Nehru's Word: A parliament session on foreign policy

"If we have to make our own decisions, we have to rely on our own judgment and analysis of the situation, and to keep in view our basic objectives and the foreign policy we have been pursuing so far"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

Seventy-two years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru convened a special two-week session of Parliament to discuss the ‘Korean’ situation. In a letter to chief ministers before the sessions, he explained his reasons. Both show how foreign policy was conducted then.

In 2022, India’s foreign policy faced tough challenges, especially in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war, with mounting pressure to line up on one side or the other. India resisted the pressure, citing national interest. In doing so, it had to willy-nilly rely on the tried and tested Nehruvian policy of non-alignment. This despite the otherwise strong proclivity of the current ruling dispensation to distance themselves from and even deny the worth of Nehru’s policies and vision.

This week we bring to you the first part of his letter to chief ministers written in July 1950.


"The international situation dominates the scene and we live from day to day on the verge of some fresh tragic development. …our Foreign Office has naturally to bear the chief burden of this situation, but the main lines of policy must necessarily be determined by the cabinet and, finally, by Parliament. It is for this reason that we have thought it fit to summon Parliament for a special session to consider more particularly this international situation. It will meet on Monday, July 31st, and it is expected to sit for about two weeks…

If we have to make our own decisions, we have to rely on our own judgement and analysis of the situation, and to keep in view our basic objectives and the foreign policy we have been pursuing thus far.

Some words are used loosely, and among these, is “neutrality”. Neutrality in peacetime has no particular meaning. It is only in war that a country can be neutral. But even in so-called peacetime, ever since the last World War ended, we have lived in an atmosphere of war and expectation of war, and hence people talk of this or that country being neutral in the cold war.

In reality, all that this means is that we have not given up the right to decide for ourselves as to what we should do and what we should not do in any particular set of circumstances. To give up that right to decide means to give up both our independence of judgement and independence of action. In other words, it means to give up our basic independence and become a satellite of some other country tied down to a policy which we may or may not like.

India has, within the inevitable limitations imposed by events, tried to follow her own independent policy in foreign, as in other affairs. No country can be hundred per cent independent in such matters because every act or policy flows from other acts done before and other things happening in the world.

But within those limitations, one can be more or less independent. We have preferred to be more independent. That was not only an idealistic approach but, I think, an eminently practical way of dealing with current problems.

Foreign policy may and should depend upon certain ideals and objectives of a country. Inevitably, it is governed by the interests of that country. Enlightened self-interest may take a short view or a long view, and in foreign policy, more than anything else, the short view is dangerous.

We have tried in India to avoid entanglement in foreign affairs because we are busy with our own problems. But it was a consequence of independence and of India’s position in the world that we could not keep away from other problems. More especially, we are bound up by what happens in Asia.

For some time past, whether in America or Europe or South East Asia, I have been venturing to point out the importance of Asia in the world situation today. That did not mean that any country of Asia had developed material or other kinds of power to influence world events. It meant that the change that had come over Asia by the progressive elimination of colonial control, and the nature of the problems that Asia had to face were of such vital importance, both in peace and war, as to affect the future of the world.

The challenge and the conflict have come now in Korea. Korea may be relatively unimportant. But what is happening in Korea, it is apparent, affects the world.

The critics of our policy have been of two kinds. Many of them have objected to our approving the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Korea because that meant, according to them, an inevitable lining up with a certain group of powers, notably the USA.

The other critics, on the other hand, have said that we have not fully supported the UN or the USA action in the Far East; that we have limited our support and conditioned it and have not jumped into the fray with our defence forces, etc. Thus, we have failed to take advantage of any clear-cut policy and are likely to suffer disadvantages from either side.

It seems to me that both these criticisms are misconceived and do not take all the relevant facts into consideration. We have been following a certain policy in foreign affairs and that policy has undoubtedly brought credit to India and made us in a small way an influence for peace.

If we and some other countries did not do so, undoubtedly war would have been much nearer, apart from the internal difficulties that we might have had to face. We have, in any event, to carry our people with us, and no policy, that has not got large-scale public approval, can be carried on for long.

To have changed our old policy at the first touch of harsh fact may have brought approval from some quarters, but it would have been to the great discredit of India and she would have counted for little in the great drama that is taking place. So, we tried to adhere to that basic policy, though there was a variation of it under stress of circumstances.”

Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

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