The Sri Lankan Interlude

Consolidation ...

Consolidation, Elections, Victory and Withdrawal

With the LTTE in the jungles the ding dong battles continued. The LTTE underestimated the strength required to tie down the IPKF in Jaffna. So in August - September 88 an influx of LTTE cadres and junior leaders into the peninsula again started. Encounters and shootouts increased and many of these cadres and area leaders were wiped out. All this was achieved through aggressive patrolling rather than specific intel. The mounting pressure on the LTTE caused concerns among the religious leaders, erudite professionals and Senior Citizen groups. Upto now these groups had been mouthing LTTE drafted propaganda on IPKF massacres, destructions of civilian properties, infrastructure etc. The aim was to coerce the IPKF to restore the infrastructure so that the LTTE could use it to fight more vigorously.

The IPKF authorities continued to reason with various citizen groups about the need for a political understanding. The LTTE's stubbornness was highlighted at every opportunity. Little by little the IPKF made inroads into the civilians. The first talk of trying to reason with the LTTE emerged under the cover of a cautious ceasefire. Meanwhile the decimation of the LTTE's local leaders in the towns continued. Citizens of Kankesanthurai, Point Pedro, Killinochi and others indicated their willingness to reason with the LTTE. The turning point was the agreement of Chavakacheri to agree that too in writing. As a sign of easing tension the IPKF withdrew hundreds of checkpoints, road blocks and bunkers from the towns. But the LTTE did not budge and shooed away many of the citizenry, scolding them for their lack of understanding about the implications. The disappointed citizenry returned and subsequently could not question the IPKF on why it was destroying the LTTE.

An An-32 from No.19 Squadron at Palaly airfield.

Meanwhile Colombo issued the 13th Amendment to its constitution binging to life the North Eastern Provincial Council. Most normal life had been restored including posts, banking, trade etc. But the LTTE imposed mental barrier remained. The armed fight was not the answer as for every LTTE militant killed another would take his place as long as the idea of 'Eelam' remained. The answer was to hold take a chance and hold the political elections for the NEPC with hopeful LTTE participation. Once the IPKF suggested this idea the Indian Administrative service and Foreign Service under J. N Dixit took charge. The various Tamil groups were asked to register as political parties. The EROS and LTTE refused. Even the moderate TULF , PLOTE and TELO opted out. Only the ERPLF agreed followed by the ENDLF. Jaffnaites were upset as they expected only the LTTE to represent them. A town meeting was arranged and an open invitation issued to the LTTE.

Nut all this was to no avail and the ERPLF and ENDLF candidates were elected unopposed. Although not accepted by the Jaffnaites and other Tamils the exercise allowed the holding of the Presidential elections as well as the Parliamentary elections. This time the EROS was persuaded to stand for the elections. This however did not please RAW. There was the threat of LTTE violence and electoral officers had the protected as well as pick up other employees for duty before they could become "absent". Barring a few cases of firing on IPKF patrols the elections went peacefully although he voter turnout was low. The whole thing was monitored by Commonwealth observers. The IPKF had done its duty sacrificing a few lives to bring democracy to this embittered land.

Now that some sort of political structure was restored the next step was to set up a body to monitor law and order. It would take some of the pressure of the IPKF but also enhance the feeling of self rule amongst the Tamils as well as create job opportunities. Mooted by General V.N. Sharma, Chief of Army Staff, its idea originated from British and French examples. Also with the Sri Lankan Police virtually moribund there was no other option. Colombo baulked at this while New Delhi backed the plan. Unfortunately due to LTTE threats against traitors, Colombo's apathy the quality of the people attracted to the force was poor. This meant that the majority were recruited from the NEPC's ruling party. And once in the CVF they tried to enforce the interests of their party. It was a long ordeal to get the CVF going.

There were now three schools of thought in the IPKF:

  1. Let the NEPC and CVF handle and reduce the IPKF progressively
  2. Maintain the IPKF as long as it requires to implement the ISLA (internal estimates put it at 10 years)
  3. Leave the problem to the NEPC and Sri Lankan Govt.

Meanwhile the pressure on the LTTE was to be continued.

Operation Baaz - Extension of Operations:

With the success of the Provincial Council Elections and Sri Lankan Parliamentary elections the IPKF resumed operations. It now faced some hard choices. There needed to be a purpose to avoid drop in troop morale due to sense of aimlessness and lack of clarity in purpose. But while it figured out the best course of actions normal Operation Checkmate was resumed.

The Mi-24 was nicknamed 'The Crocodile' by the LTTE. Seen here at Palaly, an Infantry Officer, and a Tank Commander pose with the Helicopter Pilot. [Image ?? Newstime]

The aim was to continue to hound the LTTE forcing it to come to the peace talks. While parleys were going on in India the IPKF focused on the strongholds in the Nittikulam district north east of Vavuniya. This led to some fierce fighting including hand to hand. One such action took place on the shores of the Nayuru lagoon, south of Alampil. The shores of the lagoon are densely forested. One of the Battalions freshly inducted after the Operation Viraat was the 6th Battalion of the 8th Gorkha rifles regiment. 6/8GR was vested with the task of being the scout unit in the Jungle Bashing mission of Operation Baaz, and they started their operations in the last week of February. On 02 March 1989, two Companies of 6/8 GR set out on a 'reconnaissance mission'. This was a mission to search and weed out any LTTE elements, the details had 48 hours worth of rations with them while on the move. The Unit was not expecting much action. Till then, their activities in Sri Lanka involved only manning of road blocks and conducting searches at these road blocks. Their only hour of excitement was when they nabbed a  hidden Dinghy and an outboard motor being carried in a Tractor-Trailer.

As the Lead platoons made their way through the thick and dense jungle, One of the sections in the front ran into an ambush. The LTTE men opened fire with their LMGs and AK Rifles, killing or wounded five of the Gorkhas. Though the Gorkhas returned fire, the LTTE casualties could not be ascertained . Even as the fighting was going on, the Gorkhas realised that they  had stumbled upon the outer defences of a major base. In such a case there would be a couple of tiers of defensive positions before the main camp a good 10 - 12 km behind. This was the reason the LTTE outer defences were holding their ground. This spurred on the Gorkhas to renew their assault with more fervour. By nightfall the fighting became confused. The Commanding Officer of the Gorkha's Colonel V.K. Bakshi sent back calls for more reinforcements. As the Gorkhas ran out of ammo they drew their kukhris and waded into the LTTE. Somewhere along the line Colonel Bakshi was fatally wounded. By morning the fighting was all over a 4 km front. Helicopters flew in reinforcements. An infantry company dropped from the other side of the lagoon to help the Gorkhas ran into heavily booby trapped trails. By afternoon 5 battalions of the Army were in the area moving towards the lagoon. By March 7 when the operations were over 70 LTTE personnel were killed. The main group including the leadership melted away. Colonel Bakshi was awarded the MVC posthumously.

Troops embarking onto a Mi-8 Chopper.

The Mi 8s continued to fly in reinforcements. After 2 days of build up the IPKF again resumed operations. By March 15 almost a full Division of IPKF troops were involved. The IAF intensified its operations. No 109 HU ferried in troops, ammo, equipment and food. MI 25 gunships operating out of China Bay flew large number of attack sorties guided in by Chetak helicopters. CASEVAC duties were shared by Chetaks and Mi-8s.

A wounded Gorkha Rifles jawan awaits evacuation.

Major P.S. Kar of the 8 Gorkha Rifles wounded in action.

These operations had a telling effect on the LTTE. The IPKF meant business. It will not sit by in camps. It had the will and the ability to seek the Tigers in their lair even if it meant booby traps, mines and casualties. It was this mounting pressure, while no means a defeat but a steady decimation of its units which caused the LTTE to seek peace talks with the Sri Lankan Govt on April 25 1989. The IPKF had finally brought the parties to the table for a political solution which was the only long term solution in this type of ethnic conflict.

The LTTE Agrees for Peace Talks

The LTTE while not defeated was slowly being decimated. It had to confront the inexhaustible resources of the IPKF which was prepared to stay on for years. Its cadres and junior leaders were being wiped out regularly in the urban areas. It was primarily a jungle force albeit one with the support of the majority of Tamils. Still it was worried at the increasing influence of the moderate parties, the NEPC and the CVF. Little by little people were accepting the way of life. On the other side Colombo continued to hem and haw over the NEPC. Opposition to the accord led by the new President Premadasa.

Consumed by his hatred for the Indians he even opened up secret channels to the LTTE to arm them against the Indians. Premadasa demanded that the IPKF leave the Island and asked the Sri Lankan Armed forces to throw them out. Any movement of the Sri Lankan forces outside their barracks would kill the still alive ISLA. Lt Gen AS Kalkat warned that the IPKF would retaliate if fired upon by the Sri Lankans. IAF squadrons moved to the South while naval units moved of the Sri Lankan coast. Thanks to the professionalism of the Indian and Sri Lankan armed forces a conflict was avoided. Sri Lankan commanders must get major credit for a cool and tactful behaviour.

The Commanders of the IPKF before the withdrawal of the troops. Lt. General A.S. Kalkat, SYSM, AVSM and VSM (second from right) was the overall force commander of the IPKF. Major General R.N. Bhalla (right) GOC 54 Infantry Division, Major General Ashok Mehta, (second from left) GOC 57 Division and Major General S.C. Sardeshpande, Chief of Staff, IPKF HQ. Lt. General Kalkat would become the first officer ever to be awarded the Sarvottam Yudh Seva Medal (SYSM) a newly constituted medal for war time service.

The NEPC was further losing support by forcefully trying to increase the size of the CVF. A new Govt also took power in India. The UF Govt of V.P. Singh was committed to the withdrawal of Indian troops. Events took a rapid turn when Colombo and LTTE under pressure from the Indians agreed to peace talks in June 1989. The LTTE finally had to come to the peace table. The Tamils were now paradoxically unhappy at the IPKFs departure but had to bear the start of a new ordeal. The IPKF started reducing its units progressively. On 23 March 1990 the last of the ships left Sri Lanka with men of the paras.