Varun Chhabra was just nine when his father was killed in action on October 14, 1989. A recipient of the Sena Medal, Lt Col Arun Kumar Chhabra was second-in-command of 10 Para (SF), and was about to take over as its commanding officer, when he sacrificed his life in the Army’s Operation Pawan against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. His team had surrounded an LTTE stronghold, killing two militants, when he got hit in retaliatory fire. Despite being wounded, he gunned down the LTTE commander, while his men took out the stronghold.
The nine-year-old who lost his father grew to become a gentleman soldier. As commanding officer of 10 Para (SF), Colonel Varun Chhabra has kept his vow to fulfil his father’s dream.
What was your motivation to join the Special Forces?
Ours is a great nation. The very basis of the society is the family system where sons and daughters grow up seeing the world through the eyes of their parents. My father cherished a dream of commanding this elite and finest unit one day. I only hope, that he sees his dream come true through his son. This was and is my motivation.
What makes a special forces commando different from a regular soldier?
Unlike the rest of the Army, a soldier does not get commissioned into the special forces. Be an officer or a jawan the individual has to be a volunteer for joining the special forces. Out of a million-plus-strong Indian Army, the SF comprises a few hundred selected men. These men undergo a rigorous three-month probation, which replicates actual battlefield conditions that he would face as a special forces operative.
He is checked on the physical aspects of training, to test his limit of taking stress. His performance is tested in 30-, 40- and 60-mile runs [carrying] 30kg loads. He is checked for high IQ…. He is made to survive on the bare minimum, and deprived of all comforts of living. He has to deliver in all aspects and excel in all skills.
But, this alone does not guarantee selection. He is made to endure unending agony in the scorching heat of the day and the biting cold of the night in the desert. As he gets cut off from the civilised world, isolation, pain, despair and fear of the unknown become his constant companions. He is broken, over and over, to see if he has the willpower to survive. Most volunteers give up in the first week of training; others give up within a fortnight. Again, someone who finishes this gruelling probation period is not guaranteed selection. Out of a hundred who come here, only three or four get to wear the coveted maroon beret.
Why are the special forces such a potent force despite them being numerically small?
These are people who are highly skilled in battlecraft. They are trained to use all kinds of weapons—machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers and guided missiles—to make their mission a success. They fire from their primary and secondary weapons with the same expertise. When need arises, they would achieve their purpose even without a weapon.
They are like ghosts in the battlefield. Armed with exclusive weaponry, they have the capability to come through land, sea or air, so as to quickly converge on an unsuspecting enemy, deliver a solid punch and disperse within moments. It is this daring action, carried out in the most swift and silent manner, and executed with such precision and tenacity, that makes them achieve results disproportionate to their numbers.
In a firefight during a counter-terror operation, a young captain was taking stock of his party. He asked his sergeant if he were all right. The soldier replied, “Haan, saab… Bus aisa lagta hai ki meri aankh chali gayi hai [Yes, sir. It just seems that I have lost my eye].”
These are men of steel. Their levels of enduring pain are different.
How is the officer-men bonding in SF?
In the special forces, there is no staunch hierarchy. There is mutual respect and regard. This is the only force where men select their own officers. The officers and jawans who volunteer for the special forces undergo probation together. Officers don’t wear their ranks during probation, and everyone is treated as equals and judged on their performance. Be it operations or peacetime duties the special forces officers and men spend majority of their time together and are often called ‘Buddies’. They sweat together and shed blood together. They trust each other for their lives. Rightly so, they are brothers from another mother.
The recent surgical strikes have put focus on the special forces. Do you think that, in the emerging security scenario, there is a greater need for such covert strikes?
Such operations are important. Firstly, we need to have an upper hand in any fluid situation and keep the enemy confused. He must know he will be punished for his misadventures. It is also important to keep him guessing.
How does an SF commando outwit a terrorist who is on a death mission?
In a way, both are ready to sacrifice their lives. But the difference is we are not here to die, we will take away his life if need be. The real difference is in the intent with which a terrorist and a commando pulls the trigger. An SF commando is a soldier’s soldier. The best any leadership can have on a mission to protect his countrymen. While a terrorist is drugged to insanity—physically by narcotics and mentally by eccentric beliefs—a special forces commando is on a high that comes from taking immense pride in his profession.
What does an SF commando do during peace time?
There is no peace time for such units. They are constantly at war with the enemies of the state, covertly or overtly. Other than doing special operations, they participate in tri-services exercises. They take part in joint training with foreign armies. They undergo professional courses to maintain their professional competence. They constantly prepare for rescue operations involving hostages, or other emergency situations.
Do special forces have their own intelligence and communication networks, or are you dependent on the Army and intelligence agencies?
Assets like satellite-based communication and human intelligence are made available to the special forces on a need basis. If we have our own intelligence network, I can’t comment on it. Intelligence is the most critical part of any successful operation. But work has to go on even with limited intelligence. Our capability to operate deep and for longer duration gives us the edge and increases our chances of success when intelligence is hard to come by.
Between capturing the enemy and killing him, what choice does a commando make?
We are not war junkies or mercenaries. We are soldiers who believe in peace. But, we are fully aware of the fact that this peace would have to be earned…. A captured enemy soldier is a source of information on enemy tactics, morale and routine, which is critical in planning and furthering our missions.
Why do you think violence is necessary for peace?
Who wants to be violent? Throughout history, men have taken to arms to protect their countries. While violence should be avoided, the enemy should always be afraid that we have the might to strike him at a place and time of our choosing.
What kind of warfare do you foresee in future? What will be the role of special forces?
After observing the current situation, I feel warfare in future would be network centric. Future wars will be short and intense and will be fought in the vicinity of population centres, favoring the side which is technologically advanced. Special forces would be employed to continuously shape the battlefield from conventional wars in nuclear backdrop to asymmetric and fourth generation wars. They would always perform at the sharp end of warfare and would thus need to keep ‘their skills extraordinary, their means irregular and their actions daring’.
Where do the Indian Army’s special forces stand when compared to the US Navy Seals or Israeli forces?
The Indian Army special forces have had the best of exposure in operations and combat. We have been the first to be inducted into almost all the wars the country has fought. The only difference is the scope of employment. Though technological advancement and modernisation is essential, it is finally the man behind the machine who matters. You can give a man the best of weapons, but if he lacks killer instinct, the weapons would just be mere metal parts. Someone who is passionate about his job may do wonders with whatever is made available to him. It is this burning desire that fuels the professionalism of our special forces, and puts them at par with other special forces across the world.