MARATHAS IN COUNTER INSURGENCY OPERATIONS – The history of insurgencies in the Indian context took root even as Pandit Nehru was delivering his tryst with destiny speech on the floor of Parliament in the early hours of August 15, 1947. A day prior to India gaining independence, Phizo had declared a separate Naga nation on August 14, 2015. With this began India’s constant struggle with insurgencies. The Indian Army became formally involved with in a counter-insurgency role in 1956, after the decision to deploy it, to fight Naga insurgents.
The Naga insurgency proved to be only the beginning of this involvement and about a decade later, the Mizo National Front(MNF), unleashed a wave of violence, leading to the deployment of the army immediately thereafter. This involvement continued for two decades, until 1986, when a peace agreement between the MNF and the Rajiv Gandhi government was reached.
In the meanwhile, the army was also inducted into Manipur, (to fight both the Naga and Meiti insurgent groups), Agartala and Assam. The army’s active deployment continues in some of these areas till date, especially in Manipur, which has proved to be one of the most intractable challenges in the subconventional sphere.
The army also faced a tough challenge in Sri Lanka, where it was deployed in 1987 as part of the Indian Peacekeeping Force(IPKF). Its fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) was a bloody affair, which saw over 1000 casualties in a span of a little over three years. The Regiment contributed five battalions to the operation to include the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 18th Battalions. Each battalion, despite the challenging task at hand, displayed restraint, facilitated peace and the successful conduct of elections in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country.
The army was also deployed in Punjab to suppress terrorism, which threatened to inflame the state on communal lines. Possibly the toughest part of this involvement was the conduct of Operation Bluestar, under extremely difficult and trying conditions. The operation was led by then Maj. Gen. K.S. Brar.
The army has also been deployed in J&K since the early years of the nineties in CI operations, which has since enlarged in scope, given the active involvement of Pakistan in fuelling the proxy war. This has witnessed the deployment of a dynamic grid along the Line of Control (LOC), raising of the Rashtriya Rifles(RR), which is manned by officers and men from the army and regular army units. As part of the periodic raising of RR, the regiment contributed four battalions, each of which has proved to be worthy of the Maratha ethos that embodies their conduct in operations.
The Regiment’s contribution
The Regiment has been at the forefront of the army’s involvement in CI operations. This has been aided by the unique characteristics of the Maratha soldier, in his nimble and resilient nature. These qualities have proved to be invaluable during the conduct of CI operations. Amongst the pioneers from the regiment, 2 Maratha LI was deployed in Nagaland in 1956-57. The battalion performed commendably during these operations and its contribution was best personified by the award of Ashoka Chakra to Capt. Eric James Tucker, the first such award in the Indian Army.
2 Para (originally a Maratha unit) became one of the pioneers in Mizoram. Based on the experience of the battalion and its officers, Lt Gen. Mathew Thomas was selected to establish the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Verangte.
The tradition of leading from the front in CI operations in Northeast India was carried forward by Col N.J. Nair, CO 16 Maratha LI, who led a counter ambush against the NSCN cadres successfully, though at the cost of his life. He was awarded the Ashoka Chakra, having earlier already been awarded a Kirti Chakra in operations, as a Major. He was ably followed by Maj. S.C. Punia and Lt Col Nectar Sanjenbam of 21 Para (erstwhile 21 Marathas), with both being awarded the Ashoka Chakra.
The performance of a number of battalions was outstanding in different states of the Northeast. 21 Maratha LI, which was later converted to a special forces battalion, won three COAS Unit Citations. This was replicated by 8 Maratha LI and 11 Maratha LI, during their operational deployment in Kokrajhar, Assam. 15 Maratha LI spearheaded operations in Nagaland in the mid nineties, while 12 Maratha LI, 21 Maratha LI and 22 Maratha LI, displayed outstanding results in Manipur, leading to all these battalions being awarded the COAS Unit Citation. Maratha battalions remained at the forefront of action in J&K as well. 6 Maratha LI became the flag bearer ofthese achievements in 1990-1991, with the award of the COAS Unit Citation. This was followed by 7 Maratha LI, 2 Para(SF), 27 RR, 11 Maratha LI, 41 RR, 56 RR, 9 Maratha LI with the latest recipient being 1 Maratha LI( Jangi Paltan). The sacrifices and bravery of the soldiers of the Regiment is best exemplified in the award of two Ashoka Chakras to Col Vasanth Venugopal and Lt Navdeep Singh.
However, the resolute and dogged spirit of the Maratha soldier cannot alone be judged by the awards won by a few. The very nature of operations in the CI environment suggests a far more complex reality, which witnesses relentless and tireless efforts by soldiers in their quest to maintain peace in the area of operations. Even as the efforts put in by each soldier cannot be quantified and is rarely recognised, for those of us who have been a part of these operations, the reality of their contribution must be highlighted.
This becomes a far greater challenge in light of the inhospitable conditions and antipathy of the local population. It requires deft handling by officers to motivate the soldiers and sustained pursuit of challenging goals, despite no guarantee of results. The very nature of a Maratha soldier comes to the fore under such conditions. He is able to march on for days without end, with meagre supply of food or water and inclement weather conditions. His ability to still lay an ambush and spring it with professional acumen, speaks volumes of their ability and love for soldiering. All these actions have been a reality of the day to day life in CI operations for the soldiers we have had the privilege of commanding. Even under these trying conditions, their loyalty has remained steadfast and love undiluted.
The contribution of the families of officers and men must also be acknowledged here. Unlike the short duration of a conventional war, CI operations impose three years of prolonged stress and the fear of unknown, for the wives of our officers and men. Each day that passes, brings renewed fear of possible casualties, often over breaking news stories and newspaper reports. Despite this challenge, ladies have singlehandedly undertaken the responsibility of their children and also of the soldiers and their families with stoic resolve. It is often this support from the better halves that has created a congenial environment for soldiers to pursue their tasks with freedom and a sense of purpose.
Col Vivek Chadha (retd) is a Maratha officer and author of a study on ‘Low-Intensity Conflicts in India’.