India’s Foreign Policy Between 1947 and 1962 [Nehru Era]

The onset of the cold war and India’s independence almost coincided. In those days, the countries were flocking in one of the two rival camps. However, for India, circumstances demanded something else. Firstly, neither US nor USSR showed any great interest in India, they were virtually ignorant of the newly freed country, which was struggling even to feed its population.  Secondly, due to the lack of interest of any of the major powers, India was placed at a disadvantage in the regional distribution of power in south Asia, because gradually, China had started posing security threats, which India ignored at its own peril. Thirdly, after two centuries as a colony of a mighty European country, the sentiments of our leaders were that of maintaining greatest possible independence in conduct of the foreign affairs.

Thus, unlike Pakistan which immediately moved to US for asking military and financial help; Indian Prime Minister visited US mainly for food-aid. India did not opt to join any rival camp. The colonial legacy was such that Indian leaders would choose anything that would keep them out of the ambit of the Cold War. This culminated in the policy of Non-alignment; however, it took great pains to explain to the world that it was not neutralism keeping out of the two rival power blocs but a positive concept of exercising independence of judgment and action in foreign policy matters.

Why Non-alignment?

Nehru chose the Non-alignment as lodestar of India’s foreign policy. Why he did so? The reasons can be summarized as follows:

  • Nehru was skeptical towards US but was little inclined towards USSR mainly because of his own social democratic orientations. However, he was also aware of the horrors of Stalin’s collectivist enterprise.
  • Nehru was deeply concerned about the opportunity costs of the defense spending. He was aware that involving with any of the two major powers would escalate the defense spending and it would drain substantial resources badly needed for economic development. He had a personal disdain of having too much defense expenditure and he could overcome this only after 1962 conflict.
  • Nehru wanted to maintain the hard earned independence and was aware that involvement with either would somehow compromise freedom.

Achievements of Indian Foreign Policy during 1947-1962

During this period, major achievements of India were as follows:

  • India played significant role in multilateral institutions and particularly in United Nations peacekeeping operations. India involved in International Control Commission in Vietnam and the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea. India also made significant troop contribution the United Nations Peacekeeping forces in the Belgian Congo.
  • India emerged as major leader of nonaligned movement.
  • India made significant diplomatic efforts toward the process of decolonization.
  • India attempted to defuse the cold war tensions. India was one of the early proponents of nuclear test ban treaty. In 1952, India and Ireland had introduced a draft resolution to bring about a global ban on nuclear tests.


The major failures in this phase are as follows:

  • Firstly, India moved the issue of Kashmir to the UN Security Council. Many leaders including Sheikh Abdullah were not in favour of India seeking UN intervention because they believed that Indian Army was in a position to free entire Kashmir from the Pak army. Taking the issue to UN soon threw the issue in the politics of cold war. In the United Nations discussions, India’s political leaders became disillusioned about the resolution of bilateral issues with the help of UN.
  • Secondly, India faced severe criticism for the way it handled the affairs of Goa with Portugal. The diplomatic talks between Nehru and the Salazar regime in Portugal ended in a deadlock and India used military to expel the Portuguese from Goa in 1960.
  • Thirdly, one of the tenants of the NAM was that the countries had to reduce their defense expenditures. So, Indian military expenditures were drastically limited even if it was known that the security threat from china is mounting. This policy of not having enough defense expenditure proved to be a costly affair. The border dispute with China and India was a colonial legacy. When diplomatic talks failed, Indian leaders embarked upon a strategy of compulsion with an aim to restore what they thought to be the territorial status quo along the Sino-Indian border.
  • But, it was an ill conceived policy because to achieve the status quo, India sent small units (aka. penny packets in military jargon) of lightly armed, poorly equipped and ill soldiers to the high altitudes of mighty Himalayas. The result was that in October 1962, China attacked with considerable force. Indian military was grossly unprepared to face the onslaught and China inflicted a massive defeat to Indian forces.

After declaring victory, China withdrew from some of the areas they had entered but did not vacate some 14,000 square miles that they had initially claimed. This area is disputed even today.