Ten years before 1971 the Indian Prime Minister defied the United States

US President John F. Kennedy believed India had a legitimate case in Goa and was opposed to colonialism, but he was against the use of force by India. Nehru ignored him, recalls Praveen Davar

Ten years before 1971 the Indian Prime Minister defied the United States
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Praveen Davar

In 1947 when India attained independence, the British left but the French and Portuguese stayed on in parts of India in the south and west. While France gave up Pondicherry in 1954, the Portuguese hung on to Goa and some other nearby smaller territories occupied by them-- Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli.

In July 1954 a group of 1,000 activists from Bombay walked into Dadra and seized it, followed soon after by Nagar Haveli which offered no resistance. However, their attempt to similarly occupy Daman, which had a garrison of 1,500 Portuguese soldiers, did not succeed.

A few months later satyagrahis led by N.G. Goray of Socialist Party forcibly entered Goa but were attacked by the Portuguese police and incarcerated in Fort Aguada prison where they were kept for 20 months before being released. The number of people arrested in 1954-55 was more than 2,000, most of them from Bombay.

In 1956 the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles issued a statement that “Goa is an integral part of Portugal”, but clarified that he was for a “peaceful solution” of the controversy. His statement infuriated Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who told a delegation on the eve of its visit to US: “Dulles’s statement about Goa has angered everybody here. IndoAmerican relations are much more affected by this kind of thing than by the aid they may give.”

By the end of 1956, the Indian government had reached an impasse on Goa. Nehru was determined that “India, though very angry, should act with responsibility and wisdom”. But what such action should be was not clear and the whole policy had obviously to be reconsidered after the elections that were due in the beginning of 1957. But till 1959, there was hardly any advance except the prime minister asserting time and again that Goa was part of India and bound to come to India, but he did not spell out how this would be made possible.

Though he counselled patience and pointed out the “unwisdom of any resort to force”, Nehru never ruled out the possibility of circumstances arising which might compel armed intervention. A few days later he moved even closer to the possible use of force by stating that “the Portuguese were pushing the government of India into thinking afresh and adopting other than peaceful methods to solve the problem”.

Though US President John F. Kennedy believed that India had a legitimate case in Goa and the American government was totally opposed to colonialism, he was against the use of force by the Indian government. Sensing this Nehru tactfully avoided discussing Goa with Kennedy during his visit to the USA in November 1961. He even side stepped the issue with British PM Harold Macmillan and declined to promise him that India would not in any circumstances resort to the use of force. The American Ambassador Kenneth Galbraith who was in regular touch with Nehru after the latter’s return from Washington, got the impression that the Indian Prime Minister appeared to have changed his mind and was preparing for military intervention. He warned Kennedy, who wrote to Nehru expressing his general concern at the use of force in Goa. The letter reached PM’s Office on December 16.

Later in the day the US government came up with a fresh proposal, conveyed through Galbraith, that India “should postpone action for six months to enable the government of United States, and perhaps other countries, to help solve this problem”. It was too late. Nehru had made up his mind, and on December 17, Indian troops moved into Goa and, within 26 hours, made it a part of India, after 400 years of colonialism.


As expected, there was a widespread condemnation in USA and UK but Nehru was unmoved. He wrote to Kennedy on December 29:

“An aspect of this question which has troubled me greatly is the vast difference between the reaction in India, in Africa and generally in Asia on the one side, and the contrary reaction chiefly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Why is it that something that thrills our people should be condemned in the strongest possible language in the US and some other places...politics has a different face looked at from different points of view.”

The point was not lost on the young and charismatic American President who was wise enough to realise what Nehru had succeeded with the willing cooperation and goodwill of the people of Goa, and almost without shedding any blood.

(The writer, an ex-Army officer, is a political analyst and Editor of ‘The Secular Saviour’)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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