In 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force forayed into Sri Lanka with the aim of ending the civil war in the island nation. Anybody who takes up arms against the Union of India is viewed as enemy. On this occasion, the Indian Army had to fight against the LTTE.
The 13 Sikh Light Infantry (Sikh LI), under Lieutenant Colonel R S Sethi, was airlifted from Gwalior to Palali airfield in northern Sri Lanka on October 11, 1987. The troops were due to land at Vavuniya in central Sri Lanka but, while in Madras for a refuelling halt, there was a change in plan and the battalion was diverted.
The first band of troops landed at 1pm and the last aircraft at 5pm. With snags developing in two aircraft only two depleted companies (seven officers, nine junior commissioned officers and 240 other ranks) could land at Palali. Torrential rain added to their woes.
That same day the battalion was tasked with capturing the LTTE fortress of Jaffna University at Kokkuvil in a heliborne operation. The varsity was also the LTTE’s military headquarters. The plan was finalised at 6pm. Pathfinders of 10 Para (Commando) were told to secure the helipad and landing zone and 13 Sikh LI was to follow in five helicopters.
At about 1am on October 12, two copters carrying a platoon for Delta company led by Major Birender Singh took off. The troopers had a fiery reception at the landing zone, amidst heavy and accurate fire. Three remaining helicopters carrying all others of the Delta company were ordered to return to Palali in the face of the vicious fire. The brave platoon could neither be reinforced nor extricated.
Amid the confusion, the battalion was ordered to advance in vehicles to link up with the beleaguered platoon. Communications had snapped. The last transmission from Major Singh was “Not to worry, we will hold on”. The gallant platoon fought to the finish, despite overwhelming odds, losing all but one of its men. It was probably the only action in modern times when men bayonet-charged the enemy and filled dread in their hearts. That 29 of them died gallantly and only one was taken prisoner showed the tenacity of the Indian Army, mainly the Sikh LI.
The rest of the battalion, on learning this with whatever information they had from the pathfinders, assembled in the hills of Jaffna while advancing to the varsity. When the commanding officer spoke of the valour of the Delta company platoon, all soldiers rose on their feet and slowly their hand went up. The fingers curled to form a steel fist and they vowed, “Hum dushman ko mita denge” (We will eliminate the enemy), followed by the war cry, “Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal”, which echoed in the hills.
There was no looking back. They captured the university and won every battle in Sri Lanka thereafter. Soldiers under Major Singh won four Vir Chakras and nine Sena medals. Long live the Indian Army and Sikh LI.