News that 300 Indians, including peacekeepers, were stranded in South Sudan amidst a new round of fighting barely cracked the headlines. But the recent imbroglio in Juba is the latest incident in which Indian soldiers have paid the price for the country’s increasing ambitions on the international stage. India’s involvement in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is further evidence of the shift in how the country engages with global peacekeeping. While India once earned accolades for contributing soldiers to peacekeeping missions, the past decade has witnessed a more strategic deployment of troops that no longer adheres to any notion of the global good. Instead, under both the Congress and BJP-led governments, involvement in peacekeeping has become politicised to the detriment of soldiers and civilians on the ground.
Indian involvement in the Horn predates Independence. By the late 19th century, Indian soldiers, commanded by the British Royal Army, were deployed across the Indian Ocean to ‘pacify’ nativist uprisings. Indian troops first entered Sudan in 1940 as part of the British effort to recapture Eritrea from Italy. Over 400 lost their lives.
Independence brought a new emphasis on peacekeeping as the government faced two related conundrums. First, what to do about the surplus of British-trained troops, and second, and what role could India play in the newly established international order?Role of Indian troops
Jawaharlal Nehru believed in strengthening the UN as a means to achieve world peace. In contrast to the troops’ instrumental deployment under British rule, he sought to shift the role of Indian troops abroad. By contributing troops to UN missions, he hoped to demonstrate India’s support for the global body. As a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, whose members have historically contributed 80 per cent of peacekeeping troops, Nehru sought to utilise peacekeeping as evidence of the productive role NAM members could play globally. Peacekeeping simultaneously ensured that the military was occupied externally and not meddling with internal politics. The steady flow of reimbursements and opportunities for military training were also beneficial.
Until the 1990s, participation in UN peacekeeping adhered to this logic and India garnered significant accolades. The price for India was to cede control over the mandate of UN missions, a power given to the Security Council. Though unhappy, India accepted this arrangement. But the end of the Cold War transformed India’s ambitions.
The 1990s represented the apogee of global peacekeeping as the decade witnessed more new missions than the five previous decades combined. Peacekeeping was increasingly politicised as the U.S. sought to use the UN to bolster its vision of a new global order. The pretence that peacekeeping represented an effort to bring peace to suffering populations dissipated amidst highly politicised interventions in Somalia and Bosnia.
India’s involvement in South Sudan reflects this increased politicisation. Though framed as a primordial ethnic struggle, the conflict is better understood as an institutional failure by the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA has consistently deployed a “big tent” approach through which the different armed forces in the country could be incorporated. But the lack of single organisational command means that the Army is hydra-headed with numerous subcommanders in control of their own private militias.
Under Sudanese leader John Garang, this strategy was enough to convince the U.S. that the SPLA was a coherent force which could be shepherded through the state-building process by the international community. The SPLA was treated as the virtuous representative of an oppressed population. Its internal flaws and contradictions were never probed.
It is no surprise that upon independence military power became a precondition for political power. Instead of demobilisation and integration, former military commanders were allowed to keep their troops and rewarded with prominent jobs in government. The President and Vice President, the parliamentary leadership, provincial governors, heads of the civil service were drawn from the military. The new government devoted vast resources to expanding its military capacity preparing for a war with Sudan that never came. It has spent little to improve conditions for average Southerners. Corruption, authoritarianism and ethnic favouritism have flourished.
For observers of South Sudan, the breakdown in order is no surprise. The unwillingness of the SPLA to transition from military to civilian rule sealed the country’s fate long before independence. The international community, pushed by the U.S., allowed the creation of South Sudan as a bulwark in the global war on terror. South Sudan gained independence not because it was ready or because it earned it through military struggle. Rather it was the Western need for a partner against Sudan, a subsidiary member of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” that fuelled the pro-secession mania.Why India participated
While the U.S. has faced criticism, India has avoided scrutiny. A third of the mission’s 7,000 troops are Indian, representing the largest share of any country. Ten have lost their lives. India can no longer hide behind vaguely articulated historical values to justify its involvement in African nations. No longer bound by the platitudes of non-alignment, Indian peacekeeping cannot be disentangled from the country’s political and economic interests. India’s involvement in the oil sector, especially ONGC Videsh’s investments along the Sudan border — now stalled — drove India’s decision to participate in a poorly conceptualised mission. At a geopolitical level, competition with China for influence over African states combined with India’s increasing proximity to U.S. power have also shaped the country’s actions.
Far from a weak participant in a global push for world peace, peacekeeping has morphed into yet another tool to be deployed in pursuit of influence abroad. For both the average Indian soldiers as well as South Sudanese civilians, the price is likely to remain high.
Zachariah Mampilly is Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Vassar College.