Operation Pawan and the aftermath of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord July 1987

By Col R. S. Sidhu

Well-nigh 34 years have elapsed since the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987, plunging the armed forces of India headlong into launching Operation PAWAN in Sri Lanka, the first overseas peacekeeping operation under the Indian flag post-independence. The Accord was signed between India and Sri Lanka, two sovereign powers, and an implied but reluctant assent of a non-state organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the self-appointed sole custodians of ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Close to four decades down the line provides an adequate historical perspective to study and assess the losses and gains of the three main proponents of the Accord. In this brief, we shall look at the Accord per se and the play-off from the Accord from the perspective of the three proponents.

Three interesting sidelights on the Accord

Urgency Explicit in the Making of the Indo Sri Lanka Accord

The Accord was the result of a long-drawn-out process of diplomatic negotiations between India and Sri Lanka. To substantiate this observation, one has to just read the first sentence of para 2.15 of the Accord, “These proposals are conditional to an acceptance of the proposals negotiated from 4.5.1986 to 19.12.1986…”

Yet it displayed a sense of urgency, implicit in the second sentence of the same paragraph of the Accord, “…Residual matters not finalized during the above negotiations shall be resolved between India and Sri Lanka within a period of six weeks of signing this agreement…”

Reading of para 3 of the Accord, “This agreement and the annexure thereto shall come into force upon signature”, is also indicative of the urgency, as are the short timelines for accomplishing the political and military resolutions within the Accord.

Thus we see a very interesting facet of the making of this accord. It was under due negotiation for a protracted period of over seven months, if not longer, followed by a non-recorded interregnum of another over seven months, followed by a literally overnight signing of the Accord, while still being a work in progress!

 Contradiction of Tamil militants being a non-signatory party to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

Para 2.9 of the Accord records “… A cessation of hostilities will come into effect all over the island within 48 hours of signing of this agreement. All arms presently held by militant groups will be surrendered…The process of surrendering arms and the confinement of security personnel moving back to barracks shall be completed within 72 hours of the cessation of hostilities coming into effect.”

Yet the LTTE, the dominant Tamil militant group and the other Tamil militant groups were not a signatory to the Accord. So the Accord remained a document entered between two sovereign states, India and Sri Lanka. Yet it placed obligations on third, not well-defined non-sovereign parties, to undertake actions decided by the two sovereign powers executing the agreement.

Even more curious is para 2.14 which records “The Government of India will underwrite and guarantee the resolutions, and co-operate in the implementation of these proposals.” India accepted an obligation to ensure compliance by parties not subject to its sovereign jurisdiction and without recording their written consent.

Camouflaging Indian Intervention by Overt Consent of Sri Lanka

The deployment of an Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka flows from para 2.16 (c) “In the event that the Government of Sri Lanka requests the Government of India to afford military assistance to implement these proposals the Government of India will cooperate by giving to the Government of Sri Lanka such military assistance as and when requested”, and Annexure 1 para 6, “ The President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Minister of India also agree that in the terms of paragraph 2.14 and paragraph 2.16(c) of the agreement, an Indian peacekeeping contingent may be invited by the President of Sri Lanka to guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities, if so required.”

Given the backdrop of the negotiation process, which clearly indicated the reluctance of Sri Lanka and also the LTTE towards the Accord, the naivete of Indian negotiators is difficult to be believed, even with hindsight, of gifting the key ace of Indian military intervention being made subject to the invitation of Sri Lanka.

Seeing that India had resolved to employ its armed might to intervene in Sri Lanka even in the absence of the Accord, and past intervention in 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan in somewhat akin circumstances, it reflected a weak geopolitical will of the Government of the day. Sri Lanka’s subsequent official request to recall the IPKF, and India’s acquiescing to it, is also reflective of this observation.

Victor, vanquished and they also ran

 Sri Lanka

From a historical perspective, Sri Lanka emerges as the clear victor. It was able to secure a guarantee of its unity and territorial integrity as well as affecting the resolution of the ethnic dispute within the framework of its constitution. Most importantly, the Indian armed presence in Sri Lanka was subject to its consent.

Sri Lanka judiciously employed the tactical respite provided to it by the presence of IPKF in its North and East provinces to marshal its resources to decimate the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led insurgency in its South. Thereafter it entered into a tacit agreement with LTTE to call for the withdrawal of IPKF and engage in joint operations to annihilate the competing Tamil militant groups who were in support of the Accord. With the move out of IPKF, Sri Lanka was free to rearm its armed forces and in the next decade and a half succeeded in annihilating the LTTE.

The unification of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, one of the main planks of the Accord, was also undone through its Supreme Court declaration of the merger being ultra vires of the constitution.


The LTTE looked at itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Sri Lanka Tamils and followed an absolutist and totalitarian ideology. Sharing political space in a democratic system of governance had no place in its planned strategic outcome of their struggle against the Sri Lanka state. This was the principal reason for its opposition to the Accord which merely promised greater autonomy and merger of Tamil majority North and East Provinces, within a broad democratic framework under the Sri Lanka constitution. It fell far short of their political aspirations of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.

Its initial tactical successes against rival Tamil militant groups, albeit with the active support of Sri Lanka armed forces, induced a displaced sense of superiority in its strategic strength resulting in strategic overreach when it successfully assassinated the former Prime Minister of India. This act, in one stroke, denied it the logistics support base in Southern India which formed the critical backbone in its struggle against Sri Lanka. Devoid of external support, it was an easy prey for the rearmed and rejuvenated Sri Lanka armed forces, who succeeded in comprehensively decimating the LTTE in 2009 after a prolonged and ruthlessly conducted campaign which resulted in its entire leadership meeting a fate similar to that of JVP.


India’s political leadership of the day and its strategic establishment came out looking indecisive and weak-willed. It was outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by the strategic guiles employed by both Sri Lanka and LTTE.

It entered into the Accord without resolving the contradictions inherent between the political interests of the Government of the day and the geopolitical interests of India as a state.

Reiterating its support to the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and committing to resolve the ethnic dispute within the framework of the constitution of Sri Lanka, provides the clearest evidence of India not being interested in carving out an independent Tamil state within Sri Lanka. Refer para 1.1 of the Accord “Desiring to preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka:”, and para 1.5, “Conscious of the necessity of strengthening the forces contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and preserving its character as a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious plural society, in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfill their aspirations:”.

Evidently, it perceived an independent Tamil state within Sri Lanka against its interests owing to a distinct possibility of it fuelling centrifugal forces in its South.

So it leaves the ostensive reason of political pressure from the South as the driving factor for the Government of India to engage in pursuing an Accord which was desired neither by Sri Lanka nor by LTTE, and a military intervention not in the interest of the Indian state.

Withdrawal of the IPKF has now left India without decisive influence on Sri Lanka to fulfil its unmet obligations under the Accord.

Author’s Note

India looks at Sri Lanka as a friendly and sovereign country, which should be sensitive towards the special security interests of India in the region.

In this context, Sri Lanka’s action in accommodating major Chinese presence in Sri Lanka by way of leasing its sovereign territory to Chinese ports and infrastructure development corporations and amending its own constitution to provide extraterritorial jurisdiction to China on the leased territory, adds new dynamics to the geopolitical relations between India and Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka is being recalcitrant in meeting its full obligations under the Accord. This is in direct contrast to the alacrity shown by it in meeting the sensitivities of China even to the extent of amending its constitution.

There is thus a case for India to secure its interests by more forceful interjection with the Government of Sri Lanka. The Accord is yet alive and provides an ideal instrument for India to undertake actions in its best national interest.


-Col R. S. Sidhu is a veteran from the Army’s Mechanized Infantry Regiment who served throughout the entire duration of Operation PAWAN from 1987 to 1990. Apart from his hands-on experience of dealing with LTTE in active anti-terrorist operations in Jaffna, he is also the author of two books, ‘Success from Being Mad’ on entrepreneurship ventures by veterans, and ‘Elephant on the High Himalayas’ on India China discourse. He can be accessed at his BlogSpot valleysandvalour.blogspot.com. This article was originally featured on financialexpress.com and views expressed are personal to the author




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