Saturday, December 22, 2012

Remembering IPKF

On this day 25 years ago (19 Dec 1987) I exfiltrated from a peace posting and joined my unit in IPKF, Sri Lanka while on Annual Leave. Although posted out, I was unfairly held back for my reliever. They could not charge me AWOL (as I was on leave) and this move was regularized, thanks to my CO’s efforts.

Ironically, our country seems to have forgotten the 25th anniversary of IPKF deployment and sacrifices of over 50,000 personnel about 32 months. After all, it was a political and diplomatic fiasco that culminated in Rajeev Gandhi’s assassination, and also, it was not ‘our’ war.

Nevertheless, we went through some exceptional experiences. I have tried to describe one (in the attachment). Do give your views.


Satish, Para Commando

60 Hours of Nonstop Soldiering.
The physiological need for sleep has always been a contentious factor in human endurance. How long can an individual or a group work without sleep; and under what conditions? Terrorists attacking Mumbai on 26/11 sustained themselves for about 60 hours, which reminded me of a time in IPKF (Sri Lanka) when we went without a break for 60 hours.
Our Battalion HQ was to move from Palalli Airfield in Jaffna, to Paranthan in the mainland. Being the junior-most Team Commander, my Team (co-located with HQ) was ‘packers and movers’, providing working party for the entire camp; including offices, stores, magazine, institutions like Officers’ Mess, canteen, religious institute, etc. We had one day to pack; one night to move; and all of the next day to set up the new camp. Our ‘business continuity’ as Special Forces was crucial, so there could be no break. We systematically dismantled, packed and loaded everything in trucks, outdoors with incessant rain the whole day. The Army marches on its belly, and our cookhouses were dismantled last after serving hot lunch, dinner and a packed haversack meal. Our personal baggage (bedding) was packed first; leaving no chance to sneak a nap; it was like the early days of warfare, when boats were burnt to make retreat impossible. We moved at night to avoid getting ambushed.

The convoy moved out after comprehensive briefing on the route, order-of-march, halt procedure, and a myriad of other things. All personnel comprised the protection team (not passengers). As officiating Team Commander, I led the convoy through pouring rain in an open Jonga combat vehicle. We crossed Elephant Pass before dawn and reached Paranthan at daybreak. Like us, the open vehicles were soaked and only dried in the sun later. We sited the administrative elements optimally and secured the new camp. My Team set up defences/ sentry posts, pitched tents and unloaded stores nonstop all of the next day. The camp looked almost organised by evening; and being located on a busy public thoroughfare and guarding it 24X7 was nightmarish.

I looked forward to hot dinner and some sleep, when Adjutant ordered me to take out a patrol that could take at least a few hours. I explained that my Team had been on their feet for the last 36 hours and in no shape for a patrol. Adjutant said these were CO’s orders, and if I felt strongly about it, I should bell the cat myself. Convinced that 36 hours was our limit and that the men also looked forward to rest, I went and spoke to CO, Col Dalvir Singh, VrC, VSM. He looked disappointed and asked to speak to the men, who were duly lined up; I was confident they would support my stand. CO’s speech had just three sentences; “Your Team Commander tells me you are not fit for patrolling. I want you to go. Are you ready?” The men chorused “Yes Sir” in complete unison. CO announced “your men are ready”, as if I had not been present till then, his smile barely discernible in the low light. I never felt more embarrassed in my life.

A few months before I joined the unit, my Team had been surrounded by militants for over 24 hours and faced imminent massacre at daybreak when their ammunition was depleted. CO had guided three tanks along a railway line; the only route without mines; linked up and extricated the Team to safety. He was wounded by a grenade exploding on the tank and awarded ‘Vir Chakra’ for gallantry. I had served with CO in an earlier tenure, when he postponed an AN-12 flight of a special unit for anti-hijack training just to enable me to join after my promotion exam. I had expected them to leave on schedule and was unprepared for the trip; but surprised to find the motorcycle DR (Dispatch Rider) waiting outside the exam hall. I was good to go with some basic essentials (soap and toothbrush) from the canteen and a message home to expect me back only two days later. I sweated two nights while practising some interesting anti-hijack drills in a woollen ‘Angola’ shirt that was quite unsuitable for Mumbai. The above shows what kind of leader he was, and it is not surprising that he got unstinted willingness from the men to face danger. It was a privilege working with him.

A paratrooper may waver till the ‘Yellow On’ signal in the aircraft before a jump, but the hesitation disappears at ‘Green On’. Similarly, my dissent was completely gone as we moved out whole-heartedly on the patrol, hoping to be back in a few hours for some well-deserved rest. ‘Man proposes and God disposes’, and the time ahead was very eventful indeed. The maps and area being new, we selected an impromptu cross-country route, and moved out into a steady drizzle in the darkness. Something went wrong and we hit a road raised above the paddy fields, not seen on the out-dated map, and bumped into a local man on a bicycle going home with a bottle of toddy. We pounced on him from the darkness and pressed him for information on militants. Knowing that locals never volunteer information about the LTTE, we threatened to choke him on the toddy, which would not raise suspicion against us when they found him (dead) next day. He was fully convinced by our threat; it must have been the rain, darkness or our seriousness that he agreed to take us to a militant hiding in the village nearby.

Just then, we saw headlights of two vehicles approaching on the road. Civilian vehicles did not move at night, and (wrongly) assuming they were militant vehicles we quickly laid an ambush with the bicycle as a roadblock. When the vehicles stopped, I realised from the sound of idling engines that they were from the MADRAS Regiment unit deployed there. The soldiers jumped out and advanced towards us in counter-ambush formation. The sound of cocking SLRs (pointed at us) was very scary as I knew the devastating effect of 7.62X51 mm bullets very well. The natural reaction to stress is ‘Fight or Flight’, but we couldn’t fight as we knew they were ‘friends’ (but we were their ‘foe’); and there was no way for ‘flight’. Under the circumstances, I momentarily ‘froze’, but waiting passively wouldn’t help as they continued advancing and would reach us soon. As the leader, whatever happened was my responsibility and I had to defuse the hair-trigger situation. With no time to think, I stood up in the headlights of the Jonga with my left arm raised and AK pointing down nonthreateningly, and shouted “We are PARAs and they are (from) MADRAS, do not shoot”. Illuminated like a night-firing target, I would have been the first to be shot. Luckily it worked and no one panicked. Had even one bullet been fired, the situation would have gone out of control and caused fratricide. Weapons were ‘made safe’ and we introduced ourselves as new kids in the block. The touch-and-go situation was averted and we moved on for the promised militant.

We surrounded the target house with complete surprise as rain made local dogs ineffective for early warning. Bad weather favours those who dare. We silently stormed the house and nabbed a stocky militant ‘Putta’ who put up a stiff struggle and stopped him from using his cyanide capsule. Meanwhile, the helpful toddy-man melted into the darkness and went home. On interrogation Putta told us that a large number of armed militants were assembled at Shivam Kovil, and agreed to take us there, but he seemed intellectually impaired and could not show the way with landmarks or map.

Being a small party of about 25 personnel, I called Battalion HQ for help. Considering the significance of the information, all available personnel, including CO himself, joined us to tackle the ‘armed militants’. Pulling everyone out of the camp gave a morbid sense of revenge. We walked all night and half the next day to reach a deserted Shivam Kovil. Putta’s story delayed us, giving them time to remove all caches that could be compromised.

Our SF Commander was to visit our location and we marked a Landing Zone on suitable level ground for his helicopter; but the pilot veered off towards another spot that looked better (to him) from the air, but was actually sloping. I frantically directed him towards our marked LZ and averted a serious accident as the rotors would have hit the sloping ground, which the pilot realized only after landing.
We finally called off the wild goose chase and got back to our brand new base by 8:00 PM after over 60 hours on the move with risky hair-trigger situations all the way. Such a feat may be feasible for a single tough individual, but a large group’s strength is that of the weakest individual. Exemplary leadership and team spirit had kept us going. Maybe we ‘could’ have carried on a little longer if needed. It taught us that mental endurance prevails over physical toughness. In ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, Ernest Hemmingway describes the old man’s struggle with the fish, where he thinks “I wish I was the fish; with everything he has, against only my will and my intelligence”.

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