NAM- Cornerstone left in corner

By Shreyas Ubgade
Chennai, Nov 3

In the aftermath of the World War -II, the latent differences between the two power blocks- The Western Block and The Eastern Block – led by the United States and the Soviet Union respectively emerged prominently. The immediate response of newly-Independent India was influenced by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who despised imperialism and supported all struggles against colonialism.

The adoption of Panchsheel principles with Nehru at the helm of foreign affairs laid the foundation of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) that shaped the contours of India’s foreign policy for decades.

Historian Srinath Raghavan of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, who was recently at the Madras Institute for Developmental Studies (MIDS) hinted that events after the World War II had a significant indirect impact on India’s foreign policy.

A half-century later, as India engages with the world multilaterally, these policies continue to find an echo in foreign affairs.

“Non-alignment was, for India, a policy and a strategy to survive and negotiate with a world that was getting dragged into the politics of the Cold War. To a considerable extent non-alignment represented an unconventional approach to power politics..” writes professor Rajen Harshe, an International relations expert in the Economic and Political Weekly.

While the five Panchsheel principles-mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit and Peaceful co-existence- had many admirers, experts are still divided over the efficacy and relevance of NAM in today’s diplomacy.

“India being a poor and famine-affected country would not have benefited from joining any of the two blocks. It would have restricted India’s strategic autonomy and freedom to respond. It benefited from being the leader of the Non-alignment movement,” says Sudha Ramachandran, senior faculty, Asian College of Journalism.

Although India gained tremendous goodwill as it played a key role in resolving the Suez crisis and the Korean War, NAM despite noble intentions, had its critics in even in its heyday.

Nehru’s contemporary and veteran socialist Acharya J B Kriplani for instance, found it highly idealistic and impracticable.

In 1959, Kriplani wrote in Foreign Affairs, “International politics is not merely concerned with the enunciation of abstract principles…It is more concerned with the international strategy, diplomacy and tactics… Moral platitudes are often mouthed by politicians once in a while, but if they are repeated frequently, without appropriate action, their authors cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy…”

Kriplani doubted that for all the professed neutrality, India was de-facto aligned to the Soviet Union.

“Our condemnation of Russian aggression in Hungary in 1956 was so halting and belated that it lost its merit. We were more forthright in condemning British, French and Israeli action in Egypt, and also American and British action in West Asia, when troops were landed in Lebnon and Jordan…” he wrote.

Kriplani contended that neutrality has to be born out of conviction and not out of weakness or opportunistic considerations. He castigated Nehru on acquiescing to expansionist China after it annexed Tibet and called it “Purchasing Chinese friendship at the cost of Tibet”

NAM faced the litmus test during the Chinese aggression in 1962.
For political observers like Bijay Sen Budhraj, the War called NAM’s bluff.

“Only 40 countries responded positively to Nehru’s international appeal for China to be declared an aggressor in November 1962, of which only 3 (Ehtiopia, Cyprus and Sri Lanka) were from the group of 25 non-aligned countries at the time… Chinese aggression proved that a non-aligned nation cannot depend on non-alignment for its security…” writes Budhraj in The Indian Journal of Political Science.

Worse still was the fact that countries of the Western block like the United States and Britain who came to India’s rescue in the time of crisis.

However, Harshe contends ,“China humiliated India but, could not destroy non-alignment.”


General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, Prime Minister of India Indira Gsndhi, Delhi Lieutenant Governor Jagmohan and Minister for External Affairs P V Narsimha Rao in New Delhi in December 1980. (Photograph courtesy and copyright the Russian News and Information Agency, RIA Novoti) 

 With the development of the US-Pakistan- China axis and Pakistan receiving sophisticated weapons from the US in 1971, India had to shed its NAM mentality for pragmatic reasons. To secure India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sealed the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty and put NAM in cold storage.

“The validity of India’s non-alignment was once again questioned after the Indo-Soviet treaty. However, such questioning was coloured by the static perceptions of non-alignment,” writes Harshe.

The year 1991 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of cold war, leaving a unipolar world.

“India’s foreign policy became more economically oriented, as India shed its non-aligned and anti-western ideologies to adopt a more pragmatic international stance,” writes Budhraj.


Former United States President George W Bush and former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh after signing  the nuclear deal in 2005. This marked the beginning of the phase of greater cooperation with the United States which still continues. (Photo credit-AFP)

With no rigidity of NAM, new vistas opened in West and Central Asia and cooperation with erstwhile ideological foes like US in the form of civil nuclear deal. India became part of multilateral engagements like BRICS, G-8,etc.

Some experts feel NAM is still relevant.”NAM means autonomy in decision making. It is more relevant in Unipolar world,” says V Suryanarayan, retired professor of Madras University.

“It is difficult to say whether Modi is following it. For the first time, the Indian PM did not attend the NAM annual summit…,” he adds.

Modi was criticized for not attending the Summit.

According to Budhraj, India’s foreign policy now “runs in parallel with the elements of real change along with strong elements of continuity”.

In 2016, seven decades after World War – II, it is the Buddha’s “Golden Mean” that seems to be the guiding force!


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