Letter from Beirut

Nehru in Beirut

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Nehru speaking at the Assembly Hall of the university.

Paul Leonard, President of American University of Beirut, introducing Nehru to the audience.

Students on the Assembly Hall's window sills listening to Nehru's speech.

Nehru on the univeristy's campus.

Students wait near Nehru's car at the university before his departure.

Clerks and police officials at the port of Beirut, 1956.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to this war-torn city and Gaza in 1960 and his impromptu speech at the American University of Beirut left a lasting impression on the people of the region.

ON May 24, 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, on an Indian Air Force aircraft from Istanbul. Nehru had been flying around the eastern Mediterranean over the course of a week on his way back to India from the London Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. His longest stay had been in the United Arab Republic (UAR), the federation formed by Egypt and Syria between 1958 and 1961, with visits to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan High Dam and to the Gaza Strip and also Damascus. Nehru came to the UAR on a high note, having stood alongside Malaysia against the Commonwealth’s tepid position on apartheid South Africa. This is when Nehru shone: when he could hoist Britain with its own petard of cherished values of fairness and freedom.

Meetings with the UAR’s Gamal Abdel Nasser always seemed to cheer Nehru up—he saw the Arab leader as a close comrade and ally. The stench of the Anglo-French-Israeli intervention in Egypt over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal still hung in the air. At the time of the intervention, in November 1956, Nehru told the Lok Sabha that India must be wary of this “brutal exercise of violence and armed might against weaker countries. Every country in Asia and Africa must particularly feel this danger.” Indian troops had been dispatched with the first group of the U.N. Emergency Force, who, Nehru told Parliament, “should function to protect the old armistice line between Israel and Egypt”. During his 1960 visit, Nehru went to Gaza and met with the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) troops, at that time commanded by the Indian officer Lieutenant General R.S. Gyani.

Nehru came to Beirut for two reasons. The first had a commercial edge to it. By the mid-1950s, Indian business houses and the Indian government had sought to break into the Arab market via Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. A month before Nehru’s trip, an Indian delegation came to Beirut to sell Indian silk to the region. Lebanon was once a great producer of silk—its yellow silk is known as baladi (“of the region”)—during the Ottoman Period (1516-1920), and then for the French market during the Mandate Period (1922-1943). By the 1940s, however, farmers began to uproot their mulberry groves and replace them with the lucrative citrus trees (the remnants of the industry can be seen at the Silk Museum in the village of Bsous, not far from Beirut). It was into this breach that the Indian traders appeared. They also came, as my father did in 1956, to sell Indian coal to the newly expanding Port of Beirut, which functioned as the main port for Damascus and much of the Levant.

The second reason that Nehru wanted to be in Beirut was to meet with the Lebanese government over the collapsed United States-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics summit meeting. Lebanon was closely aligned with the U.S. and had already earned a bit of a sneer from Nehru for allowing U.S. troops to enter the country in 1958. (“Obviously, the [U.S.] troops were sent to Lebanon not because of what was happening in Lebanon—the situation was in a sense under control and there was the U.N. Observation Group there—but because of what happened in Iraq [a republican revolt inspired by Nasser], and the fear that it might spread.”) Nehru hoped that he could persuade the Lebanese government to use their superb diplomatic corps to explain to the U.S. to return to the table and to calm the tensions that had risen ever since the Soviets shot down a U.S. spy plane and took its pilot, Gary Powers, prisoner. Nehru’s mission came at a bad time. Lebanon’s Prime Minister had just been changed and the government was not in a mood to intercede with the U.S.

Building bridges

On the mid-morning of May 24, the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), Paul Leonard, called the office of the Prime Minister and asked if Nehru would be able to come and speak on the campus during his lightning trip. The offer enticed Nehru. His sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, had spoken at the AUB in January 1953, when she was the President of the United Nations General Assembly (the first woman to hold that post). At the U.N., Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had become close friends with Lebanon’s storied diplomat Charles Malik despite their political differences. Nehru agreed to speak that very afternoon, just a few hours later. AUB hastened to let the faculty and students know about Nehru’s arrival—half an hour before he was to arrive, all the three thousand seats in the Assembly Hall were filled. Crowds mobbed him as he walked the campus, accompanied by Lebanese Prime Minister Ahmed Daouk, the college administrators and Nehru’s staff.

For an hour, without notes, and effortlessly, Nehru addressed the AUB community on a classically Gandhian theme—that the means and ends of human action must not be considered separate, because “means condition ends”. Violence does not produce peace. “In my age, two long and bloody wars have torn the world apart. What has come out of them? There was victory which has created more problems.” War is not the only problem, Nehru warned. A related error is to fall into the trap that modern technology will solve the world’s problems by itself. Technology is not an end in itself, but it must serve “the larger revolution” of human development.

“We must continue to listen to and hear the voice of man,” to be attuned to the needs and imagination of people. But everything that is said is not to be listened to. Nehru warned the students against the perils of propaganda “which reverses progress and creates of the minds it directs the most ignorant peoples of the world. You can never build a bridge with a slogan.” Practical matters had to be attended to with seriousness of purpose and drawing on means that are commensurate with the imagined ends. Little wonder that the chair of the session, Professor Constaine Zurayak, the accomplished historian of West Asia, said of Nehru’s “humanistic address” that it was “a great moment in the venerable history of this institution”.

Nehru always shone on the world stage, able to find the right tone to speak to people who seemed drained by the tension of the Cold War. Lebanon had been torn apart in 1958 when the U.S. intervened in the midst of a political conflict that mirrored Cold War concerns. Tension hung heavily in the air, with the political class unable then, as they seem unable now, to overcome the deep divides that run along confessional and geopolitical lines. Lebanon’s leadership had been carved into an arrangement where Maronite Christians, Sunnis and Shias shared political power by reserving one high office for each (in order, President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament). This National Pact of 1943 remains and prevents the conversion of this state—already trapped between Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession, French and American investments, Gulf money and the Syrian armed force—into a proper national polity. “Politicians are not those who get things done,” Nehru told the AUB audience, “but they are those who get others to agree with a project” and to work together. Nehru, smiling, looked at his watch: “A politician should stop when his people stop and that is very difficult indeed. That is why it is seldom to find a wise man at the head of a democratic society.”

Banditry in the air

Before he finally closed to what the campus newspaper Outlook described as “great ovation”, Nehru said that he had spoken “without discussing or defining a single event of the day”. This was a pointed statement. A week before, Nehru had been at the UNEF post in Gaza. He boarded a U.N. aircraft to fly out of Gaza. In the air, Israeli jet fighters intercepted his plane inside what they later claimed was “one mile inside Israeli territory”. There is no description of this event, but one should assume that it was not unlike what happened frequently to U.N. planes that flew over Gaza. Six years later, a similar incident occurred to the UNEF commander Major General Indar Jit Rikhye, who left a description of it in his book The Sinai Blunder (1980). On May 18, 1966, Rikhye was flying aboard a U.N. Caribou aircraft when it was intercepted by two Israeli jets that “were attempting to force us to follow them in the direction of Israeli-controlled territory”. Later, Rikhye surmised that the Israeli pilots wanted the U.N. plane to land in Israel to prove that “they had caught me overflying their territory”. The U.N. pilots held fast, but the “Israeli aircraft hemmed in even closer in a most dangerous manoeuvre”. When the U.N. plane tried to fly towards Gaza City, one Israeli fighter “fired a burst of approximately seven rounds as warning shots”. The U.N. plane was able to get away. Rikhye called this “banditry in the air,” a close enough approximation to what happened to Nehru. He never said anything in Istanbul or Beirut or Damascus. Indeed, Nehru held his tongue.

When he returned to India, at the start of the monsoon session of the Parliament on August 1, Nehru took the floor and mentioned how the Israeli fighter jets had hijacked his U.N. plane in the air. This action, he pointed out, was “unwarranted”. Furthermore, the Israeli authorities had “prior knowledge of his intended visit to Gaza”, so this could not have been an accidental event in the sky. Nehru made no mention of this incident while on his brief tour of West Asia. He had an agenda to fulfil, and he did not want Israel’s assault to define his agenda. Having made the statement in Parliament on August 1, Nehru was able to then use it as a way to explain why India had to think seriously before it could consider normal relations with Israel. When the question of sending an Ambassador to Israel was raised once more on December 22, Nehru averred, pointing out that the issue “is very entangled in important and rather dangerous international issues”, including disrespect for the Indian head of government.

In the anteroom to one of the main seminar rooms of the AUB is a gallery of famous personages who have been to the campus: heads of state and government mainly, but also leaders in the U.N. and other major organisations. Only one figure has two pictures in the gallery—Nehru—and only one figure is speaking to a room overflowing with people. It is a mark of the role that India played in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.

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