Nehru's legacy to India

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

Jawaharlal Nehru with Zhou Enlai in Beijing on October 19, 1954. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Jawaharlal Nehru with Zhou Enlai in Beijing on October 19, 1954. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (1 May-20 June 1956); Second Series, Volume 33; A project of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, distributed by Oxford University Press; pages 626, Rs.500.

THE importance of this Series is in inverse proportion to the attention it receives from scholars, Indian and foreign, and from the media. Ivor Jenning's masterpieces Parliament and Cabinet Government are based on memoirs and correspondence from which he distils the conventions of the Constitution. Even the long text of our Constitution cannot lay down every norm or rule of governance. Who more qualified to opine on them than the foremost of the founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru? He drafted the Objectives Resolution on which the preamble to the Constitution is based. He was Chairman of the Constituent Assembly's committees on Union Powers as well as on the Union Constitution. He was the prime architect of the Union. As builder of the Indian state, history will rank him with Asoka and Akbar. For 17 years after Independence he kept up a steady stream of letters and notes of advice, instruction and admonition to all who mattered, concerning almost every facet of the country's affairs. No political scientist and no constitutional lawyer can ignore them.

The Indian National Congress adopted the credo of secularism in the 19th century. Nehru became its most eloquent and articulate exponent before and after the Partition. Judge him not by the ones who exploit his name. Judge him by those who hate him. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) mask, did its best to erase his impact on our polity - and failed.

In the realm of foreign affairs, likewise, Nehru laid down the law. Opposition was not only unorganised, but uninformed; in some quarters, viciously personal. Jaswant Singh accused him of seeking to wind up the Army, on the testimony of the first Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Sir Robert Lockhard, whom Nehru had sacked, ignoring Nehru's admirable memo on the armed forces, dated February 3, 1947, published in Volume 2 of the Selected Works (page 363). Some recent writings on Nehru also neglect them.

This is a particularly noteworthy volume. The dust jacket is in a tasteful brown, not the gaudy blue of yore and it indicates on the spine and the cover the period covered by the volume. Professor Mushirul Hasan, Vice Chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia, has joined the team of editors, the veterans H.Y. Sharada Prasad and A.K. Damodaran, and has written the Editorial Note. The volume contains documents of crucial importance on the two problems which continue to bedevil foreign policy, distort its thrust and warp the national outlook. How many, rather how few, will care to peruse them? Fewer still, one fears, will "allow the facts to get into the way" of their thinking. British Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon received a report from the Ambassador in Berlin citing details of Hitler's arms build up. "A distributing document", Simon minuted on the margin and had it filed away; affected not a bit by the report. Given our hard, frozen mindset, both on the border dispute with China and the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, will the document matter one bit to the foreign policy establishment or "the strategic community"?

The volume has a most "disturbing" one on each dispute plus related ones. The first, to begin with, is a Note by Nehru to Krishna Menon, Minister without Portfolio, dated May 6, 1956. It bears quotation in extenso, for it holds instruction for Nehru's detractors as well as apologists. He wrote: "You know that, in Chinese maps, quite a good part of Assam is shown as if it belonged to Tibet. Also, a bit of the U.P., bordering on Tibet. Some two or three years ago, we drew the attention of the Chinese government to this. Their reply was that these maps were old maps from Chiang Kai-shek's time and that they had had no time to revise them. Recently, a new set of maps has been printed. They are exactly as the old ones except for a note that they are reproductions of the old maps.

"2. We have decided previously not to raise the question of our frontier with China because, so far as we were concerned, there was no dispute. The Tibet frontier ran along the McMahon Line and we consider it a firm frontier. I stated this more than once in Parliament.

"3. Even when I went to China (in 1954) I casually mentioned Chinese maps to Zhou Enlai and, so far as I remember, he said something about the maps being old and that we can settle frontier questions in a friendly way later. In effect, therefore, China never clearly accepted our frontier as it is. All that they have said is that the old maps are not reliable. We have stated to them and in Parliament that our frontier is as given in our maps.

"4. At the time of the agreement with China about Tibetan questions (1954) it was taken for granted by us that all pending questions between India and China had been settled. In some of our communications too, stress was laid on this. But, China has never admitted this clearly, though they did not deny it either (emphasis added, throughout)."

Four features deserve note. First, Menon had emerged as the prime foreign policy adviser in residence; not that he was shy about offering advice from his perch in London earlier. Secondly, the note was confined to the McMahon line in the eastern sector. It was silent on the Aksai Chin in Ladakh in the western sector though it was also depicted as China's territory on its maps. Thirdly, it seems not to have occurred to Nehru that the decision he had taken in 1951-52 on the Ambassador to China K.M. Panikkar's advice had been proved to be unwise. Lastly, Nehru's unilateral alteration of India's maps in 1954 to show the Aksai Chin as Indian territory did not inhibit him from questioning China's maps. The Chinese were of course, well aware of the 1954 alteration.

On October 2, 1951, Nehru cabled to Panikkar: "Our provisional view; that, in first instance, conversations should take place between China and us regarding our interests in Tibet and Common boundary between Tibet and India" (SWJN; vol.16, Part 2, page 643). Incidentally, Sardar Patel's famous letter to Nehru, drafted by Girja Shankar Bajpai, Secretary-General in the MEA, dated November 7, 1950, was also confined to "the policy in regard to the McMahon Line". Sarvapalli Gopal records: "In the instructions drawn up for Panikkar and approved by the Prime Minister and Panikkar himself it was stated that one of India's interests in the negotiations with China on Tibet was the affirmation of the McMahon Line and the rest of the frontier with Tibet. But when, on return to Peking, Panikkar met Zhou, the latter confined the discussions to trade and cultural interests and appeared to the Ambassador anxious not to open up wider issues; and Panikkar, ignoring his instructions fell in line and did not refer to the frontier. Neither did he mention the subject in the note on India's interests in Tibet, which he formally presented to the Chinese Foreign Office" (Jawaharlal Nehru; vol. 2; pages 177-8). One wonders whether Bajpai's instructions covered the Aksai Chin at all. They should be published.

On June 16, Nehru wired to Panikkar. "We think it is rather odd that, in discussing Tibet with you, Zhou Enlai did not refer at all to our frontier. For our part, we attach more importance to this than to other matters. We are interested, as you know, not only in our direct frontier but also in the frontiers of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, and we have made it perfectly clear in Parliament that these frontiers must remain. There is perhaps some advantage in our not ourselves raising this issue. On the other hand, I do not quite like Zhou Enlai's silence about it when discussing even minor matters... . We would naturally prefer a general and comprehensive settlement which includes the frontier. In our instructions to you dated 25th January, you were asked to specify our interests including those on the frontier. We presume you have done so. If so, we can presume that Zhou Enlai's silence means some kind of acquiescence. It is not for us to suggest any reconsideration. At the same time, I should like to be assured on this point. I leave it to you to exercise your discretion in this matter." But on June 18, Nehru wrote: "In view of what you say, it will be desirable not to raise the question of our frontier at this stage" (SWJN; pages 474-5). Nehru thus abandoned his own instruction to Panikkar on May 24, 1952, to seek China's "affirmation of the frontier". It was the familiar Nehru style "on the one hand" and "on the other", "at the same time" - all the time. He sought always to keep his own options open.

However, on July 25, Nehru reversed his stand in a note to the Foreign Secretary: "We should mention the frontier. I appreciate the reasons which Panikkar advanced and it is because of these reasons that we have not brought up this subject. But I am beginning to feel that our attempt at being clever might overreach itself. I think it is better to be absolutely straight and frank. You might discuss this matter with Panikkar" who was in Delhi on transfer. The logic was impeccable.

Yet come July 29 Nehru informed the Foreign Secretary and Panikkar: "On reconsideration I accept Shri Panikkar's advice that we should not make specific mention about the frontiers" in the negotiations on the Tibet agreement (SWJN; vol. 19; pages 585 and 651). It was an unwise decision and not a "clever" one either.

To think that this was the very Panikkar whom Nehru had portrayed as an unscrupulous time-server in his very first talk with U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles on November 6, 1951 (Foreign relations of the United States, 1951; Vol. VI, Part 2; page 2,188).

Nehru's note to Panikkar's successor, N. Raghavan, on December 10, 1952, did include "Ladakh and the rest of India" while speaking of "this entire frontier" (SWJN; vol. 20, page 488). A note of August 3, 1953, recorded "for the present, we need not raise the question of the frontier, but this will have to be brought in a larger settlement" (SWJN; vol. 23 page 484). In 1959, when an opportunity for precisely such "a larger settlement" on the boundary arose, Nehru simply refused to negotiate. He had decided as much in 1953, if not earlier. On December 3, 1953, he wrote to the Secretary-General of the MEA: "I agree about the attitude we should take up in regard to the frontier. We should not raise this question. If the Chinese raise it, we should express our surprise and point out that this is a settled issue" (SWJN; vol.24, page 598).

The Tibet (Panchsheel) agreement was signed on April 29, 1954. Nehru instructed the MEA on May 2: "We should establish check posts at all disputed points" - resolve a dispute unilaterally. Zhou Enlai visited New Delhi from June 25 to 28, 1954, and had five sessions of talks with Nehru. Neither raised the boundary issue. Only three days after his departure, Nehru wrote the historic note of July 1, 1954 - all the old maps were to be "withdrawn". A firm line was to be shown "which is not open to discussion with anybody" (SWJN; vol. 26, pages 481-483). But, if Chinese maps claim "our territory", we should correct them.

A WORD about maps. The map attached to Mountbatten's Report on the Last Royalty to the King showed the McMahon Line as India's boundary but had the legend "boundary undefined" in respect of the entire frontier from the Indo-Sino-Afghan trijunction in the West to the Indo-Sino-Nepalese trijunction. This includes the boundary defined in the Sino-Pak agreement of March 2, 1963. Talk of Pakistan "ceding" territory to China is therefore, sheer nonsense. (Ed. by Lionel Carter; Manohar; Rs.850. A most useful document). The Surveyor-General's map attached to the White Paper on Indian States in 1948 did not even extend the colour wash to the Aksai Chin. The implication was clear. The map in the 1950 White Paper did extend the colour wash, but with the legend "boundary undefined". The 1954 map removed it after the Panchsheel accord.

(The maps are reproduced in the author's article "Negotiating with China", Frontline, August 14, 1998, pages 98 and 99). The 1954 unilateral alteration is devoid of legal or moral force.

In the 1956 Note, Nehru sought Krishna Menon's advice. "Should we definitely raise the question of the frontier with the Chinese government?" He was referring to the eastern sector. As with Panikkar, so with Menon. Nehru had grave reservations about the adviser. "Krishna, who himself is often a problem," he wrote to Vijayalakshmi Pandit on November 12, 1952 (SWJN; vol. 20, page 520). Nehru accepted Panikkar's advise in preference to that of a man he respected - Bajpai, who consistently urged that the boundary issue should be explicitly raised and resolved in the 1954 settlement. We do not know Menon's advice, however.

Nehru raised the maps issue in October 1954 during his visit to China and again in 1956 when Zhou came to Delhi. The visitor hinted at his acceptance of the McMahon Line, albeit called by another name. But nor did he raise with Nehru the new Indian map on the Aksai Chin. This had "far-reaching and malign consequences". Had he objected to the new delineation "it is highly probable that the dispute would have been avoided" (Neville Maxwell; India's China War; pages 94-5). China built the road in Aksai Chin in 1956. When Nehru finally brought matters to a head on December 14, 1958, Zhou replied by raising the issue of the western sector. Nehru cited the 1842 Treaty to contend that there was no dispute to resolve.

On Kashmir, one finds the same tendency to assert the untenable and persist in the course with consequences as grave as on the border issue. And the very same tendency to "resolve" a dispute unilaterally, ending up with denying that a "dispute even exists. Yet admirers and detractors alike describe the man as an "idealist" and "romanticist". This is particularly true of some former diplomats whose skills lay in providing enthusiastic rendering of the raag Darbari.

On Kashmir, this writer cited six pronouncements by persons of eminence, spread over 50 years from 1948 to 2003 on Kashmiris' feelings towards India. The first of them was Indira Gandhi's letter to Nehru, dated May 14, 1948, from Srinagar: "They say only Sheikh Saheb is confident of winning the plebiscite". (Frontline, August 15, 2003). To them add one more, Jayaprakash Narayan's letter to Nehru dated May 1, 1956. He warned Nehru that from all the information that he had "95 per cent of Kashmir Muslims do not wish to be or remain Indian citizens". He said it was unwise to keep people by force as it could have serious long-term political consequences "though immediately it may suit policy and please public opinion" but could prove disastrous for establishing a peaceful social order. He wished that "this question be considered more from a human, rather than a nationalist, point of view. All men have to live upon this earth as brothers, irrespective of what national frontiers divide them. World peace is possible upon no other hypothesis."

Nehru's prompt reply on May 3 was that Jayaprakash Narayan's information was "completely wrong. It is difficult for anyone to express a firm opinion about this matter. If one takes the population of the whole of the State, apart from the part occupied by Pakistan, I think, it is rather doubtful which way a majority would lie. I think, there is a fair possibility of the majority being in favour of India". He added, "Much depends on how this question is raised. If it is made a communal issue, then it is probable that a majority of Muslims might vote against India. If the issues are purely political, different voting would take place. But all this is guess work and people's opinions vary from time to time and are affected by some occurrence." In the given situation, the distinction he drew was unreal. In 1957 and 1962 Nehru lauded the bogus polls staged by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed just as he had lauded Sheikh Abdulla's bogus poll in 1951.

To another correspondent, Nehru wrote: "When Kashmir acceded to India in October 1947, there was no mention of plebiscite by India. What India said was that the people of Jammu and Kashmir would be consulted. The first mention of plebiscite came long afterwards in a resolution of the U.N. Commission, which we accepted. That resolution contained various conditions to be fulfilled before the question of plebiscite came up. Among these conditions was the withdrawal of the Pakistan forces."

Every one of these statements, now the staple of nationalist discourse, is manifestly, demonstrably untrue. Mountbatten's letter to the Maharaja dated October 27, 1947, did not say that the people of Kashmir would be a "consulted" but that the issue of accession "should be settled by a reference to the people". An earlier sentence enunciated India's policy on disputed accessions: "The question of accession should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the State."

On October 31, 1947, Nehru wired to Liaquat Ali Khan that this "is not merely a pledge to your government but also to the people of Kashmir and to the world". On November 2 and 3 he used the word "referendum" under U.N. auspices. On November 21 he promised "plebiscite or referendum" under U.N. auspices. All this was said immediately on Kashmir's accession, not "long afterwards". Under the U.N. Commission's resolution (August 13, 1948) the tribesmen were to withdraw first, unconditionally. Next, Pakistan was to "begin" to withdraw its troops as part of a process that included withdrawal of "the bulk" of Indian troops. Nehru never agreed to "the bulk". When in July 1956 Michael Brecher asked him how he would respond if Pakistan's troops did withdraw unconditionally, Nehru evaded a direct reply (page 541). He sought a familiar excuse - even if Kashmir is solved "these basic conflicts would continue. We are given the full text of the interview. Nehru's pretext now forms a vital part of chauvinist discourse.

Nehru publicly offered settlement on the basis of the ceasefire line (now the Line of Control) on April 13, 1956. We now have (page 18) his amplification of the offer on May 4: "My justification for being in Kashmir primarily is because the people of Kashmir or a great majority of them, the national leaders, invited us and because I think that a very large section of them want us to be there. If nobody wants us there in Kashmir, we shall have no place there. We can't keep an army of occupation in place there. So that, both for practical reasons and other reasons, the natural result is that we should seek a settlement of the Kashmir issue as it is today in the ceasefire line, subject to some changes here and there." It was a non sequitur. The conclusion did not flow from the premises, which were factually wrong too. He had put Sheikh Abdullah in prison in August 1953 and further alienated the people.

In both cases, the border with China and the Kashmir question, Nehru left behind an unenviable legacy to the nation. He made assertions which none in the world accepted bar an exception or two. But he would make them emphatically, angrily. The U.S. endorsed the McMahon Line only on October 27, 1962; but never the Indian line on the Aksai Chin. Except the USSR and now Russia, the world - including the U.N. - still regards Kashmir as "disputed territory". Nehru's assertions - Aksai Chin is Indian territory and Kashmir's accession was ratified by polls to the State Assembly and is therefore no longer open to dispute - became conventional wisdom which mainstream media faithfully echoed. In this, academia did not lag far behind.

Time has resolved neither issue; but aggravated both. In each case, India's adversary used force, making matters worse, still. In each case India's position became weaker, China hardened its stand. On Kashmir India's position became stronger vis-a-vis Pakistan but since the alienation of the people deepened, it has made India's position far weaker, in the balance.

In each case, on the core of the dispute, India remains the only one in the world to propagate the myths Nehru fostered. A "great power" complex brings in its train rampant chauvinism. To this day none of Nehru's successors felt himself politically strong to tackle the two disputes. Nehru's writings enable us to learn the lessons from the past so that we can shape a different future.

The U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross identifies in his memoirs The Missing Peace: The Inside story of the Fight for Middle East Peace the "missing peaces" that "have perpetuated the conflict" as "the lack of public conditioning for peace, the reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side's grievance and needs, the inability to confront comfortable myths, the difficulty of transforming behaviour and acknowledging mistakes, the inherent challenge of getting both sides ready to move at the same time, the unwillingness to make choices, and the absence of leadership.

This volume helps considerably to explain Nehru's psyche. It is to repeat an unenviable legacy he left behind on foreign policy. But not the only one; Many others, rooted in truth and wisdom, are ones we tend to take for granted. A biography which is honest and competent must reckon with all of them and help us understand the greatness of the man behind the apparent contradictions.

One has only to read Acharya J.B. Kripalani's autobiography (My Times; Rupa & Co.; pages 986; Rs.995) to realise how the very arguments he deployed in defence of his policy came to be used against him whenever he contemplated any initiative for conciliation. The book contains little that is not known. But it is a useful resume of events and an instructive record of the kind of opposition Nehru had to face within and outside the party.

Encounters are a half century old phenomenon. Nehru did not set an example of public accountability. He wrote to Home Minister G.B. Pant on the subject as far back as on May 2, 1956, about encounters in the Punjab ruled by Partap Singh Kairon. "Could we not have some kind of an informal inquiry without fuss by the Centre? It need not be a very elaborate inquiry. I do not want the Punjab government to feel in any way that we are distrusting them or bypassing them. But the charges are too serious to be overlooked." To C.P.N. Singh, Nehru explained: "Evidently, the police are afraid of even well known and dangerous dacoits getting off in the law courts because of some technical difficulty."

But when Nehru was pressed for some kind of an inquiry by independent persons from the Centre, he took the stand that "we were inquiring in our own way. I do not think any such formal inquiry is desirable." Nor were fake encounters "very uncommon in some other States".

In his interview to Michael Brecher, Nehru largely defended the police (page 521). He also defended preventive detention. "The Act being there and not being used much is itself a deterrent; both ways. And you see, of the 150 or so, I doubt if more than perhaps 10 were political people. The rest were just gangsters and goondas in big cities. It is very difficult to convict them. Everybody knows he is... he pulls the strings from behind."

Ergo, put them in prison without trial. Nehru was committed to democracy. But it is dishonest to hail him as a great democrat without reckoning with his lapses from democratic norms, a champion of press freedom, he also defended curbs on the press. "Again criticism was made about out dealing with the press here. You may have seen the press here. I don't know if you have seen the worst part of the press, in Hindi and Urdu and these languages?

Michael Brecher: "No, I am afraid not."

Nehru: "Terrible, something terrible and we found it did little good. We put an end to it."

Brecher: "That gave rise to the Press Objectionable Matters Act?"

Nehru: "Yes, some say we are suppressing the press. It is absurd. You see the press here, how it functions." So impose illiberal curbs by law.

ON the Naga problem Nehru was equivocal: "There can be no doubt that an armed revolt has to be met by force and suppressed. There are no two opinions about that and we shall set about it as efficiently and effectively as possible. But our whole past and present outlook is based on force by itself being no remedy. We have repeated this in regard to the greater problems of the world. Much more, must we remember this when dealing with our own countrymen who have to be won over and not merely suppressed." As ever, lekin (but) was adroitly deployed. Assert something and qualify it; all options securely preserved.

Nehru was appalled at the perks MPs enjoyed. Also he was strongly of the view that the President and the governors should exercise the power of clemency only on the advice, respectively of the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister (page 274). The Jan Sangh MP, U.M. Trivedi, was told "no government can tolerate this kind of violence. The continuance of this type of violence in an organised way indicates that the policy of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is based on violence and doing physical injury to those persons whom they dislike. It is for the RSS to consider if this can be called service to the country."

In one of the finest passages in the volume we have Nehru saying: "So far as the two-nation theory is concerned, we have never accepted the fact that Pakistan was a result of the two-nation theory. It may be so in the minds of the people of Pakistan but we did not agree to it even then. Our position has been that we cannot consider a nation and a religious community as the same thing. Nations contain more than one religious community. Even if all the Muslims in India believed in this theory, we would not accept it or even if all the Hindus believed in it."

That is a legacy for which the nation cannot thank Jawaharlal Nehru enough.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment