Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka
From police action to all-out civil war
There is perhaps no better example to underline Sri Lanka’s ambivalent relationship with its closest neighbour than the occupation of the island’s soil by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the late 1980s.
Ostensibly despatched to help the embattled ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ maintain its peace, the IPKF’s presence on Sri Lankan soil led to an escalation of tripartite hostilities between the peacekeeping force and the two other protagonists in an ongoing civil war for a separate state – the Government of Sri Lanka and its security forces, and northern separatist movements including especially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The IPKF was a peacekeeping force envisioned under the terms of the Indo–Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 signed between Sri Lanka’s President J. R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
And it was pushed through by the latter at a time when Gandhi realised that the escalating conflict on India’s southern flank including the ingress of vast numbers of refugees into Tamil Nadu was not sustainable for subcontinental stability.
That the peace accord came at a time when the Tamil separatists were on the defensive as a result of the Sri Lankan military’s Vadamarachchi operations speaks volumes for India’s motives in the matter.
In addition, the Sri Lanka Navy’s besieging of the northern citadel of Jaffna – an LTTE stronghold at the time – being compromised by India’s airdrop of dry rations to lift the blockade caused bad blood between the two governments.
Be that as it may, the aftermath of the peace accord signed on 29 July 1987 saw what was initially a reinforced division with naval and air elements occupying Sri Lankan soil. The mandate of the IPKF was to supervise the disarming of the LTTE, which was predominant among the island’s separatist guerrilla groups, and other militant organisations.
When the Tamil Tigers baulked at the prospect of surrender, the IPKF found itself fighting a rearguard action against the terrorists, which soon escalated into a full-scale war for them as the Sri Lankan military was confined to barracks under the terms of the peace accord.
By the time the IPKF left Sri Lankan shores in March 1990, it had deployed almost 80,000 fighting men in four divisions – including troops from Indian paramilitary forces and commando regiments – and suffered 1,165 fatalities with over 3,000 wounded.
The peacekeeping force left in the wake of its Sri Lankan reported misadventure a long trail of misery from rape to other human rights abuses.
When the Tamil Tigers baulked at the prospect of surrender, the IPKF found itself fighting a rearguard action against the terrorists, which soon escalated into a full-scale war for them