The horrific war between Israel and Lebanon had just ended. I was selected in 2007 to lead my Battalion 15 Punjab as the United Nations Indian contingent in Lebanon. The 15th Punjab is the only battalion of the Punjab Regiment that has all Sikh soldiers.
Lebanon has a vibrant western culture and the majority of the population is Christian, with some Shiites and Sunnis. I was deeply aware that the greatest challenge in securing peace would be effective communication between soldiers and civilians.
During the three-month training at Khanpur Camp in Delhi, my task was canceled – to teach the simple but burly Sikh soldiers to understand and use simple English and Lebanese words. That was the first step towards winning the hearts and minds of the local population in these difficult times.
The Sikhs as a community are very adaptable and adopted very quickly. Lo and behold, within a very short time the troops not only learned simple Lebanese words, but also began to try their hand at English. After landing at Beirut airport, a pleasant surprise awaited the Lebanese when they began to greet them in their own language. That was a good starting point for a cordial relationship with the masses for the next year.
I quickly realized that ours was the only contingent of 17 in Lebanon that could converse with the Lebanese people. Soon the Sikh troops became the star of everyone’s eyes. The Lebanese were delighted with the turban, which the troops decorated with vigor, with six uniform pleats in the upper right corner. Neatly tied turbans impressed the locals, especially young girls. I remember an official engagement when I had to visit Israel to resolve some operational issues. In Jerusalem my driver Havildar Kulwant Singh was attacked by young girls who wanted to take selfies with him. Kulwant’s happiness knew no bounds when he became an improvised star in a famous tourist spot, so much so that I became jealous of him. He was too happy to obey everyone and took care of his CO who had no choice but to wait patiently to give him a field day. Back in the jeep he answered embarrassed: “Saab, main ki karda, menu kudiyan ne gher leya (What should I do, I was bullied by girls).”
As the commanding officer, I have reminded myself every day that I must reach the full potential of everyone under my command. We had a soldier who had honed his culinary skills in making delicious jalebis before we left India. So I had him deployed to a small eatery our unit ran for the soldiers who craved homemade treats after they had fed up with the United Nations’ high-calorie diet, which consisted mostly of non-vegetarian food. After a week, I noticed a number of civilians standing next to the bar to buy the Jalebis.
I was convinced whether war or winning the hearts and minds of the local population, nobody can beat the Sikhs. One fine day a company post reported an accident in which an armored personnel carrier from the Belgian contingent fell over and seriously injured the occupants. Our troops responded immediately with the Quick Action Team and were able to rescue all injured and evacuate them from the difficult hilly terrain. I was surprised when the Belgian Defense Minister flew down to honor all members of our 15 Punjab Quick Action Team with medals.
I realized that the alien armies are very grateful to their soldiers and honor their colleagues in a unique way. It is worth emulating in our country.