1950: India’s Little-Known Aid to Korea
The end of the Second World War witnessed an Allied victory that owed itself partly to 2.5 million Indian troops who had participated – representing the largest volunteer force in history (Agarwal 2018). India was strongly influenced by the ethos of the UN and was an ardent proponent of the concept of peacekeeping which advocated the deployment of a neutral army in theatres of conflict with the consent of the warring parties. These peacekeeping forces (PKF) have been instrumental in facilitating peaceful transitions, providing humanitarian assistance and defending the principles of the UN charter. The contribution of Indian troops has been exceptional in character as well as the sheer numbers that represent India’s global outreach. At present, India is the country with the fourth greatest number of peacekeepers deployed abroad and has deployed more than 200,000 peacekeepers in the last 70 years (participating in 49 out of 71 missions in the past). India is also home to the highest number of peacekeepers killed (over 160) while on duty overseas (UN 2019).
Despite a troubled start for India in 1947 and a war with Pakistan, India was imbued with an unshakable spirit of altruism even when it was a nascent entrant into the world community. In 1950, India sent medical aid and personnel to the Korean peninsula during the Korean war and even chaired the post war repatriation commission enthusiastically (Agarwal 2018). Post the 1956 Suez crisis, Indian troops patrolled the Sinai for 11 years and demonstrated the resilience of Indian troops in serving in unforgiving and harsh environments. In the 1960s, India constituted over 25% of the UN’s manpower deployed in the Congo. The first female contingent of PKF was Indian and was sent to Liberia in 2007 to facilitate a peaceful political transition (Rooyen 2010). From night patrols to training local law enforcement and from engineering services to civilian protection, Indian service has been exemplary all around the world. Somalia and Sudan represent hotspots where Indian troops even provided veterinary services for dying livestock in order to resuscitate the local rural economy, in addition to civil engineering projects that oversaw well and canal construction (Moller 2014). Indian PKF have served in Yugoslavia, Namibia, Cyprus, Cambodia, East Timor, Egypt, Haiti and Sierra Leone, to mention a few countries. In addition to troop deployments, India has provided the most attack utility helicopters to the UN and maintains a reserve of 4000 troops which can be deployed within thirty days to any corner of the world (Sidhu 2013).
Due to the political and diplomatic rhetoric that always surrounded the Korean discourse, the human dimension of the war has been less talked about. India sent a medical unit, the 60th Para Field Ambulance, to render assistance to those injured in the war. The unit consisted of 346 personnel and served in the Korean theater for three and a half years. It provided assistance to 200,000 wounded and carried out 2,300 field surgeries. Later, as fighting was subsiding in 1953, India sent 6,000 soldiers to form the Custodian Force India (CFI), which was tasked with looking after prisoners of war (POWs) and resolving the issue of their repatriation (Roy, 2018). The Indian troops have also been credited with containing the escalating war situation on several occasions. As an effective peacekeeping force, they encouraged dialogue and compromise and tried to avoid any situation that would worsen the already war-torn land.
An Indian Army medical personnel attending to a wounded soldier. (Source: The Economic Times)
Another significant role played by the Indian troops came in the form of repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs). Following the Armistice Agreement in 1953, India was made chair of the five-nation Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) to look into the 20,000-odd POWs and their conditions (Pillay, 2020). The operations were led by General Thimmaya, heading the NNRC and Major General SPP Thorat, heading the Custodian Force of India. CFI had battle hardened units grouped together into the 190 Infantry Brigade . It comprised of 3 Garwhal Rifles, 3 Dogra, RAJRIF and 6 Jat, with a company each of 3 Mahar and 2 Para, and a platoon of 74 Field Engineer Regiment, ancillary services like EME, ASC, Provost, etc., accompanied by officials of the Ministry of Defence who were language experts and interpreters (Pillay, 2020). Prisoner Exchanges are sensitive and tough issues but India’s newly independent troops handled the matter at hand with compassion, fairness and neutrality. The perpetual neutrality, professional ability, gentlemanly qualities of the CFI, and the Indian Army at large were held in high regard by both the Commands as well as foreign observers. Their soldierly conduct and humanitarian approach became the flag-bearer of Peacekeeping operations since 1950.
A newspaper report featuring Lt. Gen Thimmaya and Maj Gen Thorat. (Source: The Economic Times)
In December 2019, a long-forgotten chapter of the Indian Army’s history was re-opened when South Korea celebrated an Army officer as a Korean War Hero. Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj was India’s first paratrooper who, along with his team, played a crucial role in the Korean War. Rangaraj commanded the 60 Para Field Ambulance that treated an estimated 2.2 lakh patients during the Korean war (Dutta, 2020). Lt. Col. Rangaraj and his unit operated under unfriendly weather and hostile terrain conditions but kept the spirit and resolve of the Indian Army going. In 2010, former South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak was quoted saying, “The medical unit headed by Col A.G. Rangaraj valiantly rushed to the aid of wounded soldiers in the face of a fierce crossfire. We were fortunate to have had India as a friend during the war. Had it not been for the devoted services and sacrifices of the Indian people, Korea would not have become what it is today” (Dutta, 2020).
(Lt.Col Rangaraj- India's first paratrooper)
Indian PKF deployment was governed by ideological considerations as well in the 1950 Korean War. As the de facto leader of the NAM, involvement abroad provided much needed clout globally, as well as at home. India capitalized upon its troops abroad by projecting itself as the leader of the global south. Much like ideology, the relevance of financial motivations for Indian PKF is also a notion of the past. During the LPQ (License-Permit-Quota) Raj, India was starved of foreign currency reserves and UN payments provided a good source of hard currency. India’s foreign reserves are now approximately $300 billion and India’s CAG in 2013 concluded that involvements abroad produce net losses for the nation (Sidhu 2013). There is a growing reimbursement gap that widens as the UN owes India $38 million – the most any peacekeeping country is owed (Sarkar 2019).
What one is witnessing now is the growing role of realpolitik which governs Indian PKF deployment. India, since the 1990s, views itself as a “civilization state” or a great power which is now poised and ready to dominate and assert itself on the international scene (Sullivan 2019). The size of its landmass, its abundant resources and manpower, its burgeoning economy and capabilities, combined with a rich history of diplomatic tact and restraint affords it a status in the international arena that few other nations can boast of (Nossal 1989).
India has also become increasingly vocal in terms of aspiring to be a permanent member of the UNSC; a notion China is highly unsupportive of. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, Dixit, openly stated that “by being active in UN peacekeeping operations in the post-Cold War international situation, India could consolidate and improve its claim to a permanent membership of the Security Council.” To this end, India exercises restraint as much as enthusiasm in terms of UN involvements in order to be seen by the global south as a credible great power with the right ideals. India has accordingly refused participation in UN involvements in Darfur, in Iraq in 2003 and in Mali as it emphasizes the need for abstinence from force and the need to refrain from interfering in bilateral matters (a position it expects the world community to reciprocate when looking at Kashmir) (Choedon 2017).
Despite having numerous problems that necessitate troops to serve domestically and at the borders, war, insurgency and calamity have never seemed to dull this altruism of the Indian army. A proposal to build a Korean War Memorial in New Delhi has been put forth in 2018. It will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices of our soldiers, the indomitable spirit of men in uniform and the selflessness of the Indian Army that makes them lay down their lives in a strange land for a cause that is alien to them. We salute the spirit of the War Heroes of the 1950 Korean War.
Fauji Akbar, February 1951 (Source: The Economic TImes)
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