Nehru’s ideas on foreign policy were as pragmatic and practical as his socialism. This policy was firmly based on national interests and current realities in the world. Though, especially in the later years, he often expounded the moral virtues of non-alignment and, in his efforts to explain his efforts to his own people, he annoyed other governments by seeming to claim a great deal for India, there was not so much a priggish parading of principle or a messianic universalism as a strengthening of India’s position. It was part of the search for self-reliance, required to buttress political independence.


Non-alignment was not a product of Nehru’s whims but the expression of the state of mind prevalent among the newly-free countries of Asia after the Second World War. In March 1947, just when the “cold war” was developing in Europe, Nehru gave expression to this viewpoint at the Asian relations conference: “For too long we of Asia have been petitioners in Western courts and chancelleries. That story must now belong to the past. We propose to stand on our own feet and to cooperate with all others who are prepared to cooperate with us. We do not intend to be the playthings of others”.1 For centuries India and the other countries of Asia had been treated as the outer fringes of the great powers of Europe and America, and though these Asian peoples had no problems or divisive interests among themselves, they had extraneous conflicts and decisions thrust upon them. They had now no intention of continuing to inherit the problems of other peoples; but they could not, even if they wished, opt out of the world. Since 1945, passivity as a foreign policy has been out of the question far most countries. So Nehru set himself the task of working towards the assertion of certain principles which were not only good in themselves but in India’s interests–anti-colonialism, anti-racism, the concerted move-away from economic under-development, the building of ever widening areas of peace. Even on ‘cold war’ issues India could exercise independence of judgment if her specific interests were not involved; such an attitude would be proper on grounds of principle as well as work to her special advantage. It was ‘not a wise policy to put all your eggs in one basket’... purely from the point of view of opportunism, if you like, a straight­-forward, honest policy, an independent policy is the best”. 2


The realistic element in Nehru’s foreign policy stands forth clearly when we look at specific problems. India’s mem­bership of the Commonwealth was not the result of Nehru’s liking for all things British. Immediately after 1947, the Soviet Union regarded India as still a camp follower of the West, con­demned all the policies of the Government of India and directed the Indian Communist Party to rebellion. Such Soviet antipathy drove India to lean more and more on the Western Powers. At the conference of Commonwealth prime ministers in October 1948, Nehru, while critical of the aggressiveness of the United States, particularly in economic matters, added that the Asian peoples had no sympathy for Soviet expansionism and recom­mended that publicity be given to this aspect of Soviet policy rather than to criticism of communism as an economic doctrine or a way of life. This, taken with Jinnah’s efforts to tease India out of the Commonwealth and India’s military weakness and economic dependence, made it worthwhile remaining in the organisation; and it would also relieve India from over­dependence on the United States. In 1949, Nehru does not even seem to have expected the Commonwealth to remain in existence for long; for in reply to Jayaprakash’s criticism that membership suggested a lack of self-confidence and implicit commitment to one of the power blocs, Nehru spoke of the great practical help that India’s association would secure for at least two or three years and at very slight cost. The future was free as air, but for the time being membership of the Commonwealth would be useful. “We are apt”, he warned Jayaprakash,3 “to be too sure of our stability, internal and external. Taking that for granted we proceed to endeavour to remodel the world.


The Commonwealth, of course, has lasted longer than ex­pected; and once India’s stability had been assured, the organi­sation had to be used by India unsentimentally, to further her policies without inhibiting them. Nehru converted it into one of the great junctions of world affairs and harnessed it in support of his China and Korea policies. In the early and mind-fifties, he held the key position in the Commonwealth. But, where major issues were involved, he did not allow it to deflect him from the path he had chosen. Suez is well­-known; but a less publicised problem was Africa. To Nehru Africa was a neighbour across the sea and of direct concern to India. So, while he regretted the Mau Mau movement and the recourse to violence in Kenya, he came round to the view that, in the face of British provocation, Africans had really no alternative to resistance. ‘How any decent person who is an African can be a ‘loyalist’ passes my comprehension.”4 Talk of the different races living together, condemnation of terrorism and emphasis on the interests of the Indian communities in Africa were all meaningless in the face of the heavy offensive that the British were mounting against the African people. ‘We are all for the multiracial society, but I am getting a little tired of the repetition of this phrase when the African is being kicked, hounded and shot down and the average Indian prays for safety first.’5 The conviction of Kenyatta was a purely politi­cal act which the Africans could not be expected to accept. Nothing that the Africans had done was as bad as the racial domination of the white settlers, and preaching to the African was an impertinence when his house was on fire and he himself in agony and torture, ‘I am not interested at present in petty reforms for the Africans; that is a matter for them to decide. I am interested in standing by people who are in great trouble and who have to face tremendous oppression by a powerful Government. I should condemn of course every species of violence and give no quarter to it. But I shall stand by the Africans nevertheless. That is the only way I can serve them and bring them round to what I consider to be the right path.’ 6 Public statements on these lines evoked the wrath of the British Government, but Nehru would not shift his position, and when the British continued to object, Nehru sent a sharply worded rejection. ‘Our Government is not used to being addressed in this way by any Government and I can only conclude that he (the British Commonwealth Secre­tary) has for the moment forgotten that he is addressing the independent Republic of India....It has been our constant endeavour not to embarrass the British Government and we have tried to cooperate with them to the largest possible extent subject to adhering to our own principles and policies. We shall continue to do so, but we are not prepared to change these principles and policies because of any pressure exercised on us by an outside authority.”7 Throughout his years in office, Nehru, despite India’s membership of the Commonwealth, did not fail to keep faith with the African people and to press his views on British policy-markers.


Another little-known string of events in 1955 also shows Nehru’s matter-of-fact approach as well as the usefulness and the limitations of nonalignment. The Asian-African conference at Bandung in April 1955 was not specifically a conference of nonaligned countries, but those countries which were represen­ted there gained a greater cohesion. Though Nehru was by now severely critical of many aspects of American policy, particularly military aid to Pakistan, he still sought to avoid leaning more in favour of one side in the “cold war”. He assured the United States of lack of hostility but suggested that the world crisis should be interpreted not in terms of communism or anti-communism but as the consequence of large, dynamic countries inevitably trying expand in various ways. The approach to world affairs of Dulles was squarely in confrontation with that of Nehru, while the Soviet Union’s emphasis on peaceful coexistence led to a convergence of policy with India, Even so, on a visit to the Soviet Union that summer, Nehru was concerned to put forward the case for the United States. When Bulganin and Krushchev accused the United States of adopting aggressive attitudes, Nehru commented, “I don’t see why a strong man should always go about showing his muscles.” It was a remark seemingly made in agreement with Soviet criticism but, in fact, it had a double edge. Nehru then drew attention to the more hopeful elements in United States policy: the eclipse of Mc Carthy, the difference between Dulles and Eisenhower and the more conciliatory attitudes of the President, and the general friend­liness of the people of the United States. But on leaving the Soviet Union, Nehru saw his task as being that of conveying to the Western Powers his understanding that there had been a real change of outlook in Moscow. The new leaders of the post-Stalin period were keen on coexistence, but they could not be pushed beyond a certain point. So Nehru spoke up for the United States in the Soviet Union, and expounded the Soviet cause in his dealings with Western governments. Although nothing came of the summit conference at Geneva later in the year, all the four Powers agreed that Nehru’s interpretation of each side to the other had helped. Credit is not claimed for Nehru for even the temporary lifting of the clouds. Great powers know their own interests and act on them. But Nehru had helped to convey nuances and impressions, to act in the interstices of great power relations and to improve mutual comprehension. As he once said about the role of non­alignment: “There are no affirmatives and negatives about it. There are fine shades of opinion, hints thrown out, general impressions created without commitments, reactions awaited and so on. If a reaction is favourable, one takes another step forward. Otherwise one shuts up...What do we try to do? To soften and soothe each side and make it slightly more receptive to the other.”  8


A similar sense of realism is to be found, despite general belief, in the formulation of Nehru’s China policy. His roman­ticist fantasies about traditional friendship did not basically impinge on his handling of relations between the two countries. From the, Twenties Nehru had been of the view that Chinese communism was more nationalist than communist and, when the communists came to power in 1949, the attitude of foreign governments appeared to him crucial in determining in which direction China would develop. Hostility of the Western and other non-communist states would result in correspondingly closer relations between the Soviet Union and China, but a different policy might well lead to loosening of even existing ties between these two countries. So he advocated an attitude of “cautious friendliness”. The exchanges on Tibet in 1950 left no room for any illusions, and even in Korea he knew that the Chinese government was exploiting his world influence. He made allowances for the Chinese view of the world. “Chinese psychology, with its background of prolonged suffering, struggle against Japan, successful communist revolu­tion, is an understandable mixture of bitterness, elation and vaulting confidence to which the traditional xenophobia and present-day isolation from outside contacts have added fear and suspicion of the motives of other powers: For inducing a more balanced and cooperative mentality in Peking, it is essential to understand those psychological factors.” 9 But such understanding did not necessarily mean a neglect of India’s interests. An attempt would have to be made for friendly relations with China, if only because conflict, and preparation for it, would grossly distort India’s economy. But Nehru did not assume such friendship; the basic challenge between India and China, as he remarked in 1952, 10 ran along the spine of Asia. “Our attitude towards the Chinese Government, he in­structed his ambassador later that year11 should always be a combination of friendliness and firmness. If we show weakness, advantage will be taken of this immediately.” Chinese ex­pansionism had been evident during various periods for about a thousand years, and a new period of such expansionism was, thought Nehru, perhaps imminent. His meetings with Chou-en-­lai and other Chinese leaders in 1954 weakened the element of uneasiness in his attitude to that country, and he felt it no longer necessary to answer fully, one way or the other, the question of cooperation or conflict between India and China. For a third position seemed to have emerged, of containment of China through friendship, by the creation of an environment in which China would find it difficult to be hostile. Perhaps Nehru overestimated the importance of India, and India’s support, to China’s leaders in the long term; and there were also inadequacies in diplomacy and administration which brought his China policy to ruin. But there was no basic flaw in the analysis or the assessment.


In many ways, it is in the evolution of Nehru’s policy on the Goa question that one sees the relative strength of various influences of ideas and principles and how, gradually, some prevailed. Before 1947 Nehru, more than any other nationalist leader, had regarded the expulsion of the Portuguese and the merger of Goa with India as part of the freedom struggle. For this purpose, he relied, after becoming prime minister, on local and internal pressures. The Government and people of India themselves should not intervene, for economic sanctions might hurt the inhabitants of Goa more than the Portuguese authorities, and military action, though easy, should be on principle avoided as long as possible. The people of India, being mature and not ‘children at play’, would quietly wait.


Goans settled in India were not stopped from entering Portuguese territory, but all other Indians were discouraged from supporting what should essentially be regarded as a freedom movement within Goa. When the Portuguese shot down some Indian volunteers who sought to cross into Goa, the Govern­ment of India did not react to such brutality, nor did they permit the establishment in India of a provisional government of Goa. “We have to take not only the right steps,’ Nehru told the chief ministers, 12 “but also in the right way. We have also to keep in view our general world policy because we cannot isolate one action from another. I have no doubt that we shall win in Goa. But I am anxious to do so without giving up in the slightest the basic policy that we claim to pursue.”


So it was a policy of inaction and of patience, waiting for the popular movement in Goa to gain strength, for the colonial economy to weaken, for the sympathy of world opinion to prevail. The Government of India were not pacifist but they would only go to war in case of an armed attack. “If you are under the impression that the Government will take police action or use force to liberate Goa from Portuguese domination, you are entirely mistaken. I am not going to do any such thing.”13 But such commitment to peace and principle was regarded abroad as weakness, and the very belief in Nehru’s dedication to international ethics slackened the pressure that foreign Governments were willing to exert on Portugal. Those who had faith in Nehru would not take seriously his assertion that India would not accept indefinitely the continuance of Portuguese rule in Goa. So gradually it became increasingly clear that, because of the adamancy of the Portuguese and the failure of other powers to interfere, the dilemma could not be resolved by Nehru’s methods. It would have either to be broken at the cost of Nehru’s principles or the Portuguese left undisturbed in defiance of Nehru’s commitments.


In 1957, for the first time, in a letter to Vinoba Bhave commenting on the futility of a peace brigade and the im­practicality of reducing the size of the Indian army, 14 Nehru recknoned reluctantly with the possibility of having to take armed action in Goa. He could not but recognise that his Goa policy was a singular record of failure and the situation, instead of improving, had in many ways deteriorated. There was a total deadlock and India had no policy beyond that of waiting. He still believed that events in the world were working against the Portuguese and that the situation was developing in India’s favour; but at the back of his mind was the growing unease that ultimately action would have to be taken by India. When the Portuguese threatened to enforce a right of passage to the enclaves of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Nehru welcomed the prospect as providing an occasion for occupying Goa in retaliation; but the Portuguese took no action. So when, in Nehru’s phrase, the cup was full and began to spill over, he sanctioned military action in the national interest and at the expense of his general principles: “Ultimately,” he wrote to President Kennedy, “we had to face what might be called the choice between two courses both of which were undesirable from various points of view. We chose what to our thinking was the lesser evil.” 15


I have tried in these lectures to draw attention to the formative influences on Nehru as well as, with experience and growing responsibilities, the slow erosion of old assumptions and the subtle progression of new ideas. I have selected three main groups of concepts and problems, and sought to discern, if possible, the development of his mind, symbolic of a whole generation of thinking Indians and reflected in a nation’s policies. Democracy, as adapted to an under-privileged society; socialism, indistinct in outline, but not necessarily, therefore, disadvantageous and not conceived as a backward and poverty-stricken socialism but linked with production rather than distribution; and finally a nationalism poised on internationalism but not sucked into it before the world had become a fully international community.


It is not possible to categorise Nehru: for he was a Marxist who rejected regimentation, a socialist who was wholly committed to civil liberties, a radical with a preference for non­violence, and a world citizen who combined his international obligations with a total involvement in India, saw the necessity of self-reliance even in a shrinking world and stressed the need to adapt every ideology to the Indian condition. Above all, he was a leader who believed in carrying his people with him even if it slowed down the pace of progress. In 1936, when Krishna Menon wrote from London complaining that Nehru was not forceful enough in securing the acceptance of his views, he replied: “Try to imagine what the human material is in India. How they think, how they act, what moves them, what does not affect them. It is easy enough to take up a theoretically correct attitude, which has little effect on anybody. We have to do something much more important and difficult and that is to move large numbers of people, to make them act....”16 Nearly twenty years later, as Prime Minister, his approach was very similar: “A leader must always have a sense of the public. He cannot do some things, because he senses they would create difficulties....We have to deal with human beings as individuals and in the mass, and we must know the art of getting into their minds and hearts and not merely imagine that any logical argument must prevail.” 17


It is, I think, this compulsive motivation to keep step with the people of India, and his faith that if he followed this policy he could not go wrong, that explain both Nehru’s achievements and his failures. It was said of a general in the last world war that to say that he made mistakes was merely to say that he made war. Nehru too made mistakes; but he made them in the process of making the India that we know and have. As for his opponents and those who today have the opportunity to carp and criticise, they function in a world he changed.


–Extracted from the Heras memorial lecture.

December, 1977.




1 Asian Relations (proceedings of the Asian Relations Conference, Delhi 1948) p. 20-27.

2 Speech in Constituent Assembly, 8 March 1948. J. Nehru, India’s Foreign Policy (Delhi 1961), p. 35.

3 14 May 1949. Nehru papers.

4 Nehru’s note 25 March 1953. Nehru papers.

5 Ibid.

6 Nehru to Apa Pant, Indian commissioner in East Africa. 20 April 1953. Nehru papers.

7 Message to British Government. 25 April 1953.

8 Nehru to G.L. Mehta, Indian ambassador at Washington, 1 June 1955. Nehru papers.

9 Nehru to Ernest Bevin, 20 November 1950. Nehru papers.

10 F. Moraes, Witness to an Era (Delhi 1973), p. 200-1.

11 Telegram to N. Raghavan, 10 December 1952. Nehru papers.

12 3 September 1954. Nehru papers.

13 Speech at Poona 4 June, Times of India, 5 June 1955.

14 May 1957. Nehru papers.

15 29 December 1961. Nehru papers.

16 28 September 1936. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru Vol. 7 (New Delhi 1975), p. 470.

17 To B.K. Kaula, 29 October 1953, Nehru papers.