Swapnil Pandey introduces readers to six legendary operatives – worthy owners of the Balidan badge
GN Bureau | July 18, 2023
BALIDAN: Stories of India’s Greatest PARA Special Forces Operatives
By Swapnil Pandey
HarperCollins, xviii+228 pages, Rs 299
‘Balidan’ brings together six valiant stories of some of the biggest names from the Indian Para Forces, based on more than two hundred interviews conducted in several locations including Special Forces Units near the LoC and the LAC.
Few possess greater courage, yet remain in oblivion, than the Indian Para Special Forces. To these brave operatives, worthy owners of the Balidan badge, is entrusted the safety of the most perilous heights and the annihilation of the darkest underbellies of terrorism. The legacy of these warriors is shrouded in mystery and legend. So secretive are their missions that little is known about them beyond code names like Ghost, Viper or Desert Scorpio.
In this remarkable collection of tales of valour beyond measure, Swapnil Pandey lifts the curtain on some of the greatest Special Forces operatives and introduces readers to Colonel Santosh Mahadik, Captain Tushar Mahajan, Brigadier Saurabh Singh Shekhawat, Subedar Major Mahendra Singh and others.
Here is an excerpt on the ‘love story of a commando’ that introduces Major Manish Singh:
Major Manish Singh, SC, and Aastha Panwar: The Love Story of a Commando
19 August 2020
TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD AASTHA PANWAR was nervous, her heart was beating so loudly she feared people around would be able to hear it. She had left a letter for her mother back at her village, Deoriya, a distance of about an hour from Solan, the small town famous for its magical landscape in the lower Shivaliks. With its old church, ancient temples and captivating monasteries, this small Himachal Pradesh town had much to offer the many tourists flocking to it.
Aastha had only one thing on her mind. She was eloping. This pretty girl, with her beautiful eyes and smile, was about to run away with the love of her life, Major Manish Singh. He was waiting for her in Ghaziabad. They were scheduled to have their marriage registered in court the following day.
Manish had planned Aastha’s escape. They had been in a relationship for a year by then. They had always wanted to get married, but her parents had refused. Manish had tried to make Aastha listen to her parents, but she loved him so much that she refused to do so. For her, it had always been love at first sight.
Maj Manish Singh, SC, was from 9 Para (SF) and also a Paralympian sharpshooter. He held an important position in his parent unit, where he managed the logistical support the unit required for its day-to-day functioning. His job required his complete attention. He would roam the entire campus in his wheelchair all day, getting his unit’s work done. He is a living example of why SF personnel are so special.
It would have been easier for Maj Manish, SC, to give up and lead a life of anonymity—but he had chosen to serve his unit and nation until his last breath. He bled NINE in every sense of the word. As for Aastha, she had always been different. Her friends liked to party or go on picnics, but she liked the idea of devoting herself to the service of mankind. She was an ardent pupil of Sadhguru and had spent months serving in the Isha Foundation, a non-profit spiritual organization near Coimbatore. While her friends from engineering colleges cribbed about their jobs, boyfriends or the pressures of life, Aastha would be donating her hair to cancer patients and cooking and cleaning for people who visited the Isha Foundation in search of hope and peace. She did try to get a regular job and live like other girls her age, but she was unable to do so. Serving people would always be her main purpose in life. Her parents were equally spiritual, simple folk who lived in Solan, who had brought her up visiting ashrams and gurus. This lifestyle profoundly impacted Aastha, who grew up with a deep interest in spirituality and travelling.
When I met Aastha Panwar in July 2021, the first thing she told me was how she wanted to see the Northern Lights and travel all over the globe. There was a glow on her face—and I also noticed Maj Manish looking admiringly at his partner.
Maj Manish’s story is the kind that can make anyone believe in miracles, in love and in fairy tales. Yet, his story also highlights the lesser-known side of the SF, the strength of the women behind the SF operatives. The power of the force behind the forces.
The story of this simple boy and extraordinary commando began in Ludhiana, Punjab.
29 February 1996
Layak Singh was upset with his younger son Manish’s behaviour. The eight-year-old was throwing a tantrum—he was howling after a child’s Army uniform that he had seen in the market and wanted for his second birthday. Manish, born on 29 February 1988, was a leap-year baby. Though they belonged to a humble background, his parents made sure to celebrate special days like this on a grand scale.
Unfortunately, even in 1996, that Army uniform cost Rs 400, almost three months’ salary for Layak Singh. His doting wife, Sunita, was trying to persuade her husband to buy the uniform because Manish was such a good and obedient child otherwise. He was always the calmer, more tolerant, disciplined and mature of the two sons they had. But this Army uniform seemed to have captured Manish’s imagination for a reason his parents couldn’t fathom!
I remember Maj Manish laughing out loud at the memory. He told me, ‘Ma’am, I have cried only twice in my life, and both times it was for the Army. The first time was when I was eight years old—for that olive-green uniform. And the second time I cried was when I was eighteen years old, and my parents would not allow me to join the Army.’
[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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