Nehru and Non-Alignment

  • Posted on: 25 January 2017
  • By: Ayush


The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) can be seen as an extension of India’s freedom struggle. How?—one may ask. The essence of Gandhian approach during India’s anti-colonial struggle was ‘asymmetry’: to not render upon Caesar the violence Caesar renders upon thee is what one might call ‘Gandhian asymmetry’[1]; or, as the popular understanding goes, to not avenge the fellow who harmed you. However, one mustn’t mechanically equate this adage to foreign policy: ‘we will not reciprocate the violence on the nation-state that is brutally attacking us’ would be a terrible mantra for any nation-state that takes civilization seriously. However, consider the state of the world order at the time when Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s Prime Minister: The Nuclear Arms Race, the realpolitik to maintain the global balance of power, the paranoia between the Communists and the Capitalists manifesting in the ruthlessness and aggression of the two most-powerful and competing camps of the time—USSR and USA. If one were an American or a Soviet citizen be a symmetrical one: to flex one’s muscles in return.

Sitting in Ahmadnagar fort in 1944, a certain political prisoner of the moribund British Empire saw this cold war on the horizon:

An entirely new situation will arise after the present war, with two dominating world powers—the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.—and the rest a good distance behind them, unless they form some kind of bloc…All this looks very clever and realistic and yet is supremely foolish, for it is based on the old policy of expansion and empire and the balance of power, which inevitably leads to conflict and war. Since the world happens to be round, every country is encircled by others. To avoid such encirclements by the methods of power politics, there must be alliances and counter-alliances, expansion, and conquest. But, however huge a country's domination or sphere of influence becomes, there is always the danger of encirclement by those who have been left out of it, and who, on their part, fear this abnormal growth of a rival power. The only way to get rid of this danger is by world conquest or by the eliminations of every possible rival.[2]

As Mani Shankar Aiyar puts it, “…the race for power in the half-century following the bloodletting of two world wars had rendered the first half of the 20th century the bloodiest in history, destroying close to fifty million living human beings, was not a race to which a nation liberated through non-violence and brought up on the ethic that the ends do not justify the means, was going to acquiesce to. And it was certainly not going to do so under as proud and self-assured a leader as Jawaharlal Nehru…”[3]

And it didn’t. India did not take the route of symmetry. As a nascent, poor, and illiterate nation-state, it would have been a terrible burden to join a certain ideological camp and then prepare a long list of worries concerning the defence and the militaristic capabilities of a new-born nation. An additional—and more dangerous—prospect would have been ending up hostile to half of the world and then relying on the leader of the ideological camp for assistance, as if transforming into a Benjaminian automaton controlled by a dwarf within. To Nehru, neither did this route seem rational nor in the interest of the nation, especially for a newly-emerging and ambitious nation that had just unfettered itself from two centuries of Colonialism. As the Suez crisis of 1956 demonstrated, even powers like Great Britain and France had to bow to American pressure and call off the invasion of the Suez since the campaign poorly suited American interests in the region. The reason for this capitulation was Britain and France’s post-war reconstruction programmes, which were sustained almost single-handedly by massive American aid.[4] One the other hand, the less said about the Soviet school of control the better. To aid and to assist meant to control and to persist in the cold war: A big no-no for an anti-imperialist like Nehru.

The solution thus lay in non-alignment: To not be hostile to either of the camps and receive assistance from both, simultaneously keeping in check any quasi-neo-colonial tendencies. That’s the path India took. As Nehru put it in a note to K.P.S. Menon:

Our general policy is to avoid entanglement in power politics and not to join any group of powers as against any other group. The two leading groups today are the Russian bloc and the Anglo-American bloc. We must be friends to both and yet not join either. Both America and Russia are extraordinarily suspicious of each other as well as of other countries. This makes our path difficult and we may well be suspected by each of leaning towards the other. This cannot be helped.[5]

Very soon, India was receiving agricultural assistance from the Americans and technological assistance from the Soviets, that too without falling into the pockets of either of the two. Both camps showed signs of intermittent disappointment with India’s relatively independent foreign policy trajectory, especially the Americans, who went to absurd lengths to win over Nehru, at times by coercion. In 1950, the USA even suggested that India attain a seat in the UN Security Council, but the suggestion was struck down by Nehru, who backed People’s Republic of China instead. It has been suggested that this offer was part of a strategy USA employed to bend UN to serve its own interests, by letting in a democratic India and not a Communist China in the Security Council, thereby also winning a leverage in the nascent Korean War.[6]

What pushed Nehru to non-alignment? The brief answer is his distrust of both the Americans and the Soviets. This insured that he viewed their manoeuvres with caution.

He was ambivalent about the Soviet Union:

As between Fascism and Communism my sympathies are entirely with communism... [Even though] I'm far from being a communist...I dislike also much that has happened in Russia, and especially the excessive use of violence in normal times.[7]

The practical achievements of the Soviet Union were also tremendously impressive. Often I disliked or did not understand some development there and it seemed to me to be too closely concerned with the opportunism of the moment or the power politics of the day.[8]

On the other hand, coupled with his distaste for capitalism, the United States’ brand of diplomacy left a bad taste in his mouth, as he wrote in a letter to Mrs. Pandit in June, 1949:

…That [US’s near threatening attitude towards Kashmir] is the sort of thing that does not make us feel friendly towards the US. I’m afraid I cannot get over the feeling that the US diplomacy is immature or it is too sure of its physical might to care for the niceties of diplomatic behaviour.[9]

As an apocryphal story goes, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked Nehru, “Are you with us or against us?” he simply replied, “Yes”.[10]

Keeping such views in mind, it is not surprising that Nehru chose a middle course—creating a separate bloc where newly independent countries (or heretical ones, like Yugoslavia) disillusioned with—or simply alert by— neo-imperialism could convert their individual insecurity to collective security.

Nehru’s personality also added the moral dimension that led to a foreign policy that was stridently anti-colonial and pro-independence. In cases like Indonesia, Nehru showed remarkable willingness to help the country overthrow the burden of Dutch colonialism.

However, this neutrality must not be seen as a simple-minded and stationary principle, that India must be isolated from the two camps and maintain indifference with regard to their actions. It was rather the opposite: India believed in playing an active and indulgent role on the international stage; however, this role was not to be dictated by an authority fighting for world domination. Harder makes a good case when he tethers Nehru’s decision of turning down the suggestion of a UNSC seat by the American to the trust Nehru personally posited in the UN as a body and a superstructure that could maintain international peace and stability.[11]

Furthermore, Indian non-alignment, as opposed to the general belief, did not begin right after the nation became independent. There were vacillations towards either of the camps, until it was practically proven to Nehru that his understanding of India’s Foreign Policy appeared hostile and even immoral to the two superpowers: USSR in the late 40s and USA throughout the 50s (for e.g. the Stalinist tendency of regarding with suspicion everyone who didn’t side with the USSR, and the American tendency, which John Foster Dulles encapsulated best, of labelling India’s non-alignment as ‘immoral neutrality’).

The first of these vacillations were in the late 1940s: the very moment when Nehru’s government decided that India will remain a part of the Commonwealth, though not having anything to do with the Crown in practical terms. The reason for this was not just limited to the practical help India would receive by being a member, but that it would also keep Pakistan from introducing an Anti-Indian tinge into the body. This embrace of the Commonwealth was further punctuated by Soviet support of the communist insurgency in the Telangana region within the country. Interestingly, Nehru understood that a moderate inclination towards the United States would both benefit India, and resist the superpower’s ‘stifling embrace’. ‘Why not’ he had asked Krishna Menon, ‘align with the United States somewhat and build up our economic and military strength?’[12] But soon after his almost heroic maiden visit to the United States in October 1949, the relationship took a hit. Kashmir and China provided the main contentions between the two countries, and the brash American school of diplomacy soon disillusioned Nehru regarding any prospects of a cordial and equal dialogue with the western camp.

However, it was this period when non-alignment started translating from mere ideas inside Nehru’s head to precepts of Indian foreign policy. A suspicious communist camp under Stalin on one side, and a hostile, condescending capitalist camp on the other had really convinced Nehru of the validity of non-alignment in practice. As his biographer notes,

Nehru took care to see that the stand-offishness of the United States government did not push India nearer to the Soviet Union, and he avoided any step which might worsen relations with the Western Powers. For he was still wary of the Soviet Union.[13] 

The period between these oscillations also saw India heading a Repatriation commission aiming to settle the POWs of the Korean War. For a 6-year old nation to head a commission aimed at reconciling two warring superpowers is a feat that is quite unknown, or else underrated, in the popular imagination. Throughout the war, India, as a non-aligned actor, had rooted for the boundaries of the Koreas to remain as they were before the war, and the resolution, after much bickering from both sides, ended up exactly as India had wanted. This marked the first high for this emerging Non-aligned nation. The Soviet attitude had a marked change towards India, not just because of Stalin’s death, but because of the vindication of Indian non-alignment in Soviet eyes; so much so that Prime Minister Bulganin even told the Indian ambassador that the Soviet Union ‘fully appreciated India’s position in the Commonwealth and hoped that India would continue to remain in it’.[14]

By the time Nehru had attended the Bandung Conference, and thereafter, ironically, paid a month long visit to the Soviet Union in 1955, India’s role as the leader of an emerging third bloc in International politics had solidified. A sign of this new-found stature was another ‘offer’ of a permanent seat at UNSC—this time by the Soviet Union. Nehru turned this down yet again, saying that acceptance of this offer ‘would be very unfair for a great country like China’. However, as A.G. Noorani notes, this ‘offer’ was a ‘just a feeler’ to test India’s non-alignment, devoid of any genuine commitment.[15] Yet, in a period of five years, starting in 1950 when India’s commitment to non-alignment seemed a confusing position at best, to the time when the Non-Aligned Movement had come into fruition in 1955, Nehru had given the same reasons to turn down the same ‘offers’. Whatever might have been India’s other anomalies with respect to its foreign policy, it’s principles in action did remain the same.

But was the unfolding and incubation of Indian non-alignment always positive? In his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ on the eve of independence, Nehru had declared: ‘Peace has been said to be indivisible, so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster, in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.’[16] The emerging non-aligned movement, however, ended up becoming more or less that: an ‘isolated fragment’—a movement that considered itself more or less exclusive from the bipolar world order.  On one hand, former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar claims that Nehru ‘had no intention of making it [Non-alignment] a movement, but pressure from scores of newly liberated countries, later numbering over a hundred, led to the launching of the movement of the Non-aligned Countries,’[17] on the other, biographers like B. Zachariah have commented that even though ‘Nehru’s India now had an independent international standing of its own, and Nehru was highly regarded as a world statesman of principle and talent…in time, it would create some resentment among newly-emergent independent ‘nations’ who felt that Nehru was claiming a dominant role wholly unwarranted by the mere fact that India was the earliest country to achieve independence from colonial rule.’[18]

For Nehru, non-alignment’s ends differed from the ends of —so to say— the aligned, who, he believed, were bent on world domination. The means to Nehru’s politics were based on liberal realism[19] and an energetic diplomacy[20], but, as he had to learn it the hard way, one does not sow as one reaps in world painted with realpolitikal hues. The realism that so ruthlessly dominated the world order then did push Nehru off his chair: India earned international ire for not condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 in strong terms, or at least not as strongly as it condemned European imperialism in the Suez. The West made a lot of noise at such omissions, and Nehru’s reputation and standing went down a notch every time, finally collapsing after the invasion of Goa in 1961 and the Sino-Indian war in 1962.


[1] The credit for this kind of understanding of India’s FP under Nehru goes to Mani Shankar Aiyar.

[2] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin Modern Classics, 2004), 601–602.

[3] Mani Shankar Aiyar, “Interpreting Nehru in the 21st Century,” in Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation, ed. Nayantara Sahgal (New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2015), 41.

[4] ‘An Affair to Remember’, The Economist, July 27, 2006.

[5] Quoted in Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy (London: Picador, 2008), 153.

[6] Anton Harder, “Not at the Cost of China: New Evidence Regarding US proposals to Nehru for Joining the UNSC”, Working Paper #76 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2015), (accessed May 2015). 

[7] Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin, 2004), 610.

[8] Nehru, The Discovery of India, 17.

[9] Nehru to Vijayalakshmi Pandit, 8 June 1949; Selected Works of JLN, Second Series, Volume 11, S. Gopal ed., (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1991), 356–357.

[10] Shashi Tharoor, Nehru: An Invention of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007), 186.

[11] Harder, “Not at the Cost of China”, p.11: ‘Nehru’s argument for rejecting the State Department’s plan was strongly influenced by his concern that it would undermine the integrity of the UN to the extent it would cease to exist “as we have known it” and marking therefore a “further drift towards war.” Nehru had strong hopes that the UN would prove to be a body that would, through dialogue, provide a forum for peaceful resolution of conflict and mitigate the growing tensions of the world.’

[12] Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol. 2 (1947-1956) (New Delhi: OUP, 2015), 59.

[13] Ibid. 63.

[14] B. Chandra, M. Mukherjee, A. Mukherjee, India after Independence (Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin, 2008), 195.

[15] AG Noorani, “The Nehruvian Approach,” review of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, second series, vol. 29, edited by H. Y. Sharada Prasad and A. K. Damodaran, Frontline 19, no. 2 (January-February 2002).

[16] Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches, Vol. 1, (Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1967), p. 26.

[17] Aiyar, “Interpreting Nehru”, 42.

[18] Benjamin Zachariah, Nehru (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 202–203.

[19] See Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of Nehru Years (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2013), p.18. 

[20] See Andrew Kennedy, The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.1-10 & Part II. 

The author can be contacted on twitter handle @Ayush_tiwariLIV

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this web site do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Nehruvian blog. Feel free to engage, discuss or correct us on feedback [at]