Prasad, Bimal. The Making of India’s Foreign Policy: The Indian National Congress And World Affairs, 1885-1947. Delhi: Vitasta Publishing, 2013. 301 pp.
It is easy to forget, sometimes, that the roots of a country’s foreign policy are always embedded in its domestic politics and experiences. Postcolonial states are no exception to this rule, but a rupture in the continuity of self-rule – usually at a critical time in world history when the global order was undergoing major economic, technological, and political upheavals – left them inexperienced in the ways of the international community. Some states, such as India, were newly created and had no memory of ever having had to navigate international politics while holding together a state that defied every understanding of nationalism. Originally published in 1960 but reprinted in 2013 at the urging of former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey and columnist C Raja Mohan, Bimal Prasad’s The Making of Indian Foreign Policy: The Indian National Congress and World Affairs delves into the formative period of a modern Indian international outlook to suggest the antecedents that have informed Indian foreign policy in its independent era.
The Indian National Congress did not begin in 1885 as an organisation opposed to British rule of India. Rather, in its early years, it affirmed the loyalty of Indians to the Crown and worked to create for them a position of equality within the British imperial system. This is not much different from the position of Mohandas Gandhi, who until the end of World War I, argued against racial and exploitative policies of the Raj rather than its imperial venture.
Indian nationalists and the INC voiced opposition to British adventures in Afghanistan, Tibet, and elsewhere at the expense of India’s development. They were not convinced of the London’s paranoia about the security of the jewel in the English imperial crown, and condemned operations against Russia and China in much the same tone as international opinion surrounding the American invasion of Iraq in the noughties. The break came, oddly, with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres on May 14, 1920, which dismembered the Ottoman Empire and terminated the Caliphate. Indian Muslims were agitated by the events unfolding in the Middle East, and Gandhi saw it as unduly harsh and uncaring of the sentiments of millions of the Crown’s Indian Muslim subjects. Additionally, the refusal to accede to India dominion status cemented a distrust of British motives in India. This late divergence is curious, given English behaviour ever since they rose to power in the subcontinent in the mid-18th century.
The Indian world view was always outward looking. Even three decades before Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment would become a pillar of Indian foreign policy and a pan-Asian gefühl its flavour, Indian nationalists were not isolationist and particular but sought international cooperation against imperialism. In 1920, for example, the INC paid homage to the memory of Irish patriot Terence MacSwiney and send a message of sympathy to the Irish people. As Gandhi declared in his presidential address to the Congress in 1924, “the better mind of the world desired not absolutely independent states warring one against another, but a federation of friendly interdependent states.” Nehru set up a Foreign Department within the Congress in 1930 and within a year, it had made contact with over 400 groups, organisations, and individuals worldwide. Henceforth, the party would also get regular reports from around the world on important political ideas and developments.
Nehru’s views on the Soviet Union, commonly understood to have formed in his college-day flirtations with Fabian socialism, were influenced more profoundly by the events of the 1920s. Gandhi, Nehru, and others began the decade being critical of Bolshevism and Marxism. The change came in 1927 when Nehru attended the Brussels Congress and attended the committee meetings of the League against Imperialism. Not only did the future prime minister develop sympathies for the Third International, he was amazed by the changes sweeping the Soviet Union. Nehru believed India and the Soviet Union to be in the same boat – recipients of Western hostility/imperialism, largely agrarian, and with a large, mostly illiterate population. If the Soviets could catapult themselves to the forefront of nations with their new methods, India would do well to learn from them. This is not to say that Nehru was blind to the totalitarian nature of Iosif Dzhugashvili’s state but his contagious enthusiasm for the scientific and technological revolution taking place to India’s north spread among his fellow Congressmen.
Admiration for the Soviet Union was fanned by imperialist misbehaviour worldwide. As the Jewish question came to a boil in the Middle East, Nehru and Gandhi came to view the Balfour Declaration as another example of the imposition of imperialist whims on a defenceless subject population. Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1936, the abdication of responsibility of European powers in the Spanish Civil War the same year, silence at the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and the supplication of the victors of Versailles to Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, all while the Soviet Union alone spoke stridently against imperialism understandably had an effect on Indian nationalists. Nehru came to believe that London and Paris were deliberately stoking fascism in Europe as a counter to Bolshevism. “Perhaps what moved these reactionary governments in so-called democratic countries,” he wrote with reference to Munich, “was not fear of defeat but fear of victory, for that victory would have been a victory of real democracy and possibly an end of fascism in Europe. Fascism had to be kept going in Europe whatever the cost.”
Although India recognised Israel in September 1950, the INC did not wish to pursue full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Following recognition, the Indian prime minister explained that Delhi would have recognised Israel even sooner but did not wish to offend the sentiments of India’s “friends in Arab countries.” The Congress antipathy towards Israel – despite acceptance of occasional covert assistance – was that neither Gandhi nor Nehru sympathised with the idea of a Jewish national home. They saw no reason why Jews should not, like other communities, make their country of birth or residence their home. This did not mean that there was no sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Europe: Nehru wrote, “Few people could withhold their deep sympathy from the Jews for the centuries-long oppression to which they have been subjected all over Europe. Fewer still could repress their indignation at the barbarities and racial suppression of the Jews which the Nazis had indulged in during the last few years.” Gandhi added, “if there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.”
Then, as now, the fever of symbolism ran high in the Congress: May 9, 1936, was observed as Abyssinia Day, September 27, 1936 was recognised as Palestine Day, and June 12, 1938, was celebrated as China Day. “Let the Czechs know,” Gandhi cabled, “the [Congress] Working Committee] wrung itself with pain while their [Czechoslovakia] doom was being decided.”
The turbulence and turmoil in the world did not alter Gandhi’s mind about the value of non-violent struggle. In matters of defence, Nehru was the pragmatic one. While Gandhi advocated a post-independence guarantee of protection from Britain, Nehru believed in a world balance of power; while the former looked to civil disobedience, the latter wanted a speedy reconstruction of defence forces. The idea of an Asian federation of state had been popular with INC leaders of the 1920s but Nehru clarified that this arrangement of collective security must be based upon a complete elimination of imperialism. Pacts led by certain Western governments in the furtherance of their narrow imperialist intentions were no solution to the problems of the world.
Clearly, the material for the formulation of independent India’s foreign policy was forged in its struggle to throw off the yoke of British imperialism. The INC’s partiality towards the Soviet Union stemmed from the fact that it was the only major world power that reliably spoke out against imperialism in the two and half decades between the Congress’ disillusionment with British rule at the end of World War I and independence. With constant provocations from imperial Europe, it is not difficult to see why early Indian leaders would develop an affinity for the USSR. This remained the mindset during the Nehru years and ossified into a reflexive policy, albeit with some justification, after his death. Critics may fault the prime minister’s intellectual nimbleness as the whole world changed after 1945 but not the initial grounds for attraction.
Similarly, India’s Israel policy seems to have been based on its domestic experience. Opposed to the idea of a confessional Muslim state being carved out of India, the Congress could hardly support a Jewish state being carved out of a no man’s land that had been inhabited by Muslims and Arabs for the last two millennia. The INC leadership had no practical solutions to the Jewish question but to term their position as ignorant of history is not entirely accurate either. Again, critics of India’s Israel policy seem to have a stronger case against the Congress’ inflexibility between 1950 and 1992 than against the original logic behind Nehru’s position on the Jewish state.
Nehru’s talk of an Asian federation petered out after independence and he was not keen on the alphabet soup of pacts the United States was forming around the world to contain communism. Loy Henderson, the second US ambassador to India (not counting Benjamin Joy), has opined that Nehru’s anti-Americanism came from his days at elite English institutions of public education. This may be partially true but another source could well be that, from the perspective of Indian nationalists, the United States did little to aid India’s independence despite its rhetoric. The efforts of Indians living in America and even Americans, clergy, journalists, and politicians, endeared the former British colony to Gandhi. Political pressure upon London was also gratefully accepted. However, the 20th century saw the US inching closer to Britain on a number of issues due to geopolitics. In this need for greater bonhomie, the Indian cause was put on the back burner. In 1942, Gandhi told an American journalist that India was willing to accept UN troops on its soil to ward off a potential Japanese invasion if Washington would intercede with London on Delhi’s behalf to leave the subcontinent. The Congress believed that India was in danger merely because she was a Crown colony and Tokyo would otherwise have no interest in South Asia. Franklin Roosevelt was not convinced, and Indian independence meant little to him during a war that was tearing down the very edifice of Western civilisation. This indifference, combined with the lack of faith in US-led multilateral defence organisations, may have soured Nehru to the United States as much as his aristocratic schooling.
Prasad’s book presents a useful background to the development of Indian foreign policy and is an important contribution to the field. Its proximity to events and figures makes up for its datedness, and although it may not have the turgid prose expected of academic research these days, it makes a persuasive argument with a good footing in the documents available to the author then. It is easy to see why anyone would urge for The Making of Indian Foreign Policy to be republished: in a time when India is undergoing another political and socioeconomic transition, it is always a good idea to briefly glance back at whence we came to understand where we may want to go.