On Independence Day, the television channel Discovery India has launched a new show on how India’s paratroopers are made. The trailer of India’s Paratroopers – Earning the Badge is meant to inspire awe about the prowess of the men who go through an intense six months of gruelling probation to make the cut.
There’s just one problem with the video: the men shown in it are not paratroopers. They belong to the Special Forces units who, although a part of the Indian Army’s Parachute Regiment, were never paratroopers to begin with. At the heart of this grand obfuscation lies a tragic tale of a forcible marriage and the abuse of a much-cherished nomenclature that has haunted India’s military capabilities for decades. Discovery India’s inability to distinguish the Special Forces from the routine paratroopers furthers that deliberate attempt to obliterate identities, which are detrimental to the rich legacy and history of India’s Special Forces.
Discovery India did not respond to Scroll.in’s requests for a clarification.
The Meghdoot Force
Just before war broke out between India and Pakistan in September 1965, Major Megh Singh, who had been passed over for promotion, had the temerity to approach the Commander of India’s Western Army, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, and propose a new concept of warfare that had not been previously explored. Megh Singh, originally commissioned as an Infantry officer in the Brigade of Guards, was convinced that the war could be better fought if they used unconventional means of warfare, where small teams deployed behind enemy lines strategically could influence tremendous outcomes far beyond the size of the teams.
Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, known as a maverick general open to new ideas, immediately accepted Megh Singh’s proposal. He was at liberty to create a small commando unit that would be deployed behind enemy lines in the war that was coming. If the proposal succeeded, Lt Gen Singh promised, he would give Megh Singh command of a new battalion. That was the start of India’s experiment with Special Forces and behind-enemy-lines activities that would be formalised a few months after the war.
Megh Singh’s ideas weren’t original. Faced with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s blitzkrieg in North Africa during the Second World War, the British were hard-pressed to put up a resistance. In the melee of war, a young captain, David Stirling, hopped into the offices of Commander-in-Chief, General Claude Auchinleck, to explain his plan. Both Auchinleck and his deputy General Neil Ritchie saw merit and immediately sanctioned his audacious plan. Stirling was convinced that the best way to beat Rommel’s mechanised forces was to create small teams capable of long-range missions behind enemy lines, hitting their fuel, oil and lubricant supply lines, halting the enemy where he least expected to be. The plan worked and the British Special Forces, the legendary Special Air Service was born.
The fledgling Special Forces of the Indian Army borrowed the "Winged Dagger" badge from the SAS, and replaced their motto "Who Dares Wins" with the word "Balidaan" (Sacrifice).
Parachuting into history
In July 1967, Army Headquarters agreed to create two commando units – 9 (Para Commando) and 10 (Para Commando), the former for the mountains of Kashmir and the latter for the deserts of Rajasthan. Since parachuting was an essential skill, the two battalions were for ensuring administrative made a part of the much older Parachute Regiment. This was done to ensure that the two young units did not face any trouble in terms of procurement, administrative controls and assimilation into a tradition-bound army.
Little did the mandarins in South Block realise that they were condemning the fledgling Special Forces into a forcible marriage that would prove to be their undoing in the decades to come.
In 1987, just before the Indian Army was deployed in Sri Lanka, Army Headquarters agreed to conduct a full-fledged study of the use of Para Commandos. A three-member committee was set up under Brigadier Nico Bahri, along with Colonel Sukhi Mann and Colonel Rustom K Nanavatty. While Sukhi Mann was from 1 Para Commando, Colonel Nanavatty, an officer originally from the Gurkha Rifles, had an abiding interest in the Special Forces. In the years to come, he would emerge as one of the strongest champions of the Special Forces in India.
All the three members agreed that the para-commandos had been forcibly yoked to the Parachute Regiment for decades. It was time, they decided, to give them their unique identity and also recognise the fundamental differences between the two.
The normal Parachute battalions were essentially infantry battalions who came to battle using air insertions. They carried lighter equipment but were designed to operate in mass as a rapid reaction force. If India faced any exigency and the military had to intervene in a matter of hours, the Parachute Units were considered ideal for them. They would get into their planes and para-dropped into the conflict zone and hold ground till the conventional units arrived. The idea had come from the Second World War, when airborne units of the allies landed in advance, while the bulk of the forces would arrive from the rear after landing in France or the Netherlands. The two biggest deployments of airborne troops during the Second World War – Operation Overlord in Normandy, France and Operation Market Garden in Arnhem, Netherlands – had validated these concepts.
But Special Forces were vastly different in significant ways. They lacked mass, unlike the normal airborne units, and they operated in very small teams, mostly behind enemy lines. This difference had been recognised and formalised by most professional militaries across the world and countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom always kept the two separate.
Following the recommendations of the Bahri Committee, Army headquarters officially agreed to separate the para commando units from the conventional airborne battalions. In 1994, the Special Forces Regiment was born with its Regimental Headquarters in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh. The then Director General of Military Operations, Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi was designated as the Colonel of the regiment to ensure that the Special Forces would receive their due in Army Headquarters.
Unfortunately, the experiment would die with the Chief of Army Staff, General BC Joshi, who suffered a fatal heart attack while in office and was replaced by Lt Gen Shankar Roychowdhury, an armoured corps officer who didn’t understand the value of the Bahri Committee’s recommendations. Under pressure from retired Parachute Regiment officers, who were worried that the bulk of the medals would go away from the regiment Gen Roychowdhury was forced to disband the new regiment. Just a year after the Special Forces Regiment was created, the Special Forces units went back to the Parachute Regiment.
The need for specialisation
Modern warfare changed dramatically after the September 11, 2001, attacks by the Al Qaeda on the USA. Conventional forces began to understand and appreciate the value for specialisation and the use of covert small teams that could be inserted into enemy-held territory to carry out raids or surveillance for strategic gains. This called for an expansion of Special Forces units, demanding high levels of specialisation and equipment. In 1980, following a major debacle in Iran, the US senate had passed an amendment to create the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM – a body that would hold exclusive preserve over the Special Forces. Under the United Progressive Alliance government, a task force set up under Naresh Chandra to re-organise India’s complex security architecture, a similar proposal had been mooted to create a Special Forces Command and consolidate the various units spread out across different service headquarters and ministries.
But as the National Democratic Alliance government took over in May 2014, the committee’s recommendations were shelved and the idea of creating a specialised command was never carried forward.
Ironically, the Discovery India series capitalises on the decades of achievement by the Special Forces but does not recognise them as such. According to officials at Army Headquarters, the decision to call the Special Forces merely “paratroopers” lies in their chequered legacy of forcibly using the elite units as the face of a regiment that is struggling to stay relevant. Unfortunately, that comes at the cost of specialistion and a dedicated command and control architecture that is crucial to the evolution of Special Forces and their ability to deliver in high risk, high yield missions. When the US went after Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, they used their Navy SEALS, considered one the finest Special Forces units in the world. In India, burdened by a colonial history, the Indian Army has chosen to ignore embracing modernity in favour of tradition.