Posted by: Singh Is King | Monday, July 30, 2007

Sikhs in Southern Lebanon

The 850-strong 15th Punjab Infantry Battalion of the Indian Army took up it’s duties as a member of the United Nations Force in Southern Lebanon in January. It’s many efforts to win over hearts and minds in the 12 villages it monitors near Mount Hermon include yoga classes in the morning for Lebanese school children, a roving medical and dental clinic, and an ethusistic vetrenarian who offers a Power Point presentation about goat husbandry to local shepherds.

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However, it will take more than yoga and goat husbandry to reassure the inhabitants of northern Israel, who are relying on UN forces to keep Hizballah from stockpiling weapons and staging attacks from the area.

But the 15th Punjab might just be the chaps for the job. They are the oldest, most decorated, and according to them, the most admired unit in the Indian army. Founded in 1705 by the Mahraja of Patiala, they earned their stripes fighting wherever the British Empire needed them, including the Middle East. During World War I, they fought in Gallipoli, Sinai, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Since independence from Britain, they have seen action in their country’s grim conflicts with Pakistan. Their last mission was counter-insurgency against Islamic militants in Kashmir.

On a visit yesterday, the unit displayed an attention to detail and an esprit de corps that was startling to someone who has spent too much time around Middle Eastern armies. “We hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” said Colonel Advitya Madan as he served tea from the battalion silver, which also include Tug of War trophies from the 1930’s. The he went off to drill the battalion, which was waiting for him on the parade ground in full dress uniform, in preparation for a medal ceremony to be held in mid-April.

The 15th Punjab reports that it hasn’t had a single encounter with armed Hizballah elements, despite constant patrols. Has Hizballah then given up southern Lebanon? Probably not. The group itself admitted that it has rearmed since the war with Israel last summer. But the presence of so many UN soldiers has limited the group’s freedom of action, according to a senior diplomat from a country that sits on the UN Security Council. However, that may just mean they are somewhere beyond the mandate of UNIFIL and the 15th Punjab.

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