  6. Going into war unprepared and expecting to win is only foolhardiness. Sam made Indira Gandhi hold her guns till the preparations were complete. 
  7. Indian Army went in because it was ordered to. It fought with what it had—raised the bar for everyone in the profession of Arms to fight like Tigers. Positive, be it we had a live bullet training and battle hardening, though at a very dear cost.


There will be mistakes, yet the risks will have to be taken. Those in harness will be questioned later after hindsight and dragged in public. May be brought to justice at times. What should never die is good faith and learning from mistakes. Op Pawan is remembered and commemorated for the valour of the Indian Armed Forces and the sacrifices made by the soldiers and their families. 


  1. A very well Analysed n Penned Realistic Views.Some after Thoughts could not be Visaulised by The Policy Makers n IPKF suffered Huge losses until Firced to Withdraw by Sri lankan Govt.

  2. Dear Sir,

    An excellently written article, from a different perspective. With hindsight, all these arguments can be stated. However, it must be understood that the primary aim of the IPKF intervention was to save the Eelam Tamils from the ruthless hands of the SLA, and to prevent a massive influx of Tamil refugees to India. The boiling feelings of the Tamil constituency in India could also not be ignored.

    What happened subsequently could never be predicted beforehand. Pirabhakaran had too much faith in the capability of his fighters. He was proved totally wrong in 2009. The Eelam Tamils missed the opportunity of many centuries, to lead a decent life with their heads held upright.

    The choice before the political leadership was “to be or not to be” as stated in Hamlet. Both were Devil’s choices. However as a mature Nation, we have unquestionably learnt and benefited by choosing the former Option.


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