“Serious but not life-threatening” was a classic
under-statement of the injuries sustained by two members of an Indian Army
contingent serving under the United Nations umbrella in the Democratic Republic
of Congo. It tended to trivialise the fact that another 30 soldiers had been
hurt in the incident. The severity of the situation is not to be gauged by the
extent of injuries, or whether it was a grenade or an IED that hit the soldiers
when on their morning physical-training run. What it emphasises is the
complexity of the role Indian soldiers are being asked to play in what is being
euphemistically designated the UN “stabilisation mission”. The soldiers, a
detachment of 16 Punjab, were not undertaking any kind of operation when
attacked – which suggests they are unwelcome by at least one of the sides of
the conflict which they are required to monitor. Their role is, therefore,
“peacemaker” rather than peacekeeper, and it is a moot point if the political
implications of that “nuanced difference” have been analysed or assessed by
those who offered Indian manpower for the UN force.

To put it bluntly, the soldier is being pitch-forked into a
situation resulting from a political and diplomatic failure to resolve the
“core” of the conflict. It would appear that little heed has been paid to the
caution from a former Army Chief that the mandate of soldiers wearing the
light-blue beret be comprehensively assessed before deeming them mere “boots on
the ground”. That caution followed the troops having to conduct a “fighting
withdrawal” in Seirra Leone, but the lesson does not seem to have been learnt.
This was not the first time an Indian unit came under attack in Congo recently,
but neither the defence nor external affairs ministry seem unduly concerned at
the jawans being reduced to cannon fodder Things are now so very different from
the 1960s when the IAF’s Canberra bombers were part of the Indian contingent
led by Brigadier Reggie Noronha, who was hailed when he “took Leopoldville with
a swizzle-stick”.

When, albeit for narrow political reasons, Indian soldiers
are being lauded for defending the nation, is it fair for some of them to be
tasked with “doing somebody else’s dirty work”? A thorough review of
participation in UN missions is required; missions in Africa, in particular,
since only soldiers from the “third world” are deployed there.

Unclear mandates have taken a heavy toll, but the best
interests of the soldier are being risked only because myopic diplomats “see”
the jawan as a stepping-stone to a place in the Security Council. Sushma Swaraj
and Manohar Parrikar must put an end to a “tradition” that has lost some of its
relevance.