NAM Sans a Name Plate!


As leaders from about 50 countries arrive with their caravans in Tehran, for what now seems to be settling into a triennial ritual, a question that has intrigued everyone for the past 2 decades is - what does NAM mean in a post-cold war context? Moreover, somewhat, if not equally, intriguing a question that historians have struggled to find answers to is the origins of the term itself. Claims about who ‘invented’ the term and where it was first uttered have never had a settled answer.

The 1976 supplement of the Oxford Dictionary states that the word ‘non-alignment’ was first used in the Times London on 5 May 1955, a few weeks after the Bandung conference. Homer A Jack, the American Unitarian clergyman who had attended Belgrade Non-aligned conference, found an earlier mention to the word in a speech by Nehru in the Indian parliament in June 1952. V K Krishna Menon, the man much too often responsible for putting action into Nehru’s words, in a series of interviews to Michael Brecher, however credited himself with using the term at the UN sometime in 1950. According to him, Nehru initially detested the term, and only came around to accepting it much later.

It would be difficult to pin down a certain date, until of course someone has done the superhuman task of sifting through all historical documents – very unlikely, given the rules governing declassification of archives by the MEA with which many a historian have struggled. What one can however certainly say is that all these claims are incorrect. On 2 May 1949, at a reception given by the India League in London, Nehru used the word non-alignment in reference to India’s foreign policy. While the authors cannot say for certain if this was the first time it was uttered, but clearly this use predates all others. Not only this, it seems ‘non-alignment’ had become a term used quite often. While the Korean crisis was unfolding at the UN in June-July 1950, Nehru had begun to use the term liberally. In a letter to B V Keskar on 4 June 1950 and then in conversations with the US Ambassador to India Loy Henderson on 28 June 1950, Nehru used the term to connote India’s foreign policy position. On 7 July 1950, he gave a press conference where he again used the term.

Having placed the term, which has been so very central not only to Indian Foreign Policy but also to the idea of India itself, in its historical context, it is worth bearing in mind that like all policies, non-alignment, which post-Bandung was hailed as ‘Movement’, was a result of human minds, Ergo, it would necessarily represent human idiosyncrasies, often couched in principles. One such principle, reincarnated as a dogma so much so that it almost singularly contributes to failure of NAM, is its non-organizational setting. The absence of any organizational structure to NAM means that it only remains an ad hoc body, which stumbles from one summit to another, without a policy direction and a secretariat backup, which could work to advance its agenda. Many of the initiatives proposed in the last few years – the most significant of them being the idea of a Global South Bank – have been conveniently sidetracked. Every three years, a NAM summit is held with leaders using it as a platform for anti or pro-West rhetoric – some are more ingenious as they can talk out of both sides of the mouth. In reality, NAM turns out to be just another working holiday for globetrotting leaders and diplomats.

Significantly yet interestingly, right from its birth, the most stringent opposition to setting up a NAM secretariat has come from India. Nehru’s point of view was, we are told, that NAM was conscious against pitting itself as a Third Bloc. NAM merely underlined sovereignty and independence of each country, suggesting that every country was free to express its own opinion, even against fellow non-aligned countries. To have an organization would imply NAM having a structured thinking pattern, or adhering to one common ideology, to which each nation would have to submit. Even if that was not the case, the superpowers might in any ways construe it to be that way.

These arguments clearly were spurious. Many of the non-aligned countries were already part of one bloc or other, and having a secretariat would surely not have contributed to them turning heel to their respective blocs. Or seen the other way, with their regular Non-aligned Conferences the NAM countries were already making a statement to the two blocs, how would having a secretariat much make difference. From both angles, not having a secretariat, which is subservient of the political decision makers, does not make much sense. In fact, the NAM secretariat with its own resources could have worked with other organizations like the UN on various issues of peace and development, like many regional organizations do today, and contributed immensely to advancing world peace. Secretariats of various organizations are also the springboard of ideas. One of their tasks is to throw up ideas, or bounce back the ideas thrown up by the political leadership and follow them up. NAM summits were either often infertile with ideas, or whenever they did come up with some, there was hardly any backing up to fructify them. In fact, one of the failures of the India-led non-alignment was the complete marginalization of economic questions. Economics actually was so peripheral to decision making of Indian Foreign Policy makers in the initial years that the economic section in the MEA was dysfunctional till 1961. When the major issues confronting all NAM countries after their independence related to their economic development or ‘needs of the people’ as Nehru liked to put it, why did it take two decades to set an UNCTAD is a question worth asking?

There is however another angle to this story. In his memoirs, Badr-ud-din Tyabji, long serving Indian diplomat and grandson of the famous third President of the INC with whom he shared his name, claimed that India’s reluctance to accept the idea of a Secretariat had more to do with Krishna Menon’s stubbornness and personal ambition. Krishna Menon, he argues, viewed India’s role as one of playing a mediatory role between the two superpowers. Since he was India’s prime diplomat at the international scene for a long time, India’s mediatory role was a personal mission for him. A NAM secretariat would pull India into the internal rivalries and problems of comparatively smaller countries like Indonesia (which was staunchly advancing this idea), not only deflecting India’s attention but also hyphenating her with smaller powers.

Interestingly, one of the reasons Indonesia wanted a secretariat was to counter Indian hegemony. Evidently, in the Bandung conference, even though it was held it Indonesia, the ad hoc arrangements that were made were completely overshadowed by India. Most of the officers and technicians in the conference were brought from India, as Indonesia did not have the requisite skill available. Indonesia felt that, in future, any similar ad hoc arrangement would again propel India in a leadership role.

Howsoever we may receive Tyabji’s claims, one cannot overlook the fact that even till today – Krishna Menon is long dead – NAM does not have a secretariat. Apparently, in late 1990s when South Africa, the moral crusader of the 1990s just as India in 1950s and 1960s, held the NAM chair it pushed hard for a secretariat. It was India that shot down the idea forcefully, because it was against NAM’s principles.

Someone perhaps forgot to tell the diplomats, Cold War was long over!

Author Note
*Deba R Mohanty is Vice President at SSPC, New Delhi, and Vineet Thakur is a Researcher in the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.