With Indian Air Force helicopter gun- ships killing hundreds of rebels and infantry combat vehicles pun-ching through rebel positions, India’s largest-ever deployment of soldiers on foreign soil has taken on a muscular new turn in the heart of Africa.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's internal conflict — whose resolution is a test case of strong global intervention — has led an Indian brigade under the United Nations mission (known by its French acronym MONUC) to rework its peacekeeping strategy from a velvet glove to an iron
The first signs of the changed Indian posture were visible late September in Masisi in the collapsing eastern province of North Kivu, the epicentre of the conflict between rebels and government troops. UN North Kivu brigade commander Bipin Rawat, who learnt his trade in Kashmir and India's northeast, ordered Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters of the IAF to strafe positions tightly held by the private army of rebel general Laurent Nkunda.
The underutilised Russian-made IAF gunships fired a salvo of rockets that killed hundreds of Nkunda's rebels. The offensive sorties allowed ill-equipped and ill-trained Congolese government troops drive back rebels who had come menacingly close to seizing Masisi, which is on a vital road axis some 80 km from North Kivu’s capital Goma.
Indian Army infantry combat vehicles, used only for a cosmetic show of force thus far, rumbled into life with machineguns blazing and cannon punching through rebel defences in the flashpoints of Tonga and Kanyabayonga where Indian posts are located.
“In the past one or two years, some degree of passivity has seeped into our operations,” Brigadier Rawat told the Hindustan Times. He said UN rules allowed the use of force in specific scenarios.
“We’ve decided to fight with our equipment,” said Rawat, who took charge of the Indian brigade this August.
There are now more than 4,500 Indian troops with the UN’s costliest peacekeeping mission in the Congo, a sprawling (the size of western Europe), dangerous and notoriously unstable country formerly known as Zaire. It was here that heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali knocked out George Foreman 34 years ago in a world-famous bout called “Rumble in the Jungle”.
The Congo is home to half of all Africa’s forests and has enough diamonds, gold and copper to make it the continent's richest country. But it has come to represent the worst of Africa: most of its 60 million people live on less than $1 a day and its women and children have suffered almost unimaginable ****** violence.
It was first ravaged in the late 19th century by Belgium's King Leopold, who ran it as a personal colony. Later, one of Africa’s worst dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko — backed for strategic reasons by the West — famously squandered public money on Concorde charters to Disneyworld and million-dollar shopping sprees to Brussels and Paris.
After Seko was deposed 11 years ago, the Congo descended into bloody patchwork of war and butchery that claimed the lives of 3 million Congolese and at its height embroiled nine countries. To growing criticism of its irrelevance, the UN then launched its mission to stabilise the Congo, with 2006 seeing the first democratic elections in 40 years. The Congolese turned out in millions to vote in Joseph Kabila as president.
Rawat said his message is that Indian troops “will walk the extra mile to protect the Congolese people”, whose mistrust of MONUC has grown manifold in recent weeks. “It is not a pretty picture to see an Indian soldier, tested in the hottest of fires, hunker down in a jeep even as unruly crowds pelt stones,” said Rawat. “It’s happening here. Locals are asking what difference has MONUC made.”
That changed when an 8,000-strong crowd recently took shelter at a 10 Assam base in Masisi when the Congolese army traded heavy machine gun and mortar fire with the rebels.
The crowd clapped as IAF attack helicopters fired rockets. Rawat said his soldiers would resist “the temptation to go over the top at all costs”.
That’s because all rebel groups are signatories to a January 2008 peace accord, and the key mission of troops is to bring them to the negotiating table.
India has a long history of deploying troops in the Congo: the first Indian blue berets (the colour used on UN duty) served from 1960 to 1965. It is the only UN mission where an Indian soldier — Captain G.S. Salaria — was awarded the Param Vir Chakra. He died in 1961, trying to save the Katanga province from falling to rebels.