When Outlook’s cover story, India’s Congo Shame (Aug 8, 2011), hit the newsstand, the defence establishment began to reel under shock at what had been disclosed—detailed reports of sexual misconduct involving Indian troops posted as United Nations peacekeepers in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo; of women sneaked into army camps; of officers courting girls with many promises and then deserting them; of Congolese women giving birth to children with “distinct Indian features”. A source described the Outlook story as a “dhamaka” that shook the defence ministry.
Defence minister A.K. Antony, arguably among the most efficient of UPA ministers, was quick to respond. The principal information officer of the defence ministry, Sitanshu Kar, told Outlook, “A.K. Antony has directed the army to conduct a detailed inquiry on all issues raised in the (Outlook) report and submit it to him at the earliest.”
Defence Minister A.K. Antony has asked the army to conduct an inquiry on all issues raised by Outlook’s report.
The defence ministry source described the incidents of sexual misconduct related in Outlook as “extremely unfortunate”, though pointing out that the army had taken cognisance of these allegations before Outlook’s expose hit the stands. He was referring to the allegations levelled against a unit of the Sikh regiment posted at Kiwanja, in North Kivu, in 2008. Says the source, “Two inquiries were conducted in Congo in 2008-09. Both these inquiries were inconclusive.” One of these inquiries was conducted by the Sikh regiment unit, the other was by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). “A third inquiry has been ordered by the army HQ, which is in progress,” adds the source. This is a reference to an army court of inquiry (CoI), currently under way in Meerut, which is cross-examining 12 officers and 39 soldiers of the Sikh regiment to verify whether they were guilty of sexual misconduct in Congo.
However, Outlook’s story revealed that incidents of sexual misconduct were far more rampant than previously believed. For one, Outlook reported such incidents from both before and after the one-year stint of the Sikh regiment in Congo, beginning with its induction there in January 2008. Second, Outlook also reported cases from areas beyond Kiwanja. Asked whether the army plans to widen the time-frame of the ongoing inquiry, Kar said, “Any additional specific cases of sexual misconduct, if reported, or which comes to light during the inquiry, would be investigated. If needed, a separate inquiry will be conducted.... The Indian army is a disciplined force with zero tolerance on such matters of indiscipline.”
“The UN takes these reports seriously. The army must address the issue in earnest, and not try to cover up.”
Gen (retd) J. Lidder, UN representative
It must be emphasised that it isn’t the UN’s responsibility to maintain discipline at the camps of peacekeepers. As Wg Cdr Mahesh Upasani, CPRO, East, while clarifying Lt Gen Bikram Singh’s role in Congo, says, “Maj Gen Bikram Singh (now Lt Gen) was the deputy force commander and the GOC of a multi-national division.... He was on secondment to the UN and therefore not the contigent commander. Discpline is the responsibility of the unit commander who reports directly to the army HQ through Indian brigade HQ located in North Kivu.”
As the army prepares a report for the defence minister, there are many who wonder at the rot that may have set into the system. Says Srinath Raghavan of the Centre for Policy Research, who has served in the army, “Outlook’s report does indicate a serious breach of norms and rules under which UN missions are carried out.” Adds Gen (retd) Jasbir Lidder, presently serving as the deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General in Sudan, “If these charges are proved, it’d be a serious development, even if they are taken as an aberration.”
“It’s the commanders of the units who are to be blamed for not keeping the soldiers gainfully occupied.”
Nirupam Sen, Former diplomat
Gen Lidder, who has extensive experience of UN operations, says the Indian army has an outstanding record in peacekeeping, but adds in the same vein, “The UN has a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse and takes all these reports very seriously.... The army must address this issue in true earnest. There should never be a tendency to cover up, under the misplaced motivation of regimental/national reputation and pride, as it sets a dangerous precedent.” Though believing these allegations could have been “inspired by extraneous factors”, as some cases have been in the past, Gen Lidder feels the possible reasons for indiscipline could be because the environment in the UN missions and in the conflict-ridden countries are distinctly different from where Indian troops hail. “This calls for a high state of multi-national and multi-cultural awareness and sensitisation. This is a command responsibility.”
Raghavan agrees, saying Outlook’s story should worry the army enough to seriously introspect, particularly as its best units and officers are sent on UN missions. Raghavan suggests two corrective measures—first, place greater emphasis on training which could make soldiers and officers internalise the operating rules and norms of the UN. Second, the army needs to ensure its command and control structures are capable of preventing such breaches of discipline rather than responding to them.
“The Outlook story should worry the army enough to introspect, as its best units are sent on UN missions.”
Srinath Raghavan, Senior fellow, CPR
Former BJP MP Manvendra Singh, who too had a stint in the army, says, “The incidents, reported in Outlook, relate not to a question of morality but is purely about discipline of the armed forces.” Though agreeing that disciplinary proceedings should be conducted against the guilty officers, he believes the Congo shame can’t take away from the good work the Indian army has done on UN missions.
Referring to Outlook’s story of sexual misconduct of Indian soldiers, Nirupam Sen, who was head of the Indian permanent mission at the UN in New York, said, “It’s a classic example of an idle mind being a devil’s workshop.” He feels commanders of units are to be blamed for the inability to keep the soldiers “gainfully occupied” during operations in foreign countries.
Interestingly, India as current chairperson of the UN Security Council is scheduled to conduct a discussion with other members on UN peacekeeping operations on August 26. Sen says this provides India an ideal opportunity to raise some vital issues. For instance, he points out that though India is the largest contributor of troops to UN operations, the UN department on peacekeeping is dominated by western officials and has a negligible presence of those from developing countries. “Once the troop-contributing countries are part of the decision-making, things might change,” Sen says. You hope so—for the Indian army and the conflict-ridden countries they operate in.