Updated: Jul 16
Maurice Tugwell – considered to be the first theorist of the British model of Special Operations – had defined it in 1984 as small-scale, clandestine, covert or overt operations of an unorthodox and frequently high-risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy. Special operations are characterised by either simplicity or complexity, by subtlety and imagination, by the discriminate use of violence, and by oversight at the highest level. Military and nonmilitary resources, including intelligence assets, may be used in concert.
India has primarily followed the British model of Special Operations with her Special Forces (SF) operating in small teams against superior conventional enemy forces – whether numerically, weapons-wise or mobility-wise – that swiftly infiltrate behind enemy lines, disrupting, damaging or neutralising their assets. Operating behind enemy lines for long periods and conducting surgical strikes is also within their range of tasks. The first Indian-attributed SF unit was the Meghdoot Force, with its Raising Day on 1st July 1966.
Major Megh Singh
Credit: Rajput Community
However, it was actually established in September 1965 during the Second Indo-Pak War, by Major (Maj.) Megh Singh (originally an infantryman in the Brigade of Guards). He is credited with planting the seed of an idea about the possibility of the Special Forces and the probability of advantages it could add to the conventional Indian military. The Meghdoot Force, named after its founder, is acknowledged as the genesis of the Special Forces in India, at least one that is officially recognized and publicly acknowledged subsequently, when the Parachute Regiment was established. The force essentially initiated the utilization of unconventional warfare by independent India’s state forces.
The first time the force did so was in early April 1965, when skirmishes broke out between the Pakistani and Indian Armies in the Rann of Kuchh, a demarcated and disputed marshy territory bordering the then West Pakistan. It is widely believed that the war officially began on 5th August, after approximately 30,000 Pakistani soldiers crossed the Line of Control (LoC) into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), disguised as Kashmiri locals.
Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh during the India Pakistan War, 1965
Credit: The Golden Temple, Amritsar
In September 1965, Lieutenant (Lt.) General (Gen.) Harbaksh Singh, the then General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) of Western Command, accepted Major Singh’s proposal to conduct raids behind the Pakistan Army lines Saikat Datta terms the Western Army commander as a “maverick general open to new ideas” with a similar bent of mind, so he gave Major Singh the latitude “to create a small commando unit that would be deployed behind enemy lines…”. This kind of military action was the need of the hour, in the form of an understanding CO and his ingenious officer.
Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh had been convinced that “the war could be better fought if they used unconventional means of warfare, where small teams deployed behind enemy lines strategically could influence tremendous outcomes far beyond the size of the teams”. The Western Army Commander is believed to have said, “Son if you succeed in this, I will put that star on your shoulder with my own hands.” And without official approval, Harbaksh gave a nod to raise this force”, a “formal and full-fledged Commando Battalion” under his command. In today’s military terminology, the unit, as an unconventional fighting force, would be considered as a force-multiplier, having had a greater impact against enemy assets as compared to regular military operations, using a small team to operate swiftly and decisively, thereby causing greater-than-expected damage.
The Meghdoot Force’s first mission accomplishments, in the days prior to the end of the war, was “blowing up bridges behind enemy lines and bringing on harassing fire on surprised infiltrators from the rear”. It would be incorrect to say that the Meghdoot Force was instrumental in obtaining a result in the war, even if it was a ceasefire under pressure from the United Nations Security Council, on 23rd September 1965. What can be said, and with a fair amount of conviction, is that even if the force’s accomplishments were not as successful as they were expected to be, the fact that the idea of it was possible had far more important and far-reaching consequences.
A senior Army source confirmed that the Special Forces in India was finally born in an official capacity when, on 1st July 1966, the Meghdoot Force was raised in South Block, Ministry of Defence, by Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh because in those days, this kind of an initiative was done informally and verbally, with no available official records or authentic sources, whether in the public domain or classified.
The force then officially went on to be known as the 9th Parachute Battalion (Special Forces), and later birthed 9 Parachute (Special Forces), with Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh as its counterinsurgency (CO). Today, its premier speciality is mountain warfare, and it has had enormous successes in COIN and counterterrorist (CT) operations in J&K state as well as along and across the LoC. In 1967, 9 PARA (SF) was split to form the 10th Parachute Battalion (Special Forces), whose primary specialisation is desert warfare, hence, they are also known as ‘Desert Scorpions’. These two battalions, as well as those raised subsequently, all had their own unique forte but now are trained to develop all-round capabilities.
9 PARA (SF) is the oldest and considered to be the toughest SF unit in the Indian Army; it is also known as the ‘Ghost Operators’ as, more often than not, their actions are under the covers, quiet and silent, but, nevertheless, highly impactful.
Tugwell, M., & Charters, D. (1984). Special Operations and the Threats to United States Interests in the 1980s [eBook edition]. F.R. Barnett, B.H. Tovar, & R. H. Shultz (Eds.), Special operations in US strategy (pp. 35–35). essay, National Defense University Press.
Datta, S. (2016, August 15). The call of the Winged Dagger: The glorious history of India's Special Forces. Scroll.in. https://scroll.in/article/814023/the-call-of-the-winged-dagger-the-glorious-history-of-indias-special-forces.
Nair, R (2018, May 20). India-Pakistan War 1965: The Birth of the Para Commandos. Bharat Rakshak. http://bharat-rakshak.com/ARMY/history/1965war/441-the-birth-of-the-para-commandos.html.
Walia, S. (2018, June 3). 10 Para (SF) - Mustafas of Desert Warfare. Indian Defence Review. http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/10-para-sf-mustaffa-of-desert-warfare/.
Subramaniam, A. (2017). India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971 (pp. 281–282). Naval Institute Press.
Katoch, P. C., & Datta, Saikat (2013). India's Special Forces: History and Future of Indian Special Forces (pp. 5). Vij Books India Pvt. Ltd.