Coalition of the free

Nehru was the moving spirit of the Bandung meet that showcased Afro-Asian solidarity...

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: June 28, 2010 4:29 am

Few remember it today but when it was held in April 1955,the Bandung Conference was an international sensation. For it was the first gathering,in the Indonesian resort of Bandung,of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa at that time plus a few,like Gold Coast (now Ghana) that were on the verge of independence. Bandung was also the first international conference that Zhou Enlai,prime minister of the People’s Republic of China,was attending,and this added to the prevailing excitement.

The sponsors of the Afro-Asian conference were the Colombo Powers — India,Indonesia,Burma (now Myanmar),Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) — that had first got together in the Ceylonese capital. It was President Sukarno of Indonesia who had suggested the holding of the wider conference. Interestingly,Jawaharlal Nehru — who as head of the interim government had organised the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 well before independence when nobody even knew whether there would be one successor government to the British or two — was not in favour of Sukarno’s idea. He was apprehensive that the proposed conference might become a forum for “heated discussion on local or regional issues,particularly Israel and Palestine”. This embarrassment he wanted to avoid.

However,gradually he changed his view and felt that the conference could perhaps be made a platform for “refuting the United States policy of imposing military alliances on Asia and Africa” — an objective on which India,Burma and Indonesia were united. From this moment onwards he became the moving spirit behind Bandung. No organisational detail was too trivial for him. For instance,he directed the Indian ambassador to Indonesia,B.F.H.B Tayabji,at considerable length,to see to it that there were enough bathrooms and lavatories at the conference site!

Who was to be invited and who not was a serious issue and this was decided by a summit of the Colombo Five at Bogor (also in Indonesia) a few months before the conference. From the newly independent Afro-Asian countries,South Africa and Israel was excluded. Because of apartheid,Nehru considered South Africa’s exclusion justifiable. But to keep Israel out,he thought,was an “illogical surrender to Arab susceptibility”. China was keen to attend and Nehru firmly believed that it must be invited. At Bogor only Pakistan demurred briefly before the Colombo Five agreed to invite the Chinese. But a different drama had taken place behind the scenes even before Nehru had left Delhi for Bogor. From London,Anthony Eden conveyed to him that an invitation to China would create a “bad impression” in Britain and the United States. Nehru rejected this “irritating” intervention sharply.

The sabotage by Taiwanese agents of Kashmir Princess,an Air India plane chartered by the Chinese government and carrying an advance party,did come cause some gloom at Bandung but once the conference got going the outlook was sunny. Nehru had worked hard to ensure that the conference concentrated on general issues and projected the voice of Asia and Africa across the world. Contentious issues were to be left to informal meetings only. In this he succeeded — to use his own words in a different context — not fully but substantially. When a resolution condemning colonialism was moved,Sir John Kotelawala of Ceylon insisted that “Soviet colonialism” in Eastern Europe must also be covered. Nehru was annoyed. A conference of governments must function “within that limit”. All East European countries were sovereign and members of the United Nations. To call them colonial territories would be “a most extraordinary position to take up”. If the conference wanted to discuss “pressures and coercion” to which independent countries were subject,the result would be chaos and confusion. Eventually,a compromise was reached. The conference condemned colonialism in “all its manifestations”. Draftsmanship came to the aid of statesmanship.

Historically,the centrepiece of the Bandung Meet consisted of the equation between the two towering personalities,Nehru and Zhou,who were unquestionably the main performers. Zhou hadn’t met any of the assembled leaders before,so Nehru took him round to introduce him to them. Several delegates thought that the Indian prime minister was being patronising. One biting comment was that he was escorting Zhou “like a dowager chaperoning a niece of dubious upbringing”. It was many years later that Zhou gave vent to his feelings,describing Nehru as the “vainest man” with whom he had ever to deal. At the conference Zhou was his best — courteous,moderate and accommodating. He lost his temper only once when he thought that China was being “bullied”.

At all major conferences the real drama takes place in the wings,not on the stage. So it was at Bandung though critically important facts began to trickle out much later. Publicly,Zhou was extremely friendly and cordial to Nehru. Privately,he did all he could to undermine India and its prime minister. When Nehru had successfully prevented a condemnatory resolution on Palestine from being moved,Zhou quietly cultivated Arab delegates and described Western support to Israel as “worse than that to Taiwan”. More importantly,especially from the Indian point of view,the nexus between China and Pakistan first began at Bandung. Pakistan’s prime minister,Mohammed Ali Bogra assured Zhou that his country,though a member of SEATO,was “not hostile to China,did not fear Chinese aggression,and would not be dragged into any war between the United States and China”. In return,as Pakistani sources confirmed in later years,Zhou assured Bogra that there was “no conceivable conflict of interest which could imperil relations between the two countries,but that this was not true of relations between India and China”. (Source: L. F. Rushbrook Williams,The State of Pakistan,pp.120-21)

At the end of the conference,Nehru invited President Nasser — who until then had never left Egypt except to go to Mecca for Haj — to stop over in India. He gave a largely attended reception in Nasser’s honour at Hyderabad House. The first three guests Nasser shook hands with were Communist leaders A. K. Gopalan,Renu Chakravartty and Hiren Mukherjee. The surprise on his face was visible. “Gamal”,Nehru said to him,“you put your Communists in prison; I put them in Parliament”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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