|#34||2302||February 28, 2008||By Col Anil Bhat (Retd)|
United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Mission Support in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Ms Jane Holl Lute, accompanied by UN Messenger of Peace, George Clooney, called on Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, recently. During discussions, Lute was highly appreciative of the role played by the Indian peacekeepers in various parts of the world. She urged New Delhi to participate in the Contingent Owned Equipment (COE) Manual Review Exercise scheduled at New York in February 2008. She was assured of India's commitment to UN peacekeeping operations and that India would send a high-level delegation to take part in the review meetings at the technical and working levels. Lute was also given an overview of the logistic and operational experiences of the just–returned Indian peacekeeping contingent. Army Headquarters gave a presentation on the various 'Commandments' given to the Indian peacekeepers, such as respect for cultural ethos of the country where they are deployed, and zero-tolerance for human right violations. Lute had recently visited Congo, where she had seen the Indian peacekeepers in action.
If World Wars I and II had established the reputation of Indian soldiers as fearless professional fighters, their natural instinct and expertise for humanitarian work has been established since Independence. This was acknowledged by the United Nations since its first commitment in Korea where Indian Army personnel were part of a Custodian Force and did a sensitive task commendably.
In fact, the acid test of the Indian Army's humanitarian and impartial character came soon after independence when the cross-movement of refugees between India and Pakistan led to mindless communal violence. Those who were fortunate to survive would never forget the sense of safety they felt when escorted by even a handful of Army personnel. Besides protection of refugees, the Army also provided medical cover at points along the refugee routes. The Military Evacuation Organization (MEO) was formed to organize the safe movement of civilian refugees, and a major refugee camp was set up at Kurukshetra under Brig. Nathu Singh, who later retired as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command.
The MEO did a yeoman service. Brig. S.S. Malik (retired), an instructor at the Defence Service Staff College at Quetta in 1947, recalls an interesting incident when the time came to break up the course and return to India. Malik was in charge of a special train to bring military personnel from Quetta to Ambala. Many civilians were desperate to reach India. Ignoring orders not to take civilians on the train, he took in as many as possible, with the result that two-thirds of the packed train comprised civilians. Only one light machine gun and 12 rifles were allowed on board. All these were manned by the staff college student officers with orders to shoot from the windows if attacked by mobs. Interestingly, it was Malik's old friend, Maj. Yahya Khan (later General and second dictator President of Pakistan), who warned him of a plan to sabotage the train. During the tense three-day journey before it reached Hindumalkot (near Fazilka), Pakistani detachments en route took potshots at it. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
One humanitarian field where the Army has been providing large-scale assistance along with Air Force, ever since Independence, is flood relief, especially in the most flood-prone regions of Assam and the Manipur. In 1950 the massive floods in Assam saw the Army in action on war footing, rescuing, feeding and providing medical care to victims. In the event of floods, the Army assesses the extent of damage and dispatches relief columns with all kinds of equipment, including boats, mobile bridges, construction material, medicines and transport. Boats are pressed into operation to rescue marooned people, but often soldiers, unmindful of their own safety, take the aged or the infirm piggyback. Relief camps are also organized where desalination plants are set up for providing drinking water and food is distributed. Breached river embankments are repaired and, at times damaged or destroyed bridges are reconstructed. Personnel of signal units and electrical and mechanical engineers assist their civilian counterparts in re-erecting telephone poles and lines and repairing vehicles. Usually the local civil authority requisitions the Army, but there have been times when it voluntarily moved in anticipation of a requisition or at its own behest. Major flood-relief operations mounted in recent years, apart from those in Assam and Manipur, have been in Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai.
Another natural calamity that requires similar action is cyclone that ravages the eastern coastline from Tamil Nadu to West Bengal. The greatest of all disasters was the Tsunami, in which the Army rendered assistance within the shores and the Indian Navy reacted on a wider scale by providing assistance not only along the country's coastline, but also to three other countries - Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Earthquakes have also brought the Army out, some of the severest being in Koyna and Latur (Maharashtra), Garhwal (Uttar Pradesh.) and Gujarat. One recalls the late Army Chief, General B.C. Joshi who, in 1993, while touring Latur remarked to Maj. Gen. R. Mohan, then GOC, Maharashtra and Gujrat Area: "You must be the first GOC of this area to have donned combat fatigues in a long time." In Gujarat, the Navy too launched large-scale relief operations.
In recent years, among the manmade disasters that the Army has been called to help in are terrorist bombings in crowded areas, trains or buses, as well as in case of train accidents. In most such instances, soldiers who survive the explosion or accident are the fastest to react. "The Indian Army has a long record of disaster relief. Are they trained specially for this?" asked Andrew Whitehead, BBC's South Asia correspondent in 1993. The answer is that no disaster relief training as such is
Yet another task that has often been performed by Indian Army units in Jammu & Kashmir and during UN peacekeeping operations is running refugee camps, schools and orphanages. In India's Northeastern region, there are many areas where developmental assistance has been provided by the Army or Assam Rifles. In Arunachal Pradesh many places are named after Army personnel, as they were the first outsiders to reach them. A very important aspect of development in the North-Eastern region and J&K is trail-blazing by the Border Road Organization (BRO), which has a record of building wide, good-quality and well maintained roads as well as airfields or airstrips. The BRO’s project Dantak, headquartered in Bhutan, has created most of the infrastructure of roads and various installations that have helped the mountain kingdom to develop. In J & K, the BRO’s project Beacon has resulted in reducing traveling time on existing roads and construction of new ones. In places like the Nubra Valley and Ladakh, bonds between the Army and the local population are very strong as most of the development work has been undertaken by the Army.
Since the late 1980s, when Pakistan began its proxy war in Kashmir, the Army has not only battled anti-national forces but simultaneously undertaken schemes to ameliorate the condition of people battered by terrorist violence. Operation 'Sadbhavna', which began alongside the counter-terrorism operation in 1998, was extended considerably after November 2003. From an allocation of Rs 4 crores in 1988-89, it has shot up to Rs 55.92 crores in 2005-2006. In 1996, when devotees trudged along the high slopes to Mount Amarnath for an annual pilgrimage despite a threat by terrorists, the weather took a nasty turn. A sudden cold wave killed a number of ill-clad pilgrims. Troops already heavily committed in counter-terrorism operations reacted swiftly to provide relief and rescue.
The reputation of the Indian soldier as a deadly fighter had already been established by the end of World War II. It was only after Independence that the Indian soldier came to be recognized as a peacekeeper or peacemaker. Missions after mission has reinforced this reputation. "Give me an Indian battalion…" "I wish all my battalions were from the Indian Army …" or "Get me more Indian officers…" are requests often heard from U.N. mission commanders of other countries.
Col Anil Bhat (Retd)