Official discourse presents India’s foreign policy as a story of uninterrupted continuity, barring minor aberrations, right from Nehru’s non-alignment to the present “strategic partnership” with the US.
The dominant (and fashionable) counter-discourse regards India’s foreign policy as non-ideological and quintessentially “realist”, and determined by the “national interest”— with no variations between Nehru and Vajpayee-Manmohan Singh.
Both views distort the truth. Nehru was a principled believer in non-alignment, opposition to the Cold War and nuclear arms, and espousal of decolonisation and a plural world order, with greater voice for underdeveloped nations.
He condemned the British-Israeli invasion of the Suez Canal, the Korean War, and US hegemonism. He refused to kowtow to the West. He also condemned the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. He sought high stature for India through the moral, not military, route.
India’s recent rulers have put all their eggs in the unipolar Western basket, embraced Washington as a strategic ally, and deserted the Global South. They crave global prestige through military might at the expense of human security for a majority of Indians. As with economic policy, they have no truly independent foreign policy.
Yet, it would be wrong to see Nehru as a consistent practitioner of strict non-alignment. He compromised and swerved Westwards while dealing with China, especially with the 1962 war. Last week’s sensational disclosures from CIA files say the US launched secret spy missions against China from the Charbatia airbase in Odisha after the war.
Nehru approved the missions, using the (in)famous U-2 reconnaissance plane. At least four U-2 flights took off from Charbatia in 1964-67.
The brazen Westward shift began in November 1962, when India faced a rout by China. Nehru desperately begged for military assistance from the US to save large parts of India from being overrun by Chinese troops — and in the interest of “survival of freedom and independence” in Asia.
The price? Washington’s use of Indian airspace for U-2 missions flown out of Thailand. Nehru used the photographs obtained from these to brief parliament on Chinese troop movements. But the Americans wanted and secured more: an airbase in India for the U-2s. Besides spying on China, this would be used for electronic surveillance of a Soviet anti-ballistic missile testing-site.
Worse, after the 1962 war, India’s Intelligence Bureau collaborated with the CIA to set up the Special Frontier Force, a paramilitary commando unit with 5,000 Tibetans, which could be parachuted on to the Tibetan plateau to fight the Chinese.
This was an extension of a CIA operation launched in 1956 to foment a rebellion against China by training 300 Tibetan Khampa tribesmen in armed warfare and sabotage. The CIA abandoned the operation in 1969 after sacrificing thousands of Tibetans.
An even more dangerous CIA-IB operation was launched in 1965 to place espionage equipment powered by a plutonium power-pack on Nanda Devi to monitor Chinese nuclear activities. An avalanche prevented its placing. It has remained untraceable, raising fears of radioactive contamination of glaciers, and eventually, the Ganga.
India soon returned to anti-hegemonic policies and espousal of a New International Economic Order and United Nations reform to correct global injustices and inequalities. But Indira Gandhi took a less principled view of these.
Since then, India’s policy disorientation, deviation and inconsistency have all grown to morph into “strategic partnership” with the US. But the content of non-alignment and the tasks of correcting global inequalities and giving the developing countries a voice remain valid even today.
The author is a writer, columnist, and professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi