The Indian Air Force station at Pathankot in Punjab is roughly 30km away from Pakistan by car, or three minutes away for a missile.
Sepoy Jagdish Chand was making tea in a cookhouse at the base on the morning of 2 January when six terrorists stormed in, guns blazing, and killed four of his fellow jawans.
Chand, a professional wrestler, ran at the attackers unarmed and tackled one of them. He grappled with the terrorist, turned his own rifle against him and shot him in the head. That act of bravery cost the 48-year-old sepoy his life. The five other terrorists surrounded him and sprayed him with bullets, reports in newspapers and magazines tell us.
Five out of the seven defence personnel who died in the next 72 hours—the time it took for more than 150 National Security Guard (NSG) troops and as many soldiers to cut down six terrorists on a wild firing spree—were sepoys like Chand, part of the Defence Security Corps (DSC), the Indian Army’s sixth largest corps, and are the ones most likely to be the first line of defence in attacks like the one on Pathankot.
Unlike the NSG or the Garud Commando forces, whose men were also killed in Pathankot, there is little in the public domain about the nature of the DSC (at least, not until the Pathankot attack brought the unit to the media’s attention). Just what does the DSC do?
The mother depot of all DSC platoons in the country is housed in a cantonment town in Kerala’s Kannur district. As cantonment towns usually are, the area is well planned: neat roads and pavements, surrounded by landscaped greenery.
Installed in front of the entrance to the walled-off compound is a larger-than-life statue of an ancient warrior wrapped in a mundu, with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. The statue is titled “Anga Chekavar” and a board next to it reads “Izzat, Imandari, Wafadhari” (respect, honesty, loyalty).
Anga Chekavars. That’s what soldiers, mostly from lower-caste families, rented by the Chera kingdom in Kerala during the Sangam age were called. The Cheras were continually at war with neighouring kingdoms such as the Cholas, and naturally, these Chekavars were in great demand then.
While India today is not, strictly speaking, engaged in decades-long, open-ended war with its neigbhours—unlike the 3rd century BC Chera kingdom or the present-day US—it does have Pakistan to guard against and several internal conflicts to combat, as well as strategic locations where the military has to be deployed throughout the year.
And then, the men in uniform are pressed into service during floods or other natural calamities, and they often become the face of such rescue operations. In 2015 alone, had the military not intervened in a timely manner, lakhs of people would have lost their lives when the heaviest rainfall in a century flooded Chennai in December, or when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the Himalayan hills in April.
The DSC performs a crucial role in India’s defence establishment, which runs pretty busy in this manner throughout the year. Founded by the British in 1947 in Uttar Pradesh as the Defence Department Constabulary Centre, the DSC’s job is to guard crucial defence installations from missile silos to troop stations.
It comprises ex-servicemen who are re-employed in the military for a few more years. There are roughly 30,000 to 40,000 DSC personnel working across India. About 35-40% of them come from the army and the air force, and the rest are from the navy and other wings of the military. The DSC was classified as a police force at first, and was reorganized in 1958 and made into a corps under the army.
As the army was modernized, just like the British army, between World Wars I and II, the need for reliable security at army installations grew, says Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance, and also co-founder of non-profit think tank Takshashila Institution.
Pilferage and stealing were so frequent in the rural areas where these installations were housed that the British established the DSC as a special police wing specifically to guard facilities like army stores, says Pai.
“It is a very commoditized part of the army. If the special forces are the elite, this is their exact opposite in the defence network,” he says.
About 3,000 new jawans from the rank of subedar major to junior commissioned officer join the DSC every year, and they all head to Kannur for basic training.
“They are basically people from middle- or low-income groups who have rejoined the army looking for job security. It’s not an easy decision to make. Because they may be retiring at a higher rank, but when they rejoin, they will only be a sepoy. So, it’s like starting a cycle all over once again,” says an officer in the Kannur unit, requesting anonymity.
“They don’t have to be extensively trained because they come with years of experience in the army. They are disciplined and know how to take orders. But when they were in the army, they would have been trained to deal with the enemies. Here, they are mostly trained to deal with civilians because they will be interacting a lot with civilians while on duty,” he says.
They clearly do. Just next to the giant Anga Chekavar, two DSC men in khaki uniform are checking ID cards as a stream of civilians enter the premises, most of whom are there to buy subsidized products from the military store, particularly liquor. Once they enter, those in search of subsidized alcohol proceed to the room of the store officer.
The half-open iron gates under the blue arch, emblazoned with the words “Defence Security Corps”, by the Chekavar statue are the only point of entry for civilians, who have to pass through another checkpoint inside as well. (A small feature of some interest: The pillars of the arch are painted red, dark blue and light blue, in that order from the top. Had the order been dark blue, red and light blue, it would have marked the entrance to the Pakistani military’s Joint Staff Headquarters. The colours come from the British origin of both armies, say experts. Traditionally, red denotes armed forces, dark blue the navy and sky blue the air force.)
A tree-lined path from the gate leads to a large courtyard with blocks of buildings on three sides. DSC jawans mill about, clad in either police khaki or military camouflage (they can use either uniform; most at the Kannur depot preferred the khaki, though while assigned to guard military bases elsewhere, they switch to camouflage).
The army store and the accompanying office occupy two sizeable buildings on one side of the courtyard. Officers in khaki, assisted by DSC jawans, bustle about. The officer in charge is the busiest man in the place. A queue of civilian visitors, most looking to buy alcohol, leads up to his office. He barks out orders to his staff, telling them to prepare a presentation on the store’s sales for an upcoming visit by senior military commanders, while also talking to a group from a local organization who wanted him to attend their Republic Day event.
The people looking to get liquor passes shuffle in, smiling and winking at 39-year old Rajesh Kumar (a jawan in the DSC), who assists the officer in charge, who rapidly signs off on their requests, seemingly without checking their legitimacy. The jawans assisting him, though, seem to have a knack of weeding out those who shouldn’t be there. “Sir, isko…” Kumar would whisper in the officer’s ear, who would immediately stop, look up and say, “Get out.”
In some cases, Kumar would murmur something else, and the officer would hand the request back, saying, “Subah subah hi peena hai kya? Ek baje ke baat aajao (Drinking this early in the morning? Come back after 1pm).”
In effect, every attempt to steal liquor, no matter how sophisticated, was caught. One could see what prompted the British intelligence to create a separate unit for guarding their stores. The DSC jawans project a sense of dominion and entitlement, and an enormous amount of scepticism, which seems to ease the officers’ job to a great extent.
As for the locals, they seemed to ignore the presence of the uniformed jawans for the most part. Imagine an invisible double lane, taking people in civilian clothing from the gate to the army store and back. None seem to deviate from this track, walking along sharply, almost as if guided by an unseen force. Some pick up the pace on the way back, almost running, with a bottle or two hugged close.
Let’s come back to Rajesh Kumar. After spending his teenage years in Hyderabad, Kumar served in the army for 18 years in Srinagar, Sikkim and Punjab. After retirement, he rejoined the military through the DSC last year and now lives with his family at the army quarters in the cantonment. His two children are studying in the army school there.
“When I came out of retirement, my original plan was to settle abroad or do business,” says Kumar. But he took the advice of friends working in the DSC. “Friends ne mujse bola ki kuch bhi karne se fayde nahi, yeha pe aane me security bhi he savings bhi he (Friends told me there’s no benefit in other things, here you will have both security and savings),” he says.
It is the same mindset that drives many ex-servicemen back to the force, in spite of the great demand for retired personnel in the private sector, experts say.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, there were no places for these people to get employed if you were an ex-serviceman; there were very few job opportunities. Banks needed to have someone with a weapon to guard the currency chests, some big companies may be used to hire some ex-servicemen. But by and large, once you are a jawan and after you are retired, you were pretty much jobless,” says Pai.
“But if you are a retired defence personnel today, you have a lot more options than you had 15 years ago. On the one hand, you have companies like Mahindra Special Services group; they do high-quality security cover for CEOs of big companies… and all the way down to apartment complexes to small buildings. So, the whole range has been filled up… Ex-servicemen have great demand in foreign countries for security duties too,” he says.
The only attraction of a career in the DSC now is the familiar army culture, according to Pai. It’s the same environment; if you have kids, you can put them in army schools, continue getting military benefits such as housing, medical services and canteen. And moreover, DSC personnel are eligible for a double pension.
However, while the obituaries have been piling up for the DSC personnel killed in Pathankot, questions have also been raised about leaving the security of crucial strategic locations and organizations such as the DRDO to DSC troops, who are generally over 50 years old.
“DSC, composed of retired military veterans well past their prime, can hardly repulse a well-equipped and motivated terrorist suicide squad,” wrote Ajai Shukla, a retired colonel, war correspondent and writer on strategic affairs, in Business Standard.
Kumar pauses for a moment and adjusts his thick-rimmed round spectacles when asked how he feels about such comments.
“People call us ‘bhudda fauj’ but we work overtime guarding the bases,” says Kumar, who had been stationed at Pathankot for three years from 2001.
According to him, a DSC jawan will usually work for three days straight, taking a periodic rest of four hours after every two hours of work, and then take a day off. But when there is a shortage of staff, they will work continuously for weeks together without an off day, says Kumar.
Is there a need to modernize the functioning of the DSC? Is that what the Pathankot incident shows us?
Those questions can wait, according to experts like Pai. India has much bigger threats from the encroachment of defence installations area than from the lack of modernization in the defence security core itself.
Although the cantonments and plants were first built 20-30km away from cities, they are right in the middle of residential and commercial establishments now as those cities have ballooned, says Pai.
The point, he says, is that the DSC men are not sort of farmers with guns and they are doing their basic functions well. “They are a useful force. In many other countries, this job is performed by local police or by private security because that kind of labour is hard to get.”