That the Indian army has been at the forefront of UN peacekeeping is well known. Axiomatically then, it follows that along with their comrades from all regiments, the Marathas too have shouldered the peacekeeping responsibility across the globe. This article highlights the contribution of the Marathas.
Ever since they watered their horses at River Indus in the eighteenth century, the Marathas have ‘been there and done that’. They went overseas under the British. They have enforced peace in the erstwhile North West Frontier Agency in yesteryears and provided aid to civil authority in the North East of today. This has stood them well in their peacekeeping forays as part of a sovereign republic’s contribution to world peace.
Maratha participation has ranged from the traditional peacekeeping such as in separation of belligerents in Ethiopia and Eritrea by 12 Maratha LI and in undivided Sudan by 11 Maratha LI to multidimensional peace operations by 15 Maratha LI in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently, 9 Maratha LI is in the midst of robust peacekeeping in South Sudan’s civil war, with 6 Maratha LI poised to take over the same area of operations a year from now. Maratha officers have also left their mark as military observers, with Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar in the lead.
The Marathas are uniquely predisposed as peacekeepers owing to their character traits and historical legacy. They are imbued with a constabulary ethic, typical of good counter-insurgent troops, and, lastly, are part of a glorious Indian military peacekeeping tradition.
In his approach to peace and conflict, Chhatrapati Shivaji set an atypical standard in medieval times. Although he confronted the Mughals, his way of war was one by the rules andwith an eye for the dignity of the common man. Before humanitarian considerations were conceptualised and institutionalised into the law of war, his armies were already practitioners. Marathas are no strangers to foreign militaries, having reckoned with the British and Portuguese during the colonial period, or to ethnic diversity that characterises UN peacekeeping.
A hundred years back, the First World War firmly established the Marathas’ reputation for discipline and stolidity in face of hardship. The ethnography left behind by the British, admittedly orientalist, is nevertheless testimony of the cool quietude with which Maratha troops go about their military business. Peacekeeping locales are similarly exacting, remote and at a corner of a foreign, forgotten field. Being forever in operations in some theatre or other, from Jaffna to Kashmir, the Marathas are familiar with conflict conditions and psychological demands that it places. They are therefore able to take to demanding peacekeeping environments with equanimity and deliver in a crunch, such as 9 Maratha LI is currently demonstrating in South Sudan.
India is a reckonable peacekeeping power. Whereas its contribution in terms of numbers is not different from other South Asian states, its quality sets it apart from all other peacekeepers. India also takes care to send its proven units abroad, not only as a reward for services rendered in difficult areas and circumstances, but also to ensure that it’s showing in peacekeeping is of a higher order. Elite Maratha units have upheld this tradition.
Peacekeeping is mistakenly believed to be a good break from India’s multiple military engagements ranging as they do from LC deployments to counter insurgency commitment. Peacekeeping instead has elements of all these environments together: be it remoteness, adverse climate, interesting context and tactical challenges. A demanding effort is required that proves greatly enhancing professionally for participant outfits and personally for individuals exposed. The Marathas have risen to the occasion. This has qualitatively bettered them as cohesive units, junior leaders and as soldiers.
The UN journey does not begin in catching the white aircraft at Delhi’s Palam airport or sending off the containers at Mumbai. It begins in putting in that extra bit that enables selection as a unit detailed to travel ona UN assignment. Nor does it end in landing back on Indian soil but after redeploying at a new operational area. In effect, it may take up to three tenures with a UN stint sandwiched in between. This is about a decade all told, which is a considerable proportion of a soldier’s service life.
The arrival in the mission area is after considerable exposure to the same in lectures, training and briefings. Nevertheless, the reality can be disorientating, since for instance within hours of landing in Juba, troops of 9 Maratha LI found themselves emplaning for remote Pibor, where the Murle battled the Nuer. This baptism by fire was useful when the Dinka-Nuer civil war broke out soon thereafter.
Such transitions are the test of command and of troops. Marathas have been known since their days of harassing the Moghul’s in the Ghats to be nimble and surefooted. Their ability to function on little makes them adapt to operational conditions that obtain in most peacekeeping environments, in particular in Africa. 11 Maratha LI was involved in two missions as force reserve in a single tenure, moving from UNMIS with ‘single S’ to UNMISS ‘with a double SS’ when Sudan divided into two. Its showing was duly acknowledged in an Indian Vice Presidential visit to its location.
On mission, Maratha units have had differing circumstances to contend with even if in the same mission. 9 Maratha LI was involved in a unique riverine task of providing force protection for movement of barges from Malakal to Juba on the Nile. It has provided protection to 17,000 civilians at its newly constructed IDP camp with a multi tier defence system. Alongside its main task, the battalion has provided protection to high level delegations from countries such as UK and Kenya and carried out on-the-job training for newly inducted troops along with Bangladesh Force Protection Unit (BANFU). This is in addition to the usual maintaining of peace in its area of operation (AOR) by round the clock short duration patrols (SDP) and dynamic air patrols (DAP) in areas controlled by both Government and by rebel groups in Jonglei. Similar feats by other units are not recorded here for reasons of space, but have uniformly been rewarded by award of Force Commander’s Appreciation to all four units that have participated this century.
There is an understandable strut in the walk of those returning from such deployments. Not only are they professionally rewarded in terms of experience, but personally in terms of memories. The UN ribbon on the chest is prized.
Col Ali Ahmed, a former Maratha Light Infantry officer, is currently post retirement, serving with the UN.