Book Review: Op Pawan, the ‘87 Surgical Strike Gone Horribly Wrong

Sushant Singh’s book on Operation Pawan spills the beans on a botched-up mission that resulted in Indian casualties.

5 min read
File photo of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger rebels standing guard  at Mankulam in northern Sri Lanka; Courtesy: Reuters. (Photo: Rhythum Seth/ <b>The Quint</b>)

First, a disclosure. I have special motivations to write this review because as a fauji brat of 10-odd years, I was part of the universe of the Secunderabad-based 54 Division or Bison Division that in a few years would find itself at the centre of Operation Pawan. It was India’s ill-fated intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war between the national Sinhala government and the Tamil separatist LTTE.

Sri Lankan Misadventure

When the events at the heart of the book actually transpired, I was thousands of kilometres away, in a military cantonment in the North East. But stories, almost all of them sad, would filter in about the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)’s travails.

One day at the Officers Club library, a friend pointed out a gaunt officer – who everyone seemed to give a wide berth to – and told me in a hushed tone, “He was a commando, involved in something terrible in Sri Lanka”. Little did I know.

But thanks to Sushant Singh, we know a lot more now about one of the Indian Army’s most disastrous operations, the Jaffna University Helidrop, 12-13 October 1987, that left seventy soldiers dead and scores injured. It was to be symbolic of the larger Sri Lankan misadventure.

Going much deeper than previous accounts, the author vividly illustrates what hubris and lack of preparation can do to a military operation. In these current times of unquestioned hyperbole, created around military actions by non-combatant cheerleaders selling visions of breaking our enemies into pieces, the book is particularly well-timed.

A Sri Lankan soldier stands by an army poster on the streets of Jaffna,   northern Sri Lanka, 5 January 2006. (Photo: Reuters)
A Sri Lankan soldier stands by an army poster on the streets of Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, 5 January 2006. (Photo: Reuters)

Mistake of Underestimating the LTTE

In the IPKF’s case, the hubris was grossly underestimating the LTTE. Senior army officers dismissing them as “Lungiwalas” while the Army chief promised to “finish the LTTE in a week”. The lack of preparation manifested itself in the inability to make the switch from peacekeepers to warfighters-lack of maps, artillery guns with no ammo, and troops flown in from the Indian hinterland overnight inducted into battle.

Para Commandos Acknowledged the Errors

The standout aspect of the book is the detail in which it goes into the lead-up of the battle, the action itself and its aftermath. The primary source of this blow-by-blow account is Sheonan Singh, the leader of the para commando assault team. Normally the trap in such accounts, with a heavy reliance on one source, is that everyone else comes off as having screwed up while the source and his men can do no wrong.

Such fears can be allayed because the author narrates the para commandos’ errors in chilling detail – from civilians shot dead, including a two-year-old infant, at point blank range, to Sheonan Singh causing the death of two of his men by erroneously calling in mortar fire too close to their position. The brutal honesty of the account mirrors the brutal life and death struggle being waged in the by-lanes of Jaffna in those fateful 37 hours.

Also Read: Ex-LTTE Leader and Former Minister Karuna Arrested in Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan Tamil woman holds picture of revel leader Prabhakaran during the rally in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 27 June 2003. (Photo: Reuters)
A Sri Lankan Tamil woman holds picture of revel leader Prabhakaran during the rally in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 27 June 2003. (Photo: Reuters)

Memories of the Armed Struggle

Another highlight is that without saying so explicitly, the book comes close to acknowledging what in the West is called PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For those brought up on a super hero construct of the soldier, especially commandos, it will be tough reading to find hardened men blanking out traumatic memories of a murderous firefight, and others still struggling years later to get closure by visiting the battlefield where their comrades fell and civilians died at their hands.

There is a lot to chew on for the seasoned military history reader as well. A familiar story of confused command and control, tactical commanders being overruled by HQs, and luck, both good and bad, playing a huge role in the events that played out.

Surreal events like a cupboard stocked full of cash and gold being discovered by the commandos in one of the houses where they had taken up defensive positions, make for a rich narrative. Special Forces aficionados will see obvious parallels with Black Hawk Down, the disaster suffered by US forces in Mogadishu in 1993.

No One Knows the Mission’s Objective

Now to areas where the book could have done better, and mostly this is for the publisher. Making allowance for the fact that Juggernaut is a low-cost “indie” model, editors need to add value to such rare examples in this genre. The book lacks images which could have spoken the proverbial thousand words to the current generation. The more military history-savvy reader could have done with a few maps of the battle.

Also, the editors should have paid attention to the main objective of the mission – a question that has bedevilled military historians for long – as this is never really disclosed. Initially, we are told it is the destruction of an LTTE HQ but then their supremo Prabhakaran makes a sudden appearance into the narrative. Whether he was the real target tends to fade out of the account, with no mention in the after action analysis.

Some minor errors in terminology, armoured protective carriers when it should be armoured personnel carriers, 54 Airborne Div when it should be 54 Infantry Div could have been caught as well.

None of this detracts though from a compelling story, narrated lucidly by the author who himself once wore the olive green, and who has paid his own tribute to the fallen. Our greatest tribute would be to learn the stark lessons the book brings out before we embark on the next military endeavour.

Book: Operation Pawan: Massacre at Jaffna

Author: Sushant Singh

Release Date: March 2017

Publisher: Juggernaut

(Rajit Ojha is a fauji brat, with a background in simulation and wargaming, and contributes on military affairs, including his podcast Armchair Generals on YouTube. He can be reached @y2krajit. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Rajiv Knew He Would be Killed: Premonition Revealed in New Book

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