India's 'Vietnam Moment': The Ill-Advised War That Ended in Humiliation

India's 'Vietnam Moment': The Ill-Advised War That Ended in Humiliation

Indian Army troops train members of the Tamil Civilian Voluntary Force, a paramilitary group under the command of the Sri Lankan police, in 1989.

SourceRobert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Why you should care

Because when democracies try to ignore controversial chapters of their military history, scars only deepen.

Three bullets smashed through Harpreet Singh Kaura’s face, destroying his right jaw, chin and ear, and leaving eight shattered teeth near the rudder pedal of the helicopter as the Indian Army captain pursued Tamil militants in Sri Lanka’s jungles.

It was June 7, 1989, two years into India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka to quell the violent insurgency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which at its peak controlled 76 percent of the island’s northern and eastern provinces. The Tigers, as the group was known, wanted to carve those provinces into a separate Tamil nation and were fighting a civil war against a Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan government. Officially, India and Sri Lanka were partners against the militants.

Liberationtigersoftamileelamflag

Flag of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an insurgency group fighting for an independent Tamil nation on the island country of Sri Lanka.

Source Public Domain

But that day, Kaura and his pilot, Maj. Daman Seigell — who was also hit — had no advance warning of the firefight that would soon engulf them. Barely conscious, they guided their copter back to base, grit their only ally.

That cocktail of poor planning, intelligence failures and limited coordination at the top, salvaged in part only by the personal bravery of officers and soldiers in the field, became a recurrent theme in what grew into India’s own Vietnam-like quagmire. In 1990, less than three years after India sent in what was euphemistically called the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), South Asia’s biggest power pulled out, frustrated and embarrassed.

We blundered our way through, without proper directions.

Ravi Palsokar, former brigadier, Indian Army

India had lost 1,240 soldiers in 32 months. A year after the withdrawal, the Tigers assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had sent in the military. And the civil war, which India had hoped to end through its campaign, lasted another two decades before the Sri Lankan military crushed the Tigers. Thirty years after the start of the intervention, scars from that episode continue to shape India’s approach to foreign military action: India refuses to send soldiers to fight in other countries, including Afghanistan.

“The IPKF’s negative experience exposed to India the limitations of using coercive military power to change the domestic affairs of its neighbors,” says Constantino Xavier, a fellow at the Carnegie India think tank. “For many years thereafter, and to a certain extent even today, this IPKF syndrome has stifled important strategic thinking about military deployment abroad.”

India’s response to the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka oscillated from facilitating Tiger training camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the early 1980s to the jungle war against the group later in the decade. For multiethnic India, domestic Tamil sentiments against the Sri Lankan government were important. But India was also worried about a growing American presence in Sri Lanka that could turn the Bay of Bengal into another Cold War theater, researcher N. Manoharan wrote in the Journal of Defence Studies in 2009.

Ltte leaders at sirumalai camp

Leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgency pose at a training camp in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in 1984.

Source Public Domain

Juggling those concerns, India signed an accord with Sri Lanka in July 1987 under which Indian troops would help bring peace in the island’s Tamil-dominated provinces in exchange for greater autonomy in those areas. The IPKF floundered from the beginning, says retired brigadier Ravi Palsokar, who led the 7th Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army near Mullaitivu in northeastern Sri Lanka. “Neither the political nor the military hierarchy was clear about what we were getting into,” Palsokar recounts to OZY. “We blundered our way through, without proper directions.”

There were times when the IPKF held the edge against the Tigers. But the Tigers, masters of improvised explosive devices, would fight back. The battles birthed bravery like only war can. Kaura, who retired in 2010 as a brigadier, led multiple rescue missions. “But many of the wounded soldiers we rescued would resist and say, ‘Let me go back to fight the Tigers,’” Kaura recalls, sitting in his living room just outside New Delhi.

The day they were wounded, Kaura and Seigell had headed out on a training flight. But en route they spotted Tiger soldiers ambushing an Indian Army platoon. Their helicopter was one of the few that had been retrofitted with guns, so Kaura and Seigell swooped to their comrades’ aid, descending to treetop level and firing at the militants. Other militants hiding in the dense foliage fired back, hitting them.

India’s intervention was also sullied by allegations of human rights abuses. In his 2017 book, Mission Overseas, army officer turned journalist Sushant Singh describes an incident in which two Indian soldiers entered a militant’s house and shot dead a woman inside. They next saw her 2-year-old son, who reminded one of the soldiers of his own child back home. “Then I told myself that this child will grow up to be a terrorist, perhaps a suicide bomber,” this soldier recalls in Singh’s book. His platoon mate killed the boy, a decision this soldier tells Singh, “I will regret all my life.”

Today, India’s growing economic clout and widening international interests, including in maritime security, have revived the debate over its overseas military approach. “India can no longer afford to sit at the sidelines,” says Xavier. “Its military forces will have to be capable of operating more frequently and even farther abroad.”

But the wounds from Sri Lanka haven’t healed.

Soldiers were denied battle honors and even commendations, says Palsokar. India has not built any memorial to the troops it lost — the only two memorials to the fallen men are in Sri Lanka, built by the government there. “The truth,” says Kaura, “is that we’ve been forgotten.”

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