Illustration by Soham Sen/ThePrint
Illustration by Soham Sen/ThePrint
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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.


Also read: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s younger sister who slammed Indira for Emergency


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.


Also read: Nehru’s words to UN in 1948 still ring true: ‘Forget politics, focus on economic troubles’


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.


Also read: India never had an offer to become permanent UNSC member — this is a fact


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.

Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.


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55 COMMENTS

  1. If UNSC Seat was indeed offered to Nehru in 1950, it would be Nehru’s seat and not India’s. It would all be the charisma and statemanship of Nehru who was PM as well as External Affairs Minister. Just 3 years before, the same west declared that India would disintegrate before a decade. Question is, why didn’t Modi get us that seat in 5 years? Truthfully, Shashi Tharoor is hamstrung by his comments before he joined Congress when he was a Nehru-baiter. He is giving mixed messages and helping right-wing. All Nehru asked was that Communist China be allowed into UN Generalbody. He said nothing about the UNSC Seat. He in fact did not like the elite body 5 members calling the shots. UNSC Seat was transferred from RoC to PRoC as a result of Nixon’s U-turn. Nehru had no role.

  2. Powers that were then are powerful even now. Nehru’s scared view of siding with either side of the cold war means nothing and feeble judgment. The Non Alignment venture was indeed a FAILURE in the long run and irreparable loss for India.

  3. Even if one has to agree with this writer and appreciate the brother and sister, was there any such limitation in UNSC that the membership be limited to just five nations? If Nehru didn’t want to antagonise the Sino-Soviet block, he could have worked out further to ensure that UNSC would havecsix members …both China and India included.

  4. It is heartening to note that most of the commentators have disagreed with Mr. Manu Bhagavan views and ridiculed him and the Print for writing such an article. I am a common man recently retired from Government service and with a little bit of education plus the experience/exposure of all these years, I can say that people like Mr. Bhagavan are just degree holders, not learned enough. They use their degrees to grab plum Professorships of reputed academic Institutions, just to become eminent personalities and then to mint money iternationally. It suits them to brag about Gandhi or Nehru as the duo sells more than all other Indians put together.
    Coming to the point, one commentator viz. Mr. Srinivasan is right that it was Formosa which was to be replaced with India as a permanent member of the UNO way back in 1950, as USA was not willing to let Peoples Republic of China to inherit the seat subsequently. However, twenty years hence, USA(Mr. Nixon & Mr. Kissinger) felicitated China’s entry to the UN in a very changed world scenario of 1971.
    Nehru was a selfish yes man of a selfish Gandhi, with whose blessings he was keen to become PM of independent India. That is why he got rid of Subhas Chandra Bose from the Congress much earlier, though Bose was the undisputed leader of a majority of Congressmen at large.
    Some of the commentators are right that Nehru was aiming to get the Noble peace prize and I shall add that Gandhi was also greedy to get the Noble. Both were determined to place their stature before that of mother India.
    If only these two persons were removed from the scenario before India’s independence, things would have been much much better for we Indians. Gandhi and Nehru were and would continue to be a curse on India.

  5. Nehru was a weak and short sighted prime minister. He should have been smart enough to grab the opportunity and make both super powers it’s friend. That’s the meaning of non alignment. Patel warned him of Chinese design and possible agression in 1950 but he ignored and supported China. Now because of Nehru we not only lost seat in UNSC but also territory to China and now China has used gesture by Nehru to block banning Masood. What a great statesman Nehru was ?

  6. Nehru was weak. Non Alignment means equi distance and both power thinks India is their favourite. But Nehru was weak and he chose non alignment not out conviction but because of his weakness. China anyway was India’s enemy. Patel had warned in 1950 but Nehru ignored. He lost not only seat in UNSC but also territory to China and now China uses the power of UNSC to block banning Masood. This all thanks to short sighted Nehru whom some people are hell bent on glorifying.

  7. Nehru said and walked the talk of economy matters the most than politics(world politics) , the situation then was different to the present, India received independence recently with all the trouble of poverty, partition sowed by the British, drained resources , to start afresh was the big challenge in itself along with pestering neighborhood.
    He had to act balanced to avoid another nuclear fallout which would again affect our country at that time. If he would lobbied for a permanent seat which would have affected the balance of capitalism & communism resulting to dismantling of UN itself.

  8. Misbegotten opinion of a power mongering bigot. He has deprived India of a place in world policy making. Unfortunate properganda to highlight the so called legacy of Nehru!

  9. The author clearly shows how what Behru thought, and his sister thought, not what was never even discussed in parliament, became India s stance. A great liberal, nevertheless Nehru had short term thinking and serious flaws which make realise that too much adulation and too much authority in a name, a family etc , has crippled India s chances from a strategic longer term perspective. The ego of such folk and their brilliance, has overshadowed long term benfits to India. Korean armistice and ither such cases would not have stopped if India was a UNSC member, and today I did has lost more opportunities including to be dictated to by local terrorist nation’s, due to these issues. Nehru was a great PM with low strategic insight.A man who helped set up the Indian multiculturalism into modern India, he nevertheless was also a bit if a dictator who lost us long term strategic points.

  10. The author should have been more detailed in this article. I am a history buff and as far as I know, India did not have a role in the Korean ceasefire. I am hearing about it for the first time. Even the Nehru-Gandhi family or the Congress have never claimed credit for the same. Even if he had done so, did he do it as part of the UN or as part of NAM.
    Finally, the author should educate the readers on whether Nehru & his sister regretted their decisions once we lost the war with China.
    In politics, every offer or position always comes with strings attached. Once we were already close to the Soviet Union and getting their support in defense, we needed a counter against China. By accepting the permanent seat at the UNSC, Nehru would have given permanent power to the largest democracy on the world stage plus checkmated China while having leverage against colonial powers like USA & UK.
    So, my opinion about the author’s article is that he remains as short sighted as Nehru.

  11. It is Mr Gandhi and Mr Neheru who are responsible for the partition of our country on religious basis. It is Mr Gandhi who made Neheru as a first PM of India. Mr Neheru didn’t deserve the post of PM of India. Mr. Patel, the Iron man, actually deserve post of first PM of India. Mr . Gandhi and Mr Neheru are both responsible for all the problems of India. When country was divided on the basis of religions and Pakistan people throughout Hindus from their land, why we kept Muslim in our part. Now they ( mostly) became anti indian and supporter of terrorists and their activities.
    Neheru creat problems for Kasmir where as Mr Patel tried to solved it. Mr Neheru denyed UNSC permanent membership for which we are struggling since now. Mr. Neheru create problems between India and China when Mr. Patel cautioned him long before.
    Now some people are trying to cover up all things for which we are suffering since long time. It is really a shameless act and I don’t know how much money have been handed over for this.

  12. The writer himself is a list soul….In simple words Nehru was simply not smart enough to put forward India’s interest by not taking any sides at all…. Nehru simple didn’t had that smartness which was required for this political maneuver….He was only good at buttering bapu , which was how he hot the job in the first place….Look how modi is balancing our Israel relations with gulf and… American relations with Russia…All are happy today….. Nehru was a big looser.

  13. Print is trying to glorify Nehru with the help of some authors who hail from either same family or JNU quarters, whereas Nehru was aspiring to become a global figure at the cost of our country & for which he had ditched national interests to unpardonable levels.

  14. For those who are criticising this article as fanboy article… Read the para of this article below…
    “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.”
    Anyone has the right to criticise and comment… But first know the history and situations properly… Without knowing the history of this country yu can’t be a complete patriot

  15. Did anyone clearly read this para….(who are criticising the article as Fanboy article) Stop commenting without properly knowing the history nd situations….

    “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.”

  16. Nehru wanted to play a key role on international stage. He would have succeeded but for the fact that India was weak economically and militarily. You would be respected only if you are strong. Finally even China who Nehru considered a friend turned hostile.

  17. There would always be loads of people to defend Nehru and duplicate Gandhi family.. But none to defend anyone against them specifically BJP.. so its biased to the core and hence have no weight.. China is hitting only India whom Nehru had given a gift.. Congress will have to take responsibility for it and if they seriously want to grow again, they must focus /support policies which strengthen our country..

  18. Ridiculous rationale by a Nehru fanboy. It was all about the uber narcissistic Nehru. He always kept himself ahead of India. We paid for his insecurities. In 1950 India was not a democracy rather the Nehru CULT.

  19. Ultimately our country is suffering with 1.3 billion of population fighting in and out of her territory due to immatured decisions of Nehru. All countries like Russia, UK betrayed India in need. By that time of nearly 70 years, China has become more powerful and prosperous now showing red eyes to us. After 70 years we are still struggling due to poverty, castism, health and above all huge population. Whose fordightedness has created this? Do you have any answer?

  20. What an unconvincing article from the learned Professor! As if the burden of keeping the world nuclear free and peaceful fell only on Nehru and India! What about India’s own strategic interests? Nehru should have immediately accepted such an offer by arguing that India, as an active participant in the War with millions of its soldiers fighting as a part of Allied forces was a natural and due its sheer size and population, a rightful occupant of a seat in the Security Council. In any case, whether India would have actually got the seat or not is another story but to quickly respond by writing a letter rejecting the offer and extolling great virtues of the Chinese was a total non sense. Along with Kashmir and Tibet/China, this is the third biggest folly of Nehru which has badly compromised India’s strategic interests.

  21. What is this crap article suggesting. So nehru was saving the world by declining U.N seat and in 1950 afraid of china. So that why hindi Chini bhai bhai jumla and china kicked nehru ass in 1962. What a short sighted moron was nehru was? He should aligned with most powerful national and enjoy the fruits. Who cares for morality of weak? This is the bitter truth.

  22. The question I have is was Nehru PM of India or PM of world? As elected PM of India his oath were to look after interest of India fist., not his leftist ideology. If to him interest of India was secondary to other interest, He should have resigned. It shows his total lack of integrity, which he also showed in dealing with issues of Muslims of India vs. Hindus of Pakistan.

  23. So all was milk and honey after this magnanimous gesture from our first PM.Err..or not ? At least we can pat ourselves on the back ,as the author seems to imply,that we saved the world from immediate and certain annihilation..hahahaha!

  24. The article being from “The Print”, one needn’t expect anything but a cover-up for the Nehru – Gandhi family. Paid media.

  25. How can the people justify these things. GDP rank 7th in world 1.34 billion people .18 percent of world population. Still cannot represent india in unsc and nsg as well .shame on us. That’s all I can say. I do not have any lucrative word and vocabulary to prove that nehru had done right by denying us the right to fuck Pakistan and China both if we would have made it to unsc by any means. Madharchod logon ki chalte India aaj bhikhari jaise behave kar raha hai.we are miserly begging in front of world so called fake superpowers to label one road side loafer massood as global terrorist who once urinated in his pants while interrogation with Indian army when he was in srinagar jail.the fact is that we Indians don’t have spine to fight against terrorist and we will end up blaming each other .what we are doing today will be shaping our future. India should bomb their shelters again and again to make them bite the dust.

  26. I m sure..people who is against our first prime minister Nehru ji..don’t read history, so they don’t believe in taking lessons from history, they believe what their leader say with ulterior motives. That time we were budding nation.. So most important challenge was how to progress in war during hovering cod war time by saving resources militarily and economically. But ignore all , we will progress forward not backward with out great leader vision.

  27. Nehru apologists, which this website abounds with, can dress it up as they wish but they cannot hide the fact that it was a stupid decision from India’s national interest perspective. Nehru usurped power from Patel (thanks to Gandhi) and then compounded with choices and decisions Patel would never have made that is costing India dearly 70 plus years later. No amount of idealistic or ideological clap trap can excuse or justify that. Global politics is a matter of real power politics and if a country does not stand up for its own interest and security no one else will! For a man so erudite and brought up in an elite environment, he totally lacked common sense and a strategic sense and foresight. For what good he did his omissions far outweigh them and sooner the rest of his progeny is confined to the dustbin of history the better for India. At least Nehru was not a half wit compared to his great grandson, so one dreads to think what further harm this moron could visit upon our country given half a chance!

  28. Sickening the prejudiced views of anti-freedom, The Mahatmas killer party to now claim to be The Nationalist, The Patriot party whose tallest leader Atal BehariVajpayee was a self confessed admirer of Nehru and had called Mrs. Gandhi after the Bangladesh victory. Foot soldiers of BJP that which like the duo leading you today do not talk on matters beyond your comprehension. Do what you do best, the hook or by crook craft you have mastered. Tall promises , money and muscle power to remain in power without delivering on all the pledges made in 2014 to come to power. Before criticising others do stop and introspect. Look at the mirror for seeing your reflection you on your own will shrivel.

  29. What Nehru did refusing the permanent membership of the UN Security Council did not suited to India in future .It shows the inability of Nehru to judge the future impact of his decision about the country’s fate . Actually since independence Nehru was keen to show himself the angel of peace to get the Nobel prize of the peace even at the cost of the country. In my view if Nehru accepted that China and Pakistan did not dare to challenge the sovereignity of India in future. He did so not to become the enemy of Russia and China , but Russia did not come to help India at the time of China as well as Pakistani invasions and attacks over the India .Thus what India got in regard to her sacrifice . Thus the article of The Print is nothing but to save the face of Nehru and hide his inabilitis regarding the country .

  30. India was to replace Taiwan (It was Formosa those days) and not China. It was only in 1971 that People’s Republic of China (Communist China / Mainlan China) became a permanent member replacing Republic of China (Taiwan).

    So, the writer’s account is questionable. Looks like a story to cover up and in support of Nehru

  31. Even if this article is true, it shows how short sighted was Nehru. If you can’t think big you are total failure. All these years Indians believed we should follow USA. Modi changed it. We are also powerful. Let India’s strength be known to world. Today we are a power and world has to listen to us.

  32. How would India’s permanent seat with veto power made the world a better place? Only answer available is to use that position for India’s nationalist advantage against its rivals.. In that way every nation can aspire a permanent seat. India is not USA or USSR to use UNSC as its tool. Even now Indian ruling elite is only clamouring to be a junior partner to USA and its representative in Asia to counter its chief rival .

  33. On independent indoa, the first holy cow is nehru. Congress party, originsl amd indra gandhi’s, made criticising nehru a taboo.

  34. I am not convinced enough on this matter. What was the problem if India had accepted the offer. In case of France also the UN Charter was amended on initiative of U S, so what was problem if an amendment would have made in favour of India. It was Nehru who was not in favour of maintaining even Army after getting independence. ,All problems were created and nurtured by Congress, and politics has been played by every political party of India, on these contentious issues.

  35. It is only purposal by USA and Russia will not going to support it .Nehru wisely rejected it .unfortunately for every reason people are criticising and abusing him which not correct.The person who is responsible for establishing IITs , steel authority and public sector units which made us self reliant and above all democracy allowed dissent ( which is not happening right now ) .critics tactilly forget his contributions.At end of the day people need to understand that there is no substitute for truth .

  36. Neharu and pandit want Nobel peace prize.they overlooked the nation first policy. Very short vision.china a sleeping dragon every body knew that.we got a 3000 km border with them.he forgot that also.

  37. All who believe in the myth that India was offered a UNSC seat, have not to go far back, but read Nehru’s statement in Parliament in 1950. India was never offered a seat. The US was only testing through emissories if it could wean away from the Soviet influence. Fact is no offer of UNSC seat was made to India.

    • 1950 you say. Do you know when China got the seat ? Why was it kept vacant for so long ? Die-hard apologists of the Dynasty have brought this country to bankruptcy. Only PVNR saved it. And how did the Dynasty treat such a great son ? You must be ashamed to be an apologist for the RAGA-SOGA Gang. that (Gang) is the level to which the Dynasty has sunk !

  38. What did you tell us that we didn’t really know? Sorry who cares if someone’s sister also was against India joining UNSC. This is the whole point. Family takes decision as if India was their property. Damn

  39. We in India nor the leaders nor the people never think of future. That’s why, take any problem, today we are facing. Hence I like Mr. Modiji, who thinks ahead and dares.

  40. In the 50s, China was capturing Tibet, bit by bit, and nehru was somewhat against it, as evidenced by refuge given to HH Dalai Lama and fellow tibetan people.
    Ideologically as well, Nehru was a social Democrat while China became revolutionary communist, becoming inspiration for our own “maoist guerrilla” problems. Weren’t these reasons (apart from India’s entry at the big table) strong enough for India to take the offer and show door to the authoritarian Chinese.

  41. These are shallow reasons for declining the Offer. By helping China, could we stop it from back stabbing us in 1962? That country still is a headache in our growth. So far as USSR is concerned, a wise and neutral move would have kept it in our favour. Modi is nicely maintaining balance between two adversaries US & Russia. A blunder of not accepting the offer is always a blunder notwithstanding justifications given by Congress patronised media. We are still suffering for two biggest blunders, one in case of Kashmir another not accepting Permanent UN Seat in UN. All the facts must be brought honestly before the new Generation, so that they can decide who was right & who was wrong.

  42. The Nehru’s had short term vision limited to how the world will their decision rather than how good or effective the decision will be for the long term good of the country. Such persons make good actors, but are horrible leaders.

  43. Nehru dynasty did all right things for India? Even in hind sight, they all are the best decisions?
    Kashmir, China and not using airforce in China war, socialism, license raj, dynasty, giving up 90k soldiers without getting India 55 still incarcerated army men, not resolving Kashmir then and let it rot, Shah bano, appeasement and total free for all corruption, lack of villages education health and look where is China, Korea, Malaysia even Bangladesh srilanka in HDI, leave alone Singapore.
    What good have the done for country ????

    • 👍
      This is what happens when a non deserving person lacking vision & guts, becomes PM !
      Stopping Indian Army from recapturing J&K midway, taking the matter to UN, incorporating article 370 in the Constitution, pampering Sheikh Abdullah, turning a blind eye to all Chinese activities in 50’s, not using IAF in 1962 war, etc…..
      History proves that all these decisions were adverse to national interests as the then PM lacked vision (& guts) and sidelined all those who tried to show him the light.
      This article appears to be a failed attempt to justify Nehru’s decision so as to revive prospects of INC.

  44. Why The Print is going out of the way to glorify the legacy of Nehru who is root cause of many of problems faced by India now. His flawed policy has put India in the Underdeveloped category even after 70 years. His policy on Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Pak and Kashmir has backfired. The Print shall stop being a mouth piece for Nehru and Gandhi pariwar.

  45. This ignores one critical point. What is the weight of an average Indian’s view on the world stage vs that of the average Chinese? After all this membership would have belonged to every Indian and not to Nehru personally. So today the average Indian does not enjoy the power of the veto which the average Chinese American Russian does. Did Nehru have the right to give this power away? Did he even think from this perspective?

  46. No number of excuses no amount of propaganda can wash away the sins committed by Nehru and Nehru dynasty!
    Matter of fact remains that if strong nation Bharat is not having a permanent representation in the United nation security council and that is costing the nation very heavily!
    And the guy responsible is treacherous Nehru!

  47. One can argue that the Dramatis personae were all Nehru’s family, acolytes and apologists. Hence, impartiality & neutrality is suspect.

    • A weak leader like Nehru culminated in committing in plethora of mistakes for which every Indian is suffering. To rectify those mistakes will take another century. This should be borne in mind and help Modi to drive this Family out of India.

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