Scholar Warriors

Sub Title : Revisiting Op Pawan: Requiem for the Fallen Bravehearts

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2022

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 58

Category : Regular Features

: August 4, 2022

Many a brave Indian soldier lost his life in a foreign  land namely Sri Lanka during Op Pawan in the period 1987-1990. Sadly, there is no official remembrance of the fallen heroes. Military history must, however, be treated differently to political history. It’s a measure of the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers of the nation which makes military history. The least the nation can do is salute them with pride

On 26 Jul 2022 the 23rd anniversary of Kargil (Op Vijay) was celebrated with much pomp and show, right up there at Dras and elsewhere in the country. It was a deserving tribute to some of the ‘bravest of the brave’ as the heroes of Op Vijay have often come to be described.  The operations had involved assault along razor sharp spur lines to jagged pinnacles which dominated every possible approach for the attacker, at the exhausting and energy sapping height of 16000-17000 feet. 527 officers, JCOs and other ranks made the supreme sacrifice in the process of evicting the intruders who had attempted to exploit the then ongoing intense counter terrorist operations in rest of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) by seeking an opportunity at the KargilLoC. No one rues the honor accorded to the rank and file and the high-profile ceremonies conducted at the war memorial at Dras. The heroes are truly deserving of every accolade showered on them.

Three days later, on 29 Jul 2022, a group of veterans and their spouses, along with the families of some who did not return from the battlefield, got together at the National War Memorial (NWM) in another ceremony to mark the anniversary of the commencement of another deployment of the Indian Army. This time it was to mark the symbolic commencement of Operation Pawan on 29 Jul 1987. The decision to launch the Indian peacekeeping commitment in Sri Lanka which got converted to an all-out counter insurgency and near conventional campaign, was taken on this date; it was enshrined in the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene Accord. The decision resulted in a 32-month deployment in an out of area contingency against one of the wiliest guerrilla forces in the world,  the LTTE which gave an impetus to activities such as suicide terrorism and tactical use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the insurgents. By the time the Indian Army finally withdrew in late Mar 1990 it had lost 1150 of its good soldiers with almost 3000 more injured. Surprisingly, this sacrifice by India’s brave hearts remains unheralded. Many veterans fear that in due course of time this military operation will be forgotten as it hardly finds reference in any literature and there is never any mention of it in media or otherwise, even on anniversaries of events.  A few veterans and their families led by the then GOC IPKF, Lt Gen AS Kalkat, SYSM, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) gathered at the National War Memorial on 29 Jul this year (and last year too) to keep alive the memory of the supreme sacrifice made by India’s soldiers in 1987-90 during Op Pawan. The veterans have approached the authorities with a request that an appropriate ceremony marking this sacrifice of the brave hearts of Op Pawan be instituted. Pending that this unofficial ceremony was held at the NWM, New Delhi. It was followed by a dinner the next day to promote camaraderie among the veterans of the operation and a broad recognition of those who participated in it. Unfortunately, it remained limited to officer veterans only although a very large number of JCOs and Other Ranks who participated reside in the NCR area; the logistics and the necessity of keeping this muted in the absence of any official recognition probably restricted the presence.

35 years (since the launch of Op Pawan) is not a long period but much has happened in India and the world in that duration which has led to fading memory. Op Pawan commenced as a soft peacekeeping operation with a flawed assumption that the LTTE leadership would adhere to the provisions of the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord; the LTTE was a signatory to it and did not officially give assent to India acting on its behalf. A huge trust deficit existed between the Sri Lankan Government (including the Sri Lanka  Army -SLA) and the LTTE which forced the LTTE to stop adhering to the surrender of weapons to the Indian Army. When India agreed to hand over some LTTE prisoners  tothe SLA the LTTE objected. This was on the grounds that amnesty had been granted to them and if they were handed over they could be ill-treated in custody. The prisoners eventually committed suicide by cyanide and that became the trigger for the peacekeeping operation being converted to a full scale counter insurgency operation, many times veering on conventional operations. The IPKF was reinforced to a strength of four divisions after the initial intense phase was launched to capture the Jaffna Peninsula. The phase in Oct 1987 saw bitter resistance by the LTTE to prevent the fall of Jaffna. Crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were employed all along the routes leading  to the blowing up of several vehicles of the IPKF including a tank. A disastrous IPKF heliborne operation to capture the top LTTE leadership at the Jaffna university got compromised due to poor communication security leading to large scale casualties. Jaffna was eventually captured with a hard push and the peninsula was occupied as a CI  grid. The SLA remained in its barracks and did not interfere except for a brief spell in 1989 when relations between India and Sri Lanka deteriorated. The IPKF established its total domination over Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts with a division sized force each. The Navy was also involved in the patrolling of the straits to prevent LTTE maritime activity and secure Indian shipping. The Indian Air Force, besides rendering yeoman service in the logistics effort also conducted several armed helicopter missions to help reduce the LTTE’s resistance especially in the dense jungles of Vavuniya where the LTTE Supremo V Prabhakaran was holed up.

The mission of the IPKF remained confusing for many. However, if viewed pragmatically it was clear that its presence considerably weakened the LTTE. An outright victory involving the capture of territory was never the intent of the IPKF. All India sought through the medium of the IPKF was a reasonable domination of the Tamil areas so that the LTTE would be forced to return to the negotiating table and the SLA could not continue with its intent of capturing the Tamil districts. Given the political sensitivities it made little sense to pursue the operations against the LTTE and the IPKF was progressively withdrawn. The question of victory and defeat in such operations does not arise. This issue is rarely understood in non-military circles. That even the military voices in the country have not analysed this operation more deeply is an unfortunate phenomenon. A very detailed post operations analysis was carried out by the HQ IPKF but it probably exists in some cupboards of the MO Directorate.

One of the reasons for the relative low profile that Op Pawan has taken in the annals of our military history is because immediately following the withdrawal from Sri Lanka the Indian Army was first involved in Operation Rakshak I in Punjab in the wake of Exercise Zarb e Momin conducted by Pakistan on the Punjab and Rajasthan borders and then the initiation of proxy conflict in J&K even as the same continued in Punjab till almost 1992. The unfortunate assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also contributed to this silence as the government of the day wished to remove this period from the collective memory of the nation.

Military history must, however, be treated differently to political history. It’s a measure of the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers of the nation which makes military history. Surely that aspect must be detached from political narratives of the past with some official remembrance  of those who gave up their lives for the nation.