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On India, Nehru and non-alignment: a tete-a-tete with acclaimed writer Nayantara Sahgal

Manu Bhagavan

Updated: October 12, 2012, 1:01 PM IST
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Nayantara Sahgal is the Sinclair Prize, Commonwealth Writers Award and Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. She is the daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, leader of India's delegations to the first several sessions of the United Nations, first woman president of the UN General Assembly, and a historic ambassador to the Soviet Union, United States, and Britain. Sahgal is also the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister.

In the midst of World War II, Nayantara Sahgal and her sister, Chandralekha Mehta (nee Pandit), travelled halfway around the world to study in the United States at Wellesley College where they were to attend on the recommendation of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, First Lady of China. The sisters would soon be joined in the US by their mother who made waves on a year-long anti-imperialist tour of the country, highlighted by her radio takedown of Churchill's former parliamentary secretary and her leadership of an anti-racist coalition at the San Francisco Conference to create the United Nations. Madame Pandit, as she was known, made an impact outside the Conference, representing India's demand for freedom and the larger anti-colonial cause at a time when the official Indian delegation at the Conference was one appointed by the British government.

After her graduation from Wellesley, Sahgal was witness to history as India decolonised and her uncle and mother attempted to craft a different vision for the world. Sahgal famously clashed swords with her cousin Indira Gandhi over the then Prime Minister's autocratic policies during the Emergency. She later became a member of India's 1978 delegation to the UN.

Her work reflects her fiercely independent, feminist outlook. Sahgal's most recent book, "Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing a Savage World", focuses on India's foreign policy under her uncle's administration. The account is based on her personal recollections as well as numerous documents from both public records and her own private collection. I had the pleasure of asking Sahgal about her new book, her family, and her own past.

Q: What was it like to study at Wellesley, a famous women's college, in the 1940's? And how would you say the experience has helped to inform your perspective?

NS: Wellesley, for me, was a four-year interlude of peaceful study away from the turbulent environment of home where my parents, involved in the struggle for freedom, spent long periods in jail. It was also my first exhilarating experience of living in a free country. I enjoyed my courses, especially history, philosophy and the history of art. Nearby Boston offered the symphony, art galleries and theatre. And the college campus was so memorably beautiful. It was altogether a happy experience. I gained much from it and I was touched that Wellesley gave me its Distinguished Alumna Award.

Q: What were your impressions of Madame Chiang? How did your relationship change, if at all, after India recognised communist China?

NS: I never met Madame Chiang Kai Shek but the Chiangs' support for India's demand for freedom endeared them to the national movement led by the Congress party. They became friends of my family. Later they were disappointed that India recognised Communist China and Nehru strove to get the People's Republic of China its rightful place in the United Nations.

Q: Can you describe your impressions of your mother's famous 1945 US tour? Did you accompany her in some instances?

NS: No, I was in college. But her tour, supported by the National Committee for India's Freedom and the India League, to explain the Congress party's stand on the war and its demand for a national government that could then cooperate in the war effort, made a great impact on her audiences and on influential opinion in the United States.

Q: What are some of your recollections of the racial dynamics of the 1940's USA, and how did you see India fitting into the equation? Can you share some of your personal recollections of Paul Robeson and his wife, and of their interest in international affairs?

NS: There was only one Negro girl in my dorm at Wellesley and I saw no others in college. Apartheid ruled the South. My parents had been in touch with the Robesons though they had not met and the Robesons invited my sister and me to spend a holiday in their home. We felt very privileged to be with a family who proudly stood up for black rights and refused to accept discrimination. I first met Paul in New York backstage after his great performance as Othello. He was a Communist and was ruthlessly hounded during the infamous McCarthy era.

Q: You write in your book that the creed of Gandhi and Nehru, "if any, apart from freedom, was internationalism". Can you explain what you mean by this term?

NS: They backed the cause of freedom from imperial rule, not only for India but for Asia and Africa. They opposed the dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, at a time when the imperial powers were appeasing them.

Q: Was there anything Nehru did on the foreign policy stage that was duplicitous or misleading? What would you say was his greatest failing?

NS: No, India's foreign policy was open, no underhand wheeling and dealing, no caving in to threats from anywhere. Nehru's chief mistake was unpreparedness for China's aggression - a betrayal after India's support for Communist China at the UN.

Q: Nehru was loved, really loved, at home and throughout the world, despite facing huge challenges and making his fair share of mistakes. What allowed him to stay above the fray, so to speak?

NS: His integrity that was recognised and admired even by his political opponents.

Q: Churchill eventually comes to admire Nehru in some sense, and asks for his input on international affairs. From your recollections and records, how should we read Churchill's change of heart: Done grudgingly? For strategic purposes (and if so, what were they)? Genuine affection? Or some complicated and contradictory mix of all of these reasons?

NS: Churchill's first meeting with Nehru at the first Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference after Independence greatly impressed him. He was so struck by Nehru's statesmanlike approach to problems and the influence he had at the conference that he called him The Light of Asia.

Q: What do you make of Non-Alignment 2.0 as a policy prescription for contemporary India?

NS: We need non-alignment as a platform where we exercise our own independent judgement on world affairs.

Q: Do you have any suggestions on how we can improve public access to research materials and remove bureaucratic hurdles and unnecessary restrictions?

NS: Scholars need access to archives. I have no idea how this can be achieved in India, whether the hurdles are bureaucratic or at government level, or imposed by individuals who donate their papers to archives. We definitely need basic care of archives and their protection from termites and damaging weather conditions.

Q: Your mother was one of the leading lights of the United Nations. What do you make of the organisation as it stands today? Do you have any thoughts on how it should be reformed or restructured, if at all? What should India's role be, if any?

NS: It obviously needs re-structuring, including a more representative Security Council but I do not have the detailed knowledge to suggest what changes should be made.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your next project and any plans for the future?

NS: No plans at present.
First Published: October 12, 2012, 1:01 PM IST