Testing Times


    At the beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the militant organisation— Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)— who wanted a separate state for Tamils in North/ East Sri Lanka, caused havoc in the country. The Sri Lankan parties were not able to reach a clear solution.

    On the Sri Lankan government's request, the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi assumed a mediation role. 

    India, because of a large number of Tamils in the southern part of the country, and also to avoid foreign intervention (USA, Pakistan, China) in the Sri Lankan matters, had been on friendly terms with Sri Lanka. We had promised armed support, if diplomatic interventions failed. A large number of refugees were entering Tamil Nadu. The government in Tamil Nadu, AIADMK, were on friendly terms with Rajiv Gandhi's Congress. They wanted support from New Delhi to thwart that violence. Cold-shouldering these requests could have cost Mr. Gandhi the support of AIADMK.

    Initially, diplomatic intervention was offered. It was more or less futile. Soon, humanitarian assistance was offered. They started sending aerial supplies. Big cities were sent food, medicine etc. Everything was done to express Indian support.
    Soon, the Sri Lankan president, Jayewardene, met Rajiv Gandhi and the agreement was signed. Under this, India had to send a peacekeeping force, IPKF, to Sri Lanka, who were supposed to disarm the rebels.


    It was in early 1988 that we received orders for the move to Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peacekeeping Force, commonly referred to as the IPKF. The contingent of IPKF which had moved in 1987 had already provided us adequate inputs about the fighting spirit of the militant groups and the dire necessity to train ourselves to a very high degree in counter insurgency and terrorism-related operations.


    Even though the IPKF went in to ensure truce, the LTTE refused to come to terms. As a result, this led to an open confrontation between the IPKF and the LTTE. A very unique situation presented itself wherein the very purpose of Indian intervention to ensure peace between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil groups resulted in a divide and we ended up fighting the LTTE.


    The name given to this operation was Op Pawan. We trained extremely hard for almost eight months and devoted a lot of time to preparing ourselves. It was nice to see the Jat boys learning some essentials of the Tamil language and carrying out various road/rail opening and ambush-related drills. In fact, we had totally justified the famous dictum— “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. Besides our rigorous training, we also went through very intense fraternising sessions which helped to further strengthen our bonds and build a very high level of team spirit and esprit de corps.


    We left our peace time location from Dehradun on 23rd September 1988 and reached Chennai on the 28th. It was for the first time in the history of the unit that our Jat boys were exposed to the vastness and grandeur of the sea. There was a sense of euphoria and total enthusiasm on having seen the sea. We used to go for a lot of walk-and-run sessions along the beach every morning. Having stayed in Chennai for four nights, we boarded INS AKBAR and left Chennai on 2nd October. We reached Trincomalee on 4th October.


    We reached our halting area at Trincomalee on 5th October by forenoon. We decided to go out to the town to have a look at the route to Vavuniya town, since a large number of bodies and vehicles would be moving on this route the next day. In between, we also stopped over to enjoy a Coke, since the import and manufacture of Coke in India had been stopped completely for a long time.


    At 1.45 PM on 5th October, as we were on our way back to the camp site of IPKF, we were sprayed by a volley of bullets from a location adjacent to the road. It took us a while to recognise that we were caught up in an ambush laid by the LTTE. I was at the wheel, and our protection party comprising Digambar and Rajbir immediately took retaliatory action to fire back. I, of course, accelerated the Jonga to its optimum level in an attempt to break the ambush. In a few seconds, most of us had begun counter-ambush drills, and fired incessantly at the Ambush site. The LTTE militants had been bringing down a very heavy volume of fire. They had punctured the tyres of our Jonga, a vehicle which almost looks like a jeep, though it is slightly broader and has a very powerful engine. As a result, the Jonga wavered to the left and hit a tree stump, overturning in the process.

    Nearby, we came across a Sri Lankan army post. They joined us in counter-ambush action leading to a hand-to-hand fight with the militants. Incidentally, when the Jonga overturned, all of us had lost orientation for a little while. I was at the very bottom followed by all others heaped over me. Slowly we all extricated ourselves from the vehicle and charged at the LTTE. We managed to kill two LTTE militants; the remaining persons fled from the scene. At this juncture, we realised, to our dismay, that our doctor Capt. Bhatt had been fatally wounded with a bullet on his forehead. My driver Rajpal had also got a head injury and succumbed to his wounds later in the Hospital. Major Ahlawat had blood dripping over his eyes due to a head injury. All others had minor injuries and were admitted to the hospital.


    Warfare is a tricky business and becomes a tremendous challenge for leaders to keep the soldier motivated, especially when the soldier is not convinced about the cause.

    Our jawans, meanwhile, successfully broke through an ambush at Cheddikulam laid by the LTTE, suffering some casualities in the process. We were hitting back but our entry to Sri Lanka had not been very congenial. At this critical juncture, our commanding officer had to be posted out due to certain urgent operational requirements in another sector and the command of the battalion rested on me. In fact, my predicament was very grave as I was performing the duties of the company commander even though I was actually the second-in-command. Those of you who have some idea of Combat, will be able to understand and appreciate the criticality created by this development, wherein I had to Officiate as the CO from being a company commander in a challenging battle environment.


    On assuming command, I realised that the unit was not in the very best of morale and needed a fillip. Fortunately for me, my immediate junior was a very mature person and was instrumental in helping me restore the situation. We had to take motivational lectures and sainik sammelans (town halls in corporate language) in the temple. We increased the intensity of our prayers, thereby strengthening our resolve to do our very best. We got our men to recite “GEETA SAAR” in unison and indulged in extensive brain storming sessions to defeat the designs of the militants. Our post commanders at Cheddikulam road junction, Omantai and Shastrikulam, reported success and achievements every day.

    One of those days, a few minutes of lull in the fight gave us an opportunity to enliven our spirits and boost our morale by listening to some ghazals of Jagjit Singh and other motivational songs.


    Another incident crosses my mind. While operating in the jungles, one of our soldiers, Havildar Hanumana, while waiting for the militants in an ambush site, suddenly noticed the ground moving under him. Later he discovered that it was a python trying to move away due to his body weight. The python was shot dead and skinned. The hide has been preserved for posterity to remind us of operation hazards while operating in jungles. Since the threat from the militant groups was all pervasive and omni-present, every moment and morning was unique. We expressed our gratitude to the Almighty for having survived to witness yet another day.


    Our bonding in peacetime had become so strong that our ladies started writing motivational letters to officers to keep boosting their morale and spirits. In fact, it was only for the combat Arms, and more so for the infantry (foot soldiers), wherein the requirement for closing-in with the enemy was the maximum, and required a lot of raw courage for a close-quarter battle with the opponent.

    In normal conventional warfare, the opposing Armies are very clear about the overall cause for the battle and it helps in giving an automatic boost to a soldier’s morale, since he is associated with the national cause and safety of his motherland. In the case of Sri Lanka, it was totally missing since we had actually gone to help our Tamil brethren and ensure a peaceful settlement. The tide turned dramatically and we landed up fighting the Tamil Tigers. It was at this time we realised that our best saving grace was the “unit pride”. The Indian Army soldier loves his unit or organisation even more than his own wife or children, and will do anything to protect the professional reputation and izzat (respect) of his unit at any cost.

    This also falls in line with the famous quote by Philip Mason in his book, “A matter of honour”, wherein he wrote “Hats off to the Indian Soldier”; the soldier who fought for a foreign country, for a foreign cause and fought so well.

    When other parameters to keep up the fighting morale lose their sheen, it was seen that the leader himself became the very cause. Good leadership and leading from the front, along with personal examples, paid very rich dividends and saw the light of the day as against any other facet.


    Even though I had already taken active part in the 1971 Indo-Pak war and the insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, the Sri Lankan experience was much more tough, challenging and memorable. The uncertainty of the time and place of action and fire was far too much, keeping us on tender hooks all through our stay in Sri Lanka. Professionally, it strengthened and trained us to be able to handle the worst of insurgency and anti-terrorist operations in the long run. It also strengthened our belief in ourselves that the unit and the Indian Army needed no external motivation to fight. Its unit leadership and spirit of oneness were more than adequate to enable us to be able to deliver anytime, anywhere.




    Author : Brigadier Shyam Lal

    Brig Shyam Lal has served 36 years in the Infantry (Jat Regiment) of the Indian Army. He is a veteran of three wars ie the Indo-Pak war 1971, the Indian Peace keeping Force in Srilanka , insurgency in J& K and commanded a unit atop the Siachen glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield of the world. Wounded twice in action, he has been awarded gallantry medals for his participation in the 1971 war as also the IPKF operations in Srilanka. Brig Shyam Lal is a rare combination of a scholar and a soldier. He is M.Sc, MBA, B. Ed and a PhD in management. He has been a director with Indian centre of management and HRD, later named Balaji Institute of Management & HRD and also the International school of management and research, Pune. Presently he has his own training and placement consultancy and has been conducting workshops on leadership, emotional Intelligence and transactional analysis. He is an avid golfer and has traveled widely. His guiding philosophy is “Never, Never, Never Give up”.


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