Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > Tribute: A.K. Damodaran

Mainstream, VOL L, No 8, February 11, 2012

Tribute: A.K. Damodaran

Tuesday 14 February 2012


Nehru: From Panchsheel to Nonalignment


There are some clearly defined stages in the evolution of Nonalignment as a concept and as a viable policy alternative for weaker states in the post-colonial world.

Jawaharlal Nehru had a centrel role in every one of these stages. In fact, for Nehru, the attractions of activist neutrality ante-dated independence by at least a decade. During the thirties, Nehru had felt frustrated at India’s inability to help in the fight against Fascism and Neo-imperialism because of its subject status. The long search for independence convinced Nehru that genuine sovereignty was possible only if the country’s foreign policy was entirely independent; in his own language, “all else is local autonomy”. As the first and central colony in the era of European dominance, and also as the first ex-colony during the period of decoloni-sation, India was necessarily sensitive to the distinction between genuine and technical sove-reignty.

By 1954, when our story begins and the Panchsheel principles were formally incorporated in bilateral agreements between Asian countries, India and Jawaharlal Nehru had developed almost a sixth sense in choosing between the good and the not-so-good in foreign policy options. In this complex new world of nuclear peril and disguised influence-peddling motivated by novel ideological promotings as well as old fashioned considerations of national interest, black and white categories, total friendship and total hostility, were not only irrelevant but represented a sliding back into the colonial frame of mind. A neutral stance was the only honest one even if this meant opposition from and even rejection by either side in the Cold War.

The decision to remain in the Commonwealth on India’s own terms in 1949 and the experience as an honest broker during the Korean crisis had helped India to develop these ideas. These ideas were, however, not shaped by the cold and cerebral calculation of national interest alone. The Indonosian episode in 1949 and the troubles left behind by French colonialism in Indo-China gave a certain quality of righteous anger to the anti-colonialist thrust of India’s foreign policy. To help less fortunate nations in Asia and Africa to achieve freedom as early as possible became the primary foreign policy goal: our attitudes towards major countries like the UK, US and the Soviet Union came inevitably to be linked with the anti-colonial question.

It is against this background that 1954, the year of Panchsheel, should be be seen. The principles of Panchsheel are simple enough. They were: (1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; (2) non-aggression; (3) non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; (4) equality and mutual benefit; and (5) peaceful co-existence. It is, however, necessary to appreciate their originality. The older tenets of Buddha on personal relationships were transmuted into controlling principles in the relations between States at first in the bilateral field and later, hopefully, in the multilateral area, in the Asian context. The very first time the principles were used were in the Sino-Indian Tibetan Agreement of April 29, 1954. Two months later they were again recapitulated solemnly in the India-China Joint Statement after Chou En-lai’s visit. The scope was still further widened when Burma signed a similar joint declaration with China.

These principles of co-existence among weak, but proud, newly independent countries were predicated, in a sense, on the benevolent detachment of the adversaries in the great game of power and ideology. These ideals or norms of conduct thus became enshrined in the conscience of Afro-Asia as the Panchsheel Principles.

There were, however, some discordant notes. A few newly independent countries did not recognise the need for a nonaligned policy. These States had been persuaded to adopt a subordinate, ancillary status because of an exaggerated threat perception. It is ironical to note that, on the very day when the first agreement incorporating the Panchsheel Principles was signed in Peking, that is, April 29, 1954, the Colombo Conference of five Asian countries was having difficulties because of divergent attitudes towards military alliances and towards the East-West conflict—Pakistan and Ceylon being ranged on one side and India, Burma and Indonesia opting for an alliance-free foreign policy. The problems were sorted out and the Colombo Meeting led to Krishna Menon’s diplomatic tour de force on Indo-China in Geneva.

These were exclusively Asian developments but the extension of this idea into other continents had already begun, first in the increasing understanding between revolutionary Egypt in Africa, one non-conformist East-European country, Yugoslavia, and India. The idea of Nonalignment as the inevitable policy for weaker countries, most of them the newly independent ones, most of them weak economically, so that some help from richer countries was unavoidable, had by now crystallised and the word itself was used most memorably in the Joint Statement between India and Yugoslavia after Marshall Tito’s visit to Delhi in December 1954. This is what Marshal Tito and Pandit Nehru said on that occasion:

The President and the Prime Minister desire to proclaim that the policy of nonalignment adopted and pursued by their respective countries is not neutrality or neutralism and therefore, passivity as sometimes alleged, but is a positive, active and constructive policy seeking to lead to collective peace on which alone collective security can rest.

A few months later came Bandung with its multilateral solemnisation of Panchsheel in the Afro-Asian context. It was a brilliant diplomatic triumph for the newly independent peoples but it was by no means a homogenous or purposeful gathering. It contained wide ideological dispari-ties and a clash of loyalties to the West and the East in the Cold War. It also contained freak members like the Central African Federation, a European entity, a foreign body by any definition, in the midst of Africa. With all the shortcomings, however, Bandung did represent a triumph for the Nehru style of diplomacy, the belief in the need to pursue the middle course to avoid confrontation. It was India and Nehru who arranged, for example, the first direct contact of the People’s Republic of China with the members of the anti-communist alliance in Asia like Thailand and the Philippines. There were ruffled tempers, it is true, at Bandung, there were also some irreconcilable positions; yet an Afro-Asian, transcontinental personality did emerge in which minor differences were subsumed in the much greater problem of global peace and the need for completing the de-colonisation process.

The march from Bandung to Belgrade is the story of Nonalignment fulfilling itself. This was the period when on Hungary and on Suez, the non-aligned countries and India, in particular, refused to accept positions allotted to them by big powers and, also, when Nonalignment became respectable enough to be understood though not accepted both in Washington and in Moscow. This was also the period when Jawaharlal Nehru, in a genuinely creative moment of political imagination, discovered the necessary and organic link between a mixed economy planning for social justice in a feudalistic society at home and neccessarily diverse economic cooperation with both social systems abroad. This willingness to engage in mutually beneficial arrangements with both the capitalist and socialist worlds went along with the equally firm refusal to enter into any “entangling alliance”, however tentative.

These provided the framework of Nonalignment; the immediate agenda had two items, opposition to nuclear armament and colonialism, both old and new. Towards the end of the decade came a domestic change in one Latin American country, Cuba, which led to the attraction of the already independent, but still developing, coun-tries of Latin America towards the Nonaligned ideal. And so, almost inevitably the first Nonaligned Conference became a genuinely trans-continental affair, in which the thrust was immediately anti-colonial and Afro-Asian but the philosophy was more universal. Institutionalised nonalignment at Belgrade represented the culmination of Nehru’s programme for peace and autonomy for the developing world.

A few months after Belgrade came the Goan action which gave a new prescription of puposeful activity, inter-lacing military struggle with political agitation in the remaining Empires in Africa.

The India-China border conflict provided a terrible test for Nonalignment and even for one moment appeared to made a mockery of Panchsheel, but both Nehru personally and India as a nation survived the test with ideals unimpaired, policy unaffected on crucial global problems. By then Nonalignment had become not merely a way of thinking but something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart”. In a moment of desperate disillusion and unhappi-ness, the philosophy of Nonalignment helped the nation and its leader to keep an even keel.

I believe it is important for us, more than twenty years later, to begin to realise how dynamic, exciting and also, more important, positive, the concept of Nonalignment was, and is. The vagiries of language make Nonalignment appear negative. It is, in fact, a dynamic, aggressive and assertive policy. In those early days, it was nothing less than a crusade against the inequalities of the world system. Emerson once said that “a good indignation brings out all one’s powers”. One has to recognise this element of righteous indigration and fervour in the Nonalignment of Nehru and his peers. Otherwise we would be quite unconsciously paying the wrong compliment to the right people for the softer option, for the retreat into prudent silence instead of the brave incursion into uncharted territories.

It is more than twenty years since Jawaharlal Nehru completed the progression from Afro-Asia to Nonalignment. Sometimes in life as in poetry, little things, a word here, a phrase there, an oblique glance at some minor feature in the landscape, means so much more than explicit articulation. In August 1942, when World War II waas at its height, Jawaharlal had occasion to jot down some stray thoughts on a scrap of paper while the All India Congress Committee was discussing the Quit India Resolution. These subliminal thoughts provide us an exciting view of the younger Nehru’s thought processes on international matters. Among the phrases he used are “Indonesia-Korea-Ceylon-Nepal—Zero Hour of the world”. In another place, he says: “Our cup is full—give my life for China, Russia—prayer to the spirit of India.” Another random remark affirms in no uncertain terms: ”We do not wish to have dominion over others—but we cannot tolerate dominion over us.

There is also a wistful, almost dreamlike, reference to the “dancing stars of freedom” emerging from the chaos he saw in India and the world outside. As he sat near Gandhiji on the Congress podium in Shivaji Park he pencilled these fugtive thoughs, fusing them together, quite unconsciously, into a clairvoyant vision of the future, almost as an escape from his personal experience, at that moment and place, of the “giant agony” of a nation.

There is clear evidence here of the astonishing consistency about Nehru’s foreign policy attitudes over the decades. It is possible to trace a direct lineal connection between his opposition to Imperialism of all types throughout his life, his quick and definitive recognition of Fascism as the main threat to human liberties in the thirties and his opting for Nonalignment as the controlling principle of India’s foreign policy after independence.

Today Nonalignment has become not only respectable but the only feasible policy-option for newly independent countries. It has new dimensions in the economic, cultural and information fields which would have made Nehru and his colleagues happy, but the struggle continues to resolve essentially round Peace and Disarmament without which development and social justice within the nation-state is just not possible.

(Mainstream, November 16, 1985)

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.