How Nehru tried to create a special place for India in the post-colonial world – and where he failed

Jawaharlal Nehru was not only the architect of modern India and the country’s first prime minister. He also played a central role in the discrediting of European imperialism and gave voice to the peoples of Asia and Africa struggling for self-determination and racial equality.

An unlikely revolutionary, Nehru was born in 1889 into wealth and privilege. His father was a Kashmir, a high caste Brahmin and a successful lawyer, able to finance the best education for young Jawaharlal that the British system could offer.

After attending Harrow School and the University of Cambridge, Nehru also became a lawyer and could easily have settled into a comfortable life. Instead, Nehru was trained by the enigmatic Mahatma Gandhi in the campaign against British rule in India. Over the next 25 years, he dressed in home-woven cotton, endured long prison terms, and campaigned tirelessly for the cause.

Jawaharlal Nehru shares a joke with Mahatma Gandhi at an All India Congress meeting in 1946. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Successes and failures

Once the British were overthrown and he came to power, Nehru quickly ensured that his vast, impoverished and extremely diverse country was ruled by democratically elected rulers and the rule of law.

At the same time, he tried to make India economically autonomous, so that it could no longer be exploited or manipulated by foreign powers. Perhaps inevitably, given the scale of the challenges involved, the results of these efforts have been mixed.

Nehru’s hopes for a peaceful transition from British rule were dashed by the horrific violence that accompanied partition – the division of the British colony into the separate states of India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims, and millions more have been displaced and traumatized.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the first Indian constitution in 1950. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nehru was successful in the Herculean effort to transform India into a constitutional democracy, but his ambitious plans to modernize the economy proved more difficult to achieve.

To be sure, India avoided massive famines like the ones that ravaged Bengal in the mid-1940s and China during the “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But most Indians have not seen major improvements in their standard of living.

Post-colonial world

Where Nehru really shone was on the world stage. Urban, literate, charismatic and eloquent, he was convinced that India had a special role to play in international politics, despite its poverty and its relative weakness.

And to make sure that happens, Nehru has been his own Foreign Minister and Goodwill Ambassador.

Initially, Nehru’s main concern was the struggle against European imperialism, especially in Asia. Britain, France and the Netherlands all reaffirmed control of their colonial possessions in the region after World War II. In response, Nehru and Gandhi rallied the anti-colonial rulers, organizing the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 to chart the course for the continent.

In Nehru’s view, newly liberated or about to be liberated states in Asia should show the world a different way to conduct international relations.

They don’t need to be suspicious of the other’s intentions, nor to be greedy for the other’s territory, he argued. And they shouldn’t waste their scarce resources building armies or atomic bombs. Committed to social and economic development and to treating others with mutual respect, they could – and should – create a more just and peaceful world.

Nehru was very adept at using new platforms like the United Nations and global media to promote this vision. He gave impassioned speeches and charmed foreign journalists in lengthy interviews.

He campaigned against nuclear weapons, calling in 1954 for the superpowers to stop their increasingly destructive bomb tests. This paved the way for a partial ban on testing in 1963.

He called for an end to racial discrimination, especially in South Africa. He also tasked Indian diplomats to offer their mediation services in a range of disputes, including the Korean War and France’s disastrous attempt to cling to its colonial possessions in Indochina.

Non alignment

All along, Nehru has argued for what has come to be known as “non-alignment” – perhaps his greatest contribution to the world of the 20th century.

India and other post-colonial states, he argued, had no good reason to take sides in the Cold War and many reasons to maintain cordial relations with the United States and the Union. Soviet.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito at the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Belgrade in 1961. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

To ally with one or the other was too costly and compromising. He brought obligations to build armies and fight distant wars. And that meant giving up the ability to criticize your ally for doing things you didn’t agree with.

The non-alignment annoyed the Cold Warriors in Moscow and Washington. But it has proven popular elsewhere, especially among the newly independent states.

He helped inspire a series of major meetings designed to promote African and Asian cooperation in the shadow of American-Soviet competition, including the Bandung Conference in 1955, as well as the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the years. 1970.

Today, 120 states belong to the movement, although India’s interest in the bloc has waned as it has grown stronger and richer.

Nehru’s biggest failure

Nehru helped delegitimize imperialism and usher in a new world that is no longer dominated by European powers. He set out principles he hoped would encourage mutual respect in international relations – principles eagerly adopted, if not always followed, by other post-colonial leaders.

So it’s ironic that Nehru’s biggest failure – the one that irreparably tarnished his leadership and shattered his health – concerns foreign policy.

Convinced that China would abide by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” agreement it struck with India in the mid-1950s, Nehru did not anticipate a military conflict on the long-contested border. When Mao Zedong ordered a surprise attack in 1962, Indian forces were humiliated. And to Nehru’s dismay, neither the UN nor the superpowers intervened.

To critics, the Sino-Indian war exposed Nehru’s naivety and the limits of non-alignment. This forced India to retreat and rearm, and laid bare its dream of an Asia free from “power politics”.

Indian soldiers surrender to Chinese forces during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

India has traveled a lot since Nehru’s time and has left much of its heritage by the wayside. It now has the second largest army in the world – after China – and a nuclear arsenal. It has forged a strong security partnership with the United States.

But New Delhi is always wary of alliances or anything that could compromise the independence of voice or action. And he is as convinced today as when Nehru was in power that India is destined to play a special role in the world.

Ian Hall is Deputy Director (Research), Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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