India at UN: Rise from polemics to practicalities


By Arul Louis
India has come a long way from the theatrics of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s acolyte and Defence Minister Krishna Menon giving an eight-hour-long speech on Kashmir, punctuated by a melodramatic fainting spell in 1957, and the contentious polemics of the Cold War and the anti-colonial era.
Now the rhetoric is several decibels lower and, powered by the economic growth of recent decades, India has emerged as a respected power ranking in the upper reaches of the middle range, and able to navigate the United Nations with its soft power, outreach to a wide range of nations, big and small, and a diplomacy focusing on practicalities of self-interest.
One measure of its status now is the refusal of UN officials to get involved in India-Pakistan affairs, despite Islamabad’s pleadings, or for the organisation to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Contrast that with Secretary-General U Thant flying to the sub-continent in 1965 to mediate between India and Pakistan and the many resolutions involving India.
India’s tryst with the UN began before its Independence. It was a participant in the birth of the UN, signing the 1942 “Declaration of the United Nations.” Still a British colony, it participated in the San Francisco conference in 1945 that wrote the UN Charter and signed it.
Participation in UN peacekeeping missions is India’s greatest contribution to the world body, starting with the 1950 Korean operations. India has contributed about 200,000 troops and police to 49 of the 71 UN operations and 168 soldiers have died in its service.
During the first few decades, India had contentious encounters with the UN through a mixture of its own follies and a drift into the vortex of the Cold War.
It started with Nehru taking the Kashmir dispute to the UN soon after independence and compounded later by his refusal to accept an offer of a permanent seat on the Security Council, both of which haunt India to this day.
New Delhi is now fighting an uphill battle to get a permanent seat.
It has the support of most of the members of both the Security Council and General Assembly, but faces opposition from a small group of countries – Pakistan among them – that use every possible method to block it, and from China, for whom Nehru sacrificed the proffered permanent seat.
Right through the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, the veto-powered Soviet Union provided India cover in the Council. India was seen to drift into its shadow and also identify itself with the Non-aligned developing countries – two alliances that shackled India’s role at the UN.
With the end of the Cold War and the Non-aligned Movement’s slide into irrelevancy, a more confident India emerged at the UN.
In recent years India’s engagement with groups like the African Union and the blocs of the Small Island countries and Least Developed nations through multilateral and bilateral meetings and aid programmes, directly and through the UN, have helped New Delhi expand its influence. This strategy’s effectiveness can be seen in the backing New Delhi has received from most of these countries for its Security Council bid.
The economic growth has also enabled India to emerge as an aid-giver, contributing millions of dollars bilaterally and multilaterally through UN-related organisations to targeted assistance programmes.
India has also worked to project its soft power by, for example, getting the UN to adopt the International Day of Yoga and staging what is likely the biggest show put on by a single nation year after year.
But despite the advances, India still faces three challenges, the biggest of them being the fight against terrorism. India proposed the adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in 1996 to criminalise all forms of international terrorism and force countries to deny terrorists safe havens, funds and supplies. But two decades on, it is still stuck in the limbo of nuances and definitions as nations squabble over who is a terrorist.
China is also providing protection from UN sanctions for Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, the mastermind behind the attack on the Pathankot Indian Air Force base in 2016 and, years earlier in 2001, the attack on the Indian Parliament.
It has also blocked action against Pakistan for releasing Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who planned the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that killed more than 160 people of Indian and other nationalities.
And there is India’s quest for a permanent Security Council seat, where Beijing ironically again, plays a key role in trying to block India.
Linked to the lock-out from the Security Council is India’s demand for more active consultations and participation in decision-making processes on peacekeeping missions by the troop providers. That is something that all the major powers seem to agree to ignore.
(Arul Louis is Senior Fellow with the Society for Policy Studies who studied at JNU’s School of International Studies, 1973-77. He can be contacted at [email protected])
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