This column first appeared in Mint, on November 9, 2014. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this year will mark the centenary of World War I. It is also an ideal time to reflect on India’s role in global wars, post-war peace and in shaping the international order.
Although India was still under colonial rule in 1914 nearly 1.5 million Indians volunteered to fight in foreign lands—in battles from Ypres to Haifa—sustaining over 70,000 casualties. The outcome of the war was in no small measure the result of the role of Indian troops in it.
While this earned Indians a seat at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations that led to the establishment of the League of Nations, India had very little say in the Treaty or any role in the League. In contrast, the US, which at the start of World War I was already the world’s largest economy—surpassing Great Britain, assiduously stayed out of the conflict until the last few months of 1918. Despite being a late entrant, the US was a key actor in the negotiations and the League reflected international order as envisioned by US president Woodrow Wilson, even though the US eventually kept out of the League. One of the reasons for the US decision not to join the League was the presence of India as a founding member, even though it was not self-governing.
Similarly, during World War II while India remained under colonial rule, over 2.5 million Indians—the largest voluntary army in history—fought for the Allies far afield in almost every theatre of the war.
Again, the victory of the Allies was largely determined by the role of Indian soldiers. Yet, despite being on the victorious side India had only a limited role in determining the post-war international order or being given a prominent role in it.
In contrast China, which had contributed very little to the war effort and was a defeated power, was given a greater role in the international order, based around the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), established primarily by the US. It could be argued that India could not convert its military contributions in World War I and II into becoming a key actor in the international order because it was not independent.
However, even since independence—despite its impressive record as the world’s biggest peacekeeping nation—India has not been able to translate its crucial contribution in keeping peace in troubled spots into great power status. It still remains outside the UNSC and decision-making processes related to international order, particularly international peace and security.
Against this historical backdrop it is understandable if New Delhi reconsiders its UN peacekeeping role and is reluctant to tackle new global threat, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), which poses a growing threat to the US and its allies but also India.
Yet, the ISIS challenge might also provide an opportunity for India to translate its considerable counter-insurgency clout into becoming a key actor in shaping the emerging world order.
However, for this to occur, two conditions will have to be met by the US and its allies. First, India would have to be part of any decision-making process, particularly led by the US and its allies, to deal with ISIS, even though New Delhi is unlikely to formally join any alliance. This means articulating a joint strategic objective and close cooperation at the tactical level.
Second, an explicit support to involve India as a key player in the establishment of a post-ISIS international order, particularly related to the Middle East.
While these twin conditions might seem exorbitant just to get India’s support, it is worth remembering that India has already contributed more than its share in previous global conflicts and, its role in defeating ISIS is worth that price. It is time for the world to repay India in full measure for that.