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By November 1962, Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was a broken man, still recovering from the bitter defeat at the hands of the Chinese a month ago. His 'forward policy' had failed, his Defence Minister had resigned and his favourite General, B M Kaul was consigned to ignominy. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) had failed to gauge Chinese intentions leading to the shock of 1962 and its Director, B M Mullick was busy trying to stave off demands to create a separate agency dedicated for gathering external intelligence.
While there aren't any public records of this period available, the CIA reportedly contacted Mullick and offered help that would help shore up Indian defences against "communist China". The CIA was falling back on a similar experiment they had successfully conducted in South Asia over a decade ago, when they helped the Pakistanis in an effort to shore up their defences against the Soviets. In 1954, the CIA had contacted the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and convinced Field Marshal Ayub Khan that a commando unit, capable of "behind-enemy- lines activities" would help them if the Soviets were to cross the Hindu Kush and attack Pakistan. For Ayub, this was an opportunity to create a force that would be sanctioned against a possible Soviet invasion, but would be more suitable for any future wars against India.
For the CIA in 1962, then working under President John F Kennedy, this was a valuable opportunity to deal with India, which had been consistently pushing the non-aligned alternative for decades. Trainers from American Special Forces helped create the nucleus of a secret force that would eventually be identified as the Special Frontier Force (SFF) or Establishment 22 (pronounced Two-Two) and would recruit exiled Tibetans for "behind-enemy-lines activities" if the Chinese were to launch another invasion of India. In effect, the SFF was the first Special Force of Independent India which though not talked about officially, has ample coverage in both domestic media and the internet including ample pictorial coverage.
The creation of the SFF would be dominated by the Indian intelligence community despite using the resources of the Indian Army and setting up base in a small hill town of Chakrata on the old road from Dehra Dun. It would take a few more years before the Indian Army would see the merit in creating a dedicated commando unit that could be used against their traditional rival, Pakistan.
The genesis of what is loosely termed as Army Special Forces did not come through any organisational framework or any dedicated thought of the higher defence management in India. It began, strangely enough, on the initiative of a man who had been passed over for a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. This was Major Megh Singh, an infantry officer from the Brigade of Guards who was busy serving as a Grade 2 Staff Officer (Operations) in the Western Army's Headquarters at Shimla. The man heading Western Command was the well-reputed Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, a large man whose military acumen was respected by professional soldiers across the country. Singh was heading the largest and the most active Command of the Indian Army that stretched from the Thar deserts of Rajasthan as its Southern-most operational boundaries and the frozen mountains in the North in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Singh was also known as a man who was accessible and loved fresh ideas from the rank and file under his command. One fine morning in early 1965, Singh agreed to meet Megh Singh who had come up with an idea to augment operations in the Western Theatre through commando forces. Megh Singh had served in the Patiala State Forces before being assimilated into the Indian Army's 3 Guards. The Army Commander not only agreed to the presentation, he sat through it from beginning to end, as Major Megh Singh detailed what could be achieved through special operations and the advantages of raising a 'Commando Battalion.'
Megh Singh volunteered to raise the Commando unit if he was given the freedom to choose his officers and men. Fascinated by what was presented to him, the Army Commander was quick to see the potential for such a unit as a force multiplier for the troops under his command. Those were days when decisions for new organisations did not require any written sanctions within the Army or the bureaucrats in South Block that housed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Delhi.
Singh agreed to the proposal immediately and told Major Megh Singh to start preparations. Nearly two years before Major Megh Singh came to his Army Commander with the proposal to raise a Commando unit, the Indian Army had been going through a process of recovery and modernisation under General J N Chadhury as the Chief of Army Staff. Obsessed with cleansing the ignominy of the defeat of 1962, Gen Chaudhury was busy creating a new army that would be modernised and trained for modern warfare; a decisive shift from a Second World War mind-set to a more modern army that could put up a more credible performance in the wars of the future.
Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh understood the need for change and promised Megh Singh that if the results were successful, he would put in his might behind the creation of a formal and full-fledged Commando Battalion. Maj Megh Singh, described as an earthy man of simple tastes and gritty determination began the task of creating a force that could achieve what normal infantry battalions had not even thought of.
Perhaps Megh Singh was unaware that his initiative was starkly similar to what another young officer had achieved in a similar manner during the Second World War. Captain David Stirling, described by his peers as a rather odd officer, was recovering from a parachuting accident in North Africa during the Second World War when an idea struck him. An obsessive man, Stirling realised that taking this idea to his immediate superiors would not work. He chose to break the chain of command and legend has it that hobbling on crutches he walked into the room of General Niel Ritchie, then serving as the Deputy Commander of the Middle East British forces.
Stirling was looking for the Commander-in-Chief General Claude Auchinleck when he managed to get into General Ritchie's room while being chased by the guards. Stirling managed to convince General Ritchie who took him to meet General Auchinleck. Both convinced the Commander-in-Chief to create a Special Forces unit that could go out on long range desert patrols and hit Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's forces behind their front lines. The new unit that Stirling proposed would be given a misleading name to confuse German intelligence. They called it Special Air Services (SAS), making it sound like a unit created to aid logistics. Megh Singh, who was probably unaware of Stirling's effort, ended up creating a model that was first pioneered by the SAS. Their trajectories would also be starkly similar in the initial years.
Surprisingly, the experience that the Indian Army could have gained with the creation of the SFF in 1963 was never used. Instead, the new Commando unit would start from scratch and learn its ropes on its own. But the commando unit that Megh Singh was putting together was unlike any other unit in the Indian Army. It did not have a name or a designation, without the conventional structures that infantry units were familiar with. The officers and men were all volunteers, each one of them personally selected by Megh Singh. The man was looking for officers and men who were not only better than their peers, they were also built to think unconventionally. Key to the success of this new unit, Megh Singh felt, was the ability to create a cohesion that was never seen in Indian infantry units before this. They would work around the "small team" concepts, which could be infiltrated behind enemy lines to attack their supply lines and inflict attrition far greater in proportion of the size of the attacking force. For the want of a formal name, the officers and men, inspired by this crazy and unconventional leader, christened the unit "Meghdoot Force."
The bulk of the training in physical fitness, tactics and weapon handling would be conducted in the mountains near Udhampur setting gruelling standards that had rarely been attempted in the conventional military. The "small-team" concept was the key as the unit studied maps and the Pakistani military Order of Battle (ORBAT) facing the Western Army Command's theatre of operations to conduct their raids when the war began.
The bulk of the initial manpower came from 3 GUARDS, who were Khemkhani Muslims. The young volunteer officers came from all over; Subhash Joshi, Arvinder Singh, Hoshiar Singh, Sukhi Mann, JK Sharma, DK Purushe, to name a few. The unit was organised on a six-company basis, akin to the Infantry Battalion.
As the hostilities began in the autumn of 1965, Meghdoot Force was quietly deployed by Lt General Harbaksh Singh across the Line of Control (LC) in Jammu and Kashmir. The unit would send out teams to hit the logistics of the Pakistani Army, infiltrating by first light and exfiltrating within hours of a successful operation. While it did not influence the overall war in any significant manner, it established the success of an idea that Megh Singh had come up with a few months ago. It validated that a small team of specially trained officers and men could inflict severe damage to the enemy's capabilities, far greater in proportion than the size of the force or its fire-power. The nucleus of a special operation had finally arrived.
Needless to say, the results were encouraging enough to move to the creation of a formal Commando unit. Megh Singh, always the leader who believed in leading from the front was awarded the gallantry award of Vir Chakra and promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel. The "Meghdoot Force" was reorganised into the first Commando Battalion of the Indian Army and was moved to an exclusive location after the war that became their home station for many years. Of the six companies of this Commando Battalion, three companies formed the core when the second Commando Battalion was raised in the deserts in quick succession. Lieutenant Colonel Megh Singh finished his command and moved on to the Assam Rifles and later to the Border Security Force before retiring. His contribution, restricted to a few official papers and records, would be soon forgotten by most people, leaving the man to live a quiet life in Jodhpur, in his home state of Rajasthan, practically forgotten by everyone but the few officers and men who were part of the birth of the Special Forces in the Indian Army.CHAPTER 2
From Meghdoot to 1971 Indo-Pak War and Beyond
The war was over and an appreciative Western Army Commander, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh kept his promise and had Major Megh Singh promoted. The newly promoted Lt Colonel Megh Singh was asked to "formally christian" the Battalion as the Ninth Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (Commando). As word spread about this new special unit, spirited young officers from across the Indian Army rushed to volunteer and serve.
Youngsters like Lieutenant N S Rathore (ex 4 Para) and Lt Tej Pathak, (ex 1 Para) were the young officers who signed up for this new battalion. At that point of time, officers from the Parachute Battalions were not expected to undergo any special training to join the Commando Battalion but Lt Col Megh Singh was clear that the junior leadership had to be better than their counterparts in the conventional army. He began to send his NCOs and JCOs in batches to the Infantry School in MHOW, an old cantonment town, MHOW being the acronym for Military Headquarters of War established during World War II.
Located in the heart of India, in the erstwhile Central Provinces that would become Madhya Pradesh in independent India, MHOW was a cantonment left behind by the British. It was here that Lt Col Megh Singh started sending his men for special training in sniper firing and other support weapons. These were the only special skills available under formal army training institutes to the fledgling unit and the Company Commanders, known as Group Commanders in those days, had to devise their individual training methods.
Some groups would be out at night in and around Gwalior, where the unit was being raised, doing speed marches and mock raids at night. The emphasis was on physical fitness, navigation, and learning any skill that they had read about in foreign journals and magazines that managed to find their way into the Officer's Mess.
Lt Col Megh Singh got a new Second-in-Command in Major Bhawani Singh, an officer who belonged to the royalty of Rajasthan and was keen to take the expertise developing in the unit to a separate unit that would specialise in operations in the desert albeit rumour has it that the relationship between Lt Col Megh Singh and his Second in Command was not on the best of terms.
In July 1967, a decision was finally taken by Army Headqurers to establish two battalions with different theatre level special skills. The original unit, Raised by Lt Col Megh Singh would head off to Udhampur to specialise in conducting operations in the mountains, while the others would head off to a location in Rajasthan and specialise in commando raids in the deserts.
On a blazing afternoon on the Gwalior airfield, six companies of the unit were asked to stand in file formation and then split up into two units of three companies each. The original unit, already christened as 9 Para (Commando) would now have a sister battalion in 10 Para (Commando) under Lt Col N S Utthaya. Naturally, Maj Bhawani Singh from Rajasthan would be the Second-in-Command of the new unit and take over once Lt Col Utthaya had moved out. Most of the troops from Rajasthan and those belonging to the Jat community went to 10 Para (Commando) while those from the Dogra caste stayed back in 9 Para (Commando). Lt Col Utthaya would take his men to Nasirabad and start training his men in the ways of the desert before eventually moving further West to Jodhpur.
Lt Col Megh Singh would return to Udhampur, close to the Corps Headquarters, which would oversee most operations in that sector. By December 1971, both units were in a position to operate against specific tasks if war revisited the Sub Continent.
Faced with a massive exodus of refugees from East Pakistan, Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was on desperate tour of the West trying to drum up support for India and the refugees fleeing Pakistani repression. In East Pakistan, the leader of the Bengali political party, the Awami League had gained an absolute majority and was in a position to form a government in both East and West Pakistan. This was unacceptable to the Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan and a third war with India was just a matter of time.
By this time 9 Para (Commando) was already well entrenched in the North and was training for specific tasks. While Alpha and Bravo Teams were sent off to intended deployment areas, Charlie Team would play a decisive role in one of the first commando raids across the line of control.
Alpha Team was tasked along with an Infantry Battalion and a troop from an Armoured Regiment to defend Poonch under command of Major MM Cariappa. Alpha Team, despite being part of a commando unit was tasked for a conventional role, a mistake that would be repeated in later wars including with the same unit. One of the youngest officers in the unit, Lieutenant Hardev Singh Lidder was posted in Commando Wing, Belgaum in Karnataka when the war broke out. Lidder immediately took leave and pushed off to Jammu and Kashmir to join his unit and joined Alpha Team in defending Poonch after three days of grueling travel. It is believed that a Pakistani commanding officer was captured by the commandos during one of the battles fought in the area.
Bravo Team was tasked by an Infantry Division to raid multiple ferries in enemy area and hold them till the war was over. Their plan was to inflict attrition on the enemy in the same manner the Meghdoot Force had done in 1965. Led by Captain N S Rathore and his second in Command, Lieutenant Tej Pathak, the team was initially tasked to raid these multiple ferries on the same night. Captain Rathore went up to the Divisional Commander to request a change, worried that a failure to achieve the task would give his unit a bad name. The Divisional Commander saw merit in Captain Rathore's argument that each ferry had to be tackled separately, one after the other and he readily agreed to the change. The Corps Commander, Lt Gen Sartaj Singh, known as a man who would not budge after a decision was taken was kept in the dark about the change.
With sketchy intelligence support and warnings not to fire at the enemy without provocation Capt. Rathore launched his team after 0000 hours. Capt Rathore had a team of 150 men and five officers. Navigating through the elephant grass the team suddenly came across Pakistani troops positioned near the ferries. At first they mistook the Indian commandos as reinforcements from Sialkot and immediately announced that the "Kafirs had attacked." Capt Rathore could have capitalized on the confusion but instead chose to fire at the Pakistanis who immediately returned fire and ran away.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "India's Special Forces"
Copyright © 2013 United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.
Excerpted by permission of Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Section I – The Para Commando Years (1965-1990),
Chapter 1: Meghdoot Force,
Chapter 2: From Meghdhoot to 1971 Indo-Pak War and Beyond,
Chapter 3: Conversion and Counter-Terrorism,
Chapter 4: An Idea Whose Time Had Come,
Chapter 5: Op Pawan : The IPKF Experience,
Section II – The Special Forces Years (1990 and Beyond),
Chapter 1: Op Rakshak: Counter Insurgency Employment,
Chapter 2: Op Vijay: The Kargil Conflict,
Chapter 3: Op Black Torando: NSG Operations,
Chapter 4: Still Birth Special Forces Regiment and Special Forces Training School,
Chapter 5: Special Forces and Airborne Forces,
Chapter 6: Existing Status - Indian Special Forces,
Section III – The Future,
Chapter 1: 21st Century Challenges and Warfare 2030,
Chapter 2: Foreign Special Forces Employment,
Chapter 3: Why India Needs Special Forces,
Chapter 4: Doctrinal and Conceptual Issues,
Chapter 5: Indian Special Forces – Circa 2030,