Operation Pawan: India in the Sri Lankan Civil War


On 29th July 1987, a historic accord known as the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene in Colombo. This accord led to India’s direct involvement in the counter-insurgency operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The civil war was between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. The war lasted for 25 years, beginning in 1983, and ended in 2009, when the government declared total victory over the rebels.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene signing the Accord in Colombo (Source: The Hindu)


In early October 1987, Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in Sri Lanka for the execution of Operation Pawan (wind), the first overseas peacekeeping operation in post-independent India. The mission lasted for 967 days, where nearly 1200 soldiers lost their lives and over 3,000 were injured. The goal was to regain control of the Jaffna Peninsula from the LTTE and enforce disarmament.


Operation Pawan

The operation commenced through the airhead at Palaly airfield, north of Jaffna. The Indian Army formations did not have maps and little artillery support. It was a heliborne operation with 10 Para Commando (now Special Forces) and 13 Sikh Light Infantry (LI) launched on 11 October 1987, in an attempt to capture the LTTE leader who was reportedly in a meeting at Jaffna university. However, the assault did not go as planned, as it was later found out that the LTTE had Japanese sophisticated radio heads that intercepted the communication and were prepared for the attack. The commandos were conserving their ammo and somehow managed to out the entire night, while the backup arrived and relieved them. This attack resulted in the loss of 30 Sikh LI troops and six paratroopers.


By then Palaly air base had become a major operational base for the IPKF, which was once a hub for the LTTE activities which meant they needed more ammunition to counter further attacks. Therefore, by the end of October, the Indian Air Force flew 2200 tactical transport, 800 helicopter sorties, and Indian Airlines brought in the troops.


In the following days, the IPKF planned its retaliation, however, according to the rules of engagement they were forbidden to use heavy artillery unless necessary to minimise civilian casualty. LTTE, on the other hand, was prepared with mines, snipers atop the houses and treetops, improvised explosive devices IEDs, switches for which were camouflaged; they had no rules to follow, and their goal was to inflict maximum damage. After two weeks of constant fighting, with the 20,000 troops of the IPKF taken from the Indian Army’s 4th, 36th and 54th Divisions they were starting to make progress, but it was far from over.


One of the major issues faced by the IPKF was to distinguish between the Tigers and Tamil civilians, as many sources quote Sepoy Govindan of the Madras Regiment saying, "It was impossible to say who was a Tiger and who was not. Everyone, male or female, above the age of 10, could be armed and dangerous. We saw little girls producing guns from under their frocks and shooting at us. How do you fight them?"


The turning point of the operation took place when the IPKF, under Colonel T Brar, broke out of the Old Dutch Fort area after being cornered for over two days, to link up with the other advancing troops of the 41st Brigade and effectively seal off the Nallur area where the Tigers were concentrated.


It took over a month, but the Indian Army captured Jaffna, despite the initial setbacks, which came at a price, this operation took the lives of close to 350 troops, and at least 1,100 were wounded.


From December 1987 to March 1990, the IPKF carried out a classic counter-insurgency (CI) campaign, with an overall strength of 100,000 troops. Due to this even when the LTTE tried to take back Jaffna they were not able to.


Operation Trishul and Operation Viraat

There were several operations launched by the Indian Army to support Sri Lanka at the time, Operation Pawan was the beginning. As there were two subsequent operations launched that were codenamed, Operation Trishul and Operation Viraat. Both were launched in 1988, and they were the first phase of operations in the region; with the former being launched in the month of April, and the latter in May/June.


These operations marked the evolution in IPKF’s doctrine of counterinsurgency, as it was no longer just about capturing and securing Jaffna but also actively conducting search and destroy missions, to eliminate threats which led to aggressive patrolling by individual infantry units. The operations used a force of 15,000 armoured personnel, infantrymen and paratroopers, and was spread over the Northern provinces from Mannar to Mullaitivu and the Elephant Pass to Vavuniya.


During their missions, the IPKF found well-prepared defences, like concrete bunkers with electric generators, landmines, and as the LTTE weapon of choice were mines and explosives they were to a large extent neutralized by cutting off the power to the Jaffna Peninsula, during Operation Pawan which worked for a while but was not a permanent solution. And while a few members of the LTTE were captured or killed most slipped away, only to retaliate. Therefore, at the time lone vehicles and convoys were increasingly becoming targets for an ambush. Which led to losses, while on the other hand, the LTTE was hard hit as well, as they were losing leaders and commanders every day.


One story of such an ambush is the story of Second Lieutenant Rajeev Sandhu. On 19th July 1988, during the operations second, Lt. Sandhu was leading a convoy of two vehicles of the 7th Battalion of the Assam Regiment to collect dry rations from Madurang Keni Kulam to Mangani. He was sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep leading the way for the 1 Ton Nissan truck which was 50 meters away.


A rocket was fired, which overturned the vehicle to its side, which was subsequently fired at by AK-47s. The driver of the Jeep, Sepoy NKKS Rajkumar, was wounded and unconscious, while the other two officers in the back seat were killed during the gunfire. Both second Lt. Sandhu’s legs were smashed when the rocket hit the jeep, and the subsequent fire had mortally wounded him. However, that did not stop him from crawling to the fire position and with his 9 mm carbine killing a LTTE militant later identified as Kumaran.

Second Lieutenant Rajeev Sandhu (Source: Bharat Rakshak)


Second Lt. Sandhu was just 21 years old at the time and was evacuated by a chopper but eventually succumbed to his wounds and passed away. The Mahavir Chakra was awarded to him for his bravery, received by his father on 26th March 1990.


Operation Pawan draws a lot of criticism, among many issues, but prominently because of the political nature of the whole ordeal, and is now remembered for the fallout between the two countries. Such operations were new for the Indian Army and the newly formed Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) at the time, especially on unfamiliar terrain in another country, but nevertheless, they fought bravely. And in 2008, the Sri Lankan government built an IPKF memorial in Colombo.

IPKF Memorial in Colombo (Source: The Print)

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