RELEASE OF INDIA’S SPECIAL FORCES. Speech by Dr. Shashi Tharoor on 23rd May 2013.
Lt. Gen PK Singh, PVSM, AVSM (Retd), DirectorUSI, our host
Lt. Gen AS Kalkat, SYSM, PVSM, AVSM, VSM(Retd), whom I have had the pleasure of knowing in an earlier incarnation,
Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UVSM, AYSM, SC (Retd)
& Mr. Saikat Datta, co-authors of thisbook
Brig. PK Vij (Retd), publisher of this book
Distinguished officers of the armed forcesfraternity,
Ladies and gentlemen, friends

         Itis my pleasure and privilege to join you here today, and to release the book“India’s Special Forces”, co-authored by Lt. Gen Prakash Katoch and Mr. SaikatDatta.

         I dare say no one could be better qualified to write this book. Lt. Gen Katoch is a career special forces officer, and one unquestionably entitled to that elite status. He saw action in the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which also saw the first successful raids by the special forces. He commanded a special forces battalion during Operation Pawan, where the Indian special forces received their baptism of fire. He has seen significant action against insurgency in some of the most difficult terrain in the world, including in Siachen and Ladakh. His year holding the Field Marshal Cariappa Chair of Excellence at USI is only the most recent feather in his cap. Saikat Datta, his co-author, is an experience journalist, and one who has made the special forces his passion. He has reported on them extensively, including for the Indian Express and for Outlook,and honed his knowledge working with prestigious centres such as CAPS and CLAWS. The many awards he has won in the course of his career are testament to his skills, as also to his integrity as a journalist. I certainly do not meri this great hopes for me, but it is true that since my Peacekeeping days I have taken a great deal of interest in military matters and developed a healthy respect for the armed forces. Indeed, this is my second appearance at this podium in a few months; I was last here for the annual Cavalry Officers’ Association lecture.
         Whatstrikes one is that the book is a labour of love. It is written with a deep andabiding fondness for the Indian special forces, and a sincere concern for theirrole in the future. There is no other way in which the book could have achievedthe voice it does – part proud parent, part raconteur, part critique, allpatriot. With painstaking research, collating testimony from hundreds ofserving and retired officers, the authors have traced the origin and evolutionof India’s Special Forces. This brings to their narrative a uniquely first-handtouch – for, when the book speaks of the experiences of pioneers such as Maj.Megh Singh or Lt. Col (since Lt. Gen) Rustom Nanavatty, it is clear that we areprivy to insights that could only come from their friends, colleagues and theofficers themselves. My only adverse comment about this fine book is one I havealready mentioned to the authors – they deserved better than the rather shoddypublication standards of the publishers. Brig. Vij, please don’t mind – butthen all authors tend to think poorly of all publishers.

         Many officers present, like Gen. Katoch, will have lived through the events the book recounts, so I would not repeat that narrative. I will only mention that Chapter5, in particular, is gripping reading. It explores in detail the most critical period in the evolution of India’s Special Forces, their role in the IPKF and Operation Pawan. It traces in excruciating detail the absurd lack of preparation or intelligence that confronted the brave soldiers of 9 Para and 10Para who were flown into Sri Lanka – some believed they had only two weeks of duty to fulfill, and were lamenting have missed out on a polo match in Mumbai!From that point – two special forces regiments, neither trained in jungle warfare (one specialised in mountain terrain, the other in desert terrain)thrown straight into fighting one of the most ruthless terrorist organisationsin the world - we have seen a proliferation of the “Special Forces”, to a pointwhere our number of soldiers in Special Forces designations may exceed eventhose of the USA.  

         The fact is that special forces often operate in the media spotlight: their mere involvement is cue enough that an exceptional situation is unfolding. They are also tasked with resolving high-risk, high-payoff situations, often under conditions of significant uncertainty. Both their successes and their failures are well publicised. One should not forget that even the best known Special Forces have experienced disastrous outcomes: Israel’s Sayeret Matkal are celebrated for their daring rescue of hostages at Entebbe, but Israeli forces operating under cover were also arrested in Norway for the killing – in a case of mistaken identity – of a Moroccan waiter in the town of Lillehammer. Germany’s elite anti-terrorism troop, the GSG9, was formed only after the police and military proved entirely unable to control thehostage situation perpetuated during the Munich Olympics. Delta Force, USA’s celebrated special forces, who experienced great success in both Gulf Wars,also found themselves stranded and overwhelmed in Mogadishu – and even earlier,as the book recounts, the operation to rescue hostages from Iran was far from successful. 

This has not stopped any of these nations from constantly refining their specialforces’ roles and operational doctrines, to make them still more unerringly effective.Such learning is the key to their success, and perhaps the key distinctionbetween their forces and our own. (Parliamentary oversight over special forcesis good in principle, but our ability to keep a secret is the issue.) FriedrichHegel had remarked that the only lesson one can learn from history, is that wefail to learn from history. The history of India’s special forces,unfortunately, seems to bear out this suggestion – from the complete neglect ofour early experiences with the Special Frontier Force, to Lt. Gen. Nanavatty’srather wry observation of 1991 (described in this book) that all aspects of thespecial forces had already been studied, and that what was needed was notanother committee but the implementation of the recommendations of previouscommittees. (As the book tells us, this only meant that the next committee wasformed after Gen. Nanavatty had retired.) The inherent confusion in much of theestablishment that the book describes, as to the nature and role of specialforces within the full spectrum of India’s security capabilities, and thetraining, equipment and support they will need to perform in this role, especiallyif it is in sub-conventional operations, is a point of concern. In any theatreof operations, the failure by a commander to distinguish between strategic andtactical objectives and/or assets can only lead to the squandering of valuableresources.

Our special forces are just such a resource, and as the authors describe, they are meant to be a strategic asset, accomplishing tasks the regular military forces cannot. Given that they are elite soldiers, they will no doubt acquit themselves honourably – securing and raising the izzat of the special forces – even when tasked with tactical goals,or when asked to operate in support of regular infantry. On the other hand,they are not miracle workers – they cannot achieve impossible tasks, especiallywhen not given the suitable support, intelligence or directions they need. Moreimportant, when such a strategic resource is committed entirely towardscompleting tactical goals, we may find ourselves in the unfortunate situationof lacking strategic depth (or the ability to decisively project power) at acritical time.

We would do well, perhaps, to take guidance from this quote attributed to Sun Tzu:Strategy without tactics is the longest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
I wish the Special Forces and the authors of this book all success!
Thankyou, and Jai Hind!