War and peace in Sri Lanka, through the eyes of veterans

Nine retired officers flew to the island nation they served as a part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force

Thirty years ago, as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), they found themselves in the thick of action over the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In February, a team of nine retired officers from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, some with their wives, returned to the island nation.

The officers, all from 37th course of the National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla, had been posted in the island over 1987-89, when the IPKF was tasked with maintaining peace there. “The main purpose of the visit was to relive our memories of that time,” says Major General (Retired) Jose Manavalan. The group travelled to different parts of northern Sri Lanka over nine days.

“There was no sign of the war! The country has been transformed,” says Maj Gen (Retd.) Manavalan, who served in areas like Jaffna and Vavuniya as a Major. The retired officer fondly remembers having located the grave of Major Michael Louis, a fellow Indian officer, near Puliyankulam Railway Station, in the middle of dense forests. The team also met with a former cadre of the LTTE, who had deserted the rebel force.

Recalling his frequent visits to the island by air, retired Wing Commander Unni Kartha from Hyderabad, lauded the LTTE’s fighting capabilities. “I have no hesitation in saying they were strong and their Army was disciplined. Initially, the IPKF was welcomed to the island as saviours!” he says, adding that political situations changed the way they were viewed.

As an experimental test pilot, Wing Commander Kartha flew from Thiruvananthapuram and Sulur in south India to the Palaly airfield in the Jaffna peninsula, and to nearby areas, flying transport aircraft. He also recalls the amount of planning that went into the Operation Poomalai, in which food was offered to residents in northern Sri Lanka.

When asked about being countered with arguments that the war was primarily not India’s but between the Lankan government and its rebels, Mr. Manavalan said: “Then, ours is not to reason but to just do and die!” He does, however, acknowledge that such questions come to his mind three decades later.

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