As early as the 1920’s, Jawaharlal Nehru was the dominant voice in the Indian National Congress on matters of foreign policy. His attitude was essentially anti-imperialist and he supported Arab nationalism wherever it was manifest. Nehru was keenly aware of the importance of this part of Asia to the history of the world.
The decision to organise an Inter-Asian Relations Conference in India as early as 1947, was a good indication of the foreign policy Nehru was to pursue as Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister of independent India, Nehru always advocated the dismantling of the overseas empires and bringing Asia and Africa into the front rank of world politics. On the issue of West Asian defence alliances too, Nehru had always held clear views and wanted India’s position to be unambiguously spelt out.
Nehru was ever watchful of the developments in West Asia, and the West Asian crisis of 1958 elicited consistent statements from him in favour of Arab Nationalism. His observations, as we will see, also betrayed an acute understanding of the imperialist shenanigans in the region and the futility of armed groupings. The geographical area commonly known as the Middle East is situated along the western periphery of the Asian continent. The nomenclature ‘Middle East’, however, is somewhat redolent of Euro-Centrism. After all, the region can be termed ‘Middle East’ only when looked at from Europe.
As decolonisation progressed in Asia and the continent began to claim its rightful place under the sun, the Eurocentric name came to be replaced by “West Asia”. Nehru, however, seems to have preferred the nomenclature ‘West Asia’ to ‘Middle East’ much before the tide of decolonisation began to flow over the region. In the Glimpses of World History published in 1934, for example, the region is always alluded to as ‘West Asia’. In fact, the book makes it quite apparent that Nehru took a lively interest in the region. Besides delving at length into the region’s glorious history, Nehru extensively comments on the political situation in Syria, Palestine and Trans-Jordan and Iraq in the book.
Nehru, was keenly aware of the importance of this part of Asia to the history of the world. It was the chunk of geography which hyphenated three continents and their mingled pasts. The rise and fall of its empires had influenced the broad currents of history. Also, once the culture of West Asia had enlivened a moribund Europe. Nehru, the intellectual and the romanticist, thus, was endlessly fascinated by the region and this fascination definitely came to have a bearing on the foreign policy he adopted towards it as the Prime Minister of independent India.
Earlier under Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian National Congress had striven to preserve the Ottoman Caliph’s jurisdiction over Arab lands including Palestine. However, once the Khilafat movement collapsed in India and the Turkish empire was dismembered by the imperialist powers, the west Asian situation dramatically changed.
Gandhi now tended to leave matters of foreign policy in the hands of Nehru who thus became the accepted voice of the Indian National Congress on international issues. Nehru, as President of the Indian National Congress in 1936 and 37, determined the organisation’s foreign policy and he steadfastly remained pro Arab throughout these years.
Nehru’s attitude was essentially anti-imperialist and he supported Arab nationalism wherever it was manifest. In his Presidential address at the 50th session of the INC at Faizpur in December 1936, he declared that “the Arab struggle against British Imperialism in Palestine is as much part of this great world conflict as India’s struggle for freedom.”
Zionism, according to Nehru was an imposition by British imperialism in Palestine. Nehru felt that the Arabs were as justified in being against the “mandatory system” and coalescing as “anti mandate” forces as the Indian National Congress was justified in standing up against British imperialism in India. Hence, Nehru’s pro Arabism was reflected in the vocabulary of all the resolutions passed by the Indian National Congress, the AICC and the Congress Working Committee during the years of his presidency.
Nehru’s sympathy for the Arab cause in Palestine was reflected in an article published by him in the National Herald on 18 December 1938. Nehru wrote that “Palestine is an Arab country and Arab interests must prevail there.” He further added, “the real conflict [in Palestine] is with British imperialism and this struggle, whatever its varying phases, is a national struggle for freedom. It is the misfortune of the Jews that they have aligned themselves with British imperialism. In doing so, they have not even shown practical wisdom for British imperialism has had its day and fades away before our eyes.”
Often, in his correspondence too, Nehru sympathised with the struggle for freedom in the Arab world. Many of his letters also provide proof that he closely followed the developments in Iraq around this time. Though Iraq had secured membership of the League of Nations in 1932, the British control over Iraq’s economic, political and strategic interests remained unchanged. The result of this was disorder in the country. The political landscape of Iraq was thus avowedly anti-west. The nationalist response to this western imperialism in the form of the Baghdad Pact and economic, primarily oil interests, caused revolutionary anti-western sentiments to increase among the Iraqi population between 1948 (when the anti-British demonstrations against the unpopular Anglo-Iraqi Portsmouth Treaty caused the Iraqi parliament to reject the Treaty) and the 14th July coup in 1958.
Arab nationalism, however, was not an undifferentiated, monolithic whole. Advocated by Nuri-el-said and Abd-al-Karim Qasim, the leaders of the 14th July revolution, it differed from that of other Arab leaders. Another source of Arab disunity was Egyptian President Gamal Abd-al- Nasser’s dream of arrogating to Egypt a leading role in uniting the Arab world. The incompatible visions of Arab destiny set the stage for conflict and provided the imperialist powers a pretext to meddle in the affairs of the region.
The enthusiasm for Arab unity peaked in 1958 with the merger of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic and the unification of the kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan as the Arab Federation. The already explosive situation was exacerbated by the Lebanese crisis and the American intervention in it. As this complicated mesh of events unfolded and was complicated further by the July revolution in Iraq in 1958. Throughout this, Nehru remained watchful and consistently made pronouncements decrying the imperialist shenanigans in the west Asian region.
Dr. Etee Bahadur is a faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia