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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 48

Jawaharlal Nehru and World Order

Sunday 25 November 2007, by A.K. Damodaran


It is now more than two decades since Jawaharlal Nehru passed away. For more than forty years he had been a major figure in the Indian national movement. For the first two decades he had been a loyal lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi, disciplining himself to conform to the priorities of the national struggle, as defined by Gandhi, in spite of his skepticism about some of the methods adopted by his leader and some of the aims which appeared to him to be not so important.

In doing so, Nehru had the priceless advantage of having formulated, on his own, a few broad ideological guidelines to help him along uncharted paths: the essential principles of socialist planning, the need not merely not to forget but to stress the supreme importance of social justice in one’s anxious search for political democracy and human rights; and the necessary collection of essential information and data about our vast country with its enormous diversity, both horizontally in regional and linguistic terms and vertically, in widely separate levels of development—all these preoccupied his attention. He was always excited over ideological niceties; the dilemmas between development and democracy, between discipline and the need to be totally unfettered in one’s thinking, fascinated him. In 1942, twentytwo years before he passed away, he was able to face the difficulties of decision-making in reconciling the needs of our nationalism with the competing requirements of global anti-fascism, without frustration or escapism; his decision was, in retrospect, sane and helpful to the national cause. He was able to do this, not least because of his over-riding loyalty to the cause of national sovereignty and to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
It is useful to recall this earlier part of Nehru’s career because it will go a long way to explain the principles which guided his conduct in formulating foreign policy after the achievement of Independence. During the years of his power he was always concerned with the challenges to sovereignty in a new world order, which had remarkable statutory elegance and an unprecedented coherence in the inter-relationship of the big powers. In this world order, the least powerful countries, the new entrants to the game of world politics, were expected to conform and be passive. Passivity meant continuity with the imperialist period, acceptance of earlier links of influence disguised by political independence and the membership of the United Nations. There was also a certain acceptance of the value systems developed by the departing empires and, as their extension, the new crusading ideology of the Western nations, after the ideological schism and the sudden onset of the Cold War which almost synchronised with Indian Independence.

The first factor, therefore, which controlled Nehru’s formulation of foreign policy was the preoccupation about preserving and defending sovereignty against adversaries, both old and new, both open and disguised.

The second element was the need to recognise and build upon the integral link between sovereignty in international terms and freedom and justice for the individual and groups in the national domain. This meant a commitment to human rights, which, because of Nehru’s personal disillusionment with the practice of the Western democracies during the imperialist epoch and, more specifically during the period immediately before war, a much more sensitive definition of and a much more scrupulous and detailed legislative attempt to guarantee democratic values. The enormous burden of inequality and injustice, inherited down the centuries, the complications of the caste problem, the terrible deprivation under which the Harijans and tribals had been permitted to survive during the British period and the habits of gross indifference to poverty and sufferings, encouraged by the new elitism of the post-Independence generation, have made the ambitious attempt flawed from the beginning. Looking back today, we see as many failures as successes in our track record on domestic justice in political, economic and social terms, but the attempt was there solemnly enshrined in the Constitution and carefully tended for several years by that first generation of leaders in the national struggle, suddenly faced with the demands of responsibility and the difficult choice between many options in both domestic administration and management of external relations.

All this was further complicated by the unexpected major event of the country’s partition. This impelled the Government of India after 1947 to have a conscious and assertive policy of secularism in direct and linear continuity with the programme of secular democracy, which the Indian National Congress leadership had stood for, against the attacks from the communalism of both the major communities. In this emphasis on secular values, Nehru had the immense advantage of total support of the Leftist parties, who differed from him on many other important matters. The developments in Kashmir and the tragic conflict which resulted made Secularism during the Nehru period not merely a decent ideology in democratic terms but excellent politics in international relations. The acceptance and active pursuit of secular values in a Hindu majority country with a large and vocal Muslim minority, made the religious problem of minor relevance in our relations with those Muslim countries who also achieved independence about the same time as India and also with the older Islamic nations like Iran, Turkey and Egypt. This was an exceptionally important development in that Pakistan’s desire and ability to exploit religious sympathies in other Islamic countries were neutralised by their acknowledgment of the essentially secular approach of the government in New Delhi.

The foreign policy of a country like India, with a rather special geographical situation at the cross-roads of communications both by land and sea, and an even more specific recent historical experience as a colony of a distant power, is bound to be primarily influenced by regional considerations. The division of India on a religious basis and the communal holocaust and exchange of populations which followed, were the major influences in the imposition of a certain defensive aspect to some aspects of India’s foreign policy in these earlier years.

Then came the Kashmir problem, which was a direct result of the partition of the country, but not legally connected with it; it was an essentially strategic and political development in which there were several adversary influences, which we had to learn to cope with during the coming years. The Kashmir problem also made us realise the need to be careful about relations with both Britain and the United States; their sympathies were not necessarily with us in this or other future conflicts with Pakistan. What were domestic problems in pre-Independent India had become international issues after Independence, which attracted extra-regional pulls. The Kashmir experience also enabled us to be more familiar with the decision-making, pressure groups and lobbying within the UN, both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly.

IT was a period of apprenticeship in which we had to learn the rules of the big power game in a world which had several small powers. The great powers were never particularly interested in reforming the world system, since they had devised it and were its principal beneficiaries. The great changes which came about during the next fifteen years in de-colonisation took place not within the limits of the world system, but outside it, initially tolerated and ultimately accepted by it in the form of granting membership to all the newly independent countries. There was, in the very last years of Nehru’s life, even an activist phase in the UN policy on colonialism which promoted the self-government of the remaining colonies in Africa. This was something to which India had contributed effectively. This was also the policy associated with the names of Nehru and Krishna Menon during a creative phase in the history of the global struggle against imperialism.

While this was so, the UN as such was fractured by the divisions in the Security Council and this gave India an opportunity to break out of regional inhibitions and play a reasonably effective though modest role in some extra-regional disputes like Korea and Indo-China. In these disputes, India took the initiative of active negotiation, even without full credentials, between the major powers—a testimonial to the success of her efforts was the willing acceptance by all parties of India in a mediatory role in Korea. In Indo-China, India’s involvement was more formal and continuous over a long period in an institutional form, as the Chairman of the International Supervisory Commission.

The Indo-China problem had been solved outside the UN system: a major participant, China, was a non-member. The Korean problem had, for more of its critical period, also a disputable link only with the UN because of the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the Security Council. In later years, however, India played an activist role as a responsible member of the UN, carrying out some of the decisions of UN in keeping peace and guaranteeing order in conflictual and post-conflictual situations. This was the situation in the Middle East, the Congo and also Cyprus.

The second extra-regional and global aspect of India’s foreign policy during the Nehru years was the country’s active association with the Commonwealth. India’s decision to become a Republic and stay on in the Commonwealth was a major event in the evolution of that institution. This made it possible for the Commonwealth of nations to play an essentially minor, but useful, role on some matters during the next 20 years. It at least served in exposing the unwillingness of the Republic of South Africa to conform to civilised norms.

The third and in retrospect the most enduring feature of Nehru’s foreign policy in those early years was the discovery of an Afro-Asian personality at Bandung and its extension to an inter-continental nonaligned philosophy by the early sixties. There were other countries who played a notable role in the Afro-Asian conscience and in the ideology of nonalignment. Indonesia, Egypt, Yugoslavia and later Cuba—all had something unique and individual to give to the nonaligned policy. It was, however, Nehru, who articulated the essential need for any newly independent country to be detached from the major powers and, even more important, from the groups of major powers, to preserve the essence of sovereignty, which is “independence in foreign policy”; in his felicitous phrase, “all else is local self-government”.

The period from the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 to the Afro-Asian gathering in Bandung in 1955 and then on to the first Non-Aligned Summit in 1961 represents to some extent the scope and reach of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of the world system. In his picture of the newly organised world order, the small and medium states had a substantive role to play, both as sovereign nations and as representatives of new urges for remedying ancient injustices. Nonalignment in Nehru’s conception was the solidarity of the weak, the articulation of the various economic and political grievances of the less powerful; it was a refusal to accept the over-riding authority of the major powers in the Security Council and the two global powers, the Soviet Union and the US in all matters, both when they disagreed and demanded loyalty and adherence and when they agreed on an odd issue and expected immediate compliance from the General Assembly.

Nehru’s refusal to accept the policies of the major powers was directly connected with the greatest global problem of all in the modern world—the nuclear arms race. In this period he saw it more specifically as an environmental disaster and also as an attempt by the big powers to perpetuate their dominance. At the heart of Nehru’s concept of nonalignment was his opposition to the nuclear weapons as an instrument of dominance by the global powers. In his mind and in India’s policy as formulated by him, de-colonisation and nuclear disarmament were equally important, competing for precedence according to the specific demands of a particular occasion.

In 1961, at Belgrade, there was, however, a clear divergence of views between Nehru and some of his colleagues on the relative priority to be given to the problem of crusading for nuclear disarmament and de-colonisation. Nehru felt that, with the granting of independence to the French colonies, the major European empires had disintegrated. The rest were bound, inevitably, to be liberated soon. Some of his African colleagues and President Sukarno did not share his optimism. The years since then have confirmed to some extent both views. De-colonisation did score some major successes after a fairly fallow period when in the seventies, the Portuguese empire suddenly broke into pieces. It is important here to remind ourselves that a major factor in the Portuguese debacle was the support to the armed national liberation struggle in the colonies by the Third World countries. This new and assertive policy had, in fact, been indirectly heralded by India’s military action in Goa only three months after Belgrade. Even while giving secondary importance to de-colonisation, Nehru had thus given a wholly new dimension to the anti-colonial struggle, which continues today to be essentially relevant in its new forms in Namibia and in South Africa, as it had been in Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe.

The anti-nuclear movement led to the partial test ban, which had, as its essential target, the preservation of the global environment. The two decades since then have thoroughly falsified Nehru’s hopes. The fifth nuclear weapon power came on the world scene a few months after Nehru’s death when China exploded its first bomb. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968 which Nehru’s successors refused to endorse has, during the last eighteen years, only served to increase the danger from a nuclear disaster to the human race. Not even the earlier modest ambitions of Nehru and his contemporaries to bring to an end atmospheric tests has been realised—France and China refusing to cooperate, and the three nuclear weapon signatories of PTB and NPT accepting their refusal to sign agreements with considerable tolerance and understanding.

Today India finds herself in a position of carrying forward this major aspect of Nehru’s policy in other forms; we insist on opposing the non-proliferation treaty and its discriminatory provisions; we also insist on continuing to oppose atmospheric tests in the first instance and all tests later. Our own single peaceful nuclear explosion was an underground one with no threat of radiation to anyone either in our country or in the neighbouring states. We believe that only a comprehensive test ban treaty together with the outlawing of nuclear weapons and the graduated reduction of the stockpiles would lead to acceptable conditions in which the world community can survive and flourish.

Apart from these global strategic issues and specific disputes and conflicts in which India was involved, there was the equally important pervasive problem of economic development for the newly independent countries. Nehru’s total world vision encompassed the evolution of a socially just society within India; for this purpose he devised in a certain pragmatic manner ‘a mixed economy’ in which the public sector was given a dominant role while the private sector was encouraged to be active within certain limits. This was the original vision. In actual practice, as we all know, things have not exactly turned out to be as he hoped for. We do have a substantial though much criticised public sector, but there is a much more active, even turbulent private sector more powerful and influential than had been scheduled either in the pre-Independence programming of the Congress Planning Committee under Nehru’s chairmanship or in the successive Five-Year Plans produced by the government after independence.

As far as external relations were concerned, however, this decision to evolve a mixed economy at home led to inevitable policy consequences. The political and strategic decision to refrain from too much nearness to the major powers was complemented by an equally clear willingness to cooperate responsively with all nations in economic matters. From the very beginning, India has believed in international economic cooperation in the giving and receiving of credits and in the exchange of technical skills. The post-war economic system, the post-war monetary institutions etc. were found by our country to be extremely useful props to our own development efforts; more than that, we developed, in the first decade after independence, a certain expertise as an aid-giver and an aid-recipient in strictly limited circumstances and with comparatively small funds in the Colombo Plan.

IT was against this background that the Soviet Union’s willingness to help us in building a public sector steel mill became important. There were non-socialist developed nations like Britain and Germany who also assisted us in building new steel plants in the public sector. But the most important developed market economy, the United States, was hostile to the very idea. Over the years, the experience of Bhilai led to further collaborative arrangements between India’s public sector and the Soviet Union and the other East European socialist countries. In domestic economic arrangements, these became organically linked with the external policy of detachment and also the selective cooperation, according to our terms, with foreign countries.

With the dwindling down of the Sterling Balances, India’s exclusive dependence on Britain as supplier of defence material became obsolescent. Here again, the nonaligned policy became relevant. India began to make significant military purchases from all available suppliers who respected India’s bonafides. The Soviet Union became a major supplier of defence equipment. It was never an exclusive supplier; on many occasions the option to buy from Moscow was taken after protracted negotiations with earlier suppliers had failed.

The policy of nonalignment, both in its negative and positive aspects and also in its strategic and economic aspects, had been accepted by a large majority within the country by the time the tragic conflict with China took place in 1962. This was, by any measure, a major disaster both in
India’s internal economic planning and its external obligations. There was a great deal of misunderstanding, misperception of India’s policies and, also, intersection with other compulsions which made China commit this act of physical aggression against a friendly neighbouring country with such a long record of active cooperation and support on many political issues at a time when the People’s Republic had been isolated and lonely in the world family.

The immediate damage was almost immeasurable; we are still to recover from some of the consequences of the distortions in our national planning brought about the diversion to defence expenditure of much-needed resources. The actual territorial dispute continues unresolved even though, over the years, both sides have learnt to live with it and slowly developed normal relations in other fields. The great achievement, in retrospect, during that traumatic experience was Jawaharlal Nehru’s singleminded determination to preserve the nonaligned stance at all costs. This made it possible for a certain essential continuity to be preserved both in domestic and external policies during the next decade when the country faced new dangers both from without and within.

There have been, during the last three decades, several threats, some minor and some of major significance to the country’s unity and integrity. The fact that they have been contained is primarily due to our federal democratic Constitution, which was devised by Nehru and his colleagues immediately after independence. Some inadequacies have been later located in that structure; all possible eventualities cannot be provided for in any human statute. Given that limitation, however, it is surprising how strong and durable the country’s federal structure has proved.

The purely domestic problems of Centre-State relations in a large country like India which can be compared to only a few other states in the world—the Soviet Union, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil—are inevitably complicated by neighbourhood dilemmas. India’s relations with Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and in earlier years, even with Burma, have all had a certain domestic connection. This is not very unusual or surprising in the modern post-imperial system. Retreating empires have left behind divided language groups and cultures, which demand unusual generosity towards each other, and statesmanship from political leaders in newly independent countries.

On the whole, India has been able to contain these problems except in the case of Pakistan where the Kashmir issue still remains unresolved. The two major conflicts in the first decade after Nehru’s death did, in fact, lead to a certain greater stability in the relationship. Achievements like the Tashkent and Simla Agreements were possible only because of the long tradition of willingness to compromise and negotiate, as had been shown by Nehru during the many disputes with Pakistan in his time. The Nehru-Liaqat Ali Agreement of 1950 and the solution of the Indus river waters dispute under the World Bank auspices as well as the fairly straightforward manner in which the division of the economic assets of undivided India was carried out testify to an essentially sane, civilised and sometimes even magnanimous approach. In this, Nehru, of course, was inspired as well as assisted by Gandhi’s precept and example.

There are other neighbourhood dilemmas in the Indian situation which we have learnt to live with. Political institutions in the neighbouring countries have been generally at variance with our own, with the single exception of Sri Lanka. Even in that case, the insistence on a unitary state and the consequent alienation of the Tamil minority does not approximate to India’s constitutional situation or actual conduct as a federal nation.

This absence of ideological sympathy with almost all our neighbours has made the task of foreign policy difficult. It is, however, not impossible, because the very nature of the UN system makes it possible for ideologically different neighbour states to co-exist without too much difficulty. We must, however, recognise the fact that total non-interference even in the realm of ideas is a counsel of perfection; defensive elite groups and old-fashioned minority ruling classes easily develop a persecution mania about a large neighbour, particularly in our unique situation when these states have no common boundaries between each other but only with India.

These problems were recognised in Nehru’s time and solutions were found in some cases, options exercised in some others and when unavoidable, decisions postponed. Today, more than twenty years after Nehru’s death, some of these problems have become much worse. The process of nation-building in our country, we have discovered, has not advanced as much as we had thought. There are serious centrifrugal influences in any nation-state, however small, in this era and age, when the information explosion has activised hitherto quiescent areas in the world and layers in all population. This is common to most states, but a large state like ours has to contend with much more serious threats to the national integrity, threats which could be strengthened and encouraged by adversary forces outside our border. External relations thus become again linked in dramatic, near dangerous situations with the domestic situation.

These problems will always be there, problems not merely of regional dissatisfaction or linguistic alienation; we have also learnt to recognise, over the decades, the continuing existence of deep-rooted resentments within our society not only between the rich and the poor, but, between the rich and the not so rich, between the very poor and the poor. Developmental achievements have been considerable, but have fallen far short of our expectations. We have tried to be a model member of the world monetary system trying to conform to the prescriptions given by multilateral aid institutions sometimes against our better judgment.

During the coming years the greatest single challenge to our national security will be in the economic sphere. If we are not able to become self-reliant without cost to social justice, if we are not able to record successes in distribution as well as production, we may find ourselves under the influence of global powers and multinational institutions. We may also find ourselves continuously under threat from neighbours who are seldom acting on their own.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s prescriptions for complete sovereignty in an inter-dependent world continues to be relevant in a generation which faces much more complicated problems than even he, with his historical vision, envisaged. New problems need new solutions; new institutions have to be constructed to be compatible with a changed environment. Basic principles are unchanged. It is these principles which he went on repeating throughout his adult political life to his countrymen both for the primary purpose of communication and for re-defining and revising them in his own mind which constitute his richest legacy.

Independent India became an autonomous unit of the world system after centuries of inertness and passivity at a time when that world system acquired a certain legal coherence. After 1945, the world order became a reality. Every single new entrant to the old community of sovereign states had to adjust its activities within the limitations of this new world order, but according to the requirements of its own sovereignty and its essential autonomy in decision-making. It was a happy historical accident for India that at this crucial stage in our evolution as a nation-state within the world system there was someone like Jawaharlal Nehru to shape our policy because he was more sensitive than most of his contem-poraries to the need for adjustment, compromise and, when necessary, firmness in the country’s foreign policy.

[Paper presented at a seminar on “Nehru Indian Polity and the World” held at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (October 24, 1986)]

(Mainstream, November 15, 1986)

The author is a distinguished diplomat (now retired).

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