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Sixteen years ago, a young newlywed Indian soldier was sent with his unit to the fairly remote state of Assam in the north eastern part of the country. With no electricity and little to do after completing the team’s operations, the young soldier would look nostalgically through his wedding album and with a pencil, start drawing images of his wife.
“When I returned home after my stint in Assam, I showed the pictures to my wife. She was very touched by the gesture, but she was also the first person to say that I had a real talent.”
Colonel Amit Gupta has come a long way since – in age, rank, and distance. He now commands a battalion of eight hundred and fifty soldiers in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan.
His talent has grown with him. His unit in the living quarters at the UN mission’s base in Malakal is donned with murals, including an outstanding painting of his wife, as well as other handmade arts and crafts that have earned him admiration from different quarters.
But the commanding officer of the Indian Battalion is known for more than just his art. Under his command, his men have conducted highly sought-after veterinary camps and they now run a veterinary hospital in Malakal, with a second expected to be completed in Kodok – a major town along the west bank of the Nile – in a few weeks’ time.
“I want to be remembered as having left positive memories for the people in South Sudan,” says Colonel Gupta, “I also want to leave them in a better place, where they are able to generate income for themselves and build their country.”
This is demonstrated through the numerous trainings of community animal health workers that Indian peacekeepers have undertaken in the region. They have also provided value addition training for farmers to help them make the most of their produce.
“If a group of volunteers in India can come together and create one of the largest milk production entities in our country, then surely, it can be done here as well,” he says, “If even 10 percent of our trainees apply what they’ve learnt, this country will be better for it.”
This isn’t Colonel Gupta’s first rodeo. As a young Major, he served the United Nations in Northern Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s rare, in the Indian military, to get the opportunity to serve in the UN more than just once.
“There are twenty-two regiments each with 15-20 units. For peacekeeping missions, units are selected from regiments on a rotational basis. Units are rated based on certain thresholds, and the best unit gets sent to the mission.”
Private Ankush Cheema had only just joined the unit in 2017 when he found out that they were scheduled for a peacekeeping mission. He had his gods to thank, of course, as well as the hardworking men of his unit who were selected based on a 20-year assessment of gallantry, distinguished service and other positive citations.
“I grew up near Kashmir where several army units have been based and so I consider myself an army boy,” he says, “Besides this, my father and grandfather before him, were both army men. They however, never got to participate in a peacekeeping mission.”
Private Cheema is at the tail-end of his deployment in South Sudan. And what a ride it has been! He has participated in both air and riverine patrols and is also among the distinct men who are in his Commander’s quick-response force.
“Those I joined the army with, will probably earn their first medal of honour in another two years. I consider myself lucky. I have my UN medal and when I return home, I will get my foreign service medal,” he says proudly, “I’m very grateful to those who worked hard to get us into a peacekeeping mission.”
Colonel Gupta and Private Cheema are among a hundred and fifty men who received UN medals of honour at a colourful ceremony filled with synchronized marching, performances by a piped band and all-round good cheer.