Book chapter contribution for the book on RIMC's 100th anniversary
FOR THE HONOUR OF INDIA
Rimcos have gone global. A prominent field of their martial endeavour and cosmopolitan spearheading is peacekeeping with the United Nations (UN). This is inevitable, since being toppers in their respective batches, the computer at MS 17 invariably throws up their names. As elsewhere in the spectrum of national life, Rimcos remain at the UN’s knife edge and spear tip. UN peacekeeping came into its own after the Cold War. Quite naturally, the story of Rimcos’ incremental engagement matches that of the evolution of peacekeeping.
Characteristically, having been the first Indian to lead a brigade and only Indian brigade commander of World War II, Kodendera Subayya ‘Timmy’ Thimayya (1922-24/Raw) set the bar high for Rimcos by heading two different UN peace operations. He had his baptism in such operations while heading the India-Pakistan Boundary Force. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had then paid poetic tribute to him, saying, ‘Na hindu, na musalman, sirf insaniyat tha Thimayya ka imaan (Only humanity was Thimayya’s faith).’ No other competency required for a UN assignment, Thimayya was the new multicultural nation’s natural choice when asked for by the UN to head a delicate operation of repatriation of over 120000 prisoners on both sides in wake of the Korean War, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), in May 1953. For his year-long stint on the 38th parallel he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. After serving out the balance of his eventful service, he was recalled in July 1964 from retirement to lead yet another intricate UN operation comprising 6000 troops along yet another ethnic fault-line, in Cyprus in 1964. Timmy passed away in harness in end 1965, setting standards that, as in anything else he took up, can only be aspired to, never surpassed.
Close on the heels of Thimayya to be appointed as a force commander was Lt. Gen. Prem Singh Gyani (1923-29). As 2nd Lt, PS Gyani became the first Indian officer to be commissioned into 'A' Field Brigade which was a unit comprising four batteries of horse-drawn guns. He was a graduate of United Kingdom’s Imperial Defence College, and had commanded the artillery school, Deolali, and Staff College, Wellington. He was appointed the second commander of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the first traditional UN peacekeeping operation. The UNEF was set up in 1956 to secure an end to the Suez crisis by deploying some 8000 troops of 11 states, including India. General Gyani led the force from December 1959 to January 1964 with his headquarters located in Gaza City. His location in the Middle East allowed him to gain another unique distinction of briefly heading two other peacekeeping operations, for kick starting both, before returning to UNEF: the United Nations Yemen Observation Mission (UNYOM) between September and November 1963 and the UN mission in Cyprus, UNFICYP. Sent to Cyprus between January and March 1964 as the Secretary General’s personal representative and observer, he then raised the force before handing over to its first commander, General Thimayya.
Madras Sapper Major T Rajaratnam Lokaranjan (1937-42/Raw) headed a mobile team in Cambodia with a mandate similar to that of Timmy’s in Korea. Following the French defeat by the Vietnamese in Indo-China, he headed a mobile team of the International Commission for Supervision and Control set up under the Geneva Agreement of 1954. He was perhaps the first Rimco military observer, a noteworthy distinction since many Rimcos, such as Maj Gen (then Major) Pramoda Dattatraya Sharlekar (1946-49, Rawlinson) who joined the UN Observers Group in Lebanon in 1958 soon after, followed in his footsteps.
With Timmy in the Indian Custodian Force served Lt Col Mihirsing Gehising Hazari (1933-40/Raw) leading 3 Dogra, the first post-independence Indian participation in an operation abroad. Hazari is the only Indian with a twice-over infantry command experience with the UN. He led 1 Dogra in the first UN peace enforcement operation, United Nations Operation in The Congo, in 1961-62. A fellow battalion commander in the 99 Independent Infantry Brigade Group, at the forefront of ONUC operations in retaking Katanga from rebels, was Lt Col Raghuraj Singh (1938-43/Roberts) leading 2 JAT. The following rotation saw Ashok K. Mehta (1950-55/P) serving in Katanga with his unit 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, the deployment of which saw the UN to boast of two Victoria Cross winners in its service, the only time ever. Alongside, Maj Arvind Moreshwar Joglekar (1940-46/Roberts) led 22 Bombay Field Company.
Rimcos’ tryst with the mighty River Congo has never ceased since. As UN peacekeeping came into its own with the new world order in the nineties, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) witnessed its most challenging multidimensional operation. This contributor was privileged to be among the early military observers there. South Kivu, in 2010 witnessed the heroics by the Indian brigade led by the Rimco pair, commander Chandi Prasad Mohanty (1973-78/S) and deputy, Sanjay Singh (1976-81/S).
Taking over the helm of the brigade at a challenging time
when a Company Operating Base had just been
overrun by an armed group, they went on to neutralize the Mai Mai Cheka armed
group, that had carried out some 300 rapes, using the atrocity as a weapon of
war and terror in a remote area, Luvungi. The Rimco duo got in touch on
satellite phone through over-ground friends with the head of the armed group,
coaxing him to hand over the leader of the unit that had perpetrated the
crimes against humanity. They launched the first heliborne operation deep into
the jungles, right into the heart of the armed stronghold of the group, where
they were outnumbered 15 times over. Using an attack helicopter combat air patrol,
helicopter gunships for close support and transport helicopters for flying in
and out, Sanjay led the ground troops and Mohanty kept watch in an
Airborne Command Post. They arrested the deputy of the perpetrators, flying him
out to face the law. Seven such operations followed.
Close at hand, Rohit Kapur (113/S) went about doing something different. He had two tenures commanding the Indian Field Hospital Level-III for Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, MONUSCO, at Goma. The hospital is the only hospital at the highest Level-III in the UN peacekeeping system. Under Rohit, it has stared down both Ebola and the COVID-19. As a major in the mid-nineties, Rohit served as Regimental Medical Officer with the 16 GUARDS battalion group in UNAVEM-III, the third iteration of the UN operation in Angola.
His battalion had a Rimco commanding officer, Raj Kumar Manucha (1964-69/S). Manucha’s battalion was securing the peace as political transition was underway across Angola. He had several Rimcos serving alongside, with Vikramjeet Singh (1979-83/R) in his unit and Atul Rawat (1978-82/P) as part of his mechanized infantry company. Atul’s work involved escorting the UN convoys through the government and rebel held territory. As with most officers of his generation, it was his first exposure to the work culture of the UN, interaction with foreigners and exposure.
An extensive Rimco ecosystem developed, with Adosh Kumar
(1977-82/P) a staff officer in the regional headquarter at Uige, Vijay Yeshwant
Gidh (1967-72/S)as second in command of his unit, 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal),
Hariharan Dharmarajan (1978-82/C) and Gurinder Singh (1977-82/S) with the 417
(Independent) Engineer Company. The sappers undertook demining and construction
of 10 bridges all over the country. The Rimcos reached out to help each other
across hundreds of kilometres, despite the lawless situation.
Similar Rimco networks have been witnessed across peacekeeping theaters. This author profited from one in 6 Mahar, deployed in South Sudan’s most difficult province, Jonglei. As the Mission’s political affairs officer looking at political reconciliation with the Murle and Nuer armed groups in the province, I invited myself to a stay over on occasion with Rajneesh Giri’s (1990-93/C) company over at remote Pibor. On hand at Juba, were Mayank Chandola (1995-98/R), Ashish Kumar (1994-99/C) and Abhishek Mamgain to tap into. When the civil war broke out in Juba in December 2013, the airport shutdown and supplies ran out, I landed up at their close-by mess now and then to replenish. They were at the vanguard of the UN’s protection of civilians learning curve, securing the internally displaced people who flooded into their camps at Juba and Bor.
The other epicentre of the civil war was further north, at Malakal, that changed hands 13 times over its course. Here, starting 2017, Gaurav Batra (1991-95/R) headed the 3 MADRAS Infantry Battalion Group over 18 months. He oversaw a volatile area bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, strategically important due to presence of oil fields contested by the rebels. Besides, there were the POC sites at Malakal and Melut, the latter successfully terminated in his tenure. He deployed a company operating base across the gigantic Nile for the first time after a decade long UN presence. His unit received the Force Commander’s Commendation.
That battalion command is the epitome of leadership in the Indian army is well known. In 2006-07, Rishi Deo Sharma (1975-79/P) led 1/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), selected as Force Reserve Battalion for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). For the first time in UN peacekeeping, a Battalion group was earmarked as the Force Reserve, but in a Mission with a Chapter VI mandate. The whole of undivided Sudan, the largest country in Africa then, was earmarked as his area of responsibility (AoR), a world record. Understandably then, it was deployed at Kadugli, Wau and Juba. As expected of a Rimco, Sharma took home a UNMIS Unit Citation.
A decade later, I served for some five years in those parts, ending up as a senior political affairs officer. For a duration I managed relations between two border communities in the UN’s most remote Mission at Abyei. I figure my Pratapian days over the turn of the eighties alone accounted for me withstanding the rigour.
A post commander is another unique position to tenant. In 2002, Samar Singh Pundir (1984-90/P) served with the INDBATT 4 in an otherwise well-endowed by dangerous-at-times Mission, in Lebanon. Besides pleasant diversions as command of the Medal Day Parade at Ab el Saqi, he was post leader of 4-7C, the forward post in the infamous Cheeba farms area, the tri junction of Lebanon, Israel and Syria. The Hizbollah squared off with Israelis in firefights and shelling.
Incidentally, his elder brother, Vikram Singh Pundir (1981-85/P) also flew helicopters for the Indian Air Force under the UN flag in the DRC. There their armed Cheetah helicopters supported the Pakistani brigade convoys along the banks of Lake Tanganyika. He misses sumptuous lunches at the Pakistani officers’ mess with their brigade commander, who went on to be the Pak army chief, General Bajwa. International exposure and/or exposure to scotch from UN PAX outlet does mellow warriors.He recalls operating from a 5000 ft altitude lava covered runway with under threat of further eruptions.
The IAF’s peacekeeping contribution beginning with Canberras flying over Congo in 1961 covered Somalia, Sierra Leone, DRC and Sudan. Rimcollians have been a part of helicopter contingents. Vikram’s earlier stint was in Sierra Leone in 2000,where rushed in on very short notice as part of Op Khukri, he helped in the release of 5/ 8 GR troops held hostage by rebels. Separately, he blew up rebel vehicles to secure six British troopers held similarly. With Mi- 35 attack helicopters inducted under a Chapter VII mandate in the DRC, Amitabh Shendye (1984-88/R), Jasdeep Singh Sandhu (1981-85/P) and Atul Anand (1980-84/R) occupied cockpits over the Great Lakes.
Among military staff officer billets, Arvinder Singh (1978-83/C) and Rakesh Verma (1995-2000/S) have tenanted the very busy Staff Duties 3 desk that oversees the UN’s highest Troop Contributing Country matters, in Delhi. In Delhi, Dharmendra Singh Gill (1973-78/C) headed the Center for UN Peacekeeping, India’s prestigious think tank. In the field, in 2003, Khurshed Manek Balsara (1968-73/S) served in the Asmara headquarters of the Mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea, UNMEE, as chief logistics officer and deputy chief of integrated services staff. As India senior for part of his tenure, he was the hub with the Indian expatriate communities in both countries.
The military observer’s job is the quintessential, and is also the most memorable, UN assignment. Suyash Sharma (1978-83/C) had such a stint in Côte d'Ivoire, leading a Milob team in Duekoue in 2005. His team site received the Force Commander’s complimentary letter for its quality information and analysis that helped oil the Mission’s OODA loop.
This snapshot of UN contributions suggests that Rimcos were very much there at the global front. Their profile as high achievers has them don blue berets, where their qualities of character and professional competence prove invaluable. A UN ribbon, from possibly his most pleasant and profitable tenure, is thus often spotted on a Rimco’s chest.