Jawaharlal Nehru was recently accused of rejecting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in favour of China, but the story is far more complex than finance minister Arun Jaitley and others would have us believe. We cannot understand the matter without grasping the totalising nature of the Cold War, or India’s place in world affairs in the first decade after its Independence.
The first four signatories of the “Declaration of United Nations”, which formalised the anti-Axis alliance in World War II, were the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. These four would meet again at the tail end of the war, in Dumbarton Oaks outside of Washington D.C., to discuss the basic parameters of a new, eponymously named organisation, officially established the following year in San Francisco, with the original declaration morphing into the Charter. American President Franklin Roosevelt had originally conceived of these powers as “the four policemen”, the guarantors of the peace that was to follow. When the UNO came into being, they became the core of the new Security Council, along with France, which was added at Winston Churchill’s behest.
India was central to the establishment of the United Nations from its inception as well, demanding that the new body live up its ideals, to serve the greater good and the cause of world peace. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit led the charge at San Francisco as head of a counter-delegation to ensure that this was so. Her efforts ultimately had a significant payoff, leading via her victory over racist South African policies the following year, to the creation of the formal instruments of human rights.
But even as the newly created UN was getting off the ground, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were turning frosty. The situation rapidly deteriorated into an all-consuming face-off, the entire world divided into two camps, each soon armed with the terrifying new (nuclear) power to turn whole cities to ash.
The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed primarily because the United States, the Great Power whose idea it was, had stayed out. As a result, the League had been impotent to prevent another catastrophic global conflict. So, ensuring the United Nations’ survival, while also ensuring the Great Powers’ participation and an ever-expanding membership, was of paramount importance.
For Nehru, India had a unique role to play. It would not join either side and instead actively court both. By speaking truth and building trust, India hoped both to defrost global diplomacy and keep the world from burning down. It was, in a sense, a song of Ice and Fire.
In 1950, the United States proposed that India take the place of China as a permanent member of the Security Council. Revolutionaries had just beaten nationalists in China, and the new People’s Republic simply wanted to assume the posts and positions its forerunner had held. But the US saw this as a significant shift in the balance of power from capitalist to communist and sought to check this move. As scholar Anton Harder has shown, the USSR walked out of the UN in protest. Months later, hot conflict broke out on the Korean peninsula, and the US Secretary of State immediately threatened atomic force.
It was in this background that the US then made its offer to India.
Nehru and the emissary through which all of this ran, his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, knew immediately what they had to do. There was too much at stake, and only India was seen as an honest broker, largely because of Nehru’s own great moral stature. To take the seat would have destabilised relations with the Soviets and with the Chinese, and risked nuclear fallout. Moreover, any alterations to the Security Council would have involved amending the UN Charter, an arduous process that risked destroying what was already a very fragile consensus. China, in whatever manifestation, was still a Great Power, and ejecting it from the organisation it helped create would have replicated a seminal interwar mistake.
Nehru told his sibling that India was “certainly entitled to a permanent seat….” But there could simply be no national security if there was no global security. It was in India’s immediate strategic national interest at the time to decline.
The wisdom of Nehru’s decision was immediately apparent. After hostilities in Korea had gone on for some time, both the US and the Soviets covertly reached out to India to help resolve tensions and it is the ceasefire that India then negotiated that led to the armistice that holds true through today.
The Soviet offer in 1955, which also opened the door to possible council enlargement, was made by Soviet Premier Nicolai Bulganin in conversation with Nehru, who again rebuffed the suggestion for essentially the same reasons. India was not interested in being the pawn of either superpower’s machinations. China could not be excluded from the UN without risking the organisation’s basic premise and purpose (although it would take a visit from US President Richard Nixon in 1971 before the matter was finally settled). Opening discussions about the Charter, which expanding the UNSC would also involve, was equally a non-starter, for that could threaten the international institution’s very existence.
And by then Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, had secretly contacted Nehru, again through Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, warning him of the development of even more deadly nuclear weapons and pleading with them to stay the course of their foreign policy to save the world from total destruction. (Nayantara Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing a Savage World. New Delhi: Penguin, 2011)
Nehru never, in fact, declined a permanent seat on the Security Council. The US and USSR had each merely broached the subject, although their offers were serious and the potential was there. Nehru shut down these conversations fairly quickly because they came with many strings attached, and the ensuing entanglements would likely have rendered India a muted marionette in the last act of the Cold War.
But this was not staged theatre. Real lives were at stake, and Jawaharlal Nehru put them first.
The author is a Professor of History and Human Rights at Hunter College and the Graduate Center-The City University of New York, and Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute. He is writing a biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. His new book, India and the Cold War, is releasing late summer/early fall from UNC Press and Penguin India. Follow @ManuBhagavan.
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