With 20-20 hindsight, many people criticize Nehru today for pursuing a foreign policy oriented to "nonalignment" -- that is, independence from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Here is one of Nehru's most famous statements articulating that policy, from a speech given at Columbia University:
"The main objectives of that policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue, the liberation of subject peoples, the maintenance of freedom, both national and individual, the elimination of racial discrimination and the elimination of want, disease and ignorance, which afflict the greater part of the world's population."
The idealism in that statement is admirable, and still worth thinking about, even if the world order has changed dramatically since Nehru first uttered these words. The idea of taking an "independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue" is one I personally strive for as a writer, and may be something that would in my view serve as a helpful corrective to many partisan ideologues -- on both the left and the right -- who tend to only see the world through one particular ideological filter or the other.
Ideals aside, Nehru's government did make some serious mistakes in foreign policy in the first few years. One of the significant failures Guha mentions in this chapter involved an inconsistency in the response to two international crises: 1) Anglo-French military action in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (the Suez Crisis), and 2) the Soviet invasion of Hungary following an anti-Communist uprising, also in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution). India publicly condemned the first act of aggression by western powers, but not the second, which today seems like a clear indication that India was leaning towards the Soviets more than it let on.
Guha suggests there were some internal differences between Nehru and the famous leftist Krishna Menon, who represented India at the U.N., over the Hungary question. Nehru publicly defended Menon's abstention at the U.N. on the resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but privately he was deeply upset about the invasion. Part of the problem here might have been Nehru's lack of clarity over the correct course to take, but certainly Krishna Menon's independent streak must have been a factor as well.
A similar kind of diplomatic confusion was present in India's relationship with China starting in 1950. Here, the Indian ambassador to China, K.N. Panikkar (who is also very well-known as a historian), seems to have fatally misread Mao Zedong and the personality of Chinese communism:
In May 1950 Panikkar was granted an interview with Mao Zedong, and came away greatly impressed. Mao's face, he recalled later, was 'pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly.' There 'is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy but absolutely sure of itself.' The Chinese leader had 'experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings,' yet 'his face showed no signs of bitterness, cruelty, or sorrow.' Mao reminded Panikkar of his own boss, Nehru, for 'both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments,' and both 'may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term.' (176)
And here is Guha's explanation of the failure:
This would be laughable if it were not so serious. Intellectuals have always been strangely fascinated by powerful men; George Bernard Shaw wrote about Lenin in much the same terms. Yet Shaw was an unaffiliated writer, responsible only to himself. Panikkar was the official representative of his government. What he said and believed would carry considerable weight. And here he was representing one of history's most ruthless dictators as dreamy, soft, and poetic. (176)
I think Guha has it right on here -- and as a side note, this observation about intellectuals who misread charismatic leaders is intriguing. (Are there other examples you can think of?)
Within the Indian administration, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at least did see the danger posed by the Chinese, and in November 1950 -- just after the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet -- he wrote Nehru a strongly-worded letter to that effect. In hindsight, Sardar Patel's letter seems incredibly prescient, as it anticipates in some sense the Sino-Indian war of 1962, as well as some of the secessionist movements that continue to plague India along its northeastern border to this very day. The letter is posted in its entirety here, and it is well worth reading. Following are some long extracts:
The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. (link)
One of the really tragic consequences of the Indian failure to read Chinese intentions correctly at this point is the impact it would have on Tibet and its ancient culture -- which would later be marked by the Chinese for forcible merger into the mainstream of China. It's not India's fault, of course -- it is China's fault -- but one does wonder if things might have played out differently had Nehru played his cards differently, or if someone other than K.N. Panikkar had been ambassador at the time.
More from Sardar Patel's letter:
In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. . . . China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist. (link)
And finally, Patel assesses the potential impact on the various border regions, all of whom are in some sense in a gray area ethnically and nationally with regards to China and India:
Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. (link)
From earlier posts on Guha's book, I know there are many readers who feel frustrated with Nehru's foreign policy errors from the 1950s and 60s. To some extent I'm inclined to be forgiving; things were happening very fast, and there really was no historical precedent for what Mao did with Communist China. Some of Nehru's close associates from the Nationalist movement (i.e., Krishna Menon) were oriented to Marxism/Communism as part of their anti-Imperialist intellectual orientation.
Sardar Patel, on the other hand, was able to reverse the prevalent orthodoxy, and see -- clearly and, as we now know, correctly -- that Communism could potentially be as ruthlessly "Imperial" an ideology as European colonialism itself. In effect, he was one of the few politicians of his era who was actually able to perform in practice ("an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue") the values that Nehru preached in his speeches.