Tuesday, 10 November 2015



The Marathas at peacekeeping frontiers

Tuesday, 10 November 2015


(Unedited version)

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 yesterday and provided aid to civil authority in the North East 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 anchored in the example of Chhatrapati Shivaji. 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 Mughuls, his way of war was one by the rules and with an eye for the dignity of the common man. Before humanitarian considerations were conceptualized and institutionalized 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 characterizes UN peacekeeping ever since the Sultanats had a field day in the Deccan.  

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 considerably 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 theater 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 Palam or sending off the containers at Mumbai. It begins in putting in that extra bit that enables selection as a unit detailed to travel on a 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.

There is passion involved in measuring up to the requirements of selection. At a minimum an Army Commanders’ unit appreciation is a must. This comes with sweat and planning, not PR! This bit of measuring up is followed by a period of anticipation in which the unit awaits with bated breath word on its nomination, since this may be in competition with other regimental units with as distinguished a record in some or other field station.

But the dreaded part is to turn up in Delhi where the routine of getting the outfit ready for departure is strenuous. This is understandably so in so far as training regimen is concerned. However, what rankles is that despite the two decade long enhanced commitment in peacekeeping, the accommodation and amenities for looking after troops detailed remains rudimentary. Delhi’s heat and dust and cold and smog have first to be bested in the six months additional troops from sister units turn up. The individuals who join from other units to make up the strength also go through a selection process pitching them against their peers. A cohesive body of men is to be formed in this melee. In addition, are attachments from other arms and services to make up a battalion group. Then it is finally, take off time.

The arrival in the mission area is after considerable exposure to the same in lectures, training and briefings. Nevertheless, it 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 harassing the Moghuls 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 17,000 civilians protection 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 addition to the usual maintaining of peace in its 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 been uniformly been rewarded by award of Force Commander’s Appreciation to all four units that have participated this century.  

The downside of the mission is unfortunately the equipment that the units have to maintain that more often than not has withered in the conditions obtaining on mission. On that score governmental support seldom measures up to its rhetoric. In effect, India does not look after its troops to the extent of the gains that India makes by their peacekeeping presence. The upside is in the knowledge base and good practices acquired being shared across the regiment as troops rejoin their parent units on repatriation.

The tenure for Ganpats being six months, it is more difficult since a passage home in between is very costly. Even though the mobile has considerably reduced the distance that they are not within travel distance of their families is a tough burden to bear, for both the Ganpat and his family. Today family problems have multiplied and WhatsApp is only a partial answer to these. At most places, there is no such luxury – conflict having accounted for the infrastructure. Thus, the primary unit – his subunit - is the family of the Ganpat for the duration. The family has to await his return. The compensation in the form of money for this is useful but cannot be envied them. 

Finally is a return to homeland. 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. They are now worldly wise, technologically aware and updated with world news. Not to forget, they also have a bank balance. This is wisely locked away by some units for a period, lest there be temptation to splurge or to leave the service. The Belgaum-Kolhapur-Pune-Mumbai belt, though a happening place, appears unwarrantedly alluring. Sensibly, commanding officers have to exercise persuasion and a bit of pressure to dispel simple notions of civil life in Ganpats. They have to be reminded it is back in the Indian army and to its well-worn routine of peacetime or field as the case may be.


Ahead, there is only more violence, with armed actors out to target the UN too. The UN is preparing a response, with the release of the report of the High Level Panel to coincide with its seventieth anniversary. The Marathas will have technology and a robust response UN doctrine at the peacekeeping frontline. But more importantly they have their intrinsic resilience and unit cohesion that will ensure that laurels keep rolling in