As an Indian, it’s entirely possible that you haven’t heard of Major-General Indar Jit Rikhye at all, much less his passing on May 21st, bringing an end to a distinguished life at the age of 86.
That’s a pity, because at a time when a newly resurgent India seeks meaning in the success of doubtful celebrities like Sanjaya Malakar or watches the antics of people like Anand Jon Alexander with disbelief, the General was a man that every Indian can be proud of. But who was he and why was he so famous, outside India if not within?
Born in 1920 in Lahore to an ex-medical officer in the British Indian Army, Rikhye joined the regular service in 1941, in spite of his father’s reluctance. In a foreshadowing of things to come, the person who convinced his father was one of the greatest pacifists known to mankind – Mahatma Gandhi.
In the British Indian Army of undivided India, Rikhye served in the famed Bengal Lancers. He saw action as a cavalry officer in the Second World War in the Middle East and Italy.
Immediately after Partition, he saw his regiment broken into two – the Punjabi Muslim half opted for Pakistan, while Hindu Rikhye was repatriated willy-nilly to India along with his family. His first assignment as a member of the new Indian Army was to take part in the task force that secured Kashmir. He spent the first four years of Independence along this new front.
In total, Rikhye served the Indian Army for 38 years.
In 1956, Rikhye was sent to keep peace along the Suez Canal by Jawaharlal Nehru. His was the first armed peacekeeping force constituted by the United Nations. He was unimpressed by the chaos he saw around him. Rikhye didn’t know it then, but he was looking at the rest of his life.
The next year, he was made chief of staff and constituted sweeping changes that converted a fractured unit of talented men into a capable task force. The Hindu, citing his memoir Tempests and Tumults writes:
For the next 13 years, except for a brief stint in Ladakh in 1960, his military career was devoted to the U.N.. He became [United Nations’ Emergency Force]’s Chief of Staff in 1958 and later its Acting Force Commander; two years later he was appointed Military Advisor to the U.N.’s legendary Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, a remarkable figure for whom Rikhye does not conceal his admiration. The fatal plane crash that ended Hammarskjold’s life was poignant in more ways than one: it was the first flight the Secretary-General had taken in over a year without Rikhye on board.
Rikhye would go on to serve the UN – in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. His life was often in jeopardy: the most famous incident occurred during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict (or The Six Day War as it’s more commonly known) when he and some of his men were caught in the middle. Three of his men died. With characteristic cool, he messaged New York: “We are not fighting anybody but we are under fire.” The Israeli defense minister, Major-General Moshe Dayan, soon arrived to transport Rikhye and his remaining men to safety.
According to The Economist:
Any soldier—as he reflected in “The Thin Blue Line”, his recommendations on peacekeeping, in 1974—would find it emotionally difficult to be fired on and not fire back. He found it hard himself. But peacekeeping was not about force; it was about providing time, with the consent of the disputing parties, for diplomacy to work. This refereeing job required different skills: quiet reasoning, non-alignment to the point of total detachment, tact and “the patience of a Job.” It did not need “the self-loading rifle”. The UN, politically divided and a bureaucratic tangle, was not always ideal for the job. But General Rikhye was sure it was all the world had.
Be that as it may, in 1969, on the heels of what he would later call the Sinai Blunder, Rikhye left the UN to co-found the International Peace Academy. He would serve as its President for the next 20 years, training and counseling army personnel, politicians and diplomats from around on the world on conflict resolution. This too wasn’t without its moments of drama as The New York Times points out:
[O]ne of his methods of teaching conflict avoidance involved a simulated clash between two invented countries, which he called Andrenesia and Chinchilla. Officers and diplomats were asked to act out the kind of negotiations that would precede a Security Council resolution…
At one of the sessions, in Vienna in 1988, real world tension intruded on the war game. By the luck of the alphabetical draw, a diplomat and an army colonel from Libya found themselves seated next to two Israelis. Enraged, they got up, walked out and abandoned the course.
General Rikhye, known throughout his career for combining a diplomatic bent with his military rigor, was unruffled. “It added a little realism,” he said.
As that real world marches into ever-more frightening situations of escalating conflict, much of it centered around the Middle East, that area he knew so well and viewed with such deep misgiving, it is our loss that men like Major-General Indar Jit Rikhye are so few on the ground. But we can be glad that a man like him once lived amongst us. Rest in peace, General – you did as much for it in your own fashion as that frail old man who once helped you on your way.
[Originally published at Desicritics.org]