The term ‘non-alignment’ is a millstone around any strategic debate in India, and unjustifiably so. This is partly because of poor scholarship in India, even worse access to the official records of the government, and unbelievably sycophantic political leaders and media. As a result, the term is improperly understood at best, as is its history.


The idea owes its conception to Jawaharlal Nehru (though it was Krishna Menon who first coined the term in 1953 at the United Nations), India’s first prime minister, when in a radio broadcast in 1946, the then interim prime minister stated, “We shall take full part in international conferences as a free nation with our own policy and not merely as a satellite of another nation.”1 It is ironic, given the trouble the United States caused India for her non-aligned stance, that it was none other than George Washington, the first US president, who had declared in his farewell address in 1796, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” As Nehru argued before the Constituent Assembly in September 1946,

We want the help of other countries…in a large measure…in accepting economic help, or getting political help, it is not a wise policy to put all our eggs in one basket…We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which had led in the past to world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale.2

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Nehru reiterated his point: India will follow an independent policy, avoiding power politics…we shall be friends and we intend cooperation with America. We intend cooperation fully with the Soviet Union.”3 However, this was not meant to be a pusillanimous policy of isolation and neutrality as many American officials accused. “If neutrality implied a lack of sense of responsibility in world affairs or a desire to escape world obligations, or if it suggested a policy of isolation,” Nehru declared, “then it is applicable neither to the role of India today nor to that of like-minded nations.”4

Thus, for Nehru, non-alignment was a strategy designed to maximise India’s gains from the world system the new state found herself in. On the one hand, it would keep lines to the West open for trade and aid, while on the other, it would avoid alienating the two communist powers in India’s immediate neighbourhood, China and the Soviet Union. By being friendly to all, Nehru hoped to receive critically necessary aid from all. For Nehru, non-alignment was simply another way of saying ‘strategic autonomy,’ that India would act in her interests first rather than the interests of Washington, Moscow, or Peking. When seen in this light, the term loses the odious nature it has picked up over years of lukewarm Indian foreign policy.

History – the Cold War

Despite grumbling from the US Congress, non-alignment did a fair job of its stated objectives. India was the recipient of aid from nations of both blocs, and neither took India for a threat. Nehru was able to maintain good relations with the Soviets (after Stalin’s death in 1953) despite India being a democracy, and he was on cordial terms with Washington despite his socialist rhetoric and numerous ties with the Soviet Union (for those who think this is trivial, it is worth remembering that the US withdrew financial support from the Aswan dam project in 1954/5 when Gamal Abdel Nasser appointed Soviet engineers for the project). As India emerged as a ‘third way,’ she received respect incommensurate with her economic or military might. India served on the International Control Commission (ICC) along with Canada and Poland to oversee the 1954 Geneva Accords regarding the French withdrawal from Vietnam and the latter’s subsequent reunification. In late October 1956, when Britain and France invaded Egypt in collusion with Israel, New Delhi denounced both powers firmly. When Soviet troops marched into Hungary  a few days later, Nehru had severe words for Moscow too (albeit more hesitantly and under pressure from Jayaprakash Narayan).

Nehru’s critics have pointed out that India seemed to lean towards the Soviet Union economically more often than not; after all, the prime minister was in awe of the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialisation since 1917. However, it’s worth recalling that for all his admiration for the USSR’s economic policies, Nehru approached the West for help to build India’s first modern steel mill. It’s only after the West refused that India asked the USSR. Thus was the Bhilai steel plant born. India’s defence contracts tell a similar story – even though India approached the West for armaments, the US and the UK were often reluctant to sell or extend lines of credit to India. Often, India received a lecture about defence draining money from development for her effort. Nonetheless, the United States remained India’s largest  provider of aid (to less propagandistic effect than Soviet aid) throughout the Cold War.

It is not uncommon among neo-Nehruvians to argue that it was not Nehru but Indira Gandhi who derailed India’s trajectory. While there is much merit in this when it comes to domestic politics and policies, the suggestion stands on weak legs when it comes to international affairs. For the complete tyrant that Indira Gandhi displayed herself to be at home, whether it was in the systematic destruction of institutions and the abolishment of the privy purse or the nationalisation of banks and declaration of the Emergency, the daughter followed the father’s foreign policy fairly closely. In terms of non-alignment, India found herself moving closer and closer to the Soviet Union after 1966 (though one would have expected a drift to the Right after invasion by a communist country just four years earlier). There are many good reasons for this: 1. the United States kept supplying arms to Pakistan despite repeated warnings from India that those weapons would be used not in a potential conflict with communists but in a real one against India; 2. the US proved to be an unreliable partner (from New Delhi’s perspective) during the devaluation of the rupee and the food crisis in the late 1960s; 3. the US failed to be as reassuring as the Soviet Union regarding security measures against a potential Chinese attack; 4. India and the United States found themselves at loggerheads over the nuclear question; 5. the deployment of the USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal during the India – Pakistan War of 1971 was seen as nuclear blackmail by the United States in a selfish pursuit (given the humanitarian concerns in East Pakistan) of its foreign policy objectives; 6. the US presence at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean brought the Cold War into the Indian Ocean as well, much to India’s chagrin, and 7. the international environment changed drastically with the Sino-American rapprochement in 1972. Given the increasingly embittered relations with the US, it should not be a surprise that India tilted towards Moscow and signed the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in August 1971. Despite increasing warmth between the USSR and India, Indira Gandhi did not hesitate to attempt to mend relations with Peking or reject the Brezhnev Doctrine.

During this period, India’s silence over Soviet activities did not imply, as Washington believed, that India had become pro-Soviet; in Foggy Bottom’s binary weltanshauung, it was inconceivable that non-alignment mean strategic autonomy and not neutrality. When, for example, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Indira Gandhi criticised Moscow in private as she had not been reinstated as Prime Minister yet. When she did assume the mantle in January 1980, Indira Gandhi again refrained from criticising Moscow because the US had yet again tilted towards Islamabad. Thus, throughout the Cold War, non-alignment was used to serve India’s interests foremost and as an ideology later. Ironically, it was the end of the Cold War that ossified the principle into an unusable dogma.

After the Wall fell

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that non-alignment had lost its mooring – after all, the quorum of two superpowers could not be met. Indeed, some had argued that non-alignment ended the moment China invaded India in 1962, but in both cases, the understanding of the term is very narrow and not at all what Nehru had conceived of. With the end of the Cold War, however, non-alignment became a hallowed monument to the Nehru era and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. While Congress politicians hoped to capitalise on the intellectual contributions of their forefathers in an effort to conceal that they had none of their own to boast of, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) began to use non-alignment as a tool with which to whip the US; Indian politics gained a decidedly anti-American flavour. This was most evident not only during the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, but also during the First Gulf War, the NATO bombing of Kosovo, and even trivial matters such as the refueling of a US naval vessel, the USS Nimitz, in Chennai (formerly Madras) in 2007. Thus, if non-alignment was merely an expression of anti-US sentiment, then it was most surely alignment, not non-alignment – alignment against the US (the CPI(M) probably misunderstood Indian policy in the 1970s and 1980s as pro-USSR and anti-US rather than as pro-Indian). In this sense, the non-alignment seems a relic of the past, an archaic theory which demands a knee-jerk condemnation of US policy. Yet this is not what non-alignment was.


Non-alignment has had its detractors since its early days. Many, like Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (CR) and Minocheher Masani, were of the opinion that India should make common cause with the United States as only that superpower could provide aid in the volume India needed. After the death of CR in 1972, his Swatantra Party (he had quit Congress in 1954 and founded the Swatantra Party in 1959) weakened visibly, and was ultimately merged into an anti-Congress coalition in 1974. The next generation of non-alignment critics has come from, not surprisingly, this same coalition and its citizen supporters. Nonetheless, it would behoove everyone to remember that anti-Congress is not the same as being against non-alignment, and certainly not so if one cares to peruse the history of the concept carefully.

The biggest failure of non-alignment for most people is the failure to deal with China in 1962 and the abject state of the economy under license raj. While these are certainly major failings of the Indian state, the second has little to do with non-alignment (non-alignment had nothing to do with economics or the nature of government but with foreign policy) and the first is a complex issue.

It is no secret that Nehru supported the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war. Notwithstanding, India was the second non-communist country after Burma to recognize the People’s Republic of China on December 30, 1949. Early recognition did not mean, however, that Nehru was predisposed to an alliance with the Communists. Nehru had regretfully accepted that nothing could be done in China “except to watch and adjust” to the situation.5 Indeed, Nehru was “greatly disturbed at the developments in China, Burma, Malaya, and elsewhere” in late 1948. In December 1949, Nehru wrote to Thakin Nu, the Prime Minister of Burma, that “however friendly we may be outwardly [towards China], there are inner conflicts and frictions and suspicion of each other.”6 However, the burden of fighting the Chinese given India’s economy was unbearable.7

The Chinese annexation of Tibet in October 1950 worried Teen Murthi immensely. In his notes, Nehru acknowledged that there was nothing anybody could have done to ensure the safety of Tibet, including the United States, Great Britain, or the Soviet Union. “We cannot be happy to have a strong, centralised and communist Government in control of the Tibetan border with India and yet there are no obvious means of stopping this,” Nehru admitted with regret.8 In fact, India’s inability to serve as a counterweight to China had always prevailed in Nehru’s mind. To avoid conflict in unfavourable situations, Nehru had to perform a fine balancing act that would keep the Chinese friendly and the superpowers out of South Asia without upsetting the apple cart of India’s developmental needs. Despite ordering the improvement of roads and rail on the border in case of a Chinese invasion, Nehru was under no illusion that India could in fact repel such an invasion. In a note, Nehru stated that if they had to “make full provision for [an attack], this would cast an intolerable burden on us, financial and otherwise, and it would weaken our general defence position. There are limits beyond which we cannot go at least for some years.”9

Although Nehru pursued his China policy with tremendous zeal, he occasionally betrayed his reservations in private. Right through the formative period of Sino-Indian relations, Nehru privately felt that Indian border defences in the Himalayas must be guarded against Chinese intelligence, military and infiltration activities. This revealed a concern with border security and it contradicted Nehru’s public posture on China.10 Nehru implemented several changes concerning border security in the NEFA region and Assam, arming Nepal, constructing roads, and entering into treaties with Bhutan and Sikkim that were aimed at stemming Chinese ambitions in the region. In an interview in 1971, President Truman’s ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, revealed that Nehru was always wary of Chinese intentions. Bowles was close to Nehru and seen as a “friend of India” by the American and Indian government alike. Recounting one of his conversations with the Prime Minister in November 1951, Nehru told Bowles that “sooner or later, the Chinese would break loose and begin to look beyond their borders. “Right now,” he said, “India and China are getting along quite well and I hope this will last for some time. After all, the Chinese need peace and stability to build up their economy and reinforce their political grip.”11 He compared his situation with that of Stalin’s in 1939, when Stalin had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to buy time with Hitler. “I hope,” Nehru said, “that my judgement is correct, because we can use the twenty-five years of peace just as well as the Chinese can, and if we just postpone our conflict, which I think may eventually occur, it would give us that much more time to build up our own country.”12 Nehru made concessions to the Chinese in order to get along better with them but he had no illusions about them. As Srinath Raghavan writes in War and Peace in Modern India, “Contrary to received wisdom, the problem with Nehru’s China policy was not his idealism but his realism.”


It is therefore debatable if China could have been repelled or discouraged in its ambitions towards Aksai Chin and the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA) short of an NATO-esque alliance. It should also be remembered that such an alliance, or the strongest commitment the United States was willing to give outside Europe, the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), did not help Pakistan in any of its wars with India. Even in Europe, ground zero for the US – USSR rivalry, Italy found herself severely constrained in exercising her nuclear option or rearming due to alliance politics.13 The question becomes, hence, not of Indian willingness to be part of America’s alphabet soup pacts, but if they would have preserved Indian sovereignty at the risk of initiating a war with China for the sake of a few rocky stretches of land. Nonetheless, non-alignment was one strategy India used to mollify China; panchsheel was another. Despite different tacks Nehru tried, the Chinese were intent on humiliating India for reasons of their own (party politics and dispute between the Soviet CCCP and the Chinese CCP).

The Centre for Policy Research recently released a document titled, Non-Alignment 2.0. Although it replicated fairly well Nehru’s strategy of retaining strategic autonomy, it remained a tepid guide for thinking about Indian policy over the 21st century – primarily because it portrayed an Indian foreign policy without teeth, as many people think non-alignment was. Mark Anthony said at Julius Caesar’s funeral oration, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar, 3:2). Similarly, while the quasi-failure of non-alignment is well-remembered, its successes not so much. Junagadh, Hyderabad, Bengal, and Goa are also names from the era of Non-Alignment 1.0, and despite Western pressure, Nehru kept the nuclear option open.

It is time we exorcised the ghosts of non-alignment and saw it for what it really was. Was it a secret formula for world hegemony? Of course not, but it did allow India to punch above its weight for a while. The failure was not of non-alignment, but of an economy spiraling out of control (the concurrence with the China war is because it is the 1962 war that pushes India’s Five Year Plans off schedule due to the large defence outlays) and held policies held to because they had become articles of faith than strategies. Strategic autonomy, if you prefer, is the sanest option most nations exercise because it ensures that they are not dragged into conflicts not of their making. It is time to stop reflexively railing against the strategy, or at least do it quietly so that serious people may have a chance to think.


1: Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches, September 1946 – May 1949, Vol. I, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, 1949, p. 219.

2: Ibid. This ideas was expressed by Nehru in an essay even earlier, in 1944. The essay, Realism and Geopolitics: World Conquest or World Association?, is produced in Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 539.

3: National Archives and Records Administration, Maryland. U.S.-India Foreign Relations, 1945-1949. LM 162.1 745.00/9-27-46. September 27, 1946. See also, U.S.-India Foreign Relations, 1945-1949. LM 162.1 745.00/12-847. December 4, 1947.

4: Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series. Volume 15, Part I (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund), 356: India’s Korean Policy. August 3, 1950.

5: Note to Foreign Secretary, December 14, 1948. File No. 136(TS) Far East Asia/48, Ministry of External Affairs, National Archives of India.

6: Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume 14, Part I, Page 504: Letter to Thakin Nu. January 7, 1950.

7: V.M. Dandekar, “Forty Years after Independence,” in Bimal Jalan, ed., The Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects (New Delhi: Penguin, 2004), 39-41. See also, Francine R. Frankel, India’s Political Economy, 1947-2004 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 216.

8: Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume 15, Part II, Page 409: Recent Developments in East and South Asia. November 8, 1950.

9: Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume 15, Part II, Page 344: Policy Regarding China and Tibet. November 18, 1950.

10: Ashok Kapur, Foreign Policies of India and her Neighbours (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 63.

11: Nehru Museum and Memorial Library, Oral History Transcript, Chester Bowles (US Ambassador to India, 1951-53, 1963-68), Accession Number 286. Page 2.

12: Ibid., 3.

13: Leopoldo Nuti, La sfida nucleare: La politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche 1945-1991 (Il Mulino, 2007).

The following two tabs change content below.
Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

Latest posts by Jaideep A. Prabhu (see all)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,