Prelude to storms

Print edition : May 06, 2005

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel leaving the viceregal lodge in Shimla after talks with the British Cabinet Mission in 1946. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THIS is an important volume because it is a trailer to a yet more important one that would follow next. It warns tantalisingly of the storms to come - the aftermath of the reorganisation of States on linguistic basis; the invasion of Egypt following the Suez crisis; and Zhou Enlai's visit to India, which marked an important stage in Sino-Indian relations. Prof. Mushirul Hasan has written an able editorial note.

We find Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informing his Cabinet colleague and confidant Maulana Azad that he had received a large number of letters, which he was forwarding to him, which were "all in favour of English continuing and not being replaced suddenly by Hindi. There is much in their argument. There is grave danger of English not being replaced by Hindi but by the regional language. Thus English goes out and Hindi does not take its place at the same time. A gap is left and the unifying influence of language is removed. While, therefore, we should work for Hindi to replace English, I think we have to continue with English or else we tend to disrupt".

Well before that in a memorandum, dated October 14, 1948, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had urged that "while accepting the demand for the reconstitution of Provinces on linguistic basis, the Constitution should provide that the official language of every Province shall be the same as the Official language of the Central government. It is only on that footing that I am prepared to accept the demand for Linguistic Provinces... danger lies in creating Linguistic Provinces with the language of each Province as its official language. The latter would lead to the creation of Provincial nationalities."

There was another stipulation which Nehru should have made: The Provinces should either accept their boundaries, as drawn up by the statute establishing them, or submit to the verdict of a tribunal established by that law without demur. This aspect was present to the minds of the leaders. They did nothing to guard against the obvious dangers of inter-State strife over boundaries.

Emotionally, both Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were against linguistic provinces. Nehru was particularly against the break-up of the State of Bombay, the transfer of the City of Bombay to Maharashtra or the break-up of the State of Hyderabad. On June 3, 1956, he announced at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting that Bombay city would be centrally administered and after a certain period, its inhabitants would be given the opportunity to decide their own future. C.D. Deshmukh resigned as Finance Minister claiming that the matter had not been discussed in Cabinet. Nehru objected to Cabinet proceedings being mentioned in Parliament.

Nehru with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1960. Egypt's nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 took Nehru by surprise, for Nasser had not confided in him when they met in Brioni on July 18 and 19.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

On this, as on most matters, Nehru was either confused in his own mind and waffled or he chose consciously to waffle because he wished to please everybody: "As for Bombay, I understand, I concede, the logic, the fairly strong logic. The logical aspect on behalf of Maharashtra, I do not deny. There are logical arguments on the other side too. May be, one is more powerful than the other. But, I look at it in the context of the present moment, after we have arrived through a devious and tortuous way, at a certain position. How are we to deal with it?" What is one to say of this?

He wrote a long letter to Edwina Mountbatten on this crisis on August 6, 1956. One wonders if she was truly interested in the matter, eight years after leaving India, or Nehru simply felt a need to unburden himself to a friend. His energy was phenomenal. He wrote long letters to very many. His interests were wide and many were the claims to his attention.

To the Chief Minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon, he wrote on August 31, 1956: "I think it is important that you should recognise in some way or the other the Urdu language in the Punjab. I do not suggest that you should make it a State language. But, you might say that applications and letters in Urdu will be accepted and replied in the same language. Also, that, where a sufficient number of pupils want to study Urdu, arrangements will be made. This, indeed, is according to our rules."

Gerald Wellesley, the seventh Duke of Wellington, wrote to India's High Commissioner in London Vijayalakshmi Pandit on July 4 that he possessed various relics of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, and that he wanted to exchange these with a life-size portrait of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, housed in the former Government House in Madras. Nehru readily agreed to the proposal.

To Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, Chief Minister of Bhopal, Nehru wrote on August 13, 1956: "My attention was particularly drawn to Shahjahan's marble mosque in the Dargah in Ajmer. I was told that this was in danger of collapsing and that it would be a great pity if this happened. An appeal was, therefore, made to me that something should be done soon to repair this Shahjahan's mosque."

The Naga problem had, by then, assumed serious proportions. In a Note to Defence Minister K.N. Katju on July 24, 1956, Nehru warned him of the "limitations of the military approach". It is a warning of enduring relevance. It was prompted by the death of a 75-year-old medical practitioner who was, we are told, "accidentally killed (by the Indian Army)... due to mistaken identity". Nehru wrote: "I am much troubled by this occurrence. It has far-reaching political consequences. Apart from this, it brings out some very unpleasant aspects about the behaviour of some of our men in our Army, including some officers. Our Army has a proud record of (sic) not only of courage but of good behaviour. It maintained this record in the operation in Kashmir. An incident like the one resulting in the death of Dr. Haralu and the subsequent attempt to cover this up leaves a bad mark in this record" (emphasis added throughout).

Another note read: "In a letter which I have just seen, from the Governor of Assam to the Home Minister, reference is made to information received about our Army burning villages and shooting people, including women, who are running away to the jungles.... Even the houses of certain persons whose loyalty is unquestioned, were burnt by the Army though it was asked to spare these houses. Certain instances of needless killing of innocent persons are also mentioned.

"Many of these reports may well be exaggerated. But the mere fact they are widely believed has itself considerable importance. There are reports also, which may or may not be true, about cases of rape. Many young Aos signed a pledge with their blood that they would fight on the side of Phizo to the last ditch. In fact, we appear to be succeeding in alienating even those elements among the Nagas who were opposed to Phizo and who wanted to side with us. At the same time, there is no evidence whatever that we have made any marked progress from the purely military point of view. Thus, we appear to be failing both in the military sphere and in the psychological approach." This was written to Katju, again, the next day, July 25. Three days later he wrote to Katju: "Making every allowance, I think that what our military have done is not satisfactory and I have no intention to hush it up, even in private."

But, on August 23, in the Lok Sabha, he gave a completely different version: "I am not saying that wrong things are not being done there by individuals or groups, whether by civil authorities or by the military. But, I do wish to remove this impression that our Army or anybody else there is just playing fast and loose with lives and with burning of villages and the rest. Apart from our instructions which are very strict, the General Officers Commanding and others have been constantly issuing instructions. Now, it is true that many villages have been burnt there. Our information is that a far greater part of the burning is done by the Naga hostiles. They themselves do it; that is our difficulty." If this is how a man like Nehru could defend the indefensible, is it surprising that his successors followed suit and nobody trusts the government's version on excesses by the Army or the paramilitary in any insurgency situation? This was neither the first nor the last time when Nehru "economised" with the truth.

Nehru was intolerant of dissent on issues that mattered. His note of July 23, 1952, on Nirad C. Chaudhari triggered the writer's harassment by tax authorities (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second Series, Vol. 19; pages 471-2). The "provocation" was the publication of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a classic of its kind. This volume records Nehru's attempts to get Mridula Sarabhai, a follower of Gandhi and a close former friend, expelled from Constitution House in New Delhi. Her crime was to put out a steady stream of reportage on Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed's misdeeds in Kashmir: "It is most embarrassing to see the stream of literature that comes out from there in regard to Kashmir, which, in effect, is a condemnation of our government and its policy and which is utilised fully in Pakistan and in other foreign counties."

Of Bakshi he had a very high opinion. Nehru told him that "the only person who could shoulder the responsibility of running the Kashmir administration was Bakshi Sahib. There was no one else and there would be a collapse of everything we had worked for if you retired." Earlier, India's Kashmir policy had rested on just one man, Sheikh Abdullah. It now rested on another, the one who toppled and imprisoned him at Nehru's instance. It was Bakshi's repression which could control Sheikh Abdullah's followers after the Sheikh was put in prison in 1953. That is all that mattered. He extolled Bakshi's rigged polls and connived at his corruption: "During the last few years you have done a wonderful job in Kashmir."

The Volume contains Nehru's Note to V.K. Krishna Menon, then Minister without Portfolio, and to the Ministry of External Affairs on his talks with Pakistan's Prime Minister Mohammed Ali in London in July 1956. "He then referred to Kashmir and we talked about this subject at some length. His approach to this and other subjects was quiet and almost ingratiating. He did not refer to past history much, but said that he was very anxious that India and Pakistan should solve all their problems and cooperate together. Much that had happened, including Pakistan's differences in regard to foreign policy and defence, was largely due to these conflicts with India. If these conflicts were removed, friendly cooperation would inevitably result in all fields. He pointed out that his own position in Pakistan was obviously not one which would enable him to impose any decision. My position was much more stronger and if I decided to do something, I could put it through. While there were other problems, Kashmir was the crux and if this was settled, there would be no difficulty in solving others."

Nehru was unrelenting. "I referred to the difficulties we had experienced during the last seven or eight years in solving even some of the preliminary questions. If we had failed during these years, it was not likely that we would succeed now in solving these questions; and then there were other important questions. There had been constitutional developments and no step could be taken by us without the consent of the Kashmir government which was more autonomous than the other State Governments of India."

At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London on July 4, 1956, Nehru said, according to the minutes, "he was concerned lest progress in the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes might facilitate its exploitation for military purposes. It was a cause for alarm that an increasing number of countries might engage in the production of atomic weapons. While there was no doubt that nuclear energy could be of great benefit to mankind, its menacing aspect could not be ignored. He supported the proposal that the secrecy hitherto surrounding atomic energy should be relaxed." Comment on this is unnecessary. He well knew what was afoot in India.

Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26 took Nehru by surprise. Nasser did not confide in him when they met in Brioni on July 18 and 19. In a Note to the Foreign Secretary on July 31, Nehru criticised Nasser: "Egypt's right to nationalise the Suez Canal, if it chose to do so, cannot be doubted provided it is done in a proper way and to ensure the continuation of the Suez Canal as open international highway. What we regret, however, is the manner all this was done and strong and offensive language used which makes it difficult for suitable agreement to be reached." He repeated the criticism in a letter to Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari): "I think that the Egyptian government behaved rashly to begin with. But the reaction of the British and the French, more especially the French, has been astonishing. It almost appears that both of these are bent on military operations, although this would do them great injury." In an interview to Taya Zinkin of The Economist in 1954, well before Suez, Nehru called Nasser a "bounder" (Reporting India; page 215).

Such was Nehru's prestige that the former Prime Minister of Myanmar (Burma, in 1956) U Nu asked him to intercede on its behalf with China on the boundary dispute between them. It is not widely appreciated that the McMahon Line extends eastwards to Myanmar also. Nehru sensed that any move he might make would affect India's interests as well. He instructed the Foreign Secretary on August 26: "I think that we should not raise directly the question of the Indian frontier with Tibet or China. But, indirectly, this may well come up in connection with the McMahon Line and also because it is alleged that the Chinese have come across our frontier also somewhere near the Burmese frontier. (This has to be verified as soon as possible.) I entirely agree that the Colombo Powers should not be brought into the picture, so far as we are concerned. I take it that we shall, however, have to mention that the Burmese government have discussed this matter with us. I do not think it will be desirable for us to discuss in any detail the Burma-China frontier question."

When the Charge d'Affaires of the Soviet Union informed Nehru that Nepal had agreed to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the two would sign a Treaty of Friendship, Nehru instructed India's Ambassador in Moscow K.P.S. Menon: "We are surprised at this information. The Nepalese government had not told us anything about it although in view of our special relationship with them and the far-reaching implications of the proposed move we would have expected them to consult us. We are taking the matter up with the King of Nepal through our Ambassador pointing out the implications of these developments and expressing our surprise and regret at their failure to keep us informed of them. We should also like you to see the Soviet Foreign Office immediately... . At the present juncture in international affairs the opening of a separate Soviet Embassy in Kathmandu and a new Treaty between Nepal and Soviet Russia would give rise to widespread misunderstanding about Soviet intentions of which countries not friendly to the USSR will take the fullest advantage."

That was not a particularly clever way of telling Moscow that it would confirm his impression of Soviet expansionism, which he had repeatedly recorded in private notes. "We can of course have no objection to the Soviet Ambassador in India being concurrently accredited to Kathmandu." Nehru had taken a similar stand with Zhou Enlai, pleading that the United States would also ask for representation in Nepal. Nehru reminded Menon that he had turned down the Soviet Union's proposal for "a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and the Soviet Union based on the Five Principles". Menon's predecessor, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, had supported this proposal ardently.

The record demolishes myths more than one about Nehru's "romanticism" or "idealism". He was, if anything, a hardliner on India's relations with its neighbours. He, not Indira Gandhi, was the author of the doctrine that India had a certain right to keep the Great Powers out of South Asia - and leave India free to pursue its own agenda in the region. It has not worked.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor