By all accounts, celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of India’s independence were spectacular, but conspicuously absent was any mention of Operation Pawan, the code name for the 1987 Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations to disarm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and wrest control of the Jaffna peninsula in Northern Sri Lanka.
The Indian troops were in Sri Lanka as a part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord that had been signed on July 29, 1987 between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene. The IPKF was envisaged as a peace keeping force, but rapidly found itself caught up in a bloody conflict with the heavily armed guerrillas who had fortified themselves on the Jaffna Peninsula.
Though the might of the Indian Armed Forces eventually stamped their authority, routing the Tamil Tigers, the IPKF saw around 1,200 braves make the supreme sacrifice for the nation, while another 3,000 personnel were maimed.
Today, soldiers who were part of that fierce combat engagement are questioning why there was no designated day to commemorate the IPKF’s bravery during Operation Pawan.
Pointing out that India celebrates December 16 as Vijay Diwas every year to commemorate India’s victory over Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War and July 26 as Kargil Vijay Diwas to observe India’s victory over Pakistan in the Kargil war, they want a ‘Day of Commemoration for Op Pawan’. A day that “will honour the brave deeds of the IPKF and those who had made the supreme sacrifice” in Sri Lanka. They also want to know who would bring home the remains of dead comrades, several of whom were buried in unmarked graves.
Talking to Frontline, Major General Manavalan (Retd), an officer from the Madras Engineering Group who served in Sri Lanka, said India ought to streamline its policy on bringing fallen soldiers back home. He said: “The Armed Forces had not formulated plans to cater for this vital aspect, probably because the level of engagement had not been assessed correctly. The Armed Forces leadership had not questioned this, due to which all our dead were cremated or buried on foreign soil.”
A group of IPKF veterans recently visited several of the IPKF’s operational areas in Sri Lanka. Brigadier Baljit Gill, the erstwhile commanding officer of 12 Jat, who was also part of the visiting group, showed them where he had buried one of his officers, Major Micheal Lewis, and cremated a large number of his men. Major Lewis lies in an unmarked grave. The visiting veterans, who paid tribute at the IPKF Memorial in Colombo and the 10 Para memorial in Palaly, discovered a few unmarked graves at Palaly and Vavuniya.
According to Major General Manavalan (Retd), the length of the IPKF operations made it unique, since it was not only India’s second operation outside the country since Independence but, unlike India’s other wars, it went on for nearly three years.
Said the General: “Op Pawan was like a continuous Kargil war over three years. Stress levels and the degree of difficulty were very high. We were fighting an unconventional enemy in thick jungle terrain. They operated with AK 47 weapons whereas we still had our 7.62 SLRs.”
Several veterans said there was an urgent need for a ‘Graves Commission’ to be appointed, graves pinpointed and marked, and the mortal remains be shifted to an IPKF memorial in India.