1964: The death of a democrat
Jawaharlal Nehru kept his nerve for long but the last two years of his life proved to be particularly turbulent
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On 17 and 18 December 1961, on Jawaharlal Nehru’s orders, Indian troops marched into Goa to liberate it from the Portuguese, who had ruled the territory since 1510. Condemnation was swift, both from critics at home and abroad.
In the election campaign that took place immediately after the invasion Nehru was able to strike a patriotic chord, capitalizing on restoring Goa to the Motherland. The Congress party was re-elected in 361 out of 494 parliamentary seats and was back in power for a third successive term. Yet, in spite of the criticism, no one could foresee that the triumphant note sounded over Goa also marked the countdown to the end of Nehru’s leadership. The military conflict with China that broke out in full force in October 1962 would be momentous for India, bringing about extraordinary tribulations for Nehru. In its aftermath came growing tensions with Pakistan, political unrest in the Kashmir valley and domestic criticism and challenges to his political authority.
In November 1961, just before the Goa campaign, in response to stinging criticism in Parliament, Nehru and his defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, had taken steps to reclaim from the Chinese some territory by setting up forward posts. Arguably, this much debated forward policy inflamed the situation. In August 1962 Nehru informed Parliament that Indian soldiers had reoccupied some 4,000 sq. km of some 19,000 sq. km of territory the Chinese had taken.
Yet, when the Chinese strike came on 19 and 20 October, the Indian leadership called it an unprovoked and sudden offensive, a Himalayan Pearl Harbor. A month later, on 21 November, a unilateral ceasefire was called by the Chinese; by then they had wrestled over 23,200 sq. km of territory from India, retaining 4,000 sq. km in the Ladakh region.
The Himalayan War was a dramatic turning point for Nehru’s leadership. Although India and the Soviet Union had signed a deal in August 1962 for MiG-21 fighter planes, these never materialized during the hostilities, leading to speculation that the Soviets would not permit the use of their weapons against another Communist country. Nehru was upset that US and British offers of military help came with strings attached. India was now forced to accept outside mediation and to open a dialogue with Pakistan over the highly contentious issue of Kashmir. Both the US and UK governments had used the Himalayan crisis to put pressure on India to make concessions to Pakistan and to settle the Kashmir issue. Nehru’s carefully nurtured policy of non-alignment suffered a setback and India’s stature on the global stage, which he had worked so hard to build, diminished.
In April 1963, the Congress lost three critical parliamentary by-elections. In Parliament’s monsoon session J.B. Kripalani moved a motion of no confidence, the first such challenge to his leadership Nehru had faced since 1947. Although defeated, the motion was deeply symbolic of the shifting political dissatisfaction with the government.
Anxious stirrings within the Congress reflected the mood. The Congress heavyweights realized that they had to face up to the inevitable question: After Nehru who? The party had to survive, take care of its electoral interests and move on in uncertain times. Some of these men, including Kamaraj, met quietly in October 1963 in the temple town of Tirupati in southern India to form what came to be known as the Syndicate, an informal leadership collective to manage the question of political succession.
The outbreak of war with China brought another hopelessly tangled issue to Nehru’s urgent attention, that of Kashmir. Talks began between the Indian minister Swaran Singh and the Pakistani foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Held over six prolonged rounds between December 1962 and May 1963, the talks proved unproductive and only hardened attitudes on both sides. US and British diplomatic efforts now turned to getting Nehru and Ayub Khan to accept third party international mediation to solve the Kashmir deadlock, a proposal that went against the grain of Nehru’s creed of non-alignment.
Meanwhile, in Kashmir the political crisis deepened. People regarded the detention of Sheikh Abdullah, imprisoned for 11 years without trial, as being part of a political vendetta. To aggravate the situation, on 26 December 1963 a crisis arose due to the mysterious theft of a relic of the Prophet Muhammad from the shrine of Hazratbal in Srinagar.
The Hazratbal incident had far-reaching consequences. Sectarian violence broke out. Nehru dreaded the vicious cycle of Hindu-Muslim violence. He had lived through the horrors of Partition. To his distress it had begun again.
On 7 January 1964 Nehru suffered a mild stroke at Bhubaneswar. Arrangements were now made to lighten Nehru’s responsibilities. Lal Bahadur Shastri was appointed to the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Shastri was to look after Nehru’s work relating to foreign affairs, planning and atomic energy, besides handling all important matters requiring the prime minister’s attention. Nehru soon recovered and from March onwards resumed attending Parliament.
On the morning of 27 May after returning in apparently good health from a few days’ holiday at Dehra Dun, Nehru suffered a sudden heart attack. He died later that afternoon.
Deeply respectful of the norms and processes of a young democracy, Nehru always believed that the question of succession should be decided by the party and the people after he was gone. The political transition that followed his death was remarkably smooth. With the support of the Syndicate, Shastri was unanimously elected his successor.
Gyanesh Kudaisya is associate professor of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. A historian of contemporary India, he is currently working on a history of India in the definitive decade of the 1950s to be published by Oxford University Press.
Article reprinted with permission from History Today. (www.historytoday.com)
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