At the troubled birth of the world’s newest nation, the United Nations (UN) has established the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) to play the role of wet nurse and nanny. Given India’s reputation as the world’s oldest and biggest contributor to the UN peacekeeping operations there is all likelihood that it will contribute personnel and troops to UNMISS. This will add to India’s already impressive peacekeeping statistics: nearly 100,000 personnel have donned blue helmets (or turbans) in over 40 of the 65 UN peacekeeping missions since 1950. Yet, it is not clear what strategic advantage these peacekeeping contributions offer India.
Some experts argue that the contributions are an end in themselves and reflect India’s principled commitment to the UN and its central role in international peace and security; they are not related to any narrow national interests. Yet, this is the same UN that India has been trying to kick out of Kashmir since the 1972 Simla agreement with Pakistan. It is also the same UN that has been kept away from India’s immediate neighbourhood, except under the strictest supervision of New Delhi—as was the case in Nepal.
Others argue that India’s impressive peacekeeping record strengthens its case for a berth on the UN Security Council (UNSC). While India’s troop contributions have earned it a place on the UN Peacebuilding Commission and might support its credentials for UNSC, it is not clear how this will advance India’s national security interests. Indeed, the recent antics of some Indian peacekeepers —alleged rapes and other criminal activities—might actually be detrimental to India’s case for a greater role in UN affairs. It also reflects that India’s peacekeeping role has not been given serious attention by decision-makers.
In fact, history reveals that India has been an absent-minded peacekeeper— deploying troops because it could and not because it needed to. Its peacekeeping prowess was largely prompted by three factors. First, as part of its colonial military legacy independent India was one of the few countries in the post-World War II period with an expeditionary force capability that could deploy troops at relatively short notice. Second, the financial incentives of such deployments were tempting for a developing country like India. Third, while such deployments were prestigious they were also relatively low-risk compared to peace operations from the 1990s onwards.
Ironically, India’s peacekeeping also benefited colonial powers, that did not contribute as many troops, and whose interests Indian peacekeepers ended up defending through the various UN missions. This undermined not only India’s own interests but also its principle of protecting the sovereign interests of the states where the peace operations were conducted.
However, India’s economic rise and the growing risks of peace operations, which are now increasingly tasked with protecting civilians, has underlined the need to align the objective of participating in peace operations with New Delhi’s strategic interests. India’s increasing economic stakes in many of the countries that host UN peace operations further stressed this linkage.
Although India has take small steps towards this realignment it has a long way to go. At the UN in New York, India, as an elected UNSC member is seeking to establish a mechanism where major troop contributing countries can also formulate the mandates of the missions. In the field, high-level visits by decision makers such as Manmohan Singh to Addis Ababa—the first by an Indian prime minister—underscore India’s growing political and economic interest in the region and should be stepped up.
The world’s newest and oil-rich state of South Sudan, where India has significant economic and political interest and which is the location of UNMISS will be the test case to see if India is moving from an absent-minded to a strategic peacekeeper.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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