Professor explains Gandhi, Nehru’s political ambitions at lecture

Author and Hunter College professor of history Manu Bhagavan speaks during his lecture at the Thomas J. Dodd Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Allen Lang/The Daily Campus)

India, one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies, has a long and complicated history. Author and Hunter College professor of history Manu Bhagavan sought to explore a part of that history in a presentation Thursday afternoon.

“Multilateralism is a broad ranging term that can describe all kinds of relationships between states,” Bhagavan said. “I’m trying to talk primarily about India’s relationship with the United Nations.”

Bhagavan warned that the topic was complex, and that he could only tell part of a story about India and its history.

“This part can easily fill a whole day, a whole course. I’m going to give you a very brief synopsis of what’s involved at the moment, and we might have a discussion about these ideas after,” Bhagavan said.

Beginning with British colonialism prior to the Second World War, Bhagavan explained how Indian and Western leaders came to be at odds during a time of international crisis.

“By 1942, the US and Great Britian were very concerned with what was going on in India. The leader of India at the time, you might know, was Mahatma Gandhi. He had a lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru,” Bhagavan said. “Winston and Churchill were afraid that Gandhi would launch an anti-war movement…The west continued to be quite concerned. Their plan B was to send Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife to India. They represented Roosevelt, and they tried to make an alliance with Gandhi and Nehru. They quickly rejected Chiang’s pleas, saying India had to do what India had to do.”

The political theories of Gandhi and Nehru were also a point of interest for Bhagavan. Although both were strong supporters of an independent India, he said, they also believed strongly in a united world.

“Nehru and Gandhi were not nationalists…they were internationalists. They were people that believed, sure enough, that there had to be independence from imperialism, and there had to be independent states, but independent states were not the goal,” Bhagavan said. “Ultimately, what they were after was something called world federalism, an alliance between all of these states.”

The “high water mark” of India’s foreign policy, Bhagavan said, was the period shortly after World War II and the early 1950s.

“India comes to be seen as an honest broker during the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and United States take India quite seriously,” Bhagavan said. “The first major hot conflict of the Cold War was the Korean War, a proxy war between the US and USSR, and in 1952, India is approached to bring this conflict to an end…The armistice they made still holds today, and that’s because both the US and USSR had some faith in Nehru that India was genuine.”

During this point, the UN was so important to India and India’s foreign policy goals, Bhagavan said, that Nehru was unwilling to do anything that might alter or harm the United Nations, even when it would benefit India. 

“Both the US and Soviet Union approached Nehru in 1953 about a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and he declined. Why did he decline? Basically, he feared that the UN was a delicate compromise. Any changes…might lead to a collapse, and he would not allow that to happen,” Bhagavan said.

Unfortunately for those hoping for a more unified world, Bhagavan said, India’s idealistic foreign policy fell away in the 1960s due to external pressure and a feeling that the UN did not matter as much. 

“China invades India in the 1960s…This breaks the back of Nehru’s idealistic view, and he himself says that he was living in a ‘world of illusions…’” Bhagavan said. “The foreign policy goal of India during the 1980s was to get a seat on the UN Security Council, and in that they have been a miserable failure.”

Despite the issues that India has seen in past decades, Bhagavan reminded the audience that cooperation between countries is still possible.

“Halfway around the world right now in Delhi, there is a conference on global cooperation…One of the sessions that is going to be held in the next few hours, literally, is on the idea of a one world, and using it as the foundation for cooperation,” Bhagavan said.

Manjoor Vahora, a fourth semester material sciences major , said the presentation inspired him to do more research and look for a solution to India’s current dilemmas.

“It’s peaked my interest,” Vahora said. “The dangers of the world are something the world should come together to solve issues across borders.”


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.