Photo: AP
Photo: AP

When Indian troops entered Congo 55 years ago

The Congo crisis is an excellent instance of India's active role in securing the international order

History may not be a series of accidents, but accidents have certainly left their mark on history. One such occurred just past midnight on 18 September 1961. An aircraft flying from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo to Ndola in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) crashed near its destination. Among the 16 passengers on board was the secretary general of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld. Fifty-five years on, his death remains a mystery. The sole survivor, who died within days, claimed there had been an explosion in the plane. Strangely, while the other victims had been charred, Hammarskjöld’s body had no burns. Other such anomalies fuelled speculation that it might have been an assassination.

Over the decades, no fewer than four public commissions have inquired into Hammarskjöld’s death. But the controversy has not been stilled. Earlier this year, the South African government announced that it had found a cache of documents pertaining to “Operation Celeste"—an alleged plot to kill Hammarskjöld that had the Central Intelligence Agency’s backing. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon recently said this “may be our last chance to find the truth" and urged all states to share more information.

All this has sparked considerable interest in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s. It is a measure of our historical amnesia that the Indian media has barely noticed the anniversary. For India played a pivotal role in the crisis. It is also telling that in the recent discussions elsewhere there is no mention of India.

The Congo became independent of Belgium on 30 June 1960. Even as the elected government led by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba took charge, the southern province of Katanga seceded. The Belgians backed the secessionist leader, Moise Tshombe, with troops and weapons. Katanga held more than 60% of the country’s natural resources—minerals that were extracted by corporations headquartered in Brussels. Without Katanga, the Congo would become a basket case.

Following an appeal by Lumumba, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on 12 July 1960, calling on Belgium to pull out its forces and the UN to assist the Congolese government. The resolution was backed by both the superpowers. However, the UN force failed to bring the secessionists to heel. By mid-August, Lumumba appealed to the Soviet Union for bilateral assistance, drawing the Congo into the Cold War.

Soon after, Hammarskjöld appointed as his special representative a senior Indian diplomat: Rajeshwar Dayal, who would later become India’s foreign secretary. The appointment indicated India’s importance at a time when newly decolonized states were gaining majority in the UN. As Hammarskjöld told Dayal, “The role of Nehru will now be decisive." But the US had decided that removing Lumumba was “an urgent and prime objective… a high priority of our covert action." The British concurred. On 5 September, President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba and allowed Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu to take military control of the country. Four months later, Lumumba was assassinated.

Nehru reacted sharply. Calling it “an international crime of the first magnitude", he asked Hammarskjöld to take a tough line. When the Security Council passed a second resolution on 21 February 1961, Nehru agreed to send an Indian Army brigade of some 4,700 troops to the Congo. Kasavubu and Mobutu took great exception to these moves. They had all along resented Dayal’s and Nehru’s support for Lumumba. Now they threatened dire consequences for the UN mission if Dayal remained at its helm. At Hammarskjöld’s request, Nehru agreed that Dayal should step down.

Yet, the Indian involvement was set to escalate. On 13 September, the Indian brigade launched Operation Morthor (Hindi: twist and break) that swiftly took control of Katanga. The staff officer who planned the operation would later become the chief of the Indian Army: Major K.S. Sundarji. It was in this context that the British government sought to arrange that fateful meeting between Hammarskjöld and Tshombe in Ndola, ostensibly to negotiate a ceasefire. Nehru was stunned by Hammarskjöld’s death. He was unsure “whether this was due to accident or some kind of sabotage". The Indian press was awash with criticism of Britain. Bombay’s Free Press Journal insisted, “Hammarskjöld’s death was no accident."

Nehru doubled down on his support for the UN in Congo. India sent more troops than any country and these men were active throughout 1962 in stubbing out the secessionist forces. Even during the war with China, Nehru did not insist on an immediate withdrawal of the Indian brigade. The troops returned only after the mission was completed in March 1963.

The Indian role in the Congo is not merely of historical interest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to be a “leading power" and has highlighted Indian participation in the world wars. The Congo crisis is an excellent instance of India’s active role in securing the international order. As New Delhi seeks a prominent place at the high table, the anniversary of Hammarskjöld’s tragic death should remind us—and the world—of India’s long-standing commitment to upholding international institutions and norms.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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