Nehru's Word: A defence policy for independent India

"A machine-making industry should be started to provide for the production of the latest mechanical devices for warfare"

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

It is often suggested that Jawaharlal Nehru neglected India’s defence. Contrary to this belief, he had in fact a clear and nuanced understanding of India’s complex defence needs. His understanding went far beyond the need for armed forces, to look to the support any military ambitions needed in terms of industrial development, atomic energy research and public morale. We bring to you this week the second part of a note that he wrote on 3 February 1947 on the National Development and Defence Policy.


The most important thing, looked at narrowly from the point of view of defence alone, is the rapid industrialisation of the country. The next important thing is the morale of the country and the armed forces, and this can be brought about chiefly by Independence and the complete nationalisation of the Indian Army.

Our policy being one of defence (as opposed to incursion, conquest or colonialism), we shall have to build up our defence forces accordingly. Thus the air forces would have first priority. The army, whatever its numbers, must be thoroughly efficient and up-to-date in the mechanical sense. The navy would occupy third place.

The numbers of the land forces also do not make very much difference, provided of course that the number is sufficient not only to meet internal troubles but also to serve as a nucleus for development during a crisis. Such development can be facilitated by widespread training of a militia which would serve as a reservoir for the army.

In the context of the present situation, it does not make very much difference whether we have a land army of 200,000 or 300,000. Even the latter figure is not big enough and is totally inadequate to face a major power. What is necessary is a big enough army which can expand fairly rapidly if needed.

The disadvantage of having a relatively large army is not only the additional cost, which inevitably would have to come out of the money for development, but that it would compel us to engage foreign officers and this would result in the spirit of the army and of the country not changing to a great extent.

The line of approach should, therefore, be:

(1) Completely nationalised defence forces from the outset of Independence.

(2) No foreign forces in the country.

(3) Rapid industrialisation and provision for scientific research.

(4) The employment of British officers, where they are considered absolutely essential, as advisers.

(5) The development of the air force. The British squadrons of the air force should not remain in India. I understand that it would be easily possible to have a completely Indianised air force of 10 squadrons immediately if we take back some Indian maintenance units in the British air forces in India.

The withdrawal of the British squadrons would leave us these 10 Indian squadrons only. We must carry on with them and try to add to them as rapidly as possible.

It is important also that we develop an aeroplane-making factory in India—something much bigger and more self-contained than the Bangalore factory.

(6) The navy for the present should not be increased, and cruisers and the like, which cost a lot of money without giving adequate protection in any sense, should not be kept.

(7) The land army should be kept more or less on the pre-war level in regard to numbers, but should be highly mechanised. It should be officered entirely by Indians, with a few superior British officers attached, where necessary, as advisers.

(8) A militia should be gradually built up to serve as a reservoir for the armed forces and, at the same time, to help in raising the physique, discipline and well-being of the nation.

(9) A machine-making industry should be started to provide for the production of the latest mechanical devices for warfare, as well as to help in the industrialisation of the country. This should be state-owned.

(10) A scientific manpower committee should be appointed to prevent waste of such manpower as can be used for the development of science and technique and to make the best provision for trying out latent talents.

( 11) An atomic energy commission should be appointed for research work in the proper utilisation of atomic energy for civil and other uses.

(12) Planned development of industry, especially heavy industry, should be organised. This will include the rapid increase in the power resources of the country, which are essential for any industrial growth.


It is not possible for me to make an estimate of the cost of all this. The principal idea is that even in the interest of defence, as large a sum as possible should be diverted to the building up of heavy industry and power.

The air force should be increased. This air force should consist not of long-range bombers but of fighter planes. The navy should be kept at a standstill. The army should have relatively small numbers. All this would probably result in an actual saving on the army, navy and air force, and a much larger expenditure on the development of science and industry.

This would mean that after a few years—say from 5 to 10 [years]—we will be in a position, if we thought it necessary and if the conditions warranted it, to increase our defence forces very greatly on that industrial and scientific foundation, which would have added to the wealth of the country also.

Possibly we take a risk during this period of not being strong enough to defend ourselves. That risk has anyhow to be taken because even a somewhat larger army does not do away with that risk. That risk is not great as probabilities go, for there is no obvious danger of invasion.

Even if such an invasion occurs during this interim period, the best way to check it is by means of the air force. Having survived the interim period, we can readjust our defence policy in accordance with the situation then.

What is suggested not only keeps defence in view in the immediate future, but also provides for a more effective defence later on. At the same time, it helps in building up the nation, adding to its wealth and raising the standards of people.

It produces the psychological atmosphere in the country of growth and progressive wellbeing and a determination to protect at all costs the country which is rapidly going ahead.

Too much purely military expenditure impedes growth and thus defeats the objectives of defence.

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

More of Nehru's thoughts and writings can be found in our archives here.

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