Every weekday morning, a detachment of Indian soldiers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) embarks on an unusual kind of peacekeeping mission—one that doesn’t require guns or ammo, or even shoes. Their focus, in fact, is on promoting inner peace as they operate what must be the first roving yoga ashram ever to appear in south Lebanon, a region better known for guerilla warfare and air strikes than for deep breathing, chanting and headstands.
But yoga is catching on in Fardis, a small town in the foothills of Mount Hermon, where the Indians began their program with about 20 Lebanese schoolchildren. The kids, aged 5 to 13, appear to enjoy the opportunity to roll around the floor before class, and a flexible few look like yoga prodigies. School teachers say the yoga class leaves their charges calmer and more attentive throughout the day, and the Indians hope this soothing effect will be contagious. “If you are at peace with yourself, you can be at peace with your neighbors,” says Lieutenant Colonel Karan Singh, infantry officer and amateur yogi.
Still, it may take more than meditation to keep this particular neighborhood peaceful. UNIFIL’s core mission is to monitor the ceasefire that ended last summer’s war between Israel and Hizballah, which is complicated by the fact that Hizballah still considers Israel to be occupying a small patch of Lebanese land, while Israel believes Hizballah wants to retain the capacity to rain rockets on towns in northern Israel.
Still, the 850 soldiers of UNIFIL’s Indian contingent may be just the chaps for the job. At home, they are known as the 15th Punjab Infantry Battalion—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, and formed a major part of the British force occupying Iraq during the 1920s. Since India’s 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 an a recent visit, the battalion displayed an attention to detail and an esprit de corps quite 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, the unit’s commander, as he served tea with the battalion silver, which also includes tug-of-war trophies from the 1930s. Then he went off to drill the battalion, which was waiting on the parade ground in full dress uniform, in preparation for a medal ceremony to be held several weeks away.
Most of the rank-and-file soldiers in the unit are Sikhs, members of a religious group native to the plains of Punjab, who wear their long hair covered at all times, usually with a turban. Sikh soldiers are renowned in British Empire military lore for their bravery and fighting skills, although so far in South Lebanon, those attributes have not been tested. The 15th Punjab reports that it hasn’t had a single encounter with armed Hizballah elements, despite constant patrols in the 12-village area for which it is responsible. Does this mean Hizballah has given up southern Lebanon? Probably not. The group itself admitted that it has rearmed since Israel destroyed much of its weapon stockpile last summer. Meanwhile, the Israeli press is full of talk about finishing the job. As one of the Indian officers says after a tasty lunch of basmati rice, papadoms and mango pickle: “This could be the calm before the storm.” In which case, the inner peace of yoga will come in handy.