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.

UNIFIL Commander, Maj Gen Claudio Graziano reviews a parade of the 15 Punjab in Lebanon to commemorate its 302nd anniversary
UNIFIL Commander, Maj Gen Claudio Graziano reviews a parade of the 15 Punjab in Lebanon to commemorate its 302nd anniversary

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 soldier from 15 Punjab holds a Lebanese child during a social welfare camp organised by INDBATT for locals
A soldier from 15 Punjab holds a Lebanese child during a social welfare camp organised by INDBATT for locals

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.

In their footsteps

The illustrious 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment, which 15 Punjab replaced, too had a commendable track-record. It was awarded the United Nations Force Commander’s Unit Citation for its collective performance during peace-keeping operations. Besides the unit citation, 21 officers, eight Junior Commissioned officers and about 45 other ranks of 4 Sikh were also commended individually for their actions. The battalion had been deployed in the south-eastern Lebanon, an area which saw intense fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah.

The 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment has a chequered past, with is deeds of gallantry dating back to the epic battle of Saraghari, fought in the mountains of North-West Frontier Province in 1897. Then known as 36 Sikh, a handful of men held-off several thousand Pathan intruders to the last man. On hearing about the battle, the British Parliament rose in unison as a mark of respect to the fallen heroes. All men who held the post were awarded the Indian Order of Merit, then the highest gallantry award applicable to Indian troopers and considered equivalent to the Victoria Cross.

In 1962, stationed at Walong in the east, it bagged a Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) while holding-off Chinese troops. The 1965 Indo-Pak war saw the battalion in action in the Lahore Sector, where it bagged an MVC and the Battle Honour Burkhi. During the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, 4 Sikh cleared the road to Jessore and captured two villages, earning the Battle Honour Siramani.


UN owes India $230 million

The United Nations owes about $230 million to India, one of the largest contributor of troops for UN missions. The UN owes hundreds of million dollars to countries contributing men and equipment to peacekeeping missions carried out under its mandate in volatile and strife-ridden areas.

Approximately $ 228.99 million is due from the UN towards reimbursements for deployment on various missions, the MoD had informed Parliament in May, 2007. Some of it relates to peacekeepers who have completed their deployment tenure and returned home.

The strength of India peacekeepers, as per MoD figures, has more than doubled in the last three years. From 3,579 in 2004, it touched 8,922 in 2006. This year a brigade group, supported by a helicopter detachment, was inducted in Congo.

Called Mission Subsistance Allowance payments vary from mission to mission. It is $2,500—3,000 for officers, about $2,000 for JCOs and $1,000—1,200 for jawans. Troops are not paid directly by the UN, but through the government of the respective country.


Eagles fly into a war zone

In August last year, an IL-76 strategic freighter from 25 Squadron, the Himalayan Eagles, flew into Beirut, carrying 25 tonnes of relief material. This was the first time an IL-76 operated in a war zone, where there was a danger of it being shot at, since Operation Cactus in 1988, when Indian forces were airlifted into Maldives to help abort a coup.

Flown by Wg Cdr N.V.M Unninathan and Wg Cdr J Narula with Wg Cdr L.K. Jain as the navigator, the aircraft left Chandigarh on August 19 for New Delhi to pick up its load and clear diplomatic formalities. During the flight overseas, the aircrew were in constant touch with Indian officials in Beirut through satellite phone to ensure ground conditions were conducive for landing.

The Beirut airfield had been bombed and all three runways had been damaged, with just about 2,000 metres on one of the runways available. The ideal length required was 2,700 metres. Using their skill and training, the crew executed a "short field landing" and managed to touch down within the available distance. This required the aircraft to come in at very low level and its wheels were just five metres above the ground at a point they are normally at the height of 15 metres.

Take-of from Beirut to was tricky and the crew had to restrict the on-board load to cater to the short runway available. The aircraft carried 35 Indians on its return journey.

The flight was forced to be routed through Cairo because there were no refueling facilities at Beruit and Israel did not permit a direct track to fly into Beirut from the east. From Cairo, the aircraft flew north over the Mediterranean and then turned east towards Lebanon. Time was of essence because Israel had given a very narrow window of diplomatic clearance to fly in and out of Lebanon. Being a war zone, there was a danger of the aircraft being shot at while over-flying pockets of resistance.

At about 10 in the morning, 150 km from Beirut, the air traffic control was contacted and the descent began. On approach, the crew could see pyramids of concrete rubble on the airfield as Israelis had used runway penetration bombs. The crew was met by the Beirut airbase commander, the Indian ambassador to Lebanon and the Indian defence attach`E9.

The aircraft spent about two hours of the tarmac before turning around. Repair work was going on at a fast pace and the crew learnt that there were still three unexploded bombs on the airfield, which the Lebanese were trying to defuse.

Fuel planning had to be done very carefully and the aircraft could carry only limited fuel on the Cairo-Beirut-Cairo leg to ensure an optimum landing weight. This meant no unnecessary ground or aerial maneuvers and precise timing of switching-off and starting the four engines.

In fact, when returning to Cairo, the IL -76 was asked to hold in air, but the crew requested for a priority landing because of its fuel state. The total exercise from departure from New Delhi to return lasted for less than 40 hours, out of which 23 hours were spent in air.