India has been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for a two-year term. The credit for this should rightly go to Jawaharlal Nehru. It was because India’s first Prime Minister rejected the Brahmastra of permanent membership – not once but twice – that today Indians are able to enjoy these opportunities to get elected as a non-permanent member. The US, Russia, UK, France and China constitute the elite P5 or the five permanent members.
The crimesheet of Nehru is longer than most people imagine and would easily fill a book. In fact, there is a small but dedicated subculture that keeps adding to Nehru’s list of crimes against India. (1) But for now let’s focus on what is arguably the Congress leader’s greatest crime – the Himalayan blunder of rejecting of a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
In August 1950, just three years after India became independent, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, India’s ambassador to the US, and interestingly the Prime Minister’s sister, wrote to Nehru from Washington: “One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department (the US equivalent of the Foreign Ministry) should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place….Last night I heard from Marquis Childs, an influential columnist of Washington, that (John Foster) Dulles has asked him on behalf of the State Department to build up public opinion along these lines. I told him our attitude and advised him to go slow in the matter as it would not be received with any warmth in India.” (2)
Nepotism and incompetence are two sides of the same coin. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had put national interest in the back seat. She was misleading the Americans by claiming that Indians wouldn’t be interested in permanent membership.
Nehru wrote back: “In your letter you mention that the State Department is trying to unseat China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and to put India in her place. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China. I suppose the State Department would not like that, but we have no intention of following that course. We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council…..India because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.” (3)
Nehru not only suffered from delusions that he was a world leader, he also had a callous disregard for India’s national security interests. Both sister and brother colluded to screw India over. While the Americans, Russians, Chinese and the Pakistanis were arming up, Nehru was talking of disbanding the Indian Army, saying the police forces were enough for defending the country’s borders. (4)
Backstab in Tibet
Tibet had enjoyed the status of an independent country since 1912 when it broke free of Chinese rule. It was a huge buffer between India and China, and it is elementary geopolitics that having a buffer state between China would be advantageous to India. However, India did nothing to strengthen Tibet and repeatedly ignored the Lhasa government’s requests for weapons. In fact, Nehru’s position from the beginning was to treat Tibet as a future vassal or province of China.
For the historically land hungry Chinese, Nehru’s lack of interest in Tibet was an invitation to prey on the defenceless country. On October 25, 1950, barely two months after India had recklessly spurned the US offer of permanent membership, Peking Radio announced that the process of “liberating” Tibet had begun. A large Chinese force crossed the Sino-Tibetan border on the east and began moving towards Lhasa.
The news of the Chinese invasion of Tibet roused feelings of deep anger in India. The day after the attack, the Indian government addressed a note to China, reminding the Chinese government of its assurances to India that they intended to solve the problem peacefully. To this note, the Chinese sent an angry reply on October 30, saying that Tibet was an internal matter of China and no foreign interference would be tolerated. (5)
Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel called the telegram “an act of gross discourtesy”, and said, “It looks as though it is not a friend speaking in that language but a potential enemy.” (6) But Nehru remained unruffled and as usual did nothing.
In desperation the Lhasa Government requested India to sponsor Tibet’s case before the United Nations. Nehru was anxious not to create further difficulties in the way of peaceful settlement and the Tibetans were advised that if they wanted to take the case to the UN they should do so direct. It was eventually tiny El Salvador that sponsored the pro-Tibet resolution at the UN.
Shockingly, despite China’s naked aggression against Tibet and a clear snub directed at India, Nehru continued to plead for the admission of the communist country to the United Nations. According to Indian diplomat Subimal Dutt, who was appointed to negotiate with China, Nehru refused to accept what everyone could see – that China was poised to become India’s adversary.
“So far as India was concerned, Nehru did not feel that Peking represented a threat to Indian interests in the foreseeable future. China, he said, would be too preoccupied with her internal problems of economic development, social change and agrarian reform to venture upon any foreign aggression.” (7)
1955 Soviet Offer
The second offer to include India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council came in 1955, when Nehru was on an official visit to the Soviet Union. Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin told the Indian side: “While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.” (8)
The Russians knew the US had made a similar offer and were therefore making a competing offer so India wouldn’t end up in the American camp. However, Nehru, not exactly the brightest spark, misread the situation. Rejecting Bulganin’s offer, he said, “We are, of course, wholly opposed to it…We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”
Nehru wasn’t just content with fast forwarding China into the Security Council’s P5 but he was also placing “others” ahead of India’s national security interests. Perhaps, he was thinking of getting Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia admitted first because, hey, India is a country of snake charmers and can wait.
During the same visit, Nehru wrote a note on the 1950 US offer, explaining his stance on India’s admission to the inner sanctum of the United Nations: “….it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the Security Council. We have, therefore, made it clear to those who suggested this that we cannot agree to this suggestion. We have even gone a little further and said that India is not anxious to enter the Security Council at this stage, even though as a great country she ought to be there. The first step to be taken is for China to take her rightful place and then the question of India might be considered separately.” (9)
Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru’s biographer, confirms: “He rejected the Soviet offer to propose India as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council and insisted that priority be given to China’s admission to the United Nations.” (10)
It seems Nehru was manically obsessed with China, to the point where he was incessantly talking about getting China ushered to the UN high table on a priority basis before India.
But more importantly, since the matter had not been discussed by India’s Parliament, who gave Nehru the right to say “India is not anxious to enter the Security Council”? He was steering India’s foreign affairs without the strategic vision or skills for the job, taking reckless decisions and disdainfully disregarding his own advisors.
Patel warned about the dangers of supporting China at the UN in a note to the Prime Minister: “Outside the Russian camp, we have practically been alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into the UNO….In spite of this, China is not convinced about our disinterestedness; it continues to regard us with suspicion and the whole psychology is one, at least outwardly, of scepticism, perhaps mixed with a little hostility.” (11)
Dragon’s Double Talk
Even as Nehru was bending backwards and forward to please the Chinese, what exactly was brewing in Beijing? The fact is that the communists were preparing to stab India in the back for a long time. As Dutt observed, “Unfortunately, China’s new leaders were less than enthusiastic in reciprocating Nehru’s gestures of friendship.” (12)
In September 1949, there was strident criticism of Nehru in the controlled Chinese press. A Chinese magazine accused the Prime Minister of India of aiding imperialist designs for the annexation of Tibet and charged him with the “beastly ambition of aggression”.
Another Chinese magazine, the Shanghai Observer, wrote on April 11, 1950, “It is a matter of Nehru weighing his desire for US assistance against his need to assume the hypocritical role of a progressive leader to deceive the Indian people”.
According to Dutt, “These views reflected the general hostility of the Soviet and the Chinese Communist leaders towards India in the period following August 1947. They described Nehru as a tool in the hands of British imperialism. Significantly, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was also extremely critical of Nehru during this period. In reply to a message of greetings from the CPI, Mao Tse-tung cabled on October 19, 1949, “I firmly believe that relying on the brave Communist Party of India and the unity and struggle of all Indian patriots, India will certainly not remain long under the yoke of imperialism and its collaborators. Like free China, a free India will one day emerge as the socialists. (13)
While there is no escaping from the fact that it was Nehru who paved the way for China’s inclusion in the UN Security Council at India’s expense, he was also responsible for creating a positive image of China among Asian leaders and eventually among Westerners.
When the communists led by Mao rolled over China, nearly all Asian countries were alarmed at China’s aggressive backing of communist movements in Asia. They looked up to Nehru and India as a role model, but instead of capitalising on this huge amount of goodwill, Nehru worked hard to ensure that Asian countries became less hostile towards China. This miracle he achieved at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia.
Initially, several countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, were opposed to China being invited as the communist regime was not recognised. However, they relented on Nehru’s assurance that participation of any country in the conference would not mean its recognition by the other participants.
Dutt recounts how Nehru gayed up the conference and created a new Asian hero. “One of the most frequent among the visitors was Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. It was his first debut in an Asian-African gathering and although he was calm and unruffled, he did not seem quite sure of his position. Nehru took him as a younger brother. During mid-day recesses the two used to walk hand in hand along the streets of Bandung with crowds cheering on both sides.” (14)
Bandung proved to be a windfall opportunity for China to rebrand itself. Chou En-lai assured the representatives of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia of the determination of his government not to interfere in their affairs. He issued a statement to the effect that the Chinese people were friendly to the American people. They did not want a war with the US, and declared China was willing to negotiate with the US on the relaxation of tensions in East Asia, particularly over Taiwan.
Of course, the communists had no peaceful intentions and were simply waiting for China to be nursed back to health after its devastating 40-year long civil war. With Nehru playing the role of the useful idiot, China got the image makeover it so badly wanted. Due to the Indian Prime Minister’s PR efforts, the world began to view China as less of a threat. This eventually led to the US awarding China’s UN seat – which was held by the nationalists in Taiwan – to the communists in mainland China. It was only a matter of time before China would stab India in the back.
When China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin and built a road through it in 1957, Nehru refused to challenge the Chinese and reclaim the lost Indian territory. He told Parliament it was a bleak place where “not a blade of grass grows”. At this, parliamentarian Mahavir Tyagi pointed to the Prime Minister’s bald head saying, “Nothing grows here, should it be cut off or given away to somebody else?” (15)
A novice in strategy, Nehru was way over his head in events he couldn’t begin to understand. He did not realise that grassless Aksai Chin allowed China access to Gilgit-Baltistan, Kashmir and Pakistan. His inaction and refusal to properly equip the Indian Army emboldened the Chinese further. In 1962, more than 80,000 PLA soldiers rolled across the Himalayas, grabbing more Indian land.
Overall D minus
Nehru’s dealings with China – and indeed with all countries – can be described as walking into a minefield with his eyes wide shut. India’s misfortune was that at independence it was saddled with an unelected Prime Minister whose effete personality made him unsuitable for the job. Nehru’s greatest drawback was that he refused to do the hard yards of rebuilding industry, agriculture, education and especially the military that was required for self-defence in a tough neighbourhood. Instead, he was content to perform the easy task of talking endlessly about peace.
As psychologist Jordan Peterson says, “People who don’t have their own houses in order should be very careful about reorganising the world.” He adds that people have things that are more within their personal preview that are more difficult to deal with, and which they are avoiding, and generally the way they avoid them is by adopting pseudo moralistic stances on large scale issues so they look good to their friends and neighbours. (16)
Nehru wanted to look good in front of world leaders, but he ended up like the emperor without clothes. Ironically it was China, which he trusted, that called his bluff.
1. Rajnikant Puranik, Nehru’s 97 Major Blunders, https://www.amazon.com/Nehrus-Major-Blunders-Rajnikant-Puranik-ebook/dp/B01J93IFWS
2. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit Papers 1st Installment (Pandit I), Subject File No. 59
3. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit Papers, 1st Installment (Pandit I), Subject File No. 60
4. Jayanta Kumar Ray, India’s Foreign Relations, 1947-2007, page 117
5. Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, page 82
6. Ashok Kalyan Verma, Rivers of Silence: Disaster on River Nam Ka Chu, 1962 and the Dash to Dhaka, page 203
7. Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, page 76
8. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, second series, Vol 29
9. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, second series, Vol 29, page 303
10. Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol 2, page 248
11. Ravindra Kumar, Life and Work of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, page 15
12. Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, page 76
13. Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, page 76
14. Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, page 98
16. Jordan Peterson, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTk-69f64KU
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Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, Alabama; Russia Beyond, Moscow; Hindustan Times, New Delhi; Business Today, New Delhi; Financial Express, New Delhi; BusinessWorld Magazine, New Delhi; Swarajya Magazine, Bangalore; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.
As well as having contributed for a research paper for the US Air Force, he has been cited by leading organisations, including the US Army War College, Pennsylvania; US Naval PG School, California; Johns Hopkins SAIS, Washington DC; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; Rutgers University, New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC; and BBC.
His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.