Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ram Manohar Lohia: a thinker and internationalist

Randeep Wadehra

He was destined to impact India’s political thought processes. He had set a new ideological paradigm that attracted diehard followers over a period of time often described as Lohiates – a term that was treated as a badge of honor, as well as a passport to success at the hustings, by them. Although his contributions to domestic political discourse have been widely acknowledged it is his role in influencing free India’s foreign policy template that gets seldom highlighted. True, his detractors do not think much of his impact on India’s role on the global stage; yet, he was an internationalist of no mean stature – something this essay would attempt to underscore. As the informed reader would notice, Lohia was right in several of his postulations even though he erred in others.

Born in Akbarpur of what is today the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh on 23rd March, 1910, Rammanohar Lohia graduated from Kolkata’s Vidyasagar College. For higher studies he preferred to go abroad – initially England but later Berlin which he found more suitable to his temperament.  He earned a doctorate in Economics from the Berlin University in 1932; the subject for his thesis was Salt and Satyagraha. Those were turbulent times in Europe in general and Germany in particular. The Social Democrats watched helplessly as Hitler’s Nazis became increasingly assertive. In fact racial supremacist impulses were becoming increasingly manifest in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The fact that the Socialist Cause was no more sacrosanct for various Communist entities existing in the continent only exacerbated matters. This, in turn, enabled the German Nazi Party to garner support from various capitalist entities both within and outside of Germany. Even as he watched the various current events influencing the course of history Lohia acquired sharper insights into the manner in which these influenced mankind’s destiny through his reading of the works of Marx and Hegel in original (German language). However, never the one to accept anything at face value he realized how these works were inadequate in understanding the processes of history in totality. 

Meanwhile, political struggle of a different kind was taking place in India. This was the period (1930-32 and even later) when Gandhiji had intensified national struggle against the British by launching the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Dandi March (he broke the salt related laws on 6th April, 1930) that launched the freedom movement into a decisive phase. The British repression, especially the merciless beating up of Satyagrahis at Dharsana, impelled him to approach the League of Nations. However, although Lohia’s karmabhoomi was to be India his global vision remained sharp and wide-ranging.

Having acquired a Socialist worldview owing to his sympathies with the German Socialist Party during his stay in Berlin, he developed a great dislike for fascism, imperialism and capitalism. In 1933 Lohia returned to India. Subsequently, his experiences during his stay in Europe, especially Germany, were to mould his views on India’s foreign policy. One can discern the evidence of his soft corner for Socialism, when in April 1938 – during the fourth session of the Congress Socialist Party – Lohia moved a resolution which described the Soviet Union as the only major power working for world freedom and peace and condemned Great Britain’s foreign policy as pro-Fascist that encouraged the forces of reaction and war. Elsewhere, he did praise the United States but, essentially, his sympathies were with the socialist states.

Moreover, during his tenure with the foreign affairs cell of Indian National Congress (1936-38), Lohia had advocated formulation of a foreign policy that ought to be distinct from what the British rulers were pursuing.  In this regard he had written a letter to Gandhiji in 1940, which was subsequently published in the Harijan. In this letter Lohia enunciated a four point program to usher in world peace. These points, in brief, were:

  • No nation shall be a slave to another. The newly independent countries would conduct elections on the basis of universal adult franchise, constitute legislatures wherein the elected representatives would draw a constitution.
  • All establishments owned or run by foreigners ought to be taken over by the state; all issues relating to this aspect should be referred to an International Forum. All capital investments and debt would be owned by the State and not individuals.
  • Equality must be guaranteed among all citizens. Caste or race or any other such factor should not become a cause for preference or privilege anywhere in the world. An individual would have guaranteed right to settle down anywhere in the world and there would be no adverse consequence in respect of his rights – political or otherwise.
  • In order to avert international conflict total disarmament should be ensured.

After independence, Lohia had a close look at India’s foreign policy. He thought that the Government of India was not exactly toeing an independent line. Moreover, there was no clear-cut strategy in place to promote and protect India’s variegated interests. There was too much emotional content and too little hard-headed pragmatism in the Nehruvian foreign policy. In fact, he was convinced that India’s independence could have made a mark on the contemporary world affairs had its foreign policy been based on more realistic-pragmatic foundations. This becomes clear from his report to the Socialist Party’s Madras Conference held in 1950. He had drawn up the report, titled The Third Camp in World Affairs, as chairman of its foreign affairs committee. He felt betrayed that India, which had all the makings of a prime actor in global politics, had miserably failed in this respect. Its “passive neutrality” between the two power blocs, led by the USA and the USSR respectively, more or less marginalized India’s role. He wanted India’s non-alignment to be a pro-active force on the global stage and not become a surrogate of either of the power blocs. He was convinced that the Nehruvian non-alignment was a farce – full of double-speak and hypocrisy. That was perhaps why he was unable to reconcile himself to India’s joining the Commonwealth. He considered the Commonwealth an extension of the NATO and felt that since India’s future was inextricably linked to socialism and the peoples of Asia and Africa it should stay away from the colonial anachronism. In today’s scenario although the Commonwealth does look irrelevant, however this writer believes that the organization has great potential for facilitating economic interaction and strategic cooperation among a significant number of its members.

However, Lohia rightly believed that India’s various foreign policy decisions were not based on realistic assessment of the country’s economic-strategic interests as well as the overall geo-strategic scenario then obtaining in the world. For example, India not recognizing Taiwan, Israel and East Germany only harmed the country’s economic and strategic interests. Something the country’s rulers have now realized after the passage of more than half century. Similarly, its policy vis-à-vis Japan, Germany and Austria made no sense to him. No matter what the pacts among the Allied Powers provided, Lohia wanted India to unequivocally reject the prominence given to the victors of World War II in the United Nations Security Council and other global institutions; in fact, he wanted Nehru to advocate pacific unification and guaranteed neutralization of the vanquished countries. 

Moreover, in Lohia’s eyes, the double standards adopted during the Korean crisis of 1950 proved to be a great setback to India’s image as a voice of import on the international stage. On the one hand India supported the United Nations resolutions on Korea and, on the other, it advocated Kuomintang’s replacement with the mainland Communist China in the UNSC. Lohia thought that such inconsistencies in the country’s foreign policy were illogical. He wanted India to abstain from voting on the Korean issue in order to protect its long-term interests. 

Lohia was also forthright in condemning other instances of double standards in India’s foreign policy. In 1956, the world had to face two major crises. One was Russian intervention in Hungary and, the other, the combined attack of England, France and Israel on Egypt. While India condemned the Anglo-French aggression on Egypt it abstained from voting against the Soviet Union in the UN General Assembly. He felt that the non-aligned nations in general and India in particular had actually let down one of their own by paying mere lip-service while Egypt faced the brunt of the aggression alone. 

We see Lohia playing his role as internationalist to the hilt when he relentlessly campaigned against racialism. He was categorical in his condemnation of Patrice Lumumba’s murder in February 1961 in Congo. He had looked upon Lumumba as a formidable opponent of imperialism and its various perfidies to keep the various Third World countries divided, weak and vulnerable to exploitations and manipulations by the powerful western governments and corporate houses. 

Lohia did not have a very high opinion of India’s non-aligned policy nor was he appreciative of the way the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was working. He felt the emphasis was on avoidance of war whereas the world needed concrete steps for the creation of conditions that would foster and perpetuate peace on a more or less permanent basis. 

He was also unhappy with India’s defense and strategic planning; students of geopolitics would be aware that military strength and strategic planning work as a formidable foreign policy tool all over the world. He was absolutely clear in his mind that unless the country acquired military muscle and played a pro-active role on the global geo-strategic stage its voice would remain unheard in the various international forums of prestige. Indeed, without economic and military muscle a country’s foreign policy would remain a fragile instrument. India’s agriculture and industry needed to be developed to a level where it would not only sustain its population but act as a multiplier on other segments of the economy as well as military preparedness. According to Lohia India remained unaware of the consequences of neglecting national defense and all-round economic development.

Lohia had fundamental differences with Nehru on India’s China policy, especially Nehru’s response to China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. He felt that had Nehru been more assertive in his opposition to the invasion China would not have been able to annex Tibet in 1959, resulting in Dalai Lama’s exile. Further, he felt that India had ignored basic principles of power politics vis-à-vis China. The deployment of forces as well as building of transport and communication infrastructure on the northern borders hardly received any priority even when China was feverishly building roads, bridges and cantonments in close proximity to its borders with India. This cost the country dear in 1962 when there was a need for swift force mobilization for resisting the Chinese attack. So, the entire north and northeastern border areas comprising the present Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh, Bhutan etc were left exposed to the tender mercies of China’s PLA. 

India mismanaged not only its defense preparedness but also its foreign policy. this became starkly evident when Nehru’s pleas to Kennedy for help against China’s aggression did not evoke the expected response. Worse, so complacent the Government of India had become during the years before 1962 regarding its supposed superior industrial-economic might that it could not anticipate the growth in China’s economic power. Today China’s economic, industrial and military might sends jitters up the spine of various great powers including the only super power in the world.

Coming back to Lohia’s misgivings about India’s Tibet policy, we realize how right he had been. The objections were based not just on the cultural affinity premises – eminently valid though these were, and still are. He was also right while citing various treaties and other legal aspects that had given Tibet the status of being India’s protectorate. There were various economic and strategic issues involved, too. Although hyped as a “visionary” Nehru could not envision the consequences of gifting Tibet away to China. Today India is locked in a number of water-related contentious issues – most of these stemming from China’s unstated policy of using water as a geostrategic weapon. The Tibetan Plateau glaciers are source of several great river systems like Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra etc, which are the lifelines of the subcontinent, providing drinking water, irrigation, transportation, electricity, and livelihoods to the people of South Asia. The phenomenon of global warming is resulting in gradual melting away of these glaciers. In the next few decades this might give rise to large scale flooding in the short-term and receding of rivers and their eventual drying up in the longer-term. The phenomenon will reduce the river water flow in northern as well as eastern India, intensifying existing problems of water scarcity and competition. A serious note of this potential threat needs to be taken by India, especially its vulnerable states in the East as well as the northeast. Experts point out that the threat stretches even beyond, to Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh etc although the states of Delhi and UP too would not remain unscathed in case China decides to wreak havoc through its “water weapon”. 

Moreover, India could not properly utilize the various assets and opportunities that presented themselves from time to time. For example, India could have skillfully turned Dalai Lama, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Bishveshvar Koirala into great foreign policy assets. Similarly, it could have prevented the likes of Phizo and Sheikh Abdullah to become major embarrassments. Both these steps would have produced positive vibes about India on the international stage as it would have had upper hand vis-à-vis Pakistan as well as China.

On the global stage Lohia had envisioned a more vigorous role for India. A votary of “active neutrality”, he enunciated the theory of the Third Camp which envisioned the formation of a federation of South and Southeast Asian countries like India, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc that would become a powerful voice in the international geo-strategic as well as economic affairs and a fulcrum in the Third Camp superstructure, which would comprise countries from the “uncommitted belt”, viz., Yugoslavia, Egypt, Indonesia as well as a goodly number from elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Such a set-up would ensure economic, ideological and military security not only for the member countries but also the world at large. One of its salient features was to be active promotion of democracy and socialism in various countries. However, although it was not supposed to resort to military interventions in the affairs of other countries it would do everything to oppose and, if possible, prevent the recurrence of invasions and bloodbaths like what China did in Tibet and elsewhere. Nonetheless, Lohia had made it clear that he was not interested in another military alliance but a “federation of minds” designed to be pacific in outlook but inherently strong in structure and salience.

In Lohia’s scheme of things the Third Camp was to catalyze the process of independence of various colonized nations of Asia and Africa. This mission could be expanded to include even those countries that had fallen victims to neo-colonialism, forced to become client states of either of the power blocs. Further, it should actively intervene to expose the NATO and Warsaw pacts for what they really were, viz., platforms for war preparations camouflaged with defense and peace agreements. He envisioned the Third camp’s role as that of a powerful force capable of countering the effects of the policy of military build-up undertaken by these camps.

Lohia was also convinced that a pro-active Third Camp could enable the UNO to become an effective facilitator of global peace rather than an arena for superpower rivalries. Moreover, the Third Camp could make all-out efforts to ensure that the UNO became a potent protector of the interests of the vulnerable/weak nations rather than a promoter of the superpowers’ economic and military agendas. In the process a sea-change in the global hierarchy of nations could be facilitated by replacing the alliances under the two power blocs with a collocation of nations owing allegiance to a single global government, thus providing an antidote to dangerous military rivalries among major powers. 

Lohia felt that much good could be achieved for the world by minimizing ideological differences without turning into conformists in relation to either of the two power blocs. Interestingly, although he was opposed to governmental, especially military, interventions in the affairs of other countries he was an enthusiastic supporter of peoples’ interventions. He believed that such interventions would help boost various pro-democracy struggles without triggering off international wars.

Hindsight tells us that many of Lohia’s postulations were unrealistic. Commonality of interests between various nations could not be so great as to do away with clash of interests. Much as one would like to have an ideal world sans wars it needs to be affirmed that ideological differences/economic rivalries alone do not destabilize the world. The rise of religious bigotry and fundamentalist violence needs to be factored in, too. It is a moot point whether fair distribution of various natural and manmade resources would have prevented the current unrest on such a global scale. But, perhaps, there was no harm in trying out the Third Camp way.

Today, the global power scene is vastly different from the bipolar world of the 20th century. In the 21st century multi-polar world the United States remains the only superpower, but with a gradually shrinking area of influence. On the other hand China is fast spreading its footprint across the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. There are significant portents that the Asian giant may well become a credible rival to the US led NATO power bloc. Through a series of pacts China is creating military and economic allies in Asia and Africa. Should it succeed in becoming a convincing replacement for the erstwhile Soviet Union, India will have its task cut out in the global geopolitical arena. It will have to act as the third force that would maintain the power balance between the USA and China.  Although not in the same league as China, India does have the potential to become a significant global power with enough economic and military muscle to be able to thwart its neighbor’s hegemonist ambitions. 

This is where Lohia’s Third Camp theory can prove handy.

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