Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay
India became a member of the United Nations when the organization was founded on Oct. 24, 1945.
Established to ensure world peace -- among other goals -- after a ruinous World War, the UN has had a mixed track record. One of its successes, however, was the bringing of the Korean War to a close. That war was, interestingly, the first commitment to a UN assignment by an independent India and the Indian Army.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 and would rage for three long years between South Korea and the Western alliance -- led by the USA under a UN resolution called the UN Command -- and a Socialist alliance of North Korea and China (known as the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers supported by the Soviet Union.
Indians deployed the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance and treated about 195,000 cases, and performed nearly 2,300 field surgeries during its mission.
The two sides reached a military stalemate by the middle of 1953 and had agreed on the terms of a cease-fire. India played a unique role in bringing the conflict to a speedy conclusion by advocating against a policy being debated at the UN which could have led to the war’s prolongation or escalation.
Our efforts to find a compromise failed more often than not, increasing tensions between India and the United States, and even South Korea. The US had reasons to suspect Indian neutrality as we were among the first countries to recognize China diplomatically, even advocating for their seat at the UN in 1950.
In truth, the war would have come to an end in 1952 if the peace talks held at Panmunjom in Oct. 25, 1951 could have reached a decision on the question of prisoner swaps. This was a contentious topic, and one where India finally found the solution -- a solution accepted nearly unanimously by the UN, allowing for the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953.
A major issue on which both sides were unable to reach agreement was how to deal with a large number of Korean and Chinese prisoners -- about 200,000 of them -- held by the UN Command. These prisoners refused to return to their original countries. There were also a few similar UN prisoners, mostly Americans, held by the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers.
The agreement stipulated that a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (the NNRC) would be established with two countries from each bloc, and headed by India -- underscoring our nation’s reputation as a neutral country.
Thus the NNRC had Czechoslovakia and Poland from the Eastern Bloc, and Sweden and Switzerland from the West. India was also tasked with providing a brigade of soldiers to provide security for the prisoner exchange. Led by Gen. Thimayya as Chairman, and Ambassador B.N. Chakravarty, as the Alternate Chairman, the NNRC consisted of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.
Our mission in Korea was a task that many did not think India would either be able to handle or deliver, because of its layered complexities and intrigue. The fate of the remaining 200,000 POWs -- and their repatriation -- was called the Big Switch. It followed Operation Little Switch in April-May of 1952, which saw the exchange of wounded and sick soldiers held by both sides.
The solution included handing over these prisoners to the NNRC headed by India headed by Lt Gen. S Thimayya. The NNRC, through the Custodian Forces of India (CFI), was responsible for gathering non-repatriated prisoners into camps; that included nearly 170,000 prisoners held by UN forces who didn’t want to return to either China or North Korea.
In the face of Chinese demands for the forceful repatriation of their soldiers, the UN and the CFI worked hard to explain to each prisoner their rights and privileges; they could then choose to go home or remain with the side that captured them. This called for compassion, fairness, and neutrality on the part of the CFI, who rendered yeoman service during the entire span of their mission from September 1953 to March 1954.
It was an unenviable task; in the end less than 100 who wished not be repatriated to either South or North Korea came back to India once the NNRC and CFI concluded their operations. A few Koreans chose to resettle in India, while others were repatriated to Brazil.
Gen. Thimayya, NNRC is not only an Indian military hero. He is also a hero of the Korean War. It has been 66 years since the end of the Korean war but even to this day he is remembered by Koreans with gratitude and affection. Gen. Thimayya went on to becoming the chief of army staff from 1957-1961. After his retirement, the UN again requested his service in 1964 to command UN troops operating on Cyprus in keeping with his reputation of impartiality displayed in Korea. He would however die of a heart attack on December 1965, at the age of 59.
By Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian Army and currently a research fellow with the country’s premier state-run think tank, the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.