An officer and a gentleman bids farewell: Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar, UNMISS Force Commander

unmiss south sudan force commander india Lieutenant-General Shailesh Tinaikar outgoing departing retiring gender parity merits and flaws

Even a Force Commander is keen on receiving (another) UN peacekeeping medal. Outgoing Lieutenant-General Shailesh Tinaikar is no exception. Photos: Isaac Billy and Gregorio Cunha/UNMISS

21 Jan 2022

An officer and a gentleman bids farewell: Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar, UNMISS Force Commander

Priyanka Chowdhury

“My earliest memory is of standing in front of a mirror and saluting myself,” says Lieutenant-General Shailesh Tinaikar with a smile.

At first glance, the Force Commander of the world’s largest peace operation, UNMISS, appears to be soft-spoken but his eyes give away the intensity of his personality. That’s the same intensity that led his younger self to join India’s armed forces against the wishes of his family.

“I hail from Mumbai, the maximum city, which isn’t known for sending people into the army, and my father was part of the elite Indian Administrative Services,” he reminisces. “All my friends, my peers were gearing up to become engineers or start a business and I was the only person who opted to join the armed forces. They really didn’t stand a chance because I just couldn’t see myself as an accountant or a businessman counting numbers. All I wanted was to become an officer.”

This extraordinary focus is a characteristic that would define his four years of training. He soon joined the elite Special Forces branch. “I became a paratrooper, a special service leader, specializing in desert warfare to start with and went on to command my battalion as a Colonel and, subsequently, as a Brigadier in the north eastern part of India and then as a Major General in the northern part of India.”

This rising star’s accomplishments led him to serve with the United Nations on two prior occasions, in Angola and Khartoum, before the formation of South Sudan.

Is there a contradiction between being the last line of defense for a country and serving for peace in a foreign land? Force Commander Tinaikar doesn’t think so. “Both are equal in terms of responsibility. When you’re serving the country, the nation expects you to defend the border, and when you’re serving as a peacekeeper the international community is observing you very closely and expects a separate form of protection—not protection of land borders but protection of human beings.”

But when asked about challenges faced in each role, he says that UN Peacekeeping is the winner. “You’re out of your comfort zone in an entirely alien environment, a multinational ethos where you’re leading troops from different countries, different traditions, different cultures and, also, working closely with civilian colleagues. It’s a challenge to operate in an integrated fashion in peacekeeping,” he admits.

During his tenure in South Sudan, he’s made significant operational changes, which he believes, have contributed towards protecting civilians at risk of violence more effectively. “The country has transitioned from politically-motivated violence to more intercommunal conflict. But, violence is violence. We cannot sit idle when people are being killed. So, we developed a more mobile approach, deploying smaller detachments to key locations where the possibility of tensions escalating is high. I think this has been a good decision and has worked to make us more effective on the ground.”

The other concern, he says, is the terrain, which is marshy, swampy and, during the rainy season, makes road movements near impossible. “We are getting all-terrain vehicles. It’s not an ideal military solution, but at least it will provide mobility to our peacekeepers to reach areas of conflict which were previously inaccessible to us.”

Another challenge the Force Commander has weathered is keeping protection activities on the ground during COVID-19. “All of us felt a huge sense of uncertainty, of personal loss and only a show of empathy, of care could ensure that troops serving under you continued working despite massive personal problems during the pandemic. I’m very proud of the way we kept the show on the road as a team, ensuring our protection tasks carried on unhindered.”

Lieutenant-General Tinaikar underscores that operational decisions cannot be made from a distance.

“I’ve always been someone who takes bold decisions, and thankfully, most of them have panned out. But when other people’s lives depend on you, you cannot be bold without having firsthand knowledge of the on-ground situation. I am responsible, ultimately, for the lives of both our Blue Helmets as well as the communities we are here to serve. I can’t be comfortable sitting in an airconditioned office in Juba giving orders without being able to adequately monitor, guide and influence operations. Unless you meet and talk to people who are suffering, appreciate their challenges, it’s impossible to take sound decisions.”

This strength of purpose is something that’s always been part of his leadership style and has enabled him to build relationships of trust with his local interlocuters. “We cannot afford to work at cross purposes with the host government. We cannot have them as opponents, we need to partner with them. This is common across all peace operations and it’s a delicate balance that all senior leaders must cultivate.”

True to type he is candid about some of the shortcomings of the UN as well. “When people are dying, it’s not possible to rely on long bureaucratic procedures. At times, I feel that the UN system can be slow in its response to crises that flare up. Our collective job, when we hold positions of leadership, is to remove as many of these roadblocks as possible and prioritize our resources to protect people. It is an ongoing process across peace missions, and I hope we will continue striving to be better, quicker, more effective and agile.”

A gender parity champion, Force Commander Tinaikar is all praise for women who serve under his command. “In a peacekeeping context, what counts is a whole-of-society approach to building harmony. And that can’t happen if the concerns of 50 per cent of the population, women, aren’t heard. Our peace operations must be a mirror of the communities we serve and I’m happy to say that the work done by our female peacekeepers is, frankly, amazing. They lead from the front and bring much-needed gender sensitivity into our response to conflict,” he states emphatically.

As a senior peacekeeper, Lieutenant-General Tinaikar is acutely aware of dwindling international support for multidimensional peace operations. It’s something that keeps him awake at night.

 “Democracy is difficult even in the most advanced nations, and here in South Sudan, we’re talking about the youngest country in the world. There’s a lot to do here and the South Sudanese people need all the support they can get. The question is – how long will the patience of the international community last? I don’t have an answer to this but as UN peace operations we have transitioned from monitoring ceasefire lines to helping build nations. It’s a time-consuming process, it’s an expensive process. However, I can’t see any other option for bolstering fragile nations. It’s a matter of our collective conscience, in my opinion.”

As Force Commander Tinaikar gets ready to end his fruitful time at the helm of UNMISS’ military component, he is also retiring from the Indian Army. He is a man who is at peace with his life.

“If you see the benchmarks of a good life - family, profession, partner - I’m privileged. I have an extremely supportive partner, a career that has culminated in leading troops in the world’s largest peacekeeping mission. I’ve worn this uniform proudly for 42 years without a single scar and as I take it off for the final time, I won’t look back. It’s the beginning of a new phase of my life, with new mountains to climb.”