The National Congress, like all other political organizations in India, was for long entirely engrossed in internal politics and paid little attention to foreign developments. In the nineteen-twenties it began to take some interest in foreign affairs. No other organization did so except the small groups of socialists and communists. Muslim organizations were interested in Palestine and occasionally passed resolutions of sympathy for the Muslim Arabs there. The intense nationalism of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran was watched by them but not without some apprehension, as it was secular, and was leading to reforms which were not wholly in keeping with their ideas of Islamic traditions. The Congress gradually developed a foreign policy which was based on the elimination of political and economic imperialism everywhere and the co-operation of free nations. This fitted in with the demand for Indian independence. As early as 1920 a resolution on foreign policy was passed by the Congress, in which our desire to co-operate with other nations and especially to develop friendly relations with all our neighbouring countries was emphasized. The possibility of another large-scale war was later considered, and in 1927, twelve years before World War II actually started, the Congress first declared its policy in regard to it.
This was five or six years before Hitler came into power and before Japanese aggression in Manchuria had begun. Mussolini was consolidating himself in Italy but did not then appear as a major threat to world peace. Fascist Italy was on friendly terms with England and British statesmen expressed their admiration for the Duce. There were a number of petty dictators in Europe, also usually on good terms with the British Government. Between England and Soviet Russia, however, there was a complete breach; there had been the Arcos raid and withdrawal of diplomatic representatives. In the League of Nations and the International Labour Office British and French policy was definitely conservative. In the interminable discussions on disarmament, when every other country represented in the League, as well as the U.S.A., were in favour of the total abolition of aerial bombardment, Britain made some vital reservations. For many years the British Government had used aircraft, for ‘police purposes’ it was called, for bombing towns and villages in Iraq and the North-West Frontier of India. This ‘right’ was insisted upon, thus preventing any general agreement on this subject in the League and later in the Disarmament Conference.
Germany—the Weimar republican Germany—had become a full member of the League of Nations, and Locarno had been hailed as a forerunner of perpetual peace in Europe and a triumph of British policy. Another view of all these developments was that Soviet Russia was being isolated and a joint front against her was being created in Europe. Russia had just celebrated the tenth anniversary of her revolution and had developed friendly ties with various eastern countries—Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia.
The Chinese revolution had also advanced with great strides and the nationalist armies had taken possession of half of China, coming into conflict with foreign, and especially British, interests in the port towns and the interior. Subsequently there had been internal trouble and a break-up of the Kuomintang into rival groups.
The world situation seemed to be drifting towards a major conflict with England and France as heads of a European group of nations, and Soviet Russia associated with some eastern nations. The United States of America held aloof from both these groups; their intense dislike of communism kept them away from Russia, and their distrust of British policy and competition with British finance and industry, preventing them from associating themselves with the British group. Over and above these considerations was the isolationist sentiment of America and the fear of being embroiled in European quarrels.
In this setting Indian opinion inevitably sided with Soviet Russia and the eastern nations. This did not mean any widespread approval of communism, though a growing number were attracted to socialist thought. The triumphs of the Chinese revolution were hailed with enthusiasm as portents of the approaching freedom of India and of the elimination of European aggression in Asia. We developed an interest in nationalist movements in the Dutch East Indies and Indo-China, as well as the western Asiatic countries and Egypt. The conversion of Singapore into a great naval base and the development of Trincomalee harbour in Ceylon appeared as parts of the general preparations for the coming war, in which Britain would try to consolidate and strengthen her imperialist position and crush Soviet Russia and the rising nationalist movements of the east.
It was with this background that the National Congress began to develop its foreign policy in 1927. It declared that India could be no party to an imperialist war, and in no event should India be made to join any war without the consent of her people being obtained. In the years that followed, this declaration was frequently repeated and widespread propaganda was carried on in accordance with it. It became one of the foundations of Congress policy and, it was generally accepted, of Indian policy. No individual or organization in India opposed it.
Meanwhile changes were taking place in Europe, and Hitler and Nazism had risen. The Congress immediately reacted against these changes and denounced them, for Hitler and his creed seemed the very embodiment and intensification of the imperialism and racialism against which the Congress was struggling. Japanese aggression in Manchuria produced even stronger reactions because of sympathy for China. Abyssinia, Spain, the Sino-Japanese war, Czechoslovakia, and Munich, added to this strength of feeling and the tension of approaching war.
But this coming war was likely to be different from the one that had been envisaged before Hitler had arisen. Even so, British policy had been almost continuously pro-fascist and pro-Nazi and it was difficult to believe that it would suddenly change overnight and champion freedom and democracy. Its dominant imperialist outlook and desire to hold on to its empire would continue despite other developments; also its basic opposition to Russia and what Russia represented. But it became increasingly obvious that in spite of every desire to appease Hitler he was becoming a dominating power in Europe, entirely upsetting the old balance and menacing the vital interests of the British Empire. War between England and Germany became probable, and if this broke out what then would our policy be? How would we reconcile the two dominating trends of our policy: Opposition to British imperialism and opposition to fascism and Nazism? How would we bring in line our nationalism and our internationalism? It was a difficult question in the existing circumstances, difficult for us, but offering no difficulty if the British Government took a step to demonstrate to us that they had given up their imperialist policy in India and wanted to rely on popular goodwill.
In a contest between nationalism and internationalism, nationalism was bound to win. That had happened in every country and in every crisis; in a country under foreign domination, with bitter memories of continuous struggle and suffering, that was an inevitable and unavoidable consequence, England and France had played false to republican Spain and betrayed Czechoslovakia, and thus sacrificed internationalism for what they considered, wrongly as events proved, their national interests. The United States of America had clung to isolationism, in spite of their evident sympathy with England, France, and China, and their hatred of Nazism and Japanese militarism and aggression. It was Pearl Harbour that flung them headlong into war. Soviet Russia, the very emblem of internationalism, had followed a strictly national policy, bringing confusion to many of her friends and sympathizers. It was the sudden and un-announced attack by the German armies that brought war to the U.S.S.R. The Scandinavian countries and Holland and Belgium tried to avoid war and entanglement in the vain hope of saving themselves, and yet were overwhelmed by it. Turkey has sat precariously for five years on the thin edge of a varying neutrality, governed solely by national considerations. Egypt, still a semi-colonial country in spite of its apparent independence, itself one of the major battle areas, occupies a curious and anomalous position. For all practical purposes it is a belligerent country completely under the control of the armed forces of the United Nations, and yet apparently it is not a belligerent.
There may be justification or excuse for all these policies adopted by various governments and countries. A democracy cannot easily jump into war without preparing its people and gaining their co-operation. Even an authoritarian state has to prepare the ground. But whatever the reason or justification may be, it is clear that whenever a crisis has occurred, national considerations, or what were considered to be such, have been paramount and all others, which did not fit in with them, have been swept away. It was extraordinary how, during the Munich crises, the hundreds of international organizations, anti-fascist leagues, etc., in Europe were struck dumb and became powerless and ineffective. Individuals and small groups may become internationally minded and may even be prepared to sacrifice personal and immediate national interests for a larger cause, but not so nations. It is only when international interests are believed to be in line with national interests that they arouse enthusiasm.
A few months ago the London Economist, discussing British foreign policy, wrote: ‘The only foreign policy that has any hope of being consistently pursued is one in which national interests are fully and obviously safeguarded. No nation puts the interests of the international community before its own. It is only if the two can be seen to coincide that there is any possibility of effective internationalism.’
Internationalism can indeed only develop in a free country, for all the thought and energy of a subject country are directed towards the achievement of its own freedom. That subject condition is like a cancerous growth inside the body, which not only prevents any limb from becoming healthy but is a constant irritant to the mind and colours all thought and action. Conflict is inherent in it and such conflict leads to a concentration of thought on it and prevents a consideration of wider issues. The history of a long succession of past conflicts and suffering becomes the inseparable companion of both the individual and the national mind. It becomes an obsession, a dominating passion, which cannot be exorcised except by removing its root cause. And even then, when the sense of subjection has gone, the cure is slow, for the injuries of the mind take longer to heal than those of the body.
All this background we have long had in India, and yet Gandhi gave a turn to our nationalist movement which lessened the feelings of frustration and bitterness. Those feelings continued but I do not know of any other nationalist movement which has been so free from hatred. Gandhi was an intense nationalist; he was also, at the same time, a man who felt he had a message not only for India but for the world, and he ardently desired world peace. His nationalism, therefore, had a certain world outlook and was entirely free from any aggressive intent. Desiring the independence of India, he had come to believe that a world federation of interdependent states was the only right goal, however distant that might be. He had said: ‘My idea of nationalism is that my country may become free, that if need be the whole of the country may die, so that the human race may live. There is no room for race hatred here. Let that be our nationalism.’ And again:
I do want to think in terms of the whole world. My patriotism includes the good of mankind in general. Therefore, my service of India includes the services of humanity…. Isolated independence is not the goal of the world states. It is voluntary interdependence. The better mind of the world desires today not absolutely independent states, warring one against another, but a federation of friendly, inter-dependent states. The consummation of that event may be far off. I want to make no grand claims for our country. But I see nothing grand or impossible about our expressing our readiness for universal inter-dependence rather than independence. I desire the ability to be totally independent without asserting the independence.
As the nationalist movement grew in strength and self-confidence, many people began to think in terms of a free India: what she would be like, what she would do, and what her relations with other countries would be. The very bigness and potential strength and resources of the country made them think in big terms. India could not be a mere hanger-on of any country or group of nations; her freedom and growth would make a vital difference to Asia and therefore to the world. That led inevitably to the conception of full independence and a severance of the bonds that tied her to England and her empire. Dominion status, even when that status approached independence, seemed an absurd limitation and a hindrance to full growth. The idea behind dominion status, of a mother country closely connected with her daughter nations, all of them having a common cultural background, seemed totally inapplicable to India. It meant certainly a wider sphere of international co-operation, which was desirable, but it also meant at the same time lesser co-operation with countries outside that empire or commonwealth group. It thus became a limiting factor, and our ideas, full of the promise of the future, overstepped these boundaries and looked to a wider co-operation. In particular, we thought of close relations with our neighbour countries in the east and west, with China, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Soviet Union. Even with distant America we wanted closer relations, for we could learn much from the United States as also from the Soviet Union. There was a feeling that we had exhausted our capacity for learning anything more from England, and in any event we could only profit by contact with each other after breaking the unhealthy bond that tied us and by meeting on equal terms.
The racial discrimination and treatment of Indians in some of the British dominions and colonies were powerful factors in our determination to break from that group. In particular, South Africa was a constant irritant, and East Africa and Kenya, directly under the British colonial policy. Curiously enough we got on well, as individuals, with Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, for they represent a new tradition and were free from many of the prejudices and the social conservatism of the British.
When we talked of the independence of India it was not in terms of isolation. We realized, perhaps more than many other countries, that the old type of complete national independence was doomed, and there must be a new era of world co-operation. We made it repeatedly clear, therefore, that we were perfectly agreeable to limit that independence, in common with other nations, within some international framework. That framework should preferably cover the world or as large a part of it as possible, or be regional. The British Commonwealth did not fit in with either of these conceptions, though it could be a part of the larger framework.
It is surprising how internationally minded we grew in spite of our intense nationalism. No other nationalist movement of a subject country came anywhere near this, and the general tendency in such other countries was to keep clear of international commitments. In India also there were those who objected to our lining up with republican Spain and China, Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia. Why antagonize powerful nations like Italy, Germany, and Japan, they said; every enemy of Britain should be treated as a friend; idealism has no place in politics, which concerns itself with power and the opportune use of it. But these objectors were overwhelmed by the mass sentiment the Congress had created and hardly ever gave public expression to their views. The Muslim League remained throughout discreetly silent and never committed itself on any such international issue.
In 1938 the Congress sent a medical unit consisting of a number of doctors and necessary equipment and material to China. For several years this unit did good work there. When this was organized, Subhas Bose was president of the Congress. He did not approve of any step being taken by the Congress which was anti-Japanese or anti-German or anti-Italian. And yet such was the feeling in the Congress and the country that he did not oppose this or many other manifestations of Congress sympathy with China and the victims of fascist and Nazi aggression. We passed many resolutions and organized many demonstrations of which he did not approve during the period of his president-ship, but he submitted to them without protest because he realized the strength of feeling behind them. There was a big difference in outlook between him and others in the Congress Executive, both in regard to foreign and internal matters, and this led to a break early in 1939. He then attacked Congress policy publicly and, early in August, 1939. the Congress Executive took the very unusual step of taking disciplinary action against him, one of its ex-presidents.