What Modi Can Learn from Nehru’s Approach to UN Peacekeeping

India-Africa relations were seeded through scepticism, a cautious approach towards taking on commitments, and a shrewd assessment of diplomatic gains

Member of the Indian police unit working for the UN in Liberia, 2009. Credit: UNMIL Photo/Christopher Herwig

Member of the Indian police unit working for the UN in Liberia, 2009. Credit: UNMIL Photo/Christopher Herwig

In 1963, Lufthansa Airlines ran an advertisement featuring a gorilla, an elephant, a lion and Bob Hope in a safari suit, celebrating its connectivity to “darkest Africa”. The slogan, from a movie of the same name, was ‘Call Me Bwana’. Nehru, for whom various spots on the African continent were by then regular pit stops, if not destinations, would have disapproved of the advertisement’s timbre, but not of the idea that more people should fly to Africa. He was a cheery advocate of both – the idea that Africa was emerging into a future laced with modernity, and of advances in aviation, exclaiming once that his chief regret in life was that he had not become an aviator.

These are tropes that ran in parallel, revealing the modernist cosmopolitanism that underlay much of his approach to world affairs. Nehru contemplated various ideas of the international, and so he welcomed visions of coalition from African leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, even Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. India encouraged the Casablanca Bloc and the Organisation of African Unity, and sparred spiritedly with leaders on policy positions outlined by them for Africa in the world.

In the end, it was a deeply political and cosmopolitan internationalism that Nehru envisioned for the Global South, including of course, both India and Africa. These movements found significant sites in the Bandung Conference of Asian-African Cooperation held in 1955 and, of course, in the establishment of the United Nations a decade earlier. This past year has had milestone anniversaries of both these events, and with the third India-Africa Forum Summit being held in New Delhi, India-Africa relations are in sharp focus.

There are various dimensions to that relationship, yet none as fiercely debated as Indian participation in UN peacekeeping operations across the African continent. At the recently held UN Peacekeeping Summit in New York, a report of the High-level Panel on Peace Operations was released and its findings discussed. For India, the essential points of contention have been, first, what India stands to gain from her enormous troop and resource commitment, and second, whether peacekeeping operations have a clear sense of strategic direction at all.

Area of responsibility

Over the past half a century, as the highest concentration of peacekeeping missions has moved away from West Asia and towards Sub-Saharan Africa, a firmly triangulated relationship between India, Africa and the UN has steadily emerged. The Indian position has been to offer participation in peacekeeping while emphasising that diplomatic and negotiated settlements are critical to abate conflict. While it might seem obvious today that military efforts are prefaced with diplomatic ones, in the early years of the UN, it wasn’t always clear how effectively diplomatic efforts were being pursued and whether various member-states were working at cross-purposes.

Four Canberra bombers from the Indian Air Force, arriving at Leopoldville in October 1961, are greeted by the commander of the Indian UN contingent in the Congo Brigadier Sartaj Singh. Credit: UN

Four Canberra bombers from the Indian Air Force, arriving at Leopoldville in October 1961, are greeted by the commander of the Indian UN contingent in the Congo Brigadier Sartaj Singh. Credit: UN

For these reasons, Nehru considered Africa “outside his area of responsibility”, especially in spheres where he begged a lack of expertise and limited resources to excuse India from taking on a role such as that of the great powers. As more states emerged out of colonial rule, and into a world dominated by the Cold War, he welcomed their decision to remain non-aligned, yet in no way considered India committed to those states on that basis. The clearest example of this can be found in one of the UN’s very first peacekeeping missions, the UN Operation in the Congo.

In fact, Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold regularly sent out envoys to assuage Nehru and to secure Indian participation in UN missions and the first contributions to these missions were always advisory, with India providing both diplomatic and military expertise, only later sending troops. Indeed, in the UN Emergency Force I, constituted for peacekeeping in the Sinai region during the Suez Canal Crisis, India did not even agree to send out combat troops.

The Ezulwini Consensus

The elaborate decision-making that led eventually to India contributing troops can be distilled into one simple explanation – peacekeeping had become an essential role for the UN, tied to the organisation’s very existence. When Hammarskjold pleaded with Nehru for troops for the Congo, his own position was at the centre of crisis, with the Soviets threatening to dismantle the Secretary Generalship if not the entire edifice of the UN. Nehru, who had used the UN to address questions of colonialism and human rights with some success, was fearful for the UN and soon, India became a principal contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping operations.

At present, the demands for a permanent seat for India at the UN Security Council are shrill, and so is the bristling conviction that the seat has been earned in most part by India’s growing stature and her contributions to peacekeeping. Although the record is exemplary, it isn’t without flaws, not least of which are serious allegations of misconduct by Indian peacekeeping troops. At the UN Peacekeeping Summit, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that those who served in peace operations must never prey on the people they are meant to protect. Individual misconduct by professional troops encourages anti-Indian sentiment on the continent. These issues are also not new – at ONUC and later in MONUSCO, both in the Congo, troops faced a barrage of anti-Indian sentiment, even though the operations were lauded internationally and at the UN.

Such issues make it difficult for both Indian and African leaders to accelerate cooperation between their respective states. When it comes to Indian’s contributions to peacekeeping in the region, African leaders, bilaterally and through regional forums, do not have a position free from conflict. The India-Africa Framework For Strategic Cooperation released as part of the recently concluded India Africa Forum Summit mentions peacekeeping in passing, with no reference to the costs it has incurred for India. For African leaders to translate esprit de corps into tangible benefits for India, they are hamstrung by the Ezulwini Consensus, which effectively translates into a stalemate for India’s interest in joining the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Peacekeeping ≠ diplomatic tool

Thus, in the context of India-Africa-UN relations, even if the focus is narrowly limited to peacekeeping, there is a long bill of fundamental issues to be dealt with. Declaratory commitments are made in the spirit of camaraderie at various summits across the world. While the present government’s disdain towards Nehru is now entirely unsurprising, it might be useful for them to remember that the foundations of India-Africa relations were laid through scepticism, a cautionary approach to what India was being committed to, and a shrewd assessment of what India stood to gain diplomatically, if not materially, from those commitments.

In 1963-1964, as Indian troops were being repatriated, Nehru faced an onslaught of questions in parliament on why they had been spared in the first instance, given the recent defeat at the hands of the Chinese on India’s own borders. Nehru emphasised India’s role in the world, contemplated what role peacekeeping might have as conflicts increased, and spoke of walking that tightrope between India’s national interests and her international commitments. To diplomats in Leopoldville, New York and in New Delhi, he advised reticence and caution. This was to lay emphasis on the fact that peacekeeping was only one aspect of a broad-based relationship, and not too much stock could be put in its effectiveness as a diplomatic tool.

If India’s earliest peacekeeping experiences in Africa are anything to go by, then modernisation of peacekeeping must involve debates on these first principles as much as on operational matters. What in the end do we want peacekeeping to do for India? To sober our assessments in that direction, we must look to the past substantially, not rhetorically.

Swapna Kona Nayudu is LSE Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science.