IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 1

"By the time IPKF withdrew in 1990, we had lost 1200 officers and men. And for what? The aim, if indeed there was one, was never written or espoused by the Defence Secretary who is the single person in-charge and responsible for the defence of India" Opines Gp Capt AG Bewoor

IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 1

Editor's Note:

The IPKF operations in Sri Lanka commenced after signing of India - Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987 and lasted till March 1990 when the IPKF withdrew. During that period the author of this article, Gp Capt. AG Bewoor was commanding 44 Squadron of IAF comprising IL-76s transport aicraft based at Agra that air lifted and inducted enormous number of troops into Sri Lanka during these operations. Hence, the author had a rare and deep insight into the intricacies of the IPKF operation as it took place. The article gives an excellent and realistic overview of this operation encapsulating several critical issues, including causes that led to the operation, the unfortunate manner of conduct, the consequent heavy casualties suffered, the prolonged operations till March 1990 and most importantly the lessons that must be learnt by all concerned including armed forces, bureaucrats and political leadership. The article should trigger several responses and articles on this subject and related issues from our esteemed veterans who took part in the IPKF operations during Jul 1987 - Mar 1990. The article is being published in 2 parts due to its length. This first part will hopefully arouse keen interest and curiosity for part 2.

Editor, MVI.

Why Did India Go Into Sri Lanka?

Yes it is just over 30 years since that ill fated time when the IPKF withdrew on 24 March 1990. I had taken command of 44 Sqn with IL-76s at Agra in Sep 1987, and within a month we were inducting enormous number of troops into Jaffna. Foray is defined as, “an initial attempt, especially outside one's usual area of competence”. The IPKF was exactly that, completely outside the Indian Army's usual area of competence, and worse, with no training for either commanders or staff officers, about what to do in such an ill defined operation. It has been said that all orders were Signal Op Orders, obviating the need for signatures, some readers may know if this be true. We had no business to get into that game, it was not ours. Bureaucrats, political advisers, chamchaas, interlopers, intelligence magicians, Foreign Service sorcerers, military brass and definitely foreigners too; misled Rajiv Gandhi into believing that entering the Sri Lanka imbroglio would fetch him international glory and win Tamil Nadu elections for the Congress. Rajiv was a debutante with zero political acumen or experience, a simple airline pilot, unwittingly propelled into the highest executive office of India.

He did not know where to seek advice nor did he have a Prime Minister's Check List to refer to; Indira Gandhi did not follow check lists, and Rajiv was forced to seek counselling from wherever he could. Not for an insane moment did anyone think that Indira would be killed, and Rajiv will have to adorn the mantle. He thus could not in any seriousness prepare himself for leadership of Congress and of India too, but got saddled with both. He had to seek reliable direction and correct advice, unfortunately it evaded him; everyone failed him and through him, failed India. Yet no questions anywhere, by journalist, legislator, corporate moghuls, judicial pontiffs, intelligence gurus, administrative giants, academics, nor ordinary Indians? It was the silence of the majority. Do recall that Rajiv had won 415 seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. We all knew that the immense and unexpected victory was solely due to sympathy for Indira, and not any confidence in Rajiv. But the spin-doctors and fake news conjurers, convinced India and the world; that there was no leader like Rajiv Gandhi, regrettably after a few years of this chanting, Rajiv started believing it himself. Mera Bharat Mahaan.

Look Who Sent Us In

By the time IPKF withdrew in 1990, we had lost 1200 officers and men. And for what? The aim, if indeed there was one, was never written or espoused by the Defence Secretary who is the single person in-charge and responsible for the defence of India. The three Chiefs are not responsible for this task according to the Rules of Business of Govt of India; and in all these 73 years as a republic, no Prime Minister or Raksha Mantri has changed this horrendous disingenuous rule. Even the President of India, the Supreme Commander of India's Armed Forces, has not had the courage to seek review of this pathetic cockeyed situation. A civil servant with frighteningly limited knowledge and exposure to matters military, is exclusively and entirely responsible to defend India from external aggression? Within 10 years of IPKF debacle, we had Kargil, and we continue to fight terrorism in J&K and other areas, all being tackled by the Armed Forces and Armed Police, but the single hotshot mastermind magician who defends India, is the Defence Secretary. This military genius, our Defence Secretary, would be an IAS official who would have spent his previous 30 odd years in Fisheries, Steel & Mines, Processed Foods, Education, Roads, Commerce, Health & Child Development, and such ministries that are far removed and totally unconnected with Armed Forces, Para-Military Forces, External Threats and Internal Security. Worse, many Addl Secretaries, Joint Secy, Deputy Secy working under him, will also be greenhorns in matters of defence and security.

Each, waiting impatiently to move into Animal Husbandry, Agriculture, and Textiles to be far away from uniformed men and women. It is such bureaucrats who permitted the IPKF to come into being, indeed with acquiesce from certain military quarters. When will the super generalist babus, recognise, admit and accept that knowledge and expertise does not creep up the spine through the chair that they burden. I have heard many civilian proponents of this misadventure saying that unless India intervenes into affairs of her neighbours, how can we call ourselves a great nation? What greatness did we display? In truth we demonstrated utter helplessness. America had a Vietnam and USSR had an Afghanistan, then most certainly India had a Sri Lanka. And what a pity that Indian political, military, bureaucratic, diplomatic, economic, intellectual, judicial, academic and corporate leadership learnt nothing from the Vietnam & Afghan tragedies, and collectively permitted the sacrifice of 1200 young boys with nothing to show, except their names on stone? How many readers know that Sri Lanka has built a memorial for the IPKF fallen, but no memorial has been made in India?

That sums it up, does it not? Indian blood and guts was spilt on Sri Lankan soil for the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Those 1200 who died and the hundreds injured, many crippled for life, did not do it for India. They did it for their paltan, their regiments, their izzat, certainly not for India. We are deluding ourselves and rejoicing that IPKF was one hell of a campaign, absolutely fake. It was truly a dismal failure of higher and middle level military command and a complete politico-diplomatic-intelligence-bureaucratic disaster, and a magnificent cock-up, if there ever was one. Ending eventually in the assassination of Rajiv, the man who launched IPKF without knowing what will happen, and how to recall the Force. Rajiv was completely immobilised when IPKF started losing the battle, and there was no one competent and courageous enough to tell him that we had screwed up, not even from the Armed Forces, serving or veteran. Even the Army was unable to insist on its withdrawal, having promised in the first place to do, what could not be done. Like Ashwathama, Rajiv did not have the cognition and ability of recalling his Brahmasthra, the IPKF. The difference being that, Ashwathama was condemned not to die, Rajiv died. There was no Krishna to keep Rajiv alive. Each and every one of his cronies betrayed Rajiv. Many are alive and thriving, his blood is on their hands. Tragic.

Study The Campaign And Jointmanship, Why The Hesitation?

Do We Study the Lessons for IPKF Failure?

Many books have been written about IPKF with severe indictments but sadly few military training institutes within India actually study the IPKF campaign with all its warts, blemishes, dirt, blood, gore, incompetence, hesitations, foolhardiness, staff failures and abandonment? It is like the battles of 1947/48, 1962, 1965, 1971 and Kargil, no one studies them at these institutes. Foreign military schools may study them, but not Indian. We will study Desert Storm, Op Barbarosa the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany, Battle of Britain, Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I, Battle of the Atlantic, Arab-Israeli Wars, Vietnam War, but never our own battles. How then will we extract lessons for the Desi Fauj with Desi COs, Desi JCOs, Desi Pilots, Desi Sailors, and Desi admirals /generals / air marshals? And forget not the Desi netas, bureaucrats, intelligence jugglers, financial wizards, corporate nobles, defence analysts, irrepressible strategists, misguiding politicians, academia, intelligentsia, who will never accept that, it was their flawed judgments, and in many cases silence, that convinced Rajiv to launch the IPKF. Concrete examples of our flaws, frailties, blunders, hesitations, misunderstandings, confusions, irrational actions, are lost in the Grand Desi Silence.

The IPKF operational tales are replete with deafening silence from New Delhi when needed, and unsolicited interference from 2500 kms away. We cry ourselves hoarse about the still secret Henderson Brooks report on 1962, and demand it be revealed to the Armed Forces to learn lessons. We have all the 'masala' for every battle that IPKF fought; most participants, military and civil, are alive and capable of telling it as it was. The Armed Forces and Para-Military Police (PMP) have competent officers to draw lessons and create true to life exercises, yet we hesitate to press ahead and make the critical changes in our training patterns and syllabi, to imbibe value from IPKF battles. Why do we do this? The Staff lessons from any campaign are the most important, but we invariably neglect them, terrified that the skeletons which would tumble out will smear with failure, the reputations of those who negligently misguided Rajiv and sank the IPKF.

Jointmanship, Is there Such a Thing?

The Armed Forces Headquarters, Veterans, well wishers from varied professions, even some ‘hated’ bureaucrats, have shown unprecedented solidarity with the serving Fauji and the Veteran. Regrettably we have concentrated all our attention to pay, pension, disability, warrant of precedence, weapons, housing, with little attention of Joint Training, Joint Planning, Joint Financing, and Sharing of Resources. The extreme desire to have 'our very own and exclusive offensive and administrative assets' reigns supreme. This has hurt all of us, and as can be expected, it gets exploited by non-military administrative, financial, intelligence, technical, judicial & political forces who exploit this inter-Services rivalry, by playing one against the other. This is acerbated by military officers seeking favours for their own advancement. Worse, very senior officers, hiding behind veils of retirement, launch vituperative attacks on the present military leadership for not doing what these retired officers could and should have done themselves, but did not. The IPKF debacle followed by the surprise in Kargil and continuing repeated terrorist attacks should alert the top military brass to close ranks and present a united impregnable front not for pay, allowances, pension, weapons, accommodation, and inter-se positioning with babus, but for Jointmanship.

The under emphasised and indeed deliberately ignored need for Joint Operations, Joint Planning, Joint Ministry of Defence, Joint Ministry of Defence Production, Joint Ministry of Defence Finance, Joint Intelligence Organisation, Joint Military-Diplomatic Organisation, Joint Military – Para-Military Command is what we must clamour and protest for. The subject is not attractive, no TV cameras will focus on you, no reporter will seek you out, it is unglamorous, so we ignore it, and get hurt for that neglect, and to hide that sloppiness, we chuck red herrings like Theatre Commands. The IPKF had an Overall Force Commander OFC, it had all the trappings of an integrated joint services operation, it failed, but we refuse to fearlessly analyse it and remedy the flaws to prepare for the next such operation this is unforgivable. Future generation of officers, now at NDA, will not excuse us. This is wilful negligence, it is punishable. If there is one concerted action that will rejuvenate the administrative lethargy in MOD and Defence HQs it is a conjunctive and united demand for deliberate change over to Jointmanship all the way from NDA to CDS, MOD, MHA, MOF. How many more campaigns do we need to get our act together? Even a Cat has only Nine Lives!

Abuse Of Power And Going Into Sri Lanka

Abuse of Power

An overused derogatory term is ‘abuse of power’. Starting from the beginning of time, historians will tell us how religious, military, financial, political leaders abused power and harangued the populace. Indian historians and media commentators are extremely quick to lambast military leaders if in their opinion the fauji has crossed the statutory Rubicon in commenting on national governance. They all conveniently forget that the military leadership in India is an integral part of governance; but this leadership has been and remains intensely disinterested in interfering in political, administrative, judicial, legislative responsibilities of India. The overwhelming control that the politico-bureaucratic-judicial triumvirate have over India's Armed and Para-Military Forces is well documented and incontestable.

The number of times that these two Forces have done the bidding of the triumvirate either singly or jointly is evidence of their unquestionable loyalty, and complete distaste for meddling in affairs that are not their charter. On the other hand, the readiness with which these Forces have prosecuted war, skirmishes, deep penetration strikes, anti-insurgency operations, civil disobedience management and disaster relief, at the behest of civilian authority, is legendary. They continue to do so even when repeatedly, the civilian authority has ditched and abandoned these Forces in their moments of victory and defeat. This is Abuse of Power in India. The civilian authority falsely creates fear of the Armed Forces of India, suggesting that they wish to launch a coup as happens in our neighbourhood.

This canard skilfully spun by the intelligence & political community of the 50s and 60s, is gleefully nurtured by today's civilian bureaucracy. Regrettably the omnipresent TRP hungry media also picked this thread about coups, and their respected authoritative leaders have misused that thread, without shame and remorse. The media knowing in their beating hearts that; the Indian Fauji establishment abhors military intervention into civilian affairs, still makes dastardly accusations, it is unacceptable by any standards. The politician swallows this story happily because she inherently believes that the „throne‟ is in perpetual danger, the addition of a military pretender to that throne, adds to her insecurity; netas thrive in insecurity, and as we know, that insecurity is carefully nurtured by the bureaucrat.

This is blatant abuse of power by the politico-bureaucrat jodi. Today an impartial intellectual uncompromised enquiry into the political / bureaucratic/ intelligence/ military failures that created, launched, remotely controlled the IPKF, is a frightening prospect. Too many fanciful and imagined heroes, and there are many living in grand retirement, would fall, their legacies, awards, medals would be tarnished. The truth that would pour out of that inquiry would establish, who all abused power then, and continue to misuse it even now; the end result of this abuse is that lessons cannot be learnt, because the causes and effects of IPKF are suppressed and denied to the next generation. In very powerful humans, male or female, anywhere, the Joy of Immense Power lies in the Ability to Abuse that Power. Is India different? Let us move on.

How Did We Go In?

What were the comments made by diplomats in South Block, Colombo, Beijing, Moscow, Washington, London, Islamabad on the plan to create the Indo-Sri Lanka accord? Or was it unknown to illustrious diplomats sitting far away? What opinions were written by the IB, RAW, Defence Intelligence Directorates? What were the assessments by various Commanders-in-Chief of Army / Navy / Air Force? It is well known that at least one Army Commander put in writing against entering the fray, he is still around. What did the minutes of meetings throw up that eventually fathered the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord? What inputs and overbearing pressures emanated from Rajiv Gandhi's PMO that dissenting but sane advice was sent into the dustbin? Quite a few of those officers, both military and civilians are still around. Do recall that Congress got nearly 80% seats in the general elections of 1985 and because of that huge majority, everyone in govt was gung-ho to make India a strong regional power with Rajiv Gandhi as PM.

As if that power could be pumped into India, like in a balloon. There was a euphoric ambience among bureaucrats who had notched up insignificant success on the diplomatic front for decades. The Bofors scam had surfaced in April 87, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in July 87 which was not endorsed by the LTTE with serious implications that were dismissed by everyone, thus misleading Indians to believe that we were doing it right. This was 'majoritarianism' at its best, a word coined only in 2014, but we saw it being practiced and imposed way back in the late 80s. The media too was enamoured by the stunning electoral victory of the Congress and were carried away by the false aura of Rajiv and his chamchaas who must be irrevocably blamed for his murder.

Rajiv was a simple throttle jockey who enjoyed flying the Avro with Indian Airlines. A family man who loved the simple things of life. The wily Congresswallas brainwashed Rajiv into politics and the tragic after effects are still being felt. They are repeating the narrative with Rahul today, after having misled Sonia yesterday. How often have we heard Congress spokespersons stressing that the Gandhi family has sacrificed so much for India, including their lives, true, very true. But why is it so, because the rest of the Congress party leadership never puts themselves in the firing line. All Congresswalas hide behind the Gandhis, nominating them as permanent supreme leaders, so when shots are fired and bombs explode who dies, only the Gandhi family. The others never get a chance to make their personal supreme sacrifices, what a pity. Or is it?

Gp Capt AG Bewoor was commissioned in the Indian Air Force in 1965 into the Transport Stream. He was one of the pioneer members to induct the IL-76 into the IAF. He flew the first IL-76 into Male during the abortive coup in Maldives in 1988. This, along with the other operations, earned him the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) in 1990. He took premature retirement in 1993 while serving as the COO of 3 Wing at AFS Palam. He regularly contributes to military journals and magazines. He can be reached on Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 2
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IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 2

"The lessons must be learnt together, every organisation that was involved in launching IPKF has to throw up lessons collectively without fear. Only then will the truth emerge" opines Gp Capt. A.G.Bewoor


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