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Glimpses of Nehru’s World

A gentle assessment of Nehru on the global stage,plus a startling revelation about the US looking at Indian thorium for its bomb.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
January 1, 2011 10:25:20 pm

More books have been written,and may yet be written,on Indira Gandhi than on her even more illustrious father,Jawaharlal Nehru,but there is no doubt whatsoever that in the history of India in the 20th century,he is the most towering figure,next only to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Mahatma was this country’s liberator,Nehru its moderniser. He also founded all the institutions of democracy that have since been degraded so sadly and thoroughly. In the making of India’s foreign policy and in the conduct of its international relations,his role was unique. All through the 17 unbroken years that he served as independent India’s first prime minister,he was his own foreign minister,too. He did make mistakes,most notably in relation to China,but his overall record is unquestionably luminous.

Nehru’s virtuoso performance on the world stage is the principal theme of the latest book by Nayantara Saghal,the eminent and eminently readable writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Its title,Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing A Savage World,is apt,given Nehru’s memorable contribution to promoting peace and ending a series of wars,such as those in Korea,Indochina and West Asia. Sahgal’s credentials to undertake this task are also impeccable,though she candidly admits at the outset that she is neither a historian nor an academic. What makes her a perceptive observer and commentator is that she is the great man’s favoured niece who adored her beloved “Mamu” (maternal uncle) and keenly watched and weighed his life and work from early teens onwards. No wonder then that this comprehensive,compact and lucid narration of Nehru’s yeoman services to the cause of world peace,emancipation of Afro-Asian countries,and rejection of the notion that newly independent nations must join one of the two power blocs is essentially the Nayantara eye-view. It is a “political-personal mix”,in her own words.

That,however,does not make her assessments idolatry or uncritical though she voices her criticism more gently than other admirers of Nehru might have done. For instance,on the painful issue of China,she says: “Against the better judgment of Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai (former secretary-general in the external affairs ministry and then governor of Bombay),Mamu relied on the wrong advice of K.M. Panikkar,ambassador to China at that time,and did settle the border issue while signing the agreement on Tibet in 1954.” Yet she argues that this was not an issue to be “so simply settled or it would not have eluded definition and demarcation through the forty-five years after Nehru”. And then she speculates: “Would the border issue have settled itself had the Cold War not made a battleground of Asia… and Asia had been left to work out its own destiny in Nehru’s vision of a new order”?

Though he wanted India never to lag behind in developing nuclear technology,Nehru abhorred nuclear weapons and strove passionately to seek their total elimination,predictably to no avail. Writing on this subject,Sahgal had shown sensitivity in choosing to quote what Mamu had written in the National Herald,a paper he had founded,on the atomic tests on the Bikini Atoll,under the searing title “The Death Dealer”. For some reason he had declined to make a statement to the press,but later in the evening had written on a lined pad in his neat handwriting the lead article for the Herald.

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While Sahgal has relied on vivid memories of a lifetime,the contents of her “extended essay” show signs of painstaking research,be the subject the Suez War or the Hungarian Revolt of 1956,or whatever. She also had invaluable access to her mother Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s correspondence with Nehru,from Moscow,Washington and London where she was Indian envoy. Quite a few of these letters have not yet been published. One of these that Sahgal has quoted makes a startling disclosure. On February 19,1951,Robert Oppenheimer,the renowned scientist who had headed the project that produced the atom bomb,rang up Mrs Pandit from Princeton. He said that he had something very urgent to communicate and was sending an emissary,Amiya Chakravarti,who,on arrival,brought the chilling message that the United States was developing a weapon far more “deadly” than the atom bomb. Moreover,for this purpose,America required thorium that it wanted to secure from India (that has inexhaustible thorium deposits),if necessary,in exchange for American wheat that India needed badly. Oppenheimer “begged” of India not to sell any thorium to the US “voluntarily or through pressure”. Nehru would not have given it even without “Oppi’s” timely and sincere advice.

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