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A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Bloomberg
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Bloomberg

From a peacekeeper to a global leader

Modi's proactive approach reflects the growing importance of military diplomacy for India

At the United Nations Peacekeeping Summit in New York last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed India’s role in international peacekeeping through a partnership with the US. This would involve training and deploying extra contingents, as well as bolstering the infrastructural support for peacekeeping troops.

This proactive approach reflects the growing importance of military diplomacy for India, but it should also drive home the point that peacekeeping is a tricky and difficult exercise. While it holds an immense range of possibilities to restore order in conflict zones and earn goodwill, peace operations—if not managed efficiently, have often left behind conflicting legacies for all the stakeholders involved in it.

It is not hard to view India’s renewed commitment to peacekeeping within the broader context of New Delhi’s ambition to secure a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Modi’s focus on calling for “troop-contributing countries" to have a bigger say in the UN is premised on the continued historical contribution of Indian troops towards securing global peace—starting from the World Wars of the 20th century to this day—and is rooted in projecting India as a responsible player and provider of security and stability in global politics.

Modi’s speech evoked India’s historical roles to address present needs, but he did so partially. A wider appraisal of India’s experiences in peacekeeping should not remain limited to the World Wars but also include Indian military-diplomatic assignments since then, and examine the strategic issues and challenges that plague peacekeeping contingents abroad.

India’s role in the repatriation of Korean and Chinese refugees and prisoners (some of whom refused to go to the communist side) after the Korean War (1950-53) severely tested the resolve of a non-aligned India to settle the fractious issue of prisoner exchange. As head of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC)—the body that was set up after the 1953 Korean armistice under the aegis of the UN—it was India’s responsibility to negotiate a peaceful transfer of prisoners to the two new Korean states, each of whom now belonged to either the Soviet/Chinese or the American camps of the Cold War.

The contentious NNRC “terms of reference" document, which guided India’s efforts in seeking prisoners’ views and relocating them accordingly, became a new battleground for Cold War rivalries. Selective interpretations of the document by the US, North Korea and China repeatedly disrupted and challenged arbitration proceedings. Though the mandate was fulfilled skilfully by India, it was plagued by frequent disagreements and diplomatic clashes between the Indian Custodian Forces and those led by the US, China and others.

Another example is India’s experiences in Sri Lanka. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord to enforce peace between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil militant outfits. However, a series of lapses in intelligence gathering and failure to effectively disarm militant groups embroiled the Indian contingent in combat operations, which was not its initial mandate. The loss of lives and the protracted nature of conflict compelled the Indian force to retreat from Sri Lanka and soured bilateral relations. The festering resentment among the militant outfits eventually led to the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Major powers like the US, too, have suffered in their peacekeeping efforts. Its intervention and subsequent retreat from Somalia during 1992-94 exemplifies the tumultuous nature of peacekeeping. The loss of US troops and other setbacks turned American public opinion against the operations and led to substantial revisions in US peacekeeping policies.

The point, therefore, is not to dissuade or downplay India’s peacekeeping efforts, but to highlight the pitfalls of making claims for collaborative international leadership based on historical experiences—not all of which delivered favourable outcomes. History proves that the journey to the high table of global decision-making through peacekeeping is anything but peaceful.

Vipul Dutta is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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