Wanna Blame Nehru for China’s UNSC Membership? First, Read History

Of late, many have accused Nehru of conspiring to give China a permanent UNSC seat. But what really happened?

Published18 Mar 2019, 10:13 AM IST
6 min read

Of late, there has been a flurry of accusations about how Independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, conspired to give China a seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Some of the accusations quote, albeit selectively, from a letter written by Nehru to the chief ministers on 2 August 1955:

Informally, suggestions have been made by the United States that China should be taken into the United Nations but not in the Security Council, & that India should take her place in the Security Council.
Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter on 2 August 1955

Nehru has also said, “... We cannot, of course, accept this as it means falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the Security Council.”

What We’ve Ignored in Nehru’s Statement on UNSC Seat

Conveniently ignored is Nehru’s statement on 27 September 1955, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha by Dr JN Parekh, on whether India had refused a seat informally offered to her in the UNSC: “There has been no offer, formal or informal, of this kind. Some vague references have appeared in the press about it which have no foundation in fact. The composition of the Security Council is prescribed by the UN Charter, according to which certain specified nations have permanent seats. No change or addition can be made to this without an amendment of the Charter. There is, therefore, no question of a seat being offered and India declining it.”

Did US Make a ‘Suggestion’ to India About UNSC Seat in Mid ‘50s?

So, what is the reality? Did the US make a formal or an informal suggestion to India at that time about a seat at the UNSC? And if yes, why did Nehru not jump at that offer? Well, the answer lies in our condition post-Partition, in geopolitics and the dynamics of the Cold War dominated bi-polar world.

During World War-II, Britain, to sustain its war efforts, had milked undivided India of both resources and manpower.

After WW-II ended in September 1945, with Britain's coffers empty, the British public became averse to expenditure incurred on maintaining colonies, Winston Churchill's party was voted out, and the pro-independence Labour Party was voted in. As the sub-continent descended into communal chaos, 15 August 1947 was set as the date for ‘Independence’.

With neither Sikhs/Hindus nor Muslims wanting to leave their homesteads and farms in the fertile undivided Punjab, sectarian hatred peaked. Consequently, India and Pakistan went through a violent partition that was fraught with mass migration and violent bloodletting – over 10 lakh died and about 1.5 crores were displaced. Thus, post-Partition, India was an impoverished nation, bereft of industry and technology, with a weak economy, confronted by a hostile Pakistan and beset by internal turmoil.

Importantly, the consolidation of India was still in progress, with some colonies / princely states still holding out.

Post-Partition India Didn’t Want a New Imperial ‘Master’ in the US

WW-II had decimated the navies of Britain, France, Germany and Japan, which also eviscerated their capabilities to maintain colonies. The broader outcome was that the United States of America emerged as the primary naval power, with substantial global expeditionary capabilities. By August 1948, with the Cold War gaining traction, the US began trying to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of Europe’s colonial empires, particularly in East, South, West Asia and the oil-rich Middle-East.

With US’s critical oil-bearing Sea Lines of Communications passing just below India, the former began making serious overtures to India to join the US-led Cold War camp.

Post-Partition India had been forged together by integrating a large number of small states. Hence, the incumbent leadership, wanting to concentrate on internal cohesion and consolidation, did not want to literally replace the British with this new imperial power, the US – but wanted to preserve the hard-won sovereignty by adhering to "swadeshi", and to ensure that eventually, India gained an independent role abroad, commensurate with its 5,000-year civilisational history.

Nevertheless, in the Cold War dominated bi-polar world, the nascent nation did require a powerful patron. Hence, India opted for Non-Alignment, and later began leaning towards the USSR.

India’s Post-Partition Strategy of Leaning Towards USSR

In sum: there actually was a grand strategy behind this distancing from the US and the tilt towards the USSR. With no common land-frontiers and a middling navy, the USSR did not have the ability to impose a satellite status on India – but could yet provide that critical economic aid, military hardware and technology. The US on the other hand, in pursuance of its Cold War imperatives and expeditionary capabilities, would have sought bases in India, and behaved like a typical imperialistic power.

With the Cold War peaking, the US however, perceived India’s Non-Alignment and the tilt towards USSR as a grave danger.

It felt that if the Soviets were able to get naval bases in India, or if India began constructing a significant navy with the help of the Soviets, and/or began acting in concert with the latter, it would threaten US’s maritime access through the Indian Ocean.

Hence, the US first tried to ‘bribe’ India with offers of inclusion in the UNSC. It needs to be noted that this offer was not free or altruistic – it came with a rider, “join our camp”.

Such a “suggestion” was ostensibly first made by the US in 1950 and repeated in 1955. The same year (1955), India opted for a relationship with USSR.

How Pakistan Became US’s ‘Most Allied Ally in Asia’

With India not falling victim to its plans, the US opted for an alliance with Pakistan in order to balance India. The US-Pak ‘alliance’ began in 1954 with the signing of the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement and the subsequent inclusion of Pakistan in the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) (renamed Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) after Iraq left this pact in 1958).

In 1959, the US and Pakistan signed a bilateral Agreement of Cooperation, and Pakistan was termed as “America’s most allied ally in Asia”.

Astride this broad period, a series of events were unfolding along Asia’s southern rim that threatened US interests – the British were leaving Singapore, the Indonesian independence movement was coming under Soviet influence, Egypt (and the Suez Canal) too was moving into the Soviet camp. Hence, the US also began arming Pakistan with weapons for land and air warfare. This armament was meant to serve two clear purposes:

  1. pose a threat to India on land and air
  2. force India to divert resources from naval construction and instead focus solely on building ground and air forces to deal with Pakistan. The Indian defence budgets of the last 50 years bear testimony to this.

Thus, even in hindsight, this decision of not acquiescing to the US’s demand and succumbing to the “bribe”, merits appreciation. Had we sided with the US, perhaps India too would have been in the same situation that beset some of the countries that had opted to side with the US in that era, e.g. Iran, Pakistan.

From 1955-1971, US Had All the Time to Induct India Into UNSC

Next: did China get the UNSC membership at the expense of India? The Republic of China (ROC) was one of the Four Powers (along with the USA, UK and USSR) that had worked out the draft Charter of the United Nations at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference. These were the very same powers that had fought WW-II in close concert.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was formed in 1949. This was followed by the Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) and the Taiwan Straits Crisis (First: 1954-1955; Second: 1958), during which the US had threatened the use of nuclear weapons against China. By 1960, its relations with the former Soviet Union had worsened. In 1964, the PRC conducted its first nuclear weapon test.

The UNSC however, continued to include the ROC amongst its five permanent members till 25 October 1971, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, which replaced the ROC with the PRC. In other words, from 1955 till 1971, if the US had really wanted, it had all the time to induct India into the UNSC.

It is often tempting to think that where and what we are today is the result of the decisions of a few exceptional or incompetent leaders. In reality, every country has geopolitical constraints as well as core interests. No leader can afford to compromise the core interests – even as successive leaders are beset by the same constraints that their predecessors faced. The constraints place clear restrictions on leaders – they cannot overcome the broad, abstract forces of geographical location, demography, resources, economic and military strength. Some still try – and when they fail, they tend to blame their predecessors.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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