The Cold War’s first major hot conflict had been raging since 1950 on the Korean peninsula. From the start, India had counseled restraint and warned of the dire consequences of escalation, while also arguing that efforts to isolate and blame China for aggression would ultimately prove counterproductive.
With what historian Vineet Thakur describes as an entrepreneurial spirit spearheaded by savvy diplomats B. N. Rau and V. K. Krishna Menon, India persevered, shuttling back and forth between the warring sides and their allies, eventually negotiating an acceptable settlement crafted in the armistice that went into effect in mid- 1953.
Some of India’s momentum that year was generated by the death of Joseph Stalin, whom Nehru had always distrusted, even as he pursued engagement guided by the belief that a caged bear was always the most dangerous. Nikita Khrushchev’s assumption of power afforded new possibilities and channels of communication, and a burst of sunshine amid otherwise gloomy forecasts. Nehru really believed that a turning point had been reached, or at least was near, not just in terms of bilateral relations, but in broader Cold War terms as well.
Nowhere was this general optimism more apparent than in the simultaneously dramatic efforts to solve the primary challenge that India continued to face at home and abroad: the fraught relations with its neighbor Pakistan produced by the partition of the subcontinent, especially over the unresolved status of the contested territory of Kashmir.
A flurry of activity occurred between India and the United States following a complex but related debate in the United Nations over the question of self- determination. The Human Rights Committee had agreed, following its decision to create twin covenants on political and civil liberties and on economic, social, and cultural rights, to make the right to self- determination the first right listed in both documents.
There had been widespread agreement among Global South delegates that the concept was thought of in relation to empire, inasmuch as freedom from imperial control was seen as a necessary precondition for any kind of human rights to be effectual. But how the public will necessary for self- determination was to be judged remained unclear.
Although India initially agreed that plebiscites were the only real mechanism available, it later went along with a push from the United States to allow elections to count as well. Nehru was adamant about keeping India in line with international norms. This change allowed him to approach the Kashmir matter from a different angle, and so, in consultation with U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and members of his own team, and crucially with Pakistani support, he pursued a final settlement with Pakistan and Kashmir.
This essentially would have solidified the status quo, allowing Pakistan to incorporate the portion of the state under its control, and India to do the same, with elections used as a means to legitimize the process. But Cold War exigencies simply proved too great: the United States and Pakistan concluded an accord by the end of that year, throwing power relations in the subcontinent into imbalance and torpedoing the deal.
India for its part opted to stay the course, convinced that nuclear holocaust was the only alternative to its serving as an active, impartial advocate of global peace. It had good reason for thinking this. Robert Oppenheimer, a renowned theoretical physicist who played a leading role in the development of atomic weapons as part of the U.S. Manhattan Project, had secretly contacted both Madam Pandit and her brother, warning of even more terrible weapons then in development. Oppenheimer beseeched Nehru to save the world, arguing that only he possessed the stature and goodwill necessary to fend off catastrophe.
While working on the Korean armistice and attempting to resolve its neighborhood problems, India helped establish a disarmament subcommittee through the U.N. General Assembly, expanded its contribution to worldwide peacekeeping forces, and began a serious push to eliminate the nuclear threat.
This excerpt from India and the Cold War, edited by Manu Bhagavan, has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.