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February 21, 2000
Back to school...
We were in Mizoram last week. Not in the state capital, Aizawl, which has more cars per person than even Delhi, but in Vairengte, a "village" bordering the Cachar district of Assam. "Village" because it's nothing but ten-odd shanties perched on stilts on the drop-side of the road up the hill to the Counter Insurgency And Jungle Warfare School run by the Indian Army. Battalions which are inducted into any of the "seven sisters" -- the north-east states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura -- are trained here in the special requirements for countering insurgency in the area. More interestingly, selected officers, JCOs and NCOs, no matter where their posting, as well as men of the CRPF, BSF and Assam Rifles, besides "students" from foreign countries, are enrolled for an extensive course in basic as well as NE-specific CI operations.
However, a school is just a school -- it ain't quite a story. Unless it has functioned as the premier and only institution of its kind in the country for 30 years -- and hardly any reporter has heard of it, let alone visit it. Then, it becomes a scoop. When we got a whiff of it, our martial ears tingled; we put out feelers among our khakied friends, who said they had no clue what we were talking about. Sure that we were being rebuffed, we became Ophelia, and brightened only after a CIJWS officer exclaimed: "How did you hear about the school? Hardly anyone in the army itself knows of us!" He immediately launched into we-are-completely-transparent-nothing-is-classified blah blah, but the point is, training in CI ops hinges on research, analysis, strategy and tactics. And therein lies the sensitive nature of this lean and mean institution.
In 1967, Field Marshal SHFJ Manikshaw, then GOC Eastern Command, realised that the heavy casualties suffered by the security forces at the hands of insurgents in Nagaland and Mizoram were due to the lack of understanding -- climatic, geographical and psychological -- of the region and its peoples. Thus, on 1 May, 1970, the CIJWS was mid-wifed by Brig Mathew Thomas in Vairengte. The next year, when Mrs G and Sam were, hehehe, cleaving Pakistan, the school was reorganised as HQ Kilo Force -- its personnel actively took part in Op Jackpot -- and helped East Pakistan flower into Bangladesh. The then commandant (principal, in civilian terms), Brig Anand Sarup, was awarded the Maha Veer Chakra for his valour in the BD operation. But in 1972, the school reverted to its basic role of education. Bunkum. Today, instructors and trainees undertake CI ops and low intensity combat as and when required. Only, they call it "practicals." This makes CIJWS a "semi-field" area: not at the battle front, but not away, either.
Frankly, we were torn between giving you hard information about the school and being our usual giddy-headed self. We finally opted for the latter because any dolt can compile and relay data, and we are the Monet of painting impressions... Readers who squinted through our Y2K-on-LC series will be pleased to find that this article is be-Jewella-ed. The sainted editor believes we wanted to spare you the pain of deciphering our photographs; we merely needed someone to hold our sceptre when we doodled.
So where to begin? At the tarmac of Kumbhigram airport, where we were informed that neither had we landed in Silchar, nor was Silchar in Mizoram...? You see, like 95 per cent of those not of the NE, our knowledge about the Mongoloid states of India is just a little above zero. Turned out, Silchar is in Assam; Kumbhigram, also in Assam, is a good dusty hour-and-half away; and the NE does not mean spear-toting, er... slope-eyed people in glorious tribal shawls. Therefore, the first lesson we learnt from this adventure is: It's the negligence of the rest of India that has augmented, if not created, the unrest in the NE. Everything you know or want to know about insurgency is that of Kashmir's. But the trouble brewing incessantly in the NE is somehow not of much interest to us. We quickly turn the page after scanning headers spelling death datelined Dimapur. It's all so geographically far away from Chandigarh, Cochin or Chennai. Question is, why's it emotionally distant, too...?
We'll get to that by and by. First, we have to tell you about our latest guardian angel, JCO Farooq Ahmed, a Kashmiri from Poonch, who received a gallantry award on January 26 for dispatching three ULFA terrorists during a midnight encounter in Nalbari. The story is thrillingly gory but, sorry, we can't tell you because Chindu & Co will pounce on us. Point is, the men selected for CIJWS are those who fulfill certain qualitative requirements...
With that, we entered the grand portal of the school, motto: Fight The Guerrilla Like A Guerilla (faithfully pronounced "gorilla" by all). We dumped our bag in our room (conveniently close to the officers' mess), in a setting so arboreal that we forgot our assignment. But not for long: at 11 am sharp we were to report for a briefing to the commandant, Brig HS Nahal of the Jat Regiment. Briefing?? Moi...?
All of Mizoram is uniformly hilly; meaning, inclines everywhere; meaning, steep steps to navigate between one cabin and another. Meaning, not a single room did we enter without panting and sweating. And so we gasped to Col Sharma (officer General Staff, a dear man known throughout as GS), to be vetted before meeting the commandant. Oooh and what a specimen of dignity he turned out to be! We simply stared at this gracefully graying Sardar while we got a briefing on... GEOGRAPHY. Honest! With a map and laser indicator! We now know that primary jungles are the untouched ones, secondary are cut-and-grown, with thicker undergrowth; what alluvial soil is; what the composition of the terrain of Nagaland is; the climate of Mizoram (humidity 90 per cent, rains 8 months); the uses of bamboo; the flora, fauna, etc, etc. Oh gawwd, we were back in school...
Our eyes were just glazing over, and the brigadier said: "If the soldier does not know all this, how can he live off the land? There's now a change in the psyche of the terrorist -- he has become lazy; he prefers to be near townships. But he always retreats to the jungles, and we must know how to tackle him in his surroundings. Knowledge of the ground, knowing the lay of the land, is a force multiplier." Rambo!! We woke up. Perhaps the last time Indians fought as an army in a jungle was when Sam Manikshaw commanded a Sikh company in the Burma campaign in 1942. Insurgency and demands for secession have existed in NE since the late forties. Our friendly neighbours, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, added no little fuel to the fire -- nor did our goodly pinkos. All of which necessitates the CIJWS.
The charter of the school is to act as a nodal agency ("look up the dictionary," was the curt clarification) for all CI ops in the NE. Courses include language familiarisation in Nagamese, Tangkhul, Assamese, and Manipuri dialects; area-specific history, and theatre-specific training. The school has eleven firing ranges for different scenarios: quick response shooting, urban shooting and pursuit, ambush, jungle lane shooting, chance encounter, mobile firing, etc. But, what does jungle warfare entail, exactly...?
To fight and win in the jungle is tough, both physically and mentally: Jungle operations test platoons to their limit since communications are rendered difficult. In 1941, the Japs prepared to capture Singapore with the help of a booklet titled, Read This Alone and You Can Win the War; it became the foundation for what's called TTP: tactics, techniques and procedures. It was, basically, drills and common-sense tips on how to survive in the jungle by studying its characteristics: Dense vegetation with limited visibility; heavy cross compartmentation; streams and rivers; heat and humidity; few roads; numerous tracks. It is in this theatre that students live and train. They have a time of their life when made to run the Mad Mathew Mile in minutes flat, and run it again if they can't -- often suckling leeches during the rains.
But were we interested in such huffing and puffing? Not! For no matter how crucial physical fitness is, we are a cerebral personage... We figured, if Nana Patekar was allowed to train in Belgaum as a commando for a film role, we'd be allowed to attend some classes. Our heart was set on Intelligence Collection, Covert Ops, and IED Awareness. Unfortunately, the thumb rule in military CI training is: Trust No One (unless it happens to be someone from Outlook, we suppose). So we made do with shimmying up to certain officers and wringing out we wanted, and thereby expanded other boundaries of our personality, too. It's called unconventional int collection.
But did GS need to be so cagey...? Ya. For instance, a lecture on the NSCN(I-M), the most powerful terrorist unit operational in entire NE, would also include an account of its known weaknesses and how they could be exploited. If that info leaked to its members, they'd plug the holes. So yes, it's sticky territory. Similarly, we aren't allowed to even describe the school's collection of defused IEDs since it could give ideas to budding murderers. Suffice to say, The Specialist doesn't seem an unrealistic movie anymore. What with the Internet and hi-tech communications, the nature of even rural insurgency has become very dynamic; the terrorist's modus operandi is changing everyday. Explosives may be concealed in hollow bamboos or may be solar-controlled. The molotov cocktail? We could make it in 10 minutes flat and without visiting a chemist (beware, Dilip!). The task before the army is indeed an onerous one.
We were pondering this as we climbed the 43rd step towards lunch and, well, missed the 44th. It was just a 3 feet drop off the concrete, but it was onto a slope and the momentum rolled us till we hit a thorny bush. Our pride, too, came up battered blue -- because it was witnessed by the ishgaadi head of the Courses Wing, Lt Col Harsh K Tiwari of JAK RIF. You see, earlier, it had been love at first word, and that was even before we learnt that the colonel was a commando, an NSG Black Cat, and Sena Medal winner: He had somehow decided that we were a responsible adult -- a novelty for us -- and trusted us with hair-raising tales, and so of course we fell. From the steps, too.
But is that all it takes to jive our amour? Rubbish! That night, when we were merry-making in the bar and being ribbed about civilian paunches, we retorted, "Big deal, even Harsh has a paunch." And Col Thakur, the gentlest soldier we've ever met, said, "Tiwari had a cancerous growth in his stomach. He was operated upon 4 times. But he opted to serve in field area." Our Old Monk gauge hit zero...
Next morning, we collared the commando. Reply, all interspersed with guffaws: "I didn't know I had it! One day I went to donate blood at the same hospital in which I had my stomach operation, and on the sheet I had to sign, the stupid doctor wrote 'pancreatic sarcoma.' Mujhe Rajesh Khanna ka Anand picture yaad aya. Remember that 'lymphosarcoma of the intestines'? Maine socha, yeh sarcoma kyun likha hai, bhai? Then I found out, they couldn't diagnose where it was and so hadn't told me. With each surgery, they found out more... Bas, main ghar baithh-ke bhi kya karta?"
Donate blood, too...??? *That* is the profile of the Indian soldier. Our soldier...
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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