“Where freedom is menaced or justice threatened or where aggression takes place, we cannot be and shall not be neutral.”
-Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing a joint session of US House and Senate October 13, 1949
Let us put Nehru’s words in context: here is the leader of a country still dependent on foreign aid for food, militarily negligible, a country of crushing poverty, invited to address the Congress of the United States. We watch him treat the superpower as an equal, recalling it to its highest values. It lionizes him. JFK’s first State of the Union speech invokes the “soaring idealism of Nehru”. In 1962, C. Rajagopalachari (also known as Rajaji, an associate of the Mahatma and a political opponent of Nehru) visits the US and the USSR promoting the importance of nuclear disarmament. President Kennedy listens with rapt attention, later recalling his meeting with Rajagopalachari as “one of the most civilizing influences on me”.
It was an era when India was regarded everywhere as a moral superpower, even if it was poor in material wealth. The authority India wielded on the world stage was lopsided, totally out of proportion to its military or economic power. Why was this so? Every country wants its people to eat well, but India, like America, represented something more — the inspiration of high purpose. Gandhi’s freedom movement set minds everywhere on fire. This was followed, after independence, by Nehru’s forging of the entirely new paradigm of non-alignment where India refused to trade political allegiance for economic blandishment.
Paradoxically, today, when India is an expanding power, exporting not just food but steel, with rising incomes, foreign acquisitions and a nuclear bomb, she is often viewed as nothing more than ‘a country with a middle class of 400 million’. And the moral voice? It hasn’t been heard from in years! There was courage in rags, but there is only meekness and timidity in riches. And the bomb, far from emboldening us, seems only to have induced servility. This week, for regularizing a nuclear deal with the US, among other economic aims, India rolls out the red carpet to an American president who has sullied everything noble about America.
When Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, India remained mute, likely weighing the forfeiture of any potential contracts in post-war Iraq. How electrifying it would have been for India to resume its role as the world’s moral superpower, to condemn the invasion from the rooftops, to recall its ambassador from Washington? India would have become the beacon of the world.
But all that is unimaginable today. For we are now rich, nuclear — and fearful. In the words of my father, KG Ramakrishnan, “where there was the torment of the soul, there now was the swagger of the body.”
Where the country of four hundred million ‘subjects’ overthrew the mightiest empire known to history, the weight of four hundred million ‘consumers’ forces a free nation to acquiesce in a fresh imperialism. Far from not remaining neutral in the face of aggression, as Nehru said, India this week is actually feting the aggressor! As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “How heavy is the toll of sins and wrongs that wealth, power and prestige exact from man.”