The death of five Indian peacekeeping soldiers in South Sudan serves to underline the important and underplayed service to both the country and the world that the Indian military provides through such activities. Over 140 Indian soldiers have now died on blue helmet duty.
At any given time, several thousand are generally on peacekeeping duties in different parts of the world. The largest number of deaths are in Africa, which is also the primary sphere of deployment.
There is little controversy in India about its active participation in peacekeeping. Nonetheless it is important to consider why the country feels obligated to be probably the world’s largest provider of such troops. One is the argument that it helps buttress the case for India being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
But it should not be seen in purely transactional terms. Indians should understand that peacekeeping, like maritime patrolling and multilateral diplomatic activity, is about providing a global public good from which everyone, not just India, benefits. Great powers understand that making the world a better place is a necessary means to legitimise their position as well as ensure the stability that keeps them on top.
The other dirty secret was that for a long time the fees by the United Nations to the Indian military for peacekeeping were a useful supplement to a generally strained Indian defence budget. As India’s economy has grown this is less of a concern than before. But India’s newfound wealth is no reason to abandon peacekeeping. India’s global interests and profile have grown exponentially and activities that maintain its profile and promote its soft power are increasingly important. This is especially true given how limited India’s hard power remains.
Jaw-jaw is as important as war-war in determining the outcomes that India may want in other parts of the world. Burnt by repeated attempts at unwanted international mediation in Kashmir and the North-east, India has traditionally shied away from proactive diplomacy in the area of international conflict resolution. The days when a Kashmir solution could be imposed on India are over. And the days when India could be an active promoter of peace, through both soldiering and diplomacy, have arrived.