In praise of keeping peace
The Indian Army Battalion Group was deployed in volatile south-eastern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, in January 2007 and was recently honoured by the King of Belgium for its professionalism and dedication. Vijay Mohan reports on its peace keeping and humanitarian activites.
A few weeks ago, officers and men wearing the Indian Army regalia, on deployment as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), stood proudly as a senior Belgium Army officer presented them with Medals of Honour. The medals were bestowed by the King of Belgium in recognition of the actions of Indian peacekeepers in helping Belgian soldiers in distress.
It was after 14 years that a foreign government honoured members of an Indian peacekeeping force individually for their acts. The last time, according to military historians, was in 1993 when the French government had decorated Indian peacekeepers in Somalia.
This was just one of the instances by the Indian Army Battalion Group (INDBATT-9), presently comprising troops from the 15th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment and other support arms and services which has reiterated the professionalism and commitment of the Indian Army in its operational tasks. The battalion was inducted in volatile south-eastern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, in January 2007.
Indian forces, including helicopter detachments are currently deployed in five peace-keeping missions across the world, besides contributing officers to various observer groups. Among them INDBATT-9, according to reports received here, has attracted wide international attention not so much for maintaining peace, but more so for winning the hearts and minds of the people residing in its area of operations by initiating a host of civic action programmes. Indian detachments on UN missions elsewhere also have military successes to their credit.
On May 28, Indian officers and men were invited at headquarters of the Belgian battalion and honoured at an impressive ceremony presided over by Brigadier Jai Prakash Nehra, Deputy Force Commander, UNIFIL. The Belgian commanding officer, Col Hendrick Van Sluijs also presented a memento to the CO of 15 Punjab, Col Advitya Madan, in appreciation of the unit’s gallant action.
On March 17, a Lebanese civilian informed a member of INDBATT, Naib Subedar Amrik Singh, about an accident involving a Belgian armoured personnel carrier in a remote area. There was no Lebanese gendarmarie (police) post nearby or any town or village around. The place was about 15 km from INDBATT’s headquarters.
The battalion’s senior medical officer, Maj YVB Rao, dental officer, Maj Daljinder Singh and medical officer Maj Madhlima Saha along with seven other men were involved in the evacuation of the four seriously injured Belgian soldiers. Amrik, who was among the first to reach the accident site, organised speedy evacuation by galvanising the men under his command. He informed his headquarters, which organised air evacuation of the injured personnel while Indian doctors performed live saving procedures. One Belgian died on the spot.
A court of inquiry convened by UNIFIL to investigate the matter, which was headed by a German officer, came to the conclusion that the lives of the two peacekeepers was saved due to the prompt action of Indian soldiers.
The letter of commendation from the Belgian Government praised each recipient for his/her "exceptional performance as a medical team leader in Kafer". The letter went on to state that their personal commitment and dedication to duty reflects great credit upon themselves, their unit and the Indian armed forces.
Indian soldiers are not merely involved in peacekeeping duties. They have actively gone out to win over large sections of the Lebanese by organising humanitarian aid camps, initiating social welfare projects and conducting cultural programmes.
The concept of Winning the Hearts and Minds (WHAM) is deeply enshrined in the Doctrine of the Indian Army. Security forces, it states, must seek popular approval for their presence in insurgency-prone areas. WHAM involves actions to gain the confidence of uncommitted elements of the population, in addition to obtaining and strengthening support from "friendly" insurgents. WHAM focuses on civic action programmes to present the Army’s humane face, improving the quality of life of the locals and promoting understanding and cooperation.
Earlier this year, INDBATT provided artificial limbs to over 130 local victims of mine and cluster bomb accidents. The project, undertaken at Ebel Es Saqi where INDBATT is headquartered, involved the free medical examination and the fitting of the Indian-made artificial limb called Jaipur Foot. The project was funded by Arab Finance House.
Commander, 10 Brigade, Lebanese Armed Forces Brig-Gen Charles Shikhani, Ali Oserain, Mataraji of the Arab Finance House, mayors of towns in the area of operations of 15 Punjab and prominent citizens were among those present at a function organised to mark the project’s conclusion.
Jaipur Foot is an artificial limb developed and manufactured by a Jaipur-based trust, Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayta Samiti. It is reasonably priced as compared to other such models available in the market, besides being light and very comfortable. In 2006, 22 Lebanese were provided artificial limbs. INDBATT had also approached the Lebanese Army to provide names of their personnel, who are in the need of such artificial limbs. INDBATT is also working on several humanitarian projects for the people of Lebanon as part of UNIFIL’s mandate.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon visited 15 Punjab during his diplomatic tour of the Middle East. Over 13,000 troops drawn from 27 countries make up the UNIFIL, and 15 Punjab was the only military unit to be visited by the UN Chief. Sources claim that as recognition of 15 Punjab’s stellar performance in operations and the extensive goodwill generated among the local populace, it was handpicked by the Maj Gen Claudio Graziano, the Italian UNIFIL Commander, to be showcased to the Secretary-General. The
302-year old 15 Punjab is one of the oldest unit of the Army. Raised on April 13, 1705, by Baba Alla Singh, founder of the Patiala state, it is the Army’s second-highest decorated battalion, with 22 Battle Honours and the Theatre Honour, "Punjab", conferred upon it for the Battle of Hussainiwala, where it stalled three successive attacks by a Pakistani brigade supported by armour, in 1971.
Earlier known as 1st Patiala it has fought in the Suez, Gallipoli, Palestine, Waziristan, Burma, Malaya and Batavia as part of the British Indian Army. Post- Independence, the battalion’s finest moment was at Zoji La in 1948, where ill-equipped and unaclimatised troops achieved a resounding success against Pakistani raiders. It won eight Maha Vir Chakras and 18 Vir Chakras, the highest in a single operation, and the Battle Honour Zoji La. In 1951, it was re-designated as 15 Punjab (Patiala).
A senior officer at Army Headquarters revealed that such is the interaction and rapport, that locals have brought out specific areas where assistance from UNIFIL is required and the battalion has projected these to UNIFIL HQs. These projects have been included in a programme called Quick Impact Projects (QIP), specially initiated by UNIFIL in order to further its humanitarian role. Four of such QIPs worth about $ 50,000 have been sanctioned through INBATT.
Recently, the unit in collaboration with Lebanon NGOs Al-Makassed and Al Khyan conducted two multispecialty medical camps, where specialist doctors were especially arranged from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, to render specialist medical advice and treatment.
A visible and popular form of social interaction has been yoga classes for primary class school children at Al Fradiss. Computer and English-speaking classes for school children, basic automobile engineering classes for the farmers, first-aid cadres and daily medical, dental and veterinary camps are among the humanitarian projects presently being conducted by 15 Punjab.
A series of Indian-Lebanese cultural exchange programmes have also been initiated to showcase Indian culture for the locals. They watched in amazement, as the battle-hardened Punjabis showed their mastery over dabki, a Lebanese folk dance, during some of the exchange events. The bhangra has also been a hit with the locals.
INBATT also lifted The UNIFIL Inter-Contingent Cross Country Championship Trophy, beating troops from 30 countries. This was the sixth consecutive competition won by it. The fiercely contested run included men from the elite special forces of some countries. The 10-km route traversed through semi mountainous terrain and gravel tracks involving grueling uphill running of four km.