December 1961, Congo. The Congo crisis is concluding its second year. The U.N. Secretary General J. Hammarskjöld had been killed in an air crash a few months ago, and U.N. Peacekeeping forces were preparing for their first large-scale offensive.
Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria of the Gurkha Rifles is one of three thousand peace keeping troops sent by India to aid the UN mission. His platoon accompanied a Swedish armoured division to clear out a Katangese roadblock near the strategic Elisabethville airport – then a headquarters for UN forces. In attempting to flank the target, Captain Salaria encountered an unseen division of 90 secessionists, backed by armoured vehicles. Lacking numbers and firepower, he and his men engaged the rebels head on with grenades, Khukris, bayonets and a single rocket launcher.
His attack caused the rebels heavy damage, forcing them to flee despite having larger numbers. Even as he suffered a wound to the neck – the Captain fought on. He died of his wounds, not before saving the other UN forces from encirclement. He was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra – India’s highest military award. The mission itself was the first peacekeeping attempt by the United Nations, and whether it was a success or not depends on one’s definition of peacekeeping.
The United Nations was formed 71 years ago, with the signing of the UN Charter by 51 nations in New York, October 24, 1945. Since the UN’s inception, India has contributed more troops than any other nation, at nearly 180,000. Developing countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan send in more troops than any of the developed nations. These numbers comprise both military and police, who work side by side in some of the world’s deadliest conflict zones. According to IPS officer G. Janardhan, who served in the Kosovo peacekeeping missions in 2002, this is because countries like India have vast experience in policing diverse regions.
“India’s role is constructive and very development oriented. Because we are composed of IPS officers who lead the forces, as well as officers from paramilitary forces like CRPF, officers from the CBI and other organizations – we bring a lot of expertise. There is a lot of diversity in India in handling crime and social issues, so whenever there is a crisis – they [the UN] would always pick and choose Indian officers.”
India’s interest in sending troops towards an international cause did not start with UN missions. 2.5 million Indian soldiers served in World War II, making them the largest voluntary contribution of troops in the conflict. World War I too saw Indian soldiers called to fight in foreign countries and conditions – exposing many to the horrors of modern technological warfare for the first time. Vedika Kant’s 2014 book on the experiences of Indian sepoys in World War II is filled with personal accounts and letters of the forgotten soldiers of the 20th century. As a wounded sepoy would write, as he recovered in a hospital in Brighton, “If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?”. Their accounts are rare, and largely forgotten, as Amitav Ghosh writes in the foreword:
While Europe produced tens of thousands of books about the war, in India only a tiny number of first person accounts were to find their way into print: to date, they can still be counted on the fingers of one hand – and not one of them was written by a sepoy.
Despite providing invaluable military and logistical assistance during both World Wars, India would not find a place on the United Nations Security Council following the war’s end. The council is often thought to be comprised of the war’s victors – could it be that India finds no mention because she won nothing by participating? To add to injury, the Security Council’s resolutions are often required to be backed by peacekeeping forces – predominantly Indian by overall tally.
Altogether, India has sent troops to 44 out of the UN’s 68 peacekeeping missions. This number includes soldiers, generals, advisors, and policemen. 156 soldiers died in these missions, ‘serving under the blue flag’ according to the Permanent Indian Mission to the UN. From the earliest conflicts in Korea and the Congo to some of the world’s most chaotic battlefields in South Sudan, Lebanon, and the Middle East, Indian soldiers have fought to keep the peace.
This adds to the fundamental contradiction of the United Nations – that a transnational organization could enforce peace and justice whilst internal mechanisms prevent it from doing so. These mechanisms, aided by the power of the veto, can be severely affected by ideological conflicts. Indeed, the Congo War itself found no happy ending after UN intervention, exacerbated by a budding proxy war between the US and USSR.
Nevertheless, India has so far approached peacekeeping with a positive mandate. As Janardhan explains:
It’s good for exposure and for goodwill… We worked with officers from Pakistan, civilian and military. We had entirely cordial relations… We got exposed to different foreign forces – that of the UK, France, Liberia, Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Korea, Russia, etc. We worked hand in hand with all these officers.
The long-term goal is a permanent UNSC seat. As India’s permanent representative to the UN said at the General Assembly in 2009, “the key aspect, therefore, is to address the issue of ‘willingness to act’. Here, of course, a necessary ingredient is real reform of decision-making bodies in the UN, especially the Security Council in its permanent membership, to reflect contemporary realities and make them forces for peace and capable of acting against mass atrocities.”
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