Nehru’s Himalayan UN gaffe: File on permanent UNSC membership offer to India must be traced and declassified

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Nehru’s Himalayan UN gaffe: File on permanent UNSC membership offer to India must be traced and declassifiedBy DP Srivastava

Over past few years, a number of articles have appeared on the offer of permanent membership of UN Security Council to India in the 1950s. I discovered, as director in the Ministry of External Affairs, the original file on the subject in 1995, which included internal deliberations of the period. It was put up to me for orders for destruction, as part of a routine exercise of ‘weeding out’ old files.

Realising its importance, I brought it to the attention of my seniors. I also wrote a letter to our UN mission in New York. My letter was later circulated to our missions in P-5 capitals. In response, our Moscow mission forwarded more information on the subject. I had suggested that the file be declassified and transferred to the National Archives as it had no operational significance.

Without going into details of the file at this stage, we can revisit the issue on the basis of considerable material declassified since then. This includes records of Nehru’s exchanges with Soviet leaders in 1955, and Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s correspondence with her brother earlier during her tenure as Indian ambassador to the US. The file on the question referred to the Soviet offer of the mid-50s. Papers on the earlier offer are available in the Vijayalakshmi Pandit collection in the Nehru Memorial Library. Anton Harder of the Woodrow Wilson Center has published a research paper on the subject.

While the Soviet offer was for India to be inducted as sixth permanent member, the earlier US offer was for India to replace China in the Security Council. Nehru and Krishna Menon suspected the American offer as a Western ploy to set India against China, and therefore were opposed to it. The Soviet offer of India joining as a sixth permanent member did not pose any such dilemma.

Nehru’s Selected Works contain a record of Nehru’s discussions with Russian Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin on the subject: Bulganin: “While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council …”

Nehru: “Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it …”

Bulganin: “We proposed the question of India’s membership of the Security Council to get your views, but agree that this is not the time for it and it will have to wait for the right moment later on …”

Pandit Nehru did not respond to Bulganin’s suggestion to include India as a sixth permanent member; his reply was in the context of an earlier American proposal for India to replace China. Bulganin could not have been part of any Western ploy. Induction as sixth member would have finessed the issue of Chinese representation. Bulganin agreed not to push the matter after Nehru unequivocally rejected Bulganin’s offer. This cannot be interpreted to suggest the Soviet offer was not serious. We cannot expect our friends to push our cause if we did not see their offer was in our interest.

To put a bilateral understanding into effect a Charter amendment was needed. The Charter envisaged a General Conference before the tenth annual session of the General Assembly, or the proposal to be placed on the agenda of the session of the UN General Assembly. This deadline was fast approaching in 1956. In a parallel move, the Latin American group had inscribed an item on the agenda of 11th UN General Assembly in 1956. Though this was for expansion of non-permanent members category, the scope could have been widened to cover expansion of permanent members category, or a separate agenda item inscribed on the subject. Even if no immediate decision was reached, this would have kept Indian candidature alive for a later date.

The US proposal for permanent membership for India pre-dates the Soviet proposal. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, as India’s US ambassador, reported to Nehru in August 1950 about a move in the State Department to replace China with India as a permanent member in the Security Council. She said, “Dulles seemed particularly anxious that a move in this direction should be started.” She described the episode in derisive terms as being “cooked up in the State Department”, and advised her American interlocutors “to go slow in the matter as it would not be received with any warmth in India”. Nehru agreed with his sister’s view in his reply, as otherwise it would mean “some kind of break between us and China”.

Nehru’s anxiety not to disturb India’s relations with China did not prevent deterioration of relations in the next decade. This was not the result of American machinations, but Chinese aggression.

UN processes take time. No decision could be reached in 11th UN General Assembly session. The Charter amendment to expand the Security Council from 11 to 15 took place only in 1965. The Indian political leadership refused to pursue Indian candidature at the outset. It would take more than two decades to revive discussions on expansion of the Security Council in the 1990s. These are still inconclusive. Any future Charter amendment for India’s inclusion would be subject to Chinese veto. The Masood Azhar case underlines the difficulty.

The People’s Republic of China replaced Taiwan in the UN in 1971. They exercised their first veto over admission of Bangladesh to the UN in August 1972 to neutralise India’s geo-political gains during the 1971 war. The file on the offer of permanent membership should be traced and declassified. The nation has a right to know.

The writer, a former diplomat, has headed the MEA’s UN desk