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3 March 2022, Gateway House

IPKF in Sri Lanka, 35 years later

2022 marks 35 years since the Indian Peace Keeping Forces were deployed to oversee the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord. An attempt to diffuse civil unrest, this engagement eventually turned into war. The incident serves as a reminder that India can learn more from its errors than its victories.

Brigadier (retired)

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This year, 2022, will be 35 years since the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) entered Sri Lanka to oversee the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord signed on 29 July 1987. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were not a party to this accord and very reluctantly agreed to surrender their weapons to the IPKF initially. However, the LTTE soon reneged, the ‘peace’ dropped out of the Peace Keeping deployment, and the Indian Army went to war. About 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed, about 3000 were wounded [1], and the 75,000-100,000 troops deployed were twice more than the Kargil conflict that took place two decades later [2].  

Whether it was a military, political or national debacle is debatable; however, not a single Indian official was present to meet the IPKF troops disembarking at Chennai port at the time of de-induction at the end of 1989 [3].  

India’s military institutions of instruction are tradition-bound, following war-fighting templates often defined in the past world wars.  Adding to the syllabus of teaching student officers is easy, but few instructors want to chance removing outdated topics.  More can be learnt from what went wrong than from victories, and it is time to analyse and learn from the IPKF episode.

Understand that each war is different from the previous one.  Perhaps the most important learningMost Generals fight the previous war [4]. The Indian Army had last fought a major war in 1971 with the liberation of Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, it initially struggled to adapt to fighting in diverse terrain, and against different weapons.  It is important to conform to the battle being fought. True flexibility comes from commanders at all levels applying their essential military knowledge and experience to the problem at hand. Consider the differences in war-fighting where Iraq was a conventional war, Afghanistan was a battle against the Taliban and other dissident groups, and presently, Russia and Ukraine. India’s own fight with the Chinese at Galwan was very different.

Media, particularly social media, is here to stay, learn how to cope with it. In Sri Lanka, media was a bad word, and the point of view of the government and senior officers of the army was only officially available to news reporters sympathetic to the government of the day [5][6] [7]. With social media proliferating, everyone with a cell phone is a reporter. Fake news now compounds the problem. It is better to come to grips with real-time news rather than wish it away; social media requires an entirely different set of skills which need to be formally taught. 

Carry out detailed preparation for operations. India went into Sri Lanka surprisingly unprepared [8]. Officers used type-writing whitener to change Sinhala to English on a tourist map with the help of a young officer from the Sri Lanka army. Shekhar Gupta, then a reporter with India Today, called it a ‘Rush to Vanquish’ despite being initially ill-prepared [9]. Detailed preparations must be made for the type of operations anticipated, from arms, ammunition and equipment to intelligence and logistics.   

State a clear unambiguous mission and then avoid mission creep. The IPKF’s role in Sri Lanka is a classic case of changing missions and mission creep[10]. Troops went into the island to initially conduct ‘aid to civil authorities’, followed by counter-insurgency and finally, war in the jungles. Each objective required different types of arms, ammunition, equipment and intelligence, but the Indian hierarchy did not equip the troops adequately for these changing roles.

The need for a coherent and standard command structure. Much about the IPKF senior command structure was ad hoc; much about this aspect has been written and analysed [11].  At the lowest level, it often meant troops did not know each other’s names and hence, could not issue orders in the jungle. When such operations are planned, there must be a standard command and control structure, troops must train together, and be familiar with each other’s drills – and names.

Avoid ‘peeping’ into ops, reducing interference from higher HQ. With current communications, there is often a tendency for very senior officers to talk to the point soldier, bypassing others in the chain of command [12]. There are two aspects of which senior officers must be aware. First, that operations will take time, and that a man can fight or communicate with those above him. The second is to make flatter chains of command so that passage of information upwards and downwards takes less time, which has not yet happened.

Managing stress. Stress on troops had begun to show in the early stages of the IPKF with troops questioning their role in a battle on foreign soil.  To obviate such questioning requires intense training which they are not yet geared to do. This questioning has become an international problem as with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Modern combat is intense, short, and violent, and the contemporary soldier spends more time deployed in counter-insurgency operations than combat. This, along with the proliferation of social media, is leading to high stress levels. Reducing stress amongst soldiers is now vital and needs serious attention.

Combat and communications in the 21st century have changed dramatically. It is important for the military to keep pace if events are not to overtake it. Experience is a great teacher; India must learn from previous wars but apply the lessons intelligently to emerging conflicts. The ‘gun’ has changed, but the man behind the gun remains the same.

Xerxes Adrianwalla is Project Consultant, Gateway House, and a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. He served in the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1988 to 1989.

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[1]  Ministry of Defence. Economic Burden by Sending IPKF in Sri Lanka, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, December 15, 1999.

[2] Sandeep Unnithan, Why the IPKF is Still Searching for Recognition, India Today July 28,2021.

[3] Brig Ravi Palsokar (retd), Ours not to Reason Why, September 2012, ISBN 978-93-82070-70-2

[4] Matt Williams, in his answer to a question on Quora,

[5] Lt Gen AS Kalkat was the GOC IPKF, see the fundamental difference in his dealing with the media at that time and subsequently.

[6] Prabhu Chawla, People are supportive of the IPKF’s operations: Lt-General A.S. Kalkat, India Today, 15 September 1988. Lt Gen AS Kalkat, Reminiscences of an IPKF Peacekeeper, 26 June 2021.

[7] Maj Gen Mrinal Suman, Army in the age of social media, The New Indian Express, 27 January 1917.

[8]Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, The IPKF in Sri Lanka: 10 Years On,,

[9] Shekhar Gupta, India’s ‘dirty little war’ in Jaffna, heroism amid ineptitude & new friendships under fire, The Print, 28 Dec 2017.

[10] Lt Gen AS Kalkat’s interview to Josy Joseph quoted in

[11] S. Kalyanaraman, Major Lessons from Operation Pawan for Future Regional Stability Operations, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 2012.

[12] Maj. Christopher M. Ford, U.S. Army, Army Leadership and the Communication Paradox.