There seems to be a disconnect between India’s peace-building approach and its African development partnerships.

Deadly violence in Juba last month left over 300 civilians dead, including two Chinese peacekeepers. The violence comes less than three months since the formation of a transitional government in South Sudan. If South Sudan slips back into civil war, there could be far-reaching consequences for Indian investments — Indian companies have invested in South Sudanese oil companies, along with a pipeline and other commercial ventures.

Indian investments were similarly at risk in 2012 when conflict between Sudan and South Sudan reached its peak. At that time, India sent a special envoy to mediate between Khartoum and Juba. While this marked a significant departure from its principled stand of non-interference, this was arguably motivated by balancing Chinese influence in the continent.

Now a temporary ceasefire has been signed in Juba, but the persistent volatility in South Sudan is a reminder to India of the need to think more strategically about its engagement in fragile contexts in Africa.

Indian policy makers have typically been reluctant to use the term ‘fragile states’ in official discourse, arguing that it calls into question the ability of a state to govern, assuming superiority of certain types of statehood over others, and thus also challenges the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference. While the critique is valid, it does not negate the impact of insecurity on Indian economic investments, as well as how its development partnership programmes and investments might influence the causes and symptoms of insecurity. Growing engagement in Africa’s fragile contexts thus raises three sets of questions for India.

First, will India be ready to embrace a more ‘robust’ or ‘muscular’ form of peacekeeping in Africa? [1] Second, should India think more coherently about its security and development investments in fragile contexts in the continent? And third, how can India ensure that its investments and development partnerships do not exacerbate existing conflict fault lines in Africa? Addressing these issues will be relevant both from the perspective of safeguarding Indian economic investments and building effective and inclusive development partnerships with African states.

India is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping, with thousands of blue helmets posted in Africa. In South Sudan alone, more than 2000 Indian peacekeepers contribute to UNMISS. Over the past two decades, UN peacekeeping operations have grown in ambition and mandate — from peacekeeping to peace enforcement. India’s official position has consistently been that such ‘robust’ or ‘muscular’ peacekeeping violates the principles of non-interference, impartiality and neutrality, and non-use of force. The turn towards more robust peacekeeping has also been intertwined with the Responsibility to Protect norm, towards which India has expressed cautious ambivalence.

Will India adjust its position on peacekeeping as its economic investments in the continent are threatened? African governments have themselves called for more robust peacekeeping — AU mandates are in fact frequently more ambitious, muscular, and intrusive than UN missions. China has already indicated a change in its position — in 2015 Beijing deployed its first combat battalion to a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan — before then, most Chinese peacekeepers were medical, engineering, and support personnel.

In India’s case, the practice has in fact departed from official policy on numerous occasions — India regularly participates in mixed mandate missions and has frequently contributed combat and police forces to UN missions. But this has been mostly ad-hoc — the ambiguity has given India space to withdraw from or refuse to participate in some missions, while be more actively involved in others. But, as one of the largest troop contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions, with a direct and growing stake in African security, is it time to reconsider ambiguity as the default position and instead chart a forward looking agenda for UN peacekeeping in Africa, one that accommodates both India’s principled commitments and the longer-term security of Indian investments?

Arguably, India’s approach to peace building is well placed to manage these priorities with its focus on strengthening local institutions and economies. For instance, India’s former permanent representative to the UN, Mr. Hardeep Puri, argues, "Indian peacekeepers instinctively understand that no peace can be effective unless it is accompanied by the growth of local institutions.. Our peacekeepers [have] donned peace building hats and attempted to restore administrative processes, strengthened local policing and activated judicial mechanisms in areas they have served. They always attempt to work through indigenous mechanisms for conflict resolution and mediation in order to strengthen these local institutions so that they become viable political institutions." [2]

But there seems to be a disconnect between this peace building approach and India’s African development partnerships. Indian development partnerships have typically not been engaged with institution building, justice, or conflict mediation. Does India need to start thinking more coherently about its security and development investments in the continent? A number of northern governments have adopted a ‘whole of government’ approach, integrating their diplomatic, defence, and development interventions. But, if India were to follow this route, it would leave itself open to the same criticism levied at northern governments — that their engagement is driven by their own strategic interests and undermines African national ownership. Yet, if India is to be an effective peacekeeper, a credible development partner, and a prudent investor, it might be increasingly untenable to think of these roles separately.

Finally, it is important that Indian development partnerships do not exacerbate existing fault lines in fragile contexts. Indian development partnerships in Africa are demand driven and free of any political conditionality. While the approach facilitates national ownership by partner states, it can also entrench elite interests at the cost of broader inclusive and equitable development goals.

Development is by its very nature a contested activity that produces both winner and losers, particularly in fragile or transitional contexts. Development partnerships thus have the potential to exacerbate existing fault lines and contribute to insecurity. India uses an ‘ingredient’ approach investing in specific productive sectors of the economy that can generate economic growth. An ingredient approach, however, can end up being blind to the broader socio-economic and political impact of particular investments. In Sudan, for example, Indian state-owned engineering companies are helping build road infrastructure — these projects tends to be geographically clustered and therefore risk exacerbating the development gap between the center and periphery — a factor that is already recognised as a key cause of Sudan’s conflict. India thus needs to consider mechanisms through which the unintended spillover effects of an ingredient approach can be managed, both from the perspective of being a credible development partner and safeguarding its own investments.

The context of fragility means that it will be increasingly difficult for India to isolate its security and economic investments in Africa. In doing so, India will have to re-evaluate the operationalisation of the principle of non-interference. At the same time, it must be asked whether the principle non-interference is even tenable, as its interests expand and deepen globally, pursuing and protecting those interests might well require greater involvement, if not interference, in issues of domestic governance and security. Greater global power and reach also means a greater impact, a larger foot-print, both positive and negative. Ambiguous or ad-hoc approaches may no longer suffice, and a broader cohesive strategy backed by up robust institutional mechanisms will be required. The question is whether and how India can do this without replicating the same northern policies and practices that India has long critiqued.


[1] The term robust or muscular peacekeeping is typically used to describe UN missions that involve the use of force to bring about conflict resolution — missions who are mandated to ‘enforce’ peace in the midst of conflict rather than help ‘keep’ the peace after the signing of a peace agreement between warring parties.

[2] Hardeep Puri, Permanent Representative of India at the UN Security Council on Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, January 21, 2011.

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