India is the second largest contributor to the United Nations peacekeeping force. Along with their foreign counterparts, Indian soldiers have marched into troubled zones to implement peace agreements, monitor cease-fires, patrol demilitarised zones and create buffer areas between opposing forces -- in short, to do everything possible to put the fighting on hold while negotiators seek a peaceful solution.
Currently, over 4,000 Indian personnel are spread across the globe as part of UN missions. The highest deployment, of course, is in Sierra Leone, where two battalions and support troops are in a stand-off with the Revolutionary United Front rebels.
"As a responsible member of the international community, India undertakes to participate in peacekeeping operations under the flag of the United Nations and contribute to the establishment and furtherance of international peace and security," says an army statement.
It is in keeping with this spirit that India contributed military personnel for the new UN mission in Congo, despite suffering massive casualties there in the early 60s.
"We have a military tradition and an international commitment that cannot be deterred by the deaths of 39 soldiers in the 1960s," says a senior army official.
India, together with countries like Fiji (the tiny island nation has been a member of almost every mission) and Norway, is among the most active UN members in this regard.
So, what's in it for India? What does she gain by sending her soldiers to shed blood on alien shores?
"India does not take part in peacekeeping missions for any strategic gains," says a diplomat. "It has been our endeavour to cooperate in strengthening the UN, and peacekeeping is an important part of it."
Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar believes that all such sacrifices on foreign lands are worth it.
"We are a founding member of the United Nations. And we have a proud record of peace. If the United Nations is to survive as an effective international organisation, it should receive unqualified support from member nations."
Lt General Dewan Prem Chand, a legend among peacekeepers, says peacekeeping is the same as the intervention of another member in a dispute within a family.
"We are part of a big family. And it is our duty to see that humankind does not suffer from bitter wars," he says.
All the officers that rediff.com spoke to were unanimous that India should continue contributing troops to the UN.
"Peacekeeping," says an officer, who requested anonymity, "is not roaming around there in some country with weapons and fighting. The Indian Army has been very active in uplifting the living standards of societies in those troubled countries."
He adds proudly, "India is always one of the first nations to be contacted by the UN when a new peacekeeping mission is planned."
It is after the UN Security Council sanctions a mission that the member nations are contacted for soldiers. Usually, either the warring faction or the local government approaches the UN requesting its intervention.
In 1988, the UN peacekeeping force was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As per UN regulations, the soldiers on a mission do not "swear allegiance to the United Nations". The individual countries retain authority over their soldiers, though the peacekeeping force takes its orders from the UN.
"If we want we can withdraw our troops any time," a senior army official says.
UN peacekeeping, "besides being a delicate balancing act between several countries and their egos, involves huge money".
In 1993, the UN spent the highest-ever on peacekeeping: $4 billion. That was when peacekeeping missions in Yugoslavia and Somalia were at their peak. The expenditure has dropped since. Today it is a little less than US $1 billion.
Peacekeepers are paid by their employers -- that is, the respective governments. The UN provides a flat rate of $1,000 per month for a soldier.
According to reports, an Indian officer is paid $2,190 while a soldier is paid $730. "The remuneration differs slightly from mission to mission," an official in the army headquarters says.
Currently, the Indian soldiers in Sierra Leone get only their dearness allowance from the UN, which is a paltry $40 per month.
"We are making arrangements for them to be paid their salaries in Freetown," the official adds.
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