The years when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of India correspond with a remarkable period of global history.  As the recent historical turn in studying India’s external affairs indicates, Nehru’s India put a deep impress on the post-War world. Nehru occupied an important position in public life, in India and in the larger world; in 1961, commentary on the United Nations General Assembly session said he carried “the greatest prestige amongst the neutralist nations”. On the international scene, he used his personal stature to further India’s policy of non-alignment, although the reverse is also equally true. The nations of the world, split down the middle by the Cold War, often found it difficult to come to terms with India’s non-aligned position, or simply thought it was unnecessary to accommodate this view of the world. What India thought was radical, inevitable even, the bipolar world thought was foolish and unsustainable. Tailored and nuanced in Nehru’s political thought, non-alignment put India in a unique and sometimes rather demanding position. As many have, and doubtless will continue to argue, this was not always to her advantage. Yet, looking back at that foundational period, it might be more worthwhile to ask what particular aspects of that policy weighted the balance for or against the world’s collective interests.

Indeed, even a casual survey of Nehru’s writings from the pre-independence era all the way through to the 1960s reveals his fear that the new world order, one built through decolonisation, would lapse into some sort of moral vacuum. He consistently reiterated what he thought was “obvious enough and rather trite” but bore repetition – that the “biggest question today is the question of war and peace.” In the spirit of Panchsheel, said Nehru, “The choice offered to the world is cooperate or perish – the choice is peaceful co-existence or no existence at all”. For him, the United Nations was an arena of that internationalist spirit, and India, a founding member of the organisation, occupied an important position in it since its inception, which had coincided with India’s independence.

In the 1950s, decolonisation steadily gained momentum and India engaged with the Third World through Asian-African conferences and her own bilateral relations with many of the new nations. Some of these nations didn’t always easily transition into statehood and more often than was desirable, the international community became involved in the establishment of these states, and in securing their sovereignty and legitimacy. With these new functions overwhelming the United Nations, it fell upon the great powers to sustain its operations. In turn, they called upon India to “shoulder more responsibility”. In the first instance, much of those international policies were concerned with exposing what they thought was the moral hypocrisy of non-alignment. This made it doubly difficult for India to function without falling into either camp or being perceived to have done so. An excellent example of this tenuous link between India’s stated position and the circumstances in which Indian personnel often functioned is India’s involvement with, and contribution to, UN peacekeeping.

Even before peacekeeping had become one of the most visible functions of the UN, contributor member-states such as India had been sending troops abroad. Indeed, Indian troops had gone overseas before they were, in actuality, Indian troops – a British propaganda slogan from the World War I read, “Our Indian warriors, staunch and true, have proved their worth to all; To guard the flag, they dare and do – at England’s battle call”.  Peacekeeping, therefore, could have been in some ways the continuation of a long-standing tradition. Yet, India’s defence forces were no longer responding to a colonial call to arms; they were going abroad as keepers of peace, not as wagers of war.

The first peacekeeping mission with armed troops was the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I), set up to supervise and implement the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel, Great Britain and France in the aftermath of the Suez Canal Crisis. The mission was in force from 1956 to 1967, during which time Indian military commanders Major General I J Rikhye and Lieutenant General P S Gyani commanded it on two different occasions. General Rikhye, who was also advisor to two UN Secretaries General, Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant, wrote a fascinating account of the mission in his book The Sinai Blunder. India contributed an infantry battalion and other on-ground support, based mainly in the Gulf of Suez. Suez marked the revolutionary moment in which peacekeeping had been invented. India contributed in numbers and strength but with initial reluctance; Nehru was not always an enthusiastic votary of sending Indian troops abroad and insisted constantly that Indian defence forces had mainly been organized for homeland defence. Yet, peacekeeping acquired such urgency in the 1950s that it was expected that India would provide troops. In fact, India was severely criticized when, during the Korean War, Nehru refused to send armed troops to fight on either side.

It was only at the end of the Korean War, as the armistice negotiations came to a close and the question of the prisoners of war loomed large over the conflicting parties that India sent troops. V K Krishna Menon’s formula in the UN had been accepted and a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) had been set up, with four neutral nations (Switzerland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Poland) and India as the Chairman, the “neutral amongst neutrals”. General K S Thimayya had been appointed to the commission as the Indian representative. Nehru was uneasy, and thought, as Escott Reid puts it that there had been “too many generals” concerned with Korean political matters. Yet, the repatriation was going to be challenging and demanded military planning to execute it and military force to maintain order. The principal objective was to facilitate prisoner interviews – these were intended so as to send prisoners to their countries of choice, if they didn’t wish to return to their homelands.

India, who had sent a field ambulance unit during the latter stages of the war, now sent troops called the Custodian Force of India (CFI). Under the command of General SPP Thorat, and his Deputy Commander, Brigadier Gurbaksh Singh, the force was drawn, at first, from the 190 Infantry Brigade, under the command of Brigadier R.S. Paintal, with three infantry battalions and an engineer company, to which were later added two additional battalions and a company of Mahar machine gunners. Between August and September 1953, the CFI arrived in five contingents at Inchon, where three years ago, Gen. Macarthur had commanded the famous landings. Two camps were set up, one that accommodated the Custodian Force and the other that held the Prisoners of War. In the latter camp, anti-Indian sentiments ran high and much booing and protest ensued. Characteristically, Thorat named this camp Shanti Nagar. The camp with the Indian troops was called Hind Nagar.

The Custodian Force acted under very difficult circumstances – the prisoners resisting repatriation, often refused to leave the camp for interviews. If the CFI used force to draw them out, the Swedish and Swiss members of the NNRC protested what they considered the violation of human rights. If the CFI did not use force, the Czech and Polish members decried the lack of protection for the explanation teams who were to extract the interviews from the unruly mass of prisoners. Politically, the stakes were even higher – Syngman Rhee, the President of South Korea, had been vehemently opposed to Indian participation in the armistice negotiations, and was now livid at having Indian “communist” troops on Korean soil. Indeed, he had not even allowed for the Custodian Force to land on South Korean territory and they had had to be airlifted into Inchon by American troops.

Nehru, deeply agitated, wrote to Vijayalakshmi Pandit who was then the President of the United Nations General Assembly, “…for the life of me, I cannot understand why we did not gracefully retire when Syngman Rhee so insultingly and so vigorously opposed our going to Korea. I feel it was beneath India’s dignity to go to another Asian country where we were not wanted, and where the head of the country would not let us land on its soil.” Albeit, the Custodian Force left for India in early 1954 – they were given a Guard of Honour by the US Army, a send-off by General Maxwell Taylor and a letter of commendation by President Eisenhower. General Hull of the US Army also wrote to General Thimayya thanking him for the outstanding contribution of the Custodian Force and the success of the NNRC.

India’s early experiences in the Korean War and in the Suez Canal Crisis cemented a line of thought whereby India only sent troops abroad under the auspices of the UN. It was understood then that deviating from that position would expose her to Cold War politics. There was never a great deal of agreement within India or without on the uses of non-alignment, but in the matter of troop deployment, the non-aligned position was quite readily accepted. Even though Nehru had expressed reservations about the UN a decade into its work, India increasingly contributed to UN peacekeeping. Thus, it is evident that in India’s criticism of and contribution to the UN, she sought to strengthen the organization, not weaken it. All the same, in the 1950s, there was nothing inevitable about India’s involvement with the UN in general, or peacekeeping in particular. The rather large and consistent nature of Indian peacekeeping might give us the impression of eagerness. Yet it is more likely that above all, peacekeeping was conceived as a diplomatic exercise, and Nehru’s handwringing in the matter brings to mind Talleyrand’s famous dictum, “”Above all, not too much zeal!”

It was challenging, of course, to toe this delicate line and no experience was as defining for Indian troops or Indian leadership as that of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. When the Belgians withdrew from the Congo, a civil conflict for leadership ensued, drawing the US, the USSR and eventually the entire international community into it. The Indian Army sent two infantry brigades and most interestingly, the Indian Air Force sent a flight of six Canberra bomber aircrafts. The Indian troops successfully stemmed the secessionist movement in the Katanga province. This action earned them a jubilant welcome on their return home, with the Prime Minister himself receiving troops as they arrived in Delhi. Nehru had sent an ex-military man as Ambassador to the new state, realizing the need for military expertise in a heavily militarized environment. The ambassador’s memoirs from the crisis are dedicated to the troops, “who fought for a worthy cause” with “no blemish in their victory”. Presumably, he felt compelled to stress this aspect as the anti-Indian feeling in the Congo was alarmingly high during the operations, and by his own account, not even a single Congolese leader came to see off the troops when they were leaving the country. This brings to mind Syngman Rhee’s accusation that the Indians troops in Korea were robbers and thieves, whereas the international community on the whole had been appreciating India’s efforts to conduct operations smoothly.

India’s early experiences of peacekeeping were thus, far from pleasant and often left Nehru distressed. That initial reluctance to send Indian troops overseas had stemmed from the fear that those actions would receive little appreciation and too much ingratitude, and Nehru was afraid this might adversely affect the morale of the troops and irreparably change the perception of India as a non-violent and non-aligned state. When he finally did accede to repeated requests, particularly from Dag Hammarskjold who leaned heavily on Indian contributions in the case of the Congo, it was to mitigate the Cold War divisions in the UN, and to avoid a morally impaired vision of international politics. For Nehru, the participation of new states in peacekeeping was, to paraphrase Burke, a vesting of new responsibility in new persons. Quite frequently in the case of India, that responsibility fell squarely on her peacekeepers.

Author: Swapna Kona Nayudu
Illustration: Reshidev RK

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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