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The art of intervention

Accused of using one standard for Egypt and another for Hungary,Nehru eventually silenced his critics.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
February 14, 2011 2:24:07 am

As mentioned in ‘East of Suez’ (IE,January 24),the overlap of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet troops caused Jawaharlal Nehru much embarrassment. His reluctance,indeed refusal,to equate the two outrages exposed him to criticism for adopting “double standards” both abroad and at home. However,he held his ground,and eventually silenced his critics.

The story is intensely complex but Nehru’s reasoning,though widely disputed,was clear. In the case of Suez,the issue was manifest: Egypt was the victim of brazen aggression. On Hungary,the main source of information was the Western press that was perhaps exaggerating the “Soviet intervention” made possible by the Warsaw Pact. Until the facts were established,Nehru was not prepared to condemn the Soviet Union out of hand though he did state that foreign troops must withdraw and the Hungarian people should be allowed to decide their future.

While Nehru had passionately denounced the perpetrators of the Suez War,the Eisenhower administration in the United States had broadly gone along with him. On Hungary,however,he declined to associate himself with the US move to raise the matter in the United Nations. This invited prompt and sharp censure,most notably from Jayaprakash Narayan,better known as JP. “If you do not speak out” he wrote to the prime minister,“you will be held guilty of abetting enslavement of a brave people by a new imperialism more dangerous than the old because it masquerades as revolutionary”. JP’s usually cordial relations with Nehru,who treated the younger man with affection,lent a sharper edge to the missive.

Nehru’s iteration of his opposition to intervention by foreign troops in any country,his expression of sympathy for the Hungarian people and his criticism of the Soviet “conduct” — in a speech to the UNESCO annual conference in New Delhi on November 5 and in a letter to President Eisenhower two days later — did not help. One reason for this was Krishna Menon,leader of the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly. Acting on his own,Menon had abstained from voting on a resolution “condemning” the Soviet Union,defended his action in abrasive speeches,and at one stage even declared that events in Hungary were a “domestic affair”. Nehru defended Menon publicly but remonstrated with him privately.

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However,when all is said and done,the fact remains that a certain amount of ambivalence in Nehru’s statements on the brutal suppression in Hungary continued until a very late stage when he did speak out. On November 7 in his letter to Eisenhower he seemed to concede that there was “little to choose between Suez and Hungary”. But it was in relation to Suez only that he pressed for “American action”.

By this time Parliament had reassembled for its winter session. During it,Nehru faced a fusillade of criticism along the lines of JP’s letter. In a lively and often heated debate in the Lok Sabha that I covered,prominent opposition members,such as Acharya Kriplani,H.V. Kamath,Asoka Mehta,H. N. Kunzru et al,were united in condemning the government for voting against a UN resolution condemning the Soviet Union over Hungary.

For once,Nehru did not lose his temper despite provocative interruptions but argued gently that the country had no option but to do what it did. The UN resolution,he explained,was voted on paragraph by paragraph. On all other paragraphs India had abstained. But it had voted against the paragraph demanding elections in Hungary under the UN supervision. When the resolution as a whole was put to vote,India had to vote against to maintain its fundamental objection to UN-supervised elections.

Indeed,Nehru devoted quite some time to tell the still unconvinced members that any acceptance of “foreign supervised elections” would set a “bad” and “dangerous” precedent that might be used for “intervention of this kind in other countries”. He did not mention Kashmir in this connection but his meaning was clear. He and other Indians may have been disinclined to talk about Kashmir,but the Soviets were not.

While rejecting the UN-supervised elections in Hungary,Nehru had urged Janos Kadar,who had replaced the deposed and deported Imre Nagy as Hungary’s prime minister,as well as Soviet premier Bulganin to allow the UN secretary-general to visit Hungary. Promptly,the Soviet ambassador in New Delhi called on Nehru to discuss neither Hungary nor Suez but of all things,Kashmir. His purpose was to remind India of the Soviet support over Kashmir and to hint that it could be withdrawn.

This had precisely the opposite of the desired result. Nehru cast aside his past vacillations and declared that it was now established that the Hungarian uprising was “popular and widespread and had the backing of the army and even the communists”. The Hungarian people,he added,would “ultimately triumph” and felt that the “immediate setback was to the Soviet government”. There was much more in this vein in his extempore speech that virtually disarmed his critics. The BBC commented that this “tremendously significant speech” showed that Nehru was “as deeply involved emotionally in the fate of Hungary as he had always been in that of Egypt”. From the Kremlin,however,Khrushchev and Bulganin again reminded Nehru of Kashmir and stated that Hungary was as important to the Soviet Union as Kashmir was to India. In fact,at the UN the Soviet Union abstained from voting on a Western resolution on Kashmir,but soon reverted to vetoing resolutions unacceptable to India.

Interestingly,during the revolt in Hungary,K. P. S. Menon Sr. was Indian ambassador to both the Soviet Union and Hungary. Because of illness he was immobile in Moscow. A young diplomat,M. A. (“Ishy”) Rahman,who later retired as ambassador to West Germany and is now no more,was therefore rushed to the Hungarian capital. In Parliament Nehru praised his “good work” more than once. During the revolt he had befriended a rebel,Arpad Goncz,who became president of Hungary in the 1980s. Every time President Goncz visited India he made it a point to call on “Ishy”.

The writer is a Delhi-based

political commentator

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