Did India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, make a historic error by turning down an offer made, first, by the United States in 1950 and then, in 1955, by the Soviet Union to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)?
Were these offers made at all? And if so, were they merely feelers, not a serious reflection of intent by the two superpowers at the beginning of the Cold War?
Two schools of thought have emerged. The first holds that the US and the USSR merely broached the subject of a permanent UNSC seat for India. The offer was a feeler. Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then India’s representative at the UN, was firmly against India “usurping” China’s claim to a permanent seat. Nehru agreed with her assessment. China, he wrote to her, is a great nation and deserves permanent membership of the UNSC.
Both he and his sister, highly influential in the US and at the UN, felt that India must be a neutral party in the Cold War. By accepting the offer of a permanent seat in the UNSC, however informal the offer was, the two Nehru siblings felt India would need to take sides in international crises like the Korean War. That would compromise India’s position as a founder of the non-aligned movement (NAM).
The second school of thought holds a diametrically opposite point of view. India misread the situation. It dismissed Washington’s overtures in 1950 when the US wanted to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which had in 1949 won a civil war against Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists who fled to Taiwan and, as the Republic of China (ROC), represented the PRC at the UN from 1949 to 1971. The Soviets in 1955 too wanted India as a permanent member of the UNSC but Nehru again brushed off the offer as not being a serious one.
This, the second school of thought holds, amounted to compounding the earlier historic error of rejecting Washington’s offer of a UNSC seat in 1950 for which India, nearly 70 years later, is paying a heavy price.
Which of the two schools of thought has greater merit? For the answer, turn to original sources. In painstaking research, Anton Harder, a PhD scholar specialising in Sino-India relations, wrote in 2015: “The issue of India’s right to a seat on the UNSC has centred on Nehru not seizing several alleged opportunities for India to join the UNSC as a permanent member in the 1950s. The question, however, goes beyond Nehru’s reputation, as it provides rare insights into India’s relations with the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the beginning of the Cold War.
“The 1955 offer from the Soviets is well-documented, although perhaps not widely known. The 1955 incident was publicly discussed in 2002 in print by AG Noorani, a major scholar of modern Indian history and politics. However, new evidence of an even earlier offer — by the US in August 1950 — to assist India in assuming a permanent seat at the UNSC has recently emerged, adding substantially to what Noorani earlier wrote. Nehru’s rejection of the US offer underlined the consistency of his conviction that the PRC’s legitimate interests must be acknowledged in order to reduce international tensions. Integrating the PRC into the international community by conceding its right to the Chinese seat at the Security Council was, in fact, a central pillar of Nehru’s foreign policy.
“The documents critical to answering these questions are stowed away in the Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit papers held at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). The importance of Pandit’s papers lies in her relationship with her brother Jawaharlal Nehru. The Pandit papers have not been deployed thus far in studies focused on India’s relationship with China. In late August 1950, Pandit wrote to her brother from Washington, DC, where she was then posted as India’s ambassador to the United States: ‘One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place.’
“Nehru’s response within the week was unequivocal: ‘In your letter, you mention that the State Department is trying to unseat China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and to put India in her place. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China.’”
The Indian establishment had quickly closed ranks around Nehru’s controversial historic decision. K Shankar Bajpai, former secretary in the MEA and ambassador to the US and China, told The Print last week: “It has become a fashion to blame Nehru for everything. To think that India could have taken China’s seat is utter nonsense.”
While the geopolitical imperatives of the 1950s cannot be viewed through a contemporary prism, Nehru’s decision to cede veto-carrying membership of the UNSC to China has led, decades later, to aggressive Chinese behaviour, including supporting Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar at the UNSC. Nehru, were he alive, would be mortified.