Updated: Jul 16, 2021
The 9th Parachute Battalion (Special Forces) – 9 PARA (SF) – was birthed from the Meghdoot Force, led by Lieutenant (Lt.) Colonel (Col.) Megh Singh. As the oldest Indian Army SF battalion, it officially came into existence in July 1966 in South Block, Ministry of Defence (MoD), when Lieutenant (Lt.) General (Gen.) Harbaksh Singh took charge as its first Commanding Officer (CO). Its original premier specialty is mountain warfare, which is why it is headquartered in Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It has had enormous successes in counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorist (CT) operations along and across the Line of Control (LoC). Even though all PARA (SF) battalions are trained to operate in all domains and terrains, the 9th Battalion is widely acknowledged as the unchallenged mountain warfare specialist, nicknamed the ‘Mountain Rats’.
Col. Megh Singh
A former CO of 9 PARA (SF), and India’s most decorated serving Special Forces officer –currently with 21 PARA (SF) – Brigadier Saurabh Singh Shekhawat, Kirti Chakra, Shaurya Chakra, Sena Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal, was asked as a colonel, “What is your religion? What is your caste” His reply to both was “Special Forces”: an answer that exemplifies the ethos of the Indian Special Forces.
Steve Balestrieri, a 16-year SF veteran, and former Commanding Officer (CO) of ‘A’-Team, 7th Special Forces Group, is well aware of the Indian Special Forces by reputation. He has told the author:
“Special Forces men are common men with an uncommon desire to push themselves beyond what they ever thought themselves capable of. They have a burning desire to be part of something bigger than themselves and are willing to sacrifice personal ambition for the good of the team.”
It is for this very reason that 9 PARA (SF) is considered the toughest of the Indian special operators. One notable campaign – the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka (1987) and an operation – Operation Apache (2001), each by the men of 9 PARA (SF) that vindicates the afore-mentioned serving Indian officer and the American veteran.
Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), 1987 – Sri Lanka
In the Sri Lanka campaign, the IPKF lacked true Special Forces units or capabilities. Lt. Gen. AS Kalkat, the former Overall Force Commander (OFC) and General Officer Commanding (GOC) IPKF had written that “I had the privilege of having all the three original Special Forces battalions – 1, 9 and 10 Para Commando battalions as part of the IPKF under my command. They were then designated as Para Commandos and we had no doctrine on the employment of Special Forces; we had to learn it ‘on the job’.” It was an extremely sharp and demanding learning curve, which is why it has been viewed critically.
9 PARA (SF) in SL as part of the IPKF
Credit: Special Forces of India/ Facebook
However, there were important positives that were missed or not emphasised enough: the experiences and learnings that were developed and implemented on-the-fly were put to good use by the Special Forces later – primarily in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. Clearing areas – from rooms to houses to entire villages, of civilians, terrorist sympathisers and terrorists – helped in J&K. For these counterterrorist operations, a crucial lesson that the Indian SF learnt was how to deal with civilian shields, which is a strategy employed widely by the terrorists there. In the Northeast, their experience with incendiary explosive devices (IEDs) came in great use against various insurgencies across the region.
Historically, India has been using lessons learnt by the regular army, then employing either para commandos or the Special Forces to neutralize threats. To a large extent, a great many in the armed forces fraternity are either unclear or misunderstand the tasks and employment of the Special Forces. Lt. Gen. AS Kalkat is clear on their employment: “… the Special Forces are a strategic weapon to be used at the right time to tilt the battle in your favour.” Although, the ongoing conflict with China has forced the Indian strategic military and security leadership to take concrete steps and help operational and tactical commanders differentiate between SF, para commandos and elite infantry forces – an example of each is 10 PARA (SF), 2 PARA (Airborne) and the Ghatak platoons, respectively.
Operation Apache, 19th November 2001
Operation Apache was a retaliatory military action against the Pakistani Army, under the guise of plausible deniability. As always, Pakistan had made multiple attempts to cross the Line of Control but had been foiled by the Indian Army.
It now went back to its tried-and-tested method of attacking/killing innocents, and this time the target was the peaceful and nomadic Bakarwal community that resided near the Pir Panjal mountain range. 9 PARA (SF) was tasked with conducting a cross-border strike when Pakistani irregulars also beheaded the Bakarwals and stole their livestock. Operation Apache was launched at the company-level (120 soldiers, usually headed by a Major or Captain). But this time – due to the special and critical nature of the operation – the Mountain Rats’ CO (a Colonel) personally took charge and led it.
Shivam, the administrator of the blog Elite Predators, writes “… with the level of blood spilt that night, 9 PARA (SF) sent a clear message to the neighbours that there are people on the opposite side of the border who knows how to keep warm relations with [the] neighbors [sic].” Pakistan was now well aware of the fact that Indian SF had conducted the operation but the Indian Government, till date, has neither confirmed nor denied it, and never will. He has confirmed that “It was a tactical operation at the ground level that had a strategic impact upon its successful completion. It served the purpose of the local population, the very reason the Indian Army lives up to its name. Strategically, Pakistan received the message loud and clear about the reach and magnitude of the Indian Army’s operational capabilities.”
As a result of such operations, over time, the men of 9 PARA (SF) came to be popularly known as the ‘Ghost Operators’, and have rightfully earned the moniker.
More often than not – their actions are almost always under the cover of plausible deniability – the Indian Government will never publicly claim responsibility for their actions. Colonel Jaideep Sengupta – a former second-in-command (2IC) of 9 PARA (SF) – said that unlike some other SF battalions, his never has nor will go searching for glory as “They are the guys who like to do their job and slip back into the darkness. We believe that we must remain in the shadows because that is the best place to operate from.”
One year after 9 Para (Commando) was officially raised by Lt. Col. Megh Singh, 10Para (Commando) was raised under Lt. Col. N S Utthaya in July 1967. Today, 10 specialises in desert warfare, hence known as the ‘Desert Scorpions’. It is considered as the sister battalion of 9 PARA (SF). 10 PARA (SF)’s first operation was during the Second Indo-Pak War of 1971 – to attack the headquarters of the Pakistani rangers – nearly 80 kms. from the International Border.
Home of the Desert Scorpions, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Hira, S. (2021, January 31). Meghdoot Force: The Birth of the Para SF. The Defence Archive. https://www.thedefencearchive.com/post/meghdoot-force.
Katoch, P. C., & Datta, S (2013). India's Special Forces: History and Future of Indian Special Forces (pp. xxii). Vij Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Raman, R [@captraman]. (2018, February 7). If you had to listen to one man today. #OneTalkToday Who – Col SS Shekhawat, CO 21 Special Forces, the most. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/captraman/status/961070058435833856?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E961070058435833856%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ndtv.com%2Foffbeat%2Fspecial-forces-my-religion-decorated-army-officer-colonel-ss-shekhawat-in-viral-clip-1809873
Shivam (2019, July 7). 10 heads for an eye – Operation Apache. https://elitepredators.wordpress.com/2019/07/07/10-heads-for-an-eye-operation-apache/.
Hira, S. (2019). The Role of India’s Special Operations Forces as an Instrument of Foreign Policy [Unpublished manuscript]. Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.