Nehru’s Word: An attempt at Asian unity and the West’s misgivings
"Ever since the news of this conference spread, some people in Europe and America have viewed it with doubt imagining that this was some kind of a pan-Asian movement directed against Europe or the US"
Was the G20 summit held in New Delhi on 9-10 September an unprecedented event, as the Modi government is pretending? Well, the fact is that this was not the first time such an event was hosted by India. In 1983, we hosted a NAM summit in which more than a hundred countries participated. Much before that, in April-May 1947, at the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru, who then headed the interim government, Indian leaders called an Asian Relations Conference in Delhi from 23 April to 2 May 1947 that was attended by around 30 countries. The following is the second extract from the speech delivered by Nehru to the conference.
There came a great cultural stream from Iran to India in remote antiquity. And then that constant intercourse between India and the Far East, notably China. In later years, South-East Asia witnessed an amazing efflorescence of Indian art and culture. The mighty stream which started from Arabia and developed as a mixed Irano-Arabic culture poured into India.
All these came to us and influenced us, and yet so great was the powerful impress of India’s own mind and culture that it could accept them without being itself swept away or overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, we all changed in the process, and in India today all of us are mixed products of these various influences. An Indian, wherever he may go in Asia, feels a sense of kinship with the land he visits and the people he meets.
I do not wish to speak to you of the past but rather of the present. We meet here not to discuss our past history and contacts, but to forge links for the future. And may I say here that this conference, and the idea underlying it, is in no way aggressive or against any other continent or country?
Ever since the news of this conference went abroad, some people in Europe and America have viewed it with doubt imagining that this was some kind of a pan-Asian movement directed against Europe or America. We have no designs against anybody. Ours is a great design of promoting peace and progress all over the world.
For too long we, of Asia, have been petitioners in Western courts and chancelleries. That story must now belong to the past. We propose to stand on our own feet and cooperate with all others who are prepared to cooperate with us. We do not intend to be the playthings of others. In this crisis in world history, Asia will necessarily play a vital role.
The countries of Asia can no longer be used as pawns by others; they are bound to have their own policies in world affairs. Europe and America have contributed very greatly to human progress and for that we must yield them praise and honour, and learn from them many lessons they have to teach.
But the West has also driven us into wars and conflicts without number and even now, the day after a terrible war, there is talk of further wars in the atomic age that is upon us.
In this atomic age, Asia will have to function effectively in the maintenance of peace. Indeed, there can be no peace unless Asia plays her part. There is today conflict in many countries and all of us in Asia are full of our own problems. Nevertheless, the whole spirit and outlook of Asia are peaceful, and the emergence of Asia in world affairs will be a powerful influence for world peace.
Peace can only come when nations are free, and also when human beings everywhere have freedom and security and opportunity. Peace and freedom, therefore, have to be considered both in their political and economic aspects.
The countries of Asia, we must remember, are very backward and the standards of life are appallingly low. These economic problems demand urgent solution or else crisis and disaster might overwhelm us. We have, therefore, to think in terms of the common man and fashion our political, social and economic structure so that the burdens that have crushed him may be removed, and he may have full opportunity for growth.
We have arrived at a stage in human affairs when the ideal of ‘one world‘ and some kind of a world federation seems to be essential, though there are many dangers and obstacles in the way. We should work for that ideal and not for any grouping which comes in the way of this larger world group.
We, therefore, support the United Nations structure which is painfully emerging from its infancy. But in order to have ‘one world’ we must also, in Asia, think of the countries of Asia cooperating together for that larger ideal.
This conference, in a small measure, represents this bringing together of the countries of Asia. Whatever it may achieve, the mere fact of this conference taking place is itself of historic significance. Indeed, this occasion is unique in history, for never before has such a gathering met together at any place.
So even in meeting we have achieved much and I have no doubt that out of this meeting greater things will come. When the history of our present times is written, this event may well stand out as a landmark which divides the past of Asia from the future, and because we are participating in this making of history, something of the greatness of historical events comes to us all…
We seek no narrow nationalism. Nationalism has a place in each country and should be fostered, but it must not be allowed to become aggressive and come in the way of international development. Asia stretches her hand out in friendship to Europe and America as well as to our suffering brethren in Africa. We of Asia have a special responsibility to the people of Africa. We must help them to take their rightful place in the human family.
The freedom that we envisage is not to be confined to this nation or that or to a particular people, but must spread out over the whole human race. That universal human freedom also cannot be based on the supremacy of any particular class. It must be the freedom of the common man everywhere and full opportunities for him to develop.
We think today of the great architects of Asian freedom—Sun Yat-sen, Zaghlul Pasha, Ataturk Kemal Pasha and others, whose labours have borne fruit. We think also of that great figure whose labours and whose inspiration have brought India to the threshold of her independence: Mahatma Gandhi. We miss him at this Conference and I yet hope that he may visit us before our labours end. He is engrossed in the service of the common man in India, and even this conference could not drag him away from it.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)