Army refused to ‘burn down’ northern Jaffna.

The Jury Is Out: Armed Forces, Not India, Stalled JRJ’s ‘Jaffna Advance’

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

  • It’s sad that based merely on speculative assessments that India’s ‘Operation Garland’ of air-dropping food and medicines to the civilian population, bilateral relations had been allowed to flounder
  • It needs to be recalled that only a day before ‘Operation Garland’, India had sent in civilian boats filled with food and medicines, for the civilian population of Jaffna peninsula
  • Contemporary military history of India clearly shows as to how prepared or unprepared was the nation’s military for the IPKF operations

J. R. Jayewardene

The routinely declassified documents of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), dating back to the Eighties, have shown that it was the Sri Lankan armed forces, and not the Indian neighbour, that had stalled then President, J. R. Jayewardene’s bid to ‘burn down’ northern Jaffna, if at all. This should, in turn, put at rest all speculation that India’s ‘Operation Garland’ in the first week of July 1987 was not aimed to be precisely what it was claimed to be, a ‘humanitarian operation’, and not what it was not – a military initiative, for taking pressure off the LTTE fighting the armed forces on the ground.

More importantly, it should show the armed forces to be in the right frame of mind and perspective, for which it has been taking avoidable and at times unnecessary hit. According to the CIA documents, JRJ had told visiting American diplomat Peter Galbraith that the armed forces had refused to take Jaffna, when ‘ordered’, not just once but twice.

The ‘Peter Galbraith papers’ say that the armed forces had ‘talked (the President) out’ when he ‘ordered’ them to ‘burn the place to the ground’. Peter Galbraith is the son of the more famous American economist and diplomat, John Kenneth Galbraith, and ‘The Hindu’, based in India, has quoted from the ‘Peter papers’ to say that JRJ gave those orders, not once but twice.

Going by the ‘Peter papers’ and also to adapt William Shakespeare, twice did the President order the army to destroy Jaffna and twice did they refuse. The reason was not lack of men or material, confidence or training, strategy or tactic. Instead, it was all about the armed forces’ concern about the ‘unacceptably high casualties’. On the face of it, the commanders could have meant military casualties, but by extension it could have included Tamil civilian casualties as well.

The ‘Peter Galbraith papers’ are different from some of the other India-centric Sri Lanka documents that the CIA has declassified after the statutory 25-year cool-off period. Some are assessments, which could be presumptuous and/or speculative at times, but some provide hard information. The reference in the CIA documents to JRJ’s talks, whether with Peter Galbraith or others, falls in the category of information, not speculation.

It’s sad that based merely on speculative assessments that India’s ‘Operation Garland’, of air-dropping food and medicines to the civilian population of Jaffna, then under siege by the armed forces, bilateral relations had been allowed to flounder. There had even been motivated media campaign by a section of the Sri Lankan strategic community that India also dropped weapons in the guise of medicines for the LTTE during ‘Operation Garland’, or ‘Operation Poomaalai’ in Tamil.

Yes, there might have been diplomatic issues between the two countries owing to the Indian decision of the time to over the humanitarian operation. It might have also cost JRJ politically, but the ‘Peter papers’ now make it clear that the Indian initiative was not the cause for the armed forces not wanting to take the war to the logical conclusion, possibly advancing the end of the LTTE two full decades and thousands of deaths than when it ultimately happened in 2009.


World attention

It needs to be recalled that only a day before ‘Operation Garland’, India had sent in civilian boats filled with food and medicines, for the civilian population of Jaffna peninsula, where hunger and diseases were staring the people and the Sri Lankan State on their face. The boats returned as the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) stalled them at the international maritime boundary line (IMBL). If the Indian intention was to force a war on Sri Lanka, or strain bilateral relations, then taking on the Sri Lanka Navy in the sea would have been a clear military option at the time. It did not do so. India intended only a humanitarian operation at the time, and stuck to it.

If anything, India only helped draw world attention to the unfolding scenario on the ground in the neighbourhood through what Sri Lanka said, and at times rightly so, as a flagrant violation of its sovereignty and air-space. The induction of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), only weeks down the line, was at the instance of Sri Lanka, the very same JRJ leadership, and was not a unilateral Indian military act of aggression, either – as motivated anti-India campaign in Sri Lanka of the times had it.

Contemporary military history of India clearly shows as to how prepared or unprepared was the nation’s military for the IPKF operations. It also shows how much of ‘unacceptably high casualty’ that India suffered in what began as a peace-enforcement operation but ended up as a bloody war with the LTTE for all intents and purposes.

Indian writers, diplomats, strategic thinkers, journalists and army commanders from the IPKF days have since written extensively on how unprepared was the military to undertake such a mission. The commander of the IPKF, Lt-Gen Harkirat Singh went on to write that ‘we fought with our hands tied to our back”. It means that the IPKF was sent not with any ulterior motive or preparedness, but with the genuine intention of helping out a friend in times of need, and without any second thoughts.


Unprepared and more

As Indian and other military writers on the subject have mentioned, India had no clear clue as to why its military had to be inducted into a neighbouring nation other than to uphold the commitment made under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. If it was a purposeful military operation, India’s preparedness and willingness to wage a full-fledged war would have been much different, much better.

If nothing else, military preparations and preparedness ahead of the eminently successful ‘Bangladesh military campaign’ of 1971, very much proved that more than 15 years down the line, the IPKF operations would have been meticulously planned to the last detail, if it was much more than a peace operation. Months ahead of the Bangladesh operation, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had visualised only a peaceful end, and also undertook the famous global mission to talk Pakistan out of violence against the people of Bangladesh.

Neither Indira Gandhi as the political leader, nor the Indian military command, stopped preparing for a war, which at the commencement of India’s assessment in the first quarter of 1971 did look distant, not necessarily imminent. It was no different in the case of Sri Lanka, where again the Indian strategists, both political and military, would have considered various scenarios that ‘Operation Garland’ would entail.

The armed forces would have prepared them for the ‘worst case scenario’, where the Indian armed forces would have been drawn into, for a long stay and struggle. That was not the case to be. All of it only goes on to show that the Indian intention for its military, and the Indian military’s very own preparations was not for a long stay or battle, but to be around as peace-keepers, nothing more.

Whatever be the political direction and consequence, a proud army would not have allowed for unprepared landing and half-hearted preparations, if it was any, if the military goal was something more and different, something clear and specific. As subsequent events proved, the IPKF found itself being dragged into what was essentially Sri Lanka’s battle much more than it had thought and prepared for.


Garden path

Just as Sri Lankan critics blame India on this very score, can it also be counter-argued that the ‘wily, old fox’ that JRJ led the politically less experienced Indian Prime Minister of the day, the late Rajiv Gandhi, up the garden path and made India pay the military casualty. The IPKF lost 1200 men, including field commanders, in what was a blind-folded operation from the start, in political and military, strategic and tactical sense.

Better still, the IPKF induction also facilitated the re-induction of the Sri Lankan armed forces from the Tamil areas to the Sinhala South, where the ‘Second JVP insurgency’ was peaking. It can be argued that the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was the immediate provocation for the JVP insurgency, but those that know the Sri Lankan history of the time and also have some sense of militant groups the world over, would acknowledge that terror-groups do not undertake a massive operation of the kind without matching physical and politico-psychological preparation.

The fact is that if it was not Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, the JVP leadership of the time would have found another cause to target the Sri Lankan State, from their well worn-out leftist ideological approach and military preparedness. Incidentally, the Accord only helped the JVP to broad-base its left-leaning socio-political causes to cover ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nationalist’ issues, which were generally in the ambit of right-wing political groups of the JHU kind from the future.


 ‘Without bitterness’

According to ‘The Hindu’ reportage on the declassified CIA documents, Jayewardene “made clear that he shared the GOI’s (Government of India’s) implacable hostility towards Prabhakaran, calling the LTTE leader ‘a mad fellow’. This should once again go on to show that Prabhakaran was not a favourite of India at the time, or that the Sri Lankan leadership had any contrary view about India’s approach in the matter.

In context, months after he had signed the Accord on 27 July 1987, JRJ to Galbraith “stressed, though without obvious bitterness, that none of his outside friends would help him, so he had no choice but to make a deal with India”. Yes, it implies that the US at the height of the ‘Cold War’, had not stood by the Sri Lankan friend/ally after ‘Operation Garland’, as was in JRJ’s calculations. Clearly, Sri Lanka felt that it was better to work with the Indian neighbour to resolve the ‘ethnic problem’ than hope for American political or military intervention.

Does it, at this distance in time, that if only the West, the US especially, had intervened at the time, Sri Lankan perceptions and consequent decisions viz the Indian initiative for resolving the ethnic issue through negotiations and legislation, rather than war, violence and terrorism, would not have been welcome? If such were the scenario, it made immense sense for the US especially to see through the web of the prevailing South Asian politico-military situation and get caught in the midst, and bring ‘Cold War’ closer and more real to the region than otherwise at the time – making it a possible hot war, too.

If Sri Lankans were worried and concerned about any future Indian role in the island at the height of the Bangladesh War, as has been documented by others elsewhere, they needed only to look at their own backwaters, to read and understand the true Indian intentions. Just three years after Bangladesh War and victory, India readily allowed Katchchativu islet, closer to the Indian mainland than Sri Lanka, to fall within its geo-political ambit and within the Sri Lankan territorial waters and IMBL.

If only India had any fear of or designs about Sri Lanka, it would not have let Katchchativu fall within Sri Lankan territory, and readily allowed its publication under UNCLOS, thus making it full and final. Even when tensions remained between the two countries on the ethnic and/or trade and fishers issue, India has never ever made Katchchativu a part of the problem. Instead, it had acknowledged the territorial agreement only as a part of the solution(s) to various bilateral issues and concerns, from time to time – even to the detriment of intra-Indian relations with the southern State of Tamil Nadu.

If, in between, India-Sri Lanka relations suffered and India ended up arming and training the Tamil militants in self-defence, it only owed to the ‘Black Wednesday’ ant-Tamil pogrom and the consequent global perception of what Sri Lanka was, and wasn’t for the Tamil minorities.

Indian assistance was on the line of its early assistance to Bangladeshi refugees swarming the Indian territory, and for them to return home and live in peace and confidence, without interfering in the internal affairs of India, with its multitude of identities and consequent concerns for the Indian State than either a Bangladesh or Sri Lanka could imagine, and live with in peace and towards shared prosperity. It was nothing more, nothing less!


(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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