India’s attempt to broker peace in Sri Lanka

Tamil Tigers Sri Lanka

Tamil Tigers emblem

Initially under Indira Gandhi and later under Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian government sympathized with the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, support for the Tamil cause was widespread. The separatists were given sanctuary and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other militant groups gained help to smuggle arms and ammunition into Sri Lanka. Over thirty-two camps were set up across India to train the militants. The LTTE, strengthened by the support they were receiving from both central and state governments, started to eliminate its rivals and soon became the strongest militant force on the island.

After the 1983 killing of thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers and the subsequent retribution against Tamils across the island, the Tamil militant factions recruited in large numbers, and building on popular Tamil dissent, stepped up their guerrilla campaign against government forces in the north and east. By May 1985 the LTTE were strong enough to launch an attack on the Bodhi tree shrine at Anuradhapura, a sacred site for the Buddhist Sinhalese. At least 150 Buddhist monks and civilians died in the attack.

The government of Rajiv Gandhi reacted by limiting overt aid to the Tamil militants and attempted to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lankan government, sensing a softening of Indian support to the militants, began rearming its military with the support of Pakistan, Israel, Singapore and South Africa. By 1986 the Sri Lankan military were strong enough to step up their campaign against the militants and in 1987 launched a major offensive against LTTE strongholds. This included laying siege to the town of Jaffna.

Peace, war and ultimate defeat

Hindu newspaper

India’s ‘The Hindu’ reporting the Indian air force dropping
supplies into Jaffna

The attack resulted in large-scale civilian casualties, creating an humanitarian crisis. India, facing the prospect of a Tamil backlash at home, called on the Sri Lankan government to halt the offensive and attempted to negotiate a political settlement between the two parties. These efforts went unheeded by the Sri Lankans, forcing India to send a convoy of unarmed ships to Jaffna to provide humanitarian assistance. The ships were intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy and turned back.

Following the failure of the naval mission, the Indian government mounted an airdrop of relief supplies for civilians in the besieged city of Jaffna. Following the operation, and with the possibility of active Indian intervention, the Sri Lankan government lifted the siege of Jaffna and offered to hold talks with the Indian government. A round of negotiations soon followed, leading to the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987. The Sri Lankan government agreed to devolution of power to the provinces and withdrew its troops to their barracks in the north. In return, the Tamil militants agreed to disarm, which led most of the militant groups to lay down their arms and seek a peaceful settlement. This brought a temporary truce to the fighting, but crucially the LTTE were not included in the talks and refused to disarm their fighters.

Increasing civil violence in the south of the island, initiated by Sinhalese nationalist and Marxist parties, necessitated the withdrawal of army units from the north. The Sri Lankan government evoked a provision on the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord and requested Indian assistance with a peacekeeping force to guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities in the north. The Indians deployed naval, air and ground forces onto the island in a peacekeeping role. Over the first year of occupation however, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was accused of ‘abuse of human rights’ by the Sri Lankan Tamils and by the Indian media, quickly losing their support among the local Tamil population.

Sri Lanka-Indian Peacekeeping Force

Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka 1988

The intention of the IPKF was not to become involved in large military operations. However, a few months after arriving  in Sri Lanka, the LTTE engaged them in a series of battles and after three weeks of brutal fighting the Indian army was obliged to assert control over Jaffna. During the two years it was deployed on the island, the IPKF strength in Sri Lanka rose to over 80,000 men. A growing nationalist sentiment in the south to oppose the continued Indian presence in Sri Lanka pressured the Sri Lankan government to call for India’s withdrawal. Rumours emerged of a secret government deal with the LTTE about the arming of their insurgents and fighting between the Indian army and the LTTE grew in intensity. Casualties mounted in the IPKF and there were growing calls for the withdrawal of their forces from both sides of the conflict.

Rajiv Gandhi’s refusal to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka contributed to his defeat in the Indian parliamentary elections of December 1989. The new prime minister, V.P. Singh, ordered the withdrawal of the IPKF soon after he took office and the last Indian ship left Sri Lanka in March 1990. The Indian intervention in Sri Lanka was a victory for the Sri Lankan government but it angered the LTTE, who retaliated with the killing of over 1,200 Indian soldiers and the eventual assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This effectively ended Indian government support of the separatist movement, and led to close co-operation between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments and the ultimate defeat of the LTTE.