The first international conference which Jawaharlal Nehru attended took place in 1927 at Brussels. The theme was perfectly suited to his left-leaning heart. The International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism had, with good reason, Britain at the top of its agenda while it kept a beady eye on the ‘rising imperialism of the United States’ in Latin America (the phrase is from Nehru’s official report to the Congress party). The three nations designated to lead the world out of oppression were China, Mexico and India. China was doing its bit already with partial funding of this conference.
Nehru was in his element at Brussels. As member of the presiding committee, he helped set the day’s agenda. He was among the inaugural speakers, and was appointed to the executive committee of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence. One of his colleagues on the committee was Soong Ching-ling, now widow of Sun Yat-sen, who had suddenly died of ill health in March 1925.
Nehru described the Chinese delegation, which included Liao Huanxing and Xion Guanguan, as “very young and full of enthusiasm.” He signed a joint declaration with the Chinese on the importance of cooperation and said in his speech at the conference: “The noble example of the Chinese nationalists filled us with hope, and we earnestly want as soon as we can to be able to emulate them and follow in their footsteps.” The bonhomie of Brussels warmed into an important friendship with Chiang Kai-shek’s China over the next two decades.
The idea that germinated in Nehru’s mind was the prospect of India and China becoming the backbone of a pan-Asian alliance. This would develop and expand into an Afro-Asian and then worldwide alliance of the ‘Third World’ which became a central plank of his foreign policy, leading to the birth of the non-aligned movement in 1961.
After his mentor’s death, Chiang Kai-shek took over his party and army, and split the alliance with the communists fostered by Sun Yat-sen, setting off the friction that would lead to civil war. By 1928, his forces had entered Beijing. He chose Nanking as his capital but the consolidation of China was again interrupted, this time by the Japanese invasion of 1937.
All through the 1930s, Nehru promoted multi-faceted relations with China, which he described as ‘India’s sister in ancient history’ in a letter to his daughter Indira Gandhi. For him, the partnership was politically astute and a civilizational imperative. When the Japanese invaded on July 7, 1937, Nehru led the Indian campaign to support China. As president of the Congress, he announced a China Day on September 26, 1937, called for a boycott of Japanese goods and appealed for donations to the Chinese war effort. In 1938, the heroic medical team led by Dwarkanath Kotnis left for the Chinese front, earning plaudits from both Kuomintang Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. This culminated in an invitation to visit China in 1939.
In August, Nehru left by an Air France plane, Ville de Calcutta, for Hanoi, and later sailed up the Yangtze to reach the wartime capital, Chongqing. Chiang Kai-shek welcomed him as “an intimate friend.” From his base, Mao sent a telegram inviting the Indian leader to Yan’an. Much to his regret, Nehru could not go as he had to cut short his visit after Britain unilaterally made India a belligerent in the war without consulting Indians. (Mao, interestingly, approved of Gandhi’s decision to keep the Congress out of World War II, while Chiang wanted full Indian cooperation. Mao only joined the Allies after Germany declared war on the Soviet Union.)
In Chongqing, Nehru’s personal equation with Marshal and Madame Chiang took on a much warmer hue. He proposed a seven-point programme for India-China friendship that included exchange mechanisms for cooperation in cottage industry, culture, politics and universities. Chinese delegates were invited to All India Congress Committee (AICC) sessions. Chiang wanted to send a delegation to India consisting of Soong Ching-ling, Wang Jingwei and Ku Meng-yu. That is when the British stepped in. They refused to give visas. But they could not stop statements and letters. Both Chiang and Mao protested when Nehru was interred in 1941; and both Ching-ling and Mei-ling wrote to Nehru when he was imprisoned after the Quit India movement in 1942.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was reluctant to host Chiang Kai-shek when the Chinese leader, appointed commander-in-chief of the Allied forces for Southeast Asia after Pearl Harbor, wanted to visit India in early 1942. His mission was intended to be helpful.
He wanted to break the deadlock between the Raj and Gandhi, using his friend Nehru as a plausible intermediary. This would enable India to play a full hand in the war, then at a critical phase as Japan’s seemingly invincible machine, having swept through East Asia, put India in its sights.
Churchill could not stop Chiang, but the mission failed. As the British archly noted in their official record, Nehru clung to his friends like nettle during the Chiang visit. China’s first couple also met his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who would play an influential role after 1947 as India’s envoy to Washington and the United Nations. She and Soong Mei-ling became good friends.
The complex interplay between friendship, utopian ideas and the demands of national interest would reach centrestage of this political drama in less than five years.
(M.J. Akbar is an MP and the author of, among other titles, Nehru: The Making of India. The views expressed are personal).