Keepers of the (Inner) Peace

March 8, 2007


Source: TIME Magazine,8599,1597656,00.html

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.