Did Nehru pass on a permanent seat in the UN Security Council?
Every time the Indian government is forced in between a rock and a hard place, the immediate, knee jerk response is to blame it on Nehru. Whether it’s rapes in JNU, power cuts in Delhi, or even his own erasure from textbooks: the finger always points in a single direction. However, the UNSC seat (namely, that Nehru passed it up, and apparently ruined India forever) is one of the set in stone phrases used by those too prudent to bring in his personal life, and too lackadaisical to indulge in contemplation of circumstance and fact. We explore whether a seat was offered, what Nehru said, whether it mattered what he said, and his impact on nuclear energy.
WAS A SEAT EVER OFFERED?
First, The UNSC was established in 1945. Roughly two years before India got independence. It has to be quite a leap of imagination to imagine that India, let alone Nehru could have influenced the powers-that-be to let India have a seat on the high table. Pandit Nehru had said in Parliament that a seat was never offered, neither formally, nor informally. A bit of digging leads to the verbatim quote:
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. Our declared policy is to support the admission of all nations qualified for UN membership.
Of course, there are those still fervently believe this is a lie, so we look at the records of the original conversation in 1955 with Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin that led to the press claiming a UNSC seat was offered to Nehru and he stubbornly shook his head.
Bulganin: Regarding your suggestion about the four power conference we would take appropriate action. While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.
J. Nehru: Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject to controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council, it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the U.N. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted. What is Bulganin’s opinion about the revision of the Charter? In our opinion this does not seem to be an appropriate time for it.
Bulganin: We proposed the question of India’s membership of the Security Council to get your views, but agree that this is not the time for it and it will have to wait for the right moment later on. We also agree that things should be taken one by one.
This was in no way an ex officio offer; neither formal nor informal. Rather than in essence handing Nehru the seat on a plate, Bulganin had merely asked ‘what do you think?’ If one could compare this to another case, imagine it was 1920 and the British had no inclination toward granting India self-rule, yet they asked what India felt about self-rule. Similarly, no matter what the answer, it was not an offer to propel India toward the seat, nor was it a chance for Nehru to jump in and grab the seat. Rather, it was Bulganin testing the waters and the Pandit himself: based on the answer to his question, the Soviet PM could gauge who Nehru was sympathetic to and whether he was interested in placing his own desires before world peace. Hence, the argument that Nehru declined the seat is moot; he cannot decline a seat he was never offered.
BUT IMAGINE HE WAS OFFERED A SEAT?
Scrutinizing the conversation, it’s clear that this was no place for Nehru to say “yes, I would love India to sit on the Security Council, taking China’s place and inviting aggression,” because even had he done so, the only response would have been an acknowledgement of his feelings rather than an actual proposal. Bulganin outright conceded that he was merely throwing out a feeler rather than making an actual offer to propose. But imagine a seat was officially offered to India, and Nehru had said yes: would India even have gotten the seat? No. The UN Security Council, in order to change the number of members, or the composition of members on the table would have had to redraw the charter. That was what Nehru wanted to avoid: redrawing the charter would mean needing to obtain a unanimous vote from the existing P5 members, which are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and a majority overall, for India to join the UNSC.
Think of the world now, in the 1950s, notably the members of the UNSC. Do you think they would have come to an agreement about anything, let alone India’s seat on the Security Council? Had the Soviet PM been the proposing party: the US, no matter what its’ initial thoughts – would disagree due to their established ‘cold’ enmity with the Soviet. Furthermore, India-Russia ties were stronger than India-US, obviously, due to the Pakistan equation and their respective disagreements on colonialism and communism. Hence, the other members would use the U.S.-Russia disagreement as the margin to choose sides rather than the deserving/undeserving status of India: as the Cold War took precedence. Hence, with a unanimous vote entirely out of the question, India would invite or obtain nothing except China’s aggression at a far earlier stage than we received it. Nehru, and India had friendly relations with Beijing at a time when the US had shunned it – an argument over the UNSC seat would have thrown a fork in the works of delicate international relations.
Yes, it was folly, or overly idealistic to aim to be on good terms with China, Russia and the USA at a time where all three of them had nukes pointing all over the world, especially at each other. But isn’t that what posthumously characterized Nehru as a champion of the non aligned movement? And indeed, the aforementioned three countries were all already quibbling back when Nehru was not even a world player: India would definitely not be what united them. Instead, Hindi-Chini-Bhaai-Bhaai would have turned into Hindi-Chini Saas-Bahu way before anyone, let alone Nehru expected. . So yes, Nehru’s analysis of what may have happened had he taken the pseudo-offered seat was the truth: India wouldn’t have gotten a seat, and international relations with India from all three countries would have been affected.
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