Nehru’s Word: It is time Asia takes her rightful place in the world order

"It is fitting that India should play her part in this new phase of Asian development as it is the natural centre of the many forces at work in Asia."

PM Jawaharlal Nehru at the inauguration of Physical Research Laboratory  in Ahmedabad in 1947. (Photo: Getty Images)
PM Jawaharlal Nehru at the inauguration of Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad in 1947. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jawaharlal Nehru

Amid the preening by PM Narendra Modi over hosting the G20 summit, one may recall 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 main purpose of the conference was "to bring together the leading men and women of Asia on a common platform to study problems of common concern to the peoples of this Continent…”. Extracts from the first of three speeches delivered by Nehru at this conference.


Friends and fellow Asians, what has brought you here? Some of us, greatly daring, sent you invitation for this conference and you gave a warm welcome to this invitation. And yet it was not merely that call from us but some deeper urge that brought you here.

We stand at the end of an era and on the threshold of a new period of history. Standing on this watershed that divides two epochs of human history and endeavour, we can look back on our long past and look forward to the future that is taking shape before our eyes.

Asia, after a long period of quiescence, has suddenly become important again in world affairs. If we view the millennia of history, this continent of Asia, with which Egypt has been so intimately connected in cultural fellowship, has played a mighty role in the evolution of humanity.

It was here that civilisation began and man started on his unending adventure of life. Here the mind of man searched unceasingly for truth and the spirit of man shone out like a beacon which lightened up the whole world.

This dynamic Asia from which great streams of culture flowed in all directions gradually became static and unchanging… This mighty continent became just a field for the rival imperialisms of Europe, and Europe became the centre of history and progress in human affairs.

A change is coming over the scene now and Asia is again finding herself. We live in a tremendous age of transition and already the next stage takes shape when Asia takes her rightful place with the other continent... The idea of having an Asian conference is not new and many have thought of it.

It is indeed surprising that it should not have been held many years earlier. Yet, perhaps the time was not ripe for it and any attempt to do so would have been superficial and not in tune with world events.

It so happened that we in India convened this conference, but the idea of such a conference arose simultaneously in many minds and in many countries of Asia. There was a widespread urge and an awareness that the time had come for us, the peoples of Asia, to meet together, to hold together and to advance together.

It was not only a vague desire but a compulsion of events that forced us, all of us, to think along these lines. Because of this the invitation we, in India, sent out brought an answering echo and a magnificent response from every country of Asia.

We welcome you delegates and representatives from China, that great country to which Asia owes so much and from which so much is expected; from Egypt and the Arab countries of western Asia, inheritors of a proud culture which spread far and wide and influenced India greatly; from Iran whose contacts with India go back to the dawn of history; from Indonesia and Indo-China whose history is intertwined with India's culture, and where recently the battle of freedom has continued—a reminder to us that freedom must be won and cannot come as a gift; from Turkey that has been rejuvenated by the genius of a great leader; from Korea and Mongolia, Siam, Malaya and the Philippines; from the Soviet republics of Asia which have advanced so rapidly in our generation and which have so many lessons to teach us; and from our neighbours Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and Ceylon to whom we look especially for cooperation and close and friendly intercourse…

We welcome also observers from Australia and New Zealand because we have many problems in common, especially in the Pacific and in the South-East region of Asia, and we have to cooperate together to find solutions.

As we meet here today, the long past of Asia rises up before us, the troubles of recent years fade away, and a thousand memories revive… During the past 200 years, we have seen the growth of Western imperialisms and the reduction of large parts of Asia to colonial or semi-colonial status.

Much has happened during these years, but perhaps one of the notable consequences of the European domination of Asia has been the isolation of the countries of Asia from one another. India always had contacts and intercourse with her neighbour countries in the north-west, the north-east, the east and the south-east.

With the coming of British rule in India, these contacts were broken off and India was almost completely isolated from the rest of Asia. The old land routes almost ceased to function and our chief window to the outer world looked out on the sea route which led to England.

A similar process affected other countries of Asia also. Their common economy was bound up with some European imperialism or other: even culturally they looked towards Europe and not to their own friends and neighbours from whom they had derived so much.

Today this isolation is breaking down because of many reasons, political and otherwise. The old imperialisms are fading away. The land routes have revived and air travel suddenly brings us very near to each other. This conference itself is significant as an expression of that deeper urge of the mind and spirit of Asia which has persisted in spite of the isolationism which grew up during the years of European domination.

As that domination goes, the walls that surrounded us fall down, and we look at each other again and meet as old friends long parted.

In this conference, and in this work, there are no leaders and no followers. All countries of Asia have to meet together on an equal basis in a common task and endeavour. It is fitting that India should play her part in this new phase of Asian development.

Apart from the fact that India herself is emerging into freedom and independence, she is the natural centre and focal point of the many forces at work in Asia. Geography is a compelling factor, and geographically she is so situated as to be the meeting point of western and northern and eastern and south-east Asia. Because of this, the history of India is a long history of her relations with the other countries of Asia.

Streams of culture have come to India from the West and the East and been absorbed in India, producing the rich and variegated culture which is India today. At the same time, streams of culture have flowed from India to distant parts of Asia.

If you would know India you have to go to Afghanistan and Western Asia, to Central Asia, to China and Japan and to the countries of South-East Asia. There you will find magnificent evidence of the vitality of India's culture which spread out and influenced vast numbers of people.

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

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