Few steps off the Palk Strait: Operation Poomalai and the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka

IAF aircrew being congratulated by the ground crew at Bangalore Airport on the evening of June 4th, 1987.
Courtesy Indian Air Force

On the 4th of June 1987, India stopped the siege of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan army. It was a humanitarian intervention but also a symbolic gesture: you don’t have the right to take this. And the Sri Lankan president Jayewardene took this action as a military one,calling it “a naked violation of our independence” (1). Allegedly he threatened to fight Indians till the last bullet, but actually he sought to find an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi, India Prime Minister in 1987
courtesy Corbis – Bettman

New Delhi couldn’t simply tolerate the massacre of Tamil civilians, that was about to happen due to shelling and starvation. At the time Mr Gandhi stated that “As the offensive progressed, […] hundreds of civilians were dying from intense shelling and air strikes, undercutting hopes of India’s negotiating a political settlement.”(2)

It is fair to remember that in 1971 India also intervened to guarantee the independence of Bangladesh, at the time integral part of Pakistan. The move could be seen as the prodrome to support secession. There was a genuine fear that of annexation from India. So the reaction of Colombo can be easily understood. But the plan of Mr Gandhi was different: he soothed the fears of Mr Jayewardene, in talks that culminated with e Indo-Lankan agreements few months later. So the mission wasn’t to help the insurgents in their struggle.

You may say that it was dictated by the sheer compassion for the civilians of Tamil ethnicity. Well, of course it was probably an influential factor. But you need to judge it also from the perspective of the consequences: the liberators turned very soon in to invaders. The tension clearly escalated because the LTTE didn’t want to hand out their weapons. The suspicion was that New Delhi wanted simply to exercise its rule on the other side of the Strait.

Mullivaikal Massacre of Tamil civilians, May 2009

Today we can only assist to the uncanny resemblance of the siege of Jaffna in 1987 and the massacre of Mullivaikal in 2009. In between there is the murder of Mr Gandhi by the LTTE. It was probably one of the biggest, strategic mistake of Mr Prabhakaran. But he did what he did, because he felt that the Tamil cause was endangered by New Delhi as it was by Colombo. I’m not suggesting that he was right, but I take his fear as an insight in the Indian intention towards the Sri Lankan situation.

Finally, if New Delhi saw the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as a condemnation of the LTTE, why the entire Tamil population had to be involved? Rumours in the last phase of the war were saying that another humanitarian intervention could be send. The LTTE was done, but it was still possible to give relief to the civilians. It was possible and it was a moral obligation for India to intervene for the Tamil people, for the hundreds of thousands innocents, who were just in the middle of the Sri Lankan triumph and the LTTE’s defeat.Mr Gandhi himself couldn’t bear the sight of such a massacre: why 25 years later his heirs could?

(1), (2)Weisman, Steven R., New York Times (5 June 1987). “India airlifts aid to Tamil rebels”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: