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India After Independence, India Under Nehru

nonalignment, Congress movement, Toshkent, Liaquat Ali Khan, short war

The constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950, a date celebrated annually as Republic Day. The constitution provided for a federal union of states and a parliamentary system, and included a list of “fundamental rights” guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

Under Nehru’s leadership, the government attempted to develop India quickly by embarking on agrarian reform and rapid industrialization. A successful land reform was introduced that abolished giant landholdings, but efforts to redistribute land by placing limits on landownership failed. Attempts to introduce large-scale cooperative farming were frustrated by landowning rural elites, who—as staunch Congress Party supporters—had considerable political weight. Agricultural production expanded until the early 1960s, as additional land was brought under cultivation and some irrigation projects began to have an effect. The establishment of agricultural universities, modeled after land-grant colleges in the United States, also helped. These universities worked with high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, initially developed in Mexico and the Philippines, that in the 1960s began the Green Revolution, an effort to diversify and increase crop production. At the same time a series of failed monsoons brought India to the brink of famine, prevented only by food grain aid from the United States.

The planning commission of the central government inaugurated a series of five-year plans in 1952 that emphasized the building of basic industries such as steel, heavy machine tools, and heavy electrical machinery (such as power plant turbines) rather than automobiles and other consumer goods. New investment in those industries, as well as investment in infrastructure, especially railroads, communications, and power generation, was reserved for the public sector. Most other economic activity was in private hands, but entrepreneurs were subject to a complex set of licenses, regulations, and controls. These were designed to ensure a fair allotment of scarce resources and protect workers’ rights, but in practice they hampered investment and management. The central government controlled foreign trade stringently. Substantial progress was made toward the goal of industrial self-reliance and growth in manufacturing during the 1950s and early 1960s.

India’s large diversity of languages contributed to internal political problems during the 1950s and early 1960s. Although Gandhi had reorganized the Congress movement in 1920 to reflect linguistic divisions, and although the nationalist movement had always promised a reorganization of provincial boundaries once independence was achieved, Nehru resisted a demand to bring together the Telugu-speaking areas of the former British province of Madras and Hyderabad state. He yielded only when the leader of the movement fasted to death, and severe riots broke out. A States Reorganization Commission was appointed, and in 1956 the interior boundaries of India were redrawn along linguistic lines. In 1960 much of the land making up Bombay state was divided into Maharashtra and Gujarat states, with the remainder going to Karnataka state. In 1966 most of Punjab was split into the states of Punjab and Haryana after significant public protest. Aside from some minor border disputes, and with additional states formed mainly in northeast India, the reorganization generally strengthened India’s unity.

The thorny problem of a national language for the country remained. The constitution specified that Hindi, spoken in many dialects by 40 percent of Indians, would become the official language in 1965, after a transition in which English, spoken by the educated elite of the country, would serve. Non-Hindi speakers, especially in the south Indian state of Madras (later renamed Tamil Nadu), mobilized against central government efforts to impose Hindi. To settle the dispute, the government allowed continued use of English for states that wished to keep it.

During its first years as a republic India figured increasingly in international affairs, especially in deliberations and activities of the UN. Nehru became world famous as the leading spokesman for nonalignment, the idea that other countries should refuse to take sides in a mounting ideological and political struggle between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States known as the Cold War. Indian determination to avoid entanglement with either of these powers became increasingly apparent after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953). Although the Indian government approved the UN Security Council resolution invoking military sanctions against North Korea, no Indian troops were committed to the cause, and Nehru dispatched notes on the situation to the United States and the Soviet Union, repeatedly trying to restore peace in Korea. In its initial attempts at mediation the Indian government suggested that admitting China to the UN was a prerequisite to a solution of the Korean crisis. Even after China intervened in the Korean War—and despite India’s differences with China over Tibet, which China had invaded in 1950—India adhered to this view. However, it was rejected by a majority of the UN Security Council.

Nehru was unable to resolve the hostility with Pakistan, rooted in the Indian nationalists’ opposition to the creation of Pakistan and in the terrible bloodshed that accompanied the partition of the two countries at independence. The division of Kashmir along the 1949 cease-fire line left each country claiming important territory held by the other. Diplomatic efforts at the UN and at bilateral meetings between Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, proved unsuccessful. Although India had agreed to hold a plebiscite in the region, it claimed that the plebiscite was dependent on the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kashmir, and that the vote of the Kashmir legislature in the mid-1950s to integrate fully into India made a plebiscite unnecessary. Pakistan claimed that a mutual withdrawal of forces was necessary, and that one party to an agreement cannot unilaterally change it.

In the late 1950s India began to conflict with China over the ownership of some largely uninhabited land along India’s northeastern border in Arunachal Pradesh and in the hill areas of northeastern Jammu and Kashmir. Until that time India’s relations with China had been generally amiable, and Nehru believed that the territorial dispute could be solved through friendly negotiations. The difficulty of mapping the area accurately, and the conflicts between the security interests of the two countries, however, proved to be thornier problems than Nehru had anticipated. By 1959 the dispute had begun heating up, and popular pressure not to yield territory to China grew. Nehru’s government sent military patrols into the disputed territory.

China’s answer was to attack in both disputed areas in October 1962, quickly routing an ill-prepared Indian army, and threatening to move virtually unopposed to the plains of Assam. In desperation, India sought Western and military aid, especially from the United States, which the administration of President John F. Kennedy willingly provided. The fighting ended when China unilaterally announced a cease-fire in late November, continuing to occupy some of the territories it had invaded. The crisis precipitated a drastic overhaul of Indian defenses, including massive arms procurement and the modernization of its armed forces. Also, Defense Minister V. K. Krishna Menon, a powerful neutralist, was ousted from the government at the end of October. This in turn alarmed Pakistan, concerned that its small size and small economic capacity compared with India would condemn it to a permanent position of inferiority on the subcontinent.

Nehru died in May 1964. He was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was seen both at home and abroad as a weak successor. Unrest in Kashmir combined with Pakistan’s belief in India’s weakness, resulted in a short war between the two countries in September 1965. The Soviet Union brokered a cease-fire, and literally hours after it was signed in January 1966, Shastri died in Toshkent, Uzbekistan.



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