US Navy Seals epitomise the spirit underlying Special Forces with the belief, ‘The only easy day was yesterday’.
These are the chosen special-operation combatants who eliminate high level targets or achieve results disproportionate to their numbers, using unconventional and covert means – often behind enemy lines e., ‘taking out’ of Osama Bin Laden, under the nose of the Pakistani military establishment.
India’s tryst with Special Forces began with the Draft War Establishment, prepared and actioned by the legendary officer, Lt Col Megh Singh Rathore, under most unusual circumstances.
Then recently overlooked for the rank of Lt Col, Megh Singh Rathore volunteered to raise a Special Commando team – serendipitously, 1965 had national leaders like Lal Bahadur Shastri and Field Commanders like Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, who quickly agreed.
Who Were the Meghdoot Force?
It is said that during one of the briefings, Lt Gen Harbaksh expressed concern over the mounting casualties, when Megh Singh Rathore intervened, “Sir, I have the experience of operating behind the enemy lines, permit me to select a few men and allow me to cross the ceasefire line into Occupied Kashmir. I will destroy their supply bases, rear dumps, and mounting bases. Soon the infiltrators will be left with no logistic support and ultimately would be rendered ineffective.”
Lo and behold, two officers, two JCOs, and less than 80 handpicked combatants from 3rd Rajput Regiment and 3rd Rajputana Rifles were selected (including 30 combatants of the fabled Qaimkhani Muslim stock from the 3rd Rajputana Rifles), who were colloquially designated Meghdoot Force (after Megh Singh Rathore).
To say that they created havoc behind enemy lines and created history with their unconventional approach and valour would be an understatement, and Megh Singh Rathore justifiably won the Vir Chakra for his dare-devilry, along with his fiery band of warriors.
A new creed of extreme soldering was born within the ‘Maroon Berets’ of the Parachute Regiment ie, the Special Forces or SF battalions – the only ones to adorn the distinct and coveted ‘Balidan’ (Sacrifice) badge on the right pocket, below the name plate.
Arguably, the elite-of-the-very-elitist of the Indian Armed Forces!
The Special Forces Battalions
To this fearless fount of traditions and ethos were formed 10 battalions of the Special Forces who were specifically freighted for special operations, counter terrorism, counterinsurgency, direct action and special reconnaissance.
These battalions were routinely immersed in the most trying of combat operations and some spilled into public attention eg, the so-called ‘Surgical Strikes’ (which continued happening much before their political appropriations) across the borders in Myanmar and later in Pakistan (Bollywood chipped in with ‘Uri’ and the hooah of ‘How’s the Josh?’).
One of these 10 Special Forces battalions was the former 21 Maratha Light Infantry that got converted into the 21 Paras (SF) in 1995, a specialist unit for jungle and mountain warfare, and counterinsurgency operations.
21 Para (SF) is a relatively young SF unit with has done exceedingly well in terms of gallantry action and awards, including boasting of Brig SS Shekhawat SM, SC, KC, VSM – the most gallantry decorated serving officer (who also summited Mt Everest thrice). This unit truly epitomised its motto “Men apart, every man an emperor Shatrujeet” (The Conqueror).
But, combat (cross-border or insurgency) is essentially a messy business, especially so, for the terms of engagement and operations of the Special Forces, which are decidedly asymmetric and highly unpredictable.
Despite the nature of the risks involved in their specific calling, these warriors knowingly volunteer to remain in the proverbial line-of-fire, willingly.
Unintended Consequence of Combat Ops
Importantly, combat operations don’t always go as planned and unintended outcomes and casualties to self, or even unfortunately to civilians, happen – it happens to best of Special Forces across the world.
The 2017 US Seals raid into Yemen or the fate of Israel’s deadly Special Forces unit ie, Sayeret Matkal unit, which botched up attempts to infiltrate Hamas’s communications and got exposed, are recent examples. Even the Osama Bin Laden operation involved a helicopter crashlanding during the operation.
In professional militaries, such events are never brushed under the carpet, and if there is one institution that breaks unimaginable amount of sweat and blood in training and retraining to ensure that it never happens again, it is the armed forces.
Importantly, there is (and should always be) a clear and fine difference between an accountable act of deliberate excess/dereliction, as opposed to unintended consequence owing to ground situation/circumstances – civil society, uninformed media, activists, NGOs and above all, the unhinged politicos, can sometimes prematurely navigate the discourse during such unfortunate events towards even more debilitating ends, with their short-termism.
These combatants, faced with potentially fatal split-second decisions, do not have the luxury of hindsight – therefore they take decisions that usually go right, but sometimes not.
No military in a democracy like India carries a carte blanche to undertake violence (on behalf of the State) or remain unaccountable for its actions, but nuance is always the key – no willful wrongdoing should ever be condoned (let alone rewarded) and at the same time, the sword arm of the nation and especially those like the Special Forces who always go the extra mile, always and always, should ever be institutionally degraded or shamed.
The consequences of protecting wrong action or name-shaming of an institution are grave either way, for the security and integrity of the sovereignty. Jumping the gun on commenting on such events, is inadvisable, to say the least.
Nagaland Civilian Killings, 2021
On 4 December 2021, 21 Para SF was involved in an operation in Oting-Tiru area of Mon District of Nagaland, and it resulted in 13 civilian deaths. Operating under intelligence report, clearly this wasn’t the intended outcome, and we lost our own citizens, not those of the ‘enemy’ or of the belligerents, but our own.
Despite acknowledging regret and concerned statements from the Home Minister in Parliament and the army chief, almost immediately, reckless politics took over, and the local police went unusually vocal and on an overdrive. This, when the abject failure of various state police forces and CAPF to do the needful leads to the requisitioning of armed forces in local insurgencies, which ideally should not happen.
The much-bandied boogie of AFSPA, or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a standard operational cover afforded to all professional militaries in such ‘disturbed areas’, and not a privilege that affords even a rupee extra, to any soldier operating therein.
While the pain and outpouring of the civilian families who lost their members is completely understandable, the milking of such raw emotions towards political ends is despicable.
Conversely, the families of 21 Para SF soldiers are invoking their own narrative of selfless service, unbelievable sacrifices, and the shameful humiliation of their kin.
Fact is, both sides are entitled to their wounded emotions but for all others, facts must be procedurally ascertained as stipulated by law, without short-circuiting or second-guessing the events, that happened on that fateful night.
If anyone is found guilty of lapses given the situation, then they ought to be taken to task – this is not a banana republic or even the army of a nation like Pakistan, which is a law onto itself. However, to prematurely cast aspersions (read, charge sheeted) on the conduct of the army, seek revocation of AFSPA, doubt the procedural recourse or the ‘intent’ of the sovereign is easy, lazy and sheer maliciousness (beyond petty politics).
SC Stays Criminal Proceedings Against 21 Para SF
Expectedly, the Supreme Court stayed criminal proceedings against the 21 Para SF combatants and noted that prior sanction as required under Section 6 of the Armed Forces (Special 4 Powers) Act, 1958, had not been obtained. This is a reality.
Restrain is absolutely essential as there is a rightful sense of loss, but the same should not be misused towards galvanising political/ethnic passions or overenthusiastic attempts of policing brilliance or institutional one-upmanship, especially in these fractured times.
Suffice it to say, irrespective of the heat and dust, the warriors of 21 Para SF would be standing tall and diligent to their orders. If something amiss is directly attributable to their conduct, they would automatically heed to the consequences, as part of any institution that prides itself as ‘Service Before Self’.
The dignity and respect of our Nagas, especially of those who unfortunately lost their lives is why the likes of a soldier of a 21 Para SF and their ilk, put themselves in the harm’s way, as a daily routine.
Hold your horses and do not jump to conclusions – above all, and as usual, the politics must wait.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. 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.)