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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”.

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President Jayewardene
courtesy JR Jayewardene Centre

In the ’80’s India was proceeding from its non-aligned position towards an increasing friendship with the Soviet Union(1), whilst Sri Lanka was taking progressive steps to approach the Western.

At that time the Sri Lanka’s president Jayawardene was adopting very pro-Western economic policy(2). In reaction to this, Rajiv Gandhi decided to support the Tamil insurgency, after the civil war broke out.

By mid 1987 more than 20 000 Tamil combatants have been trained in Tamil Nadu(3). The Indian intelligence service (RAW) provided arms, training, monetary support4 and the insurgents group started to used Tamil Nadu as a sanctuary for their operations(5).

It is speculated that the Indian support was spread to 6 groups (namely Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization, TELO, People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, PLOTE, Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Libeartion Front (EPRLF) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA)(6)

. Apparently the intention was to create a massive but divided front against the Sri Lankan army. The main objective for New Delhi was to weaken Colombo, not to support the Tamil cause.

(1)Robert C.(1982) Horn’s Soviet-Indian Relations , Praeger
(2)”Sri Lanka – an Overview”. Fulbright commission.
(3)”LTTE: the Indian connection”. Sunday Times. 1997
(4)Gunaratna, Rohan (1993). Indian intervention in Sri Lanka: The role of India’s intelligence agencies. South Asian Network on Conflict Research. ISBN 9-5595-1900-5.
(5)Interview with Prof. Surayanarayan, “A Sri Lankan Quest” documentary
(6)Rajasingham, K. T.. “Sri Lanka: The untold story”. Asia Times.