Nehru, the UNSC, and Nuclear Power

Every time the Indian government is forced in between a rock and a hard place, the immediate, knee jerk response is to blame it on Nehru. Whether it’s rapes in JNU, power cuts in Delhi, or even his own erasure from textbooks: the finger always points in a single direction. Perhaps it could just be the desire to not face the criticism and consequences for the actions of one’s own government; perhaps it would be easier to sit here and say ‘Jawaharlal did it.’ However, the UNSC seat (namely, that Nehru passed it up, and apparently ruined India forever) is one of the set in stone phrases used by those too prudent to bring in his personal life, and too lackadaisical to indulge in contemplation of circumstance and fact. Hence, this piece explores whether a seat was offered, what Nehru said, whether it mattered what he said, and his impact on nuclear energy.

Was a seat ever offered?

Pandit Nehru had said in Parliament that a seat was never offered, neither formally, nor informally. A bit of digging leads to the verbatim quote: [1][2]

“There has been no offer, formal or informal, of this kind. Some vague references have appeared in the press about it which have no foundation in fact. The composition of the Security Council is prescribed by the UN Charter, according to which certain specified nations have permanent seats. No change or addition can be made to this without an amendment of the Charter. There is, therefore, no question of a seat being offered and India declining it. Our declared policy is to support the admission of all nations qualified for UN membership.

As said on the 28th of September, 1955: Pandit Nehru claimed that an official offer had not been made for a seat. Of course, the heartiest opposition members will only retain their manhood if they denounce this statement as a lie by Nehru. Yet the man had no anterior or subsequent history of lying in Parliament, (or, honestly, anywhere) – and had stood to face the consequences of his tragic decisions leading to the war with China, he had not lied when it came to him approaching the UN for Kashmir, had told America to its’ face that he did not approve of their world outlook: hence there is a very slim, almost nonexistent chance that he’d lie about the UNSC seat.[3]

Of course, there are those still fervently believing everything is a lie (unless of course, it has to do with UNESCO declaring a certain someone ‘Best PM,’ in which case it’s unavoidable truth), hence we look at the records of the original conversation with Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin that led to the press claiming a UNSC seat was offered to Nehru and he stubbornly shook his head.

Bulganin: Regarding your suggestion about the four power conference we would take appropriate action. While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.


J. Nehru: Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject to controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council, it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the U.N. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted. What is Bulganin’s opinion about the revision of the Charter? In our opinion this does not seem to be an appropriate time for it.


Bulganin: We proposed the question of India’s membership of the Security Council to get your views, but agree that this is not the time for it and it will have to wait for the right moment later on. We also agree that things should be taken one by one.

This was in no way an ex officio offer; neither formal nor informal. Rather than in essence handing Nehru the seat on a plate, Bulganin had merely asked ‘what do you think?’ If one could compare this to another case, imagine it was 1920 and the British had no inclination toward granting India self-rule, yet they asked what India felt about self-rule. Similarly, no matter what the answer, it was not an offer to propel India toward the seat, nor was it a chance for Nehru to jump in and grab the seat. Rather, it was Bulganin testing the waters and the Pandit himself: based on the answer to his question, the Soviet PM could gauge who Nehru was sympathetic to and whether he was interested in placing his own desires before world peace. Hence, the argument that Nehru declined the seat is moot; he cannot decline a seat he was never offered.

But IMAGINE he was offered a seat?

Scrutinizing the conversation, it’s clear that this was no place for Nehru to say “yes, I would love India to sit on the Security Council, taking China’s place and inviting aggression,” because even had he done so, the only response would have been an acknowledgement of his feelings rather than an actual proposal. Bulganin outright conceded that he was merely throwing out a feeler rather than making an actual offer to propose.  But imagine a seat was officially offered to India, and Nehru had said yes: would India even have gotten the seat? No. The UN Security Council, in order to change the number of members, or the composition of members on the table would have had to redraw the charter. That was what Nehru wanted to avoid: redrawing the charter would mean needing to obtain a unanimous vote from the existing P5 members, which are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and a majority overall, for India to join the UNSC.

Think of the world now, in the 1950s, notably the members of the UNSC.[4] Do you think they would have come to an agreement about anything, let alone India’s seat on the Security Council? Had the Soviet PM been the proposing party: the US, no matter what its’ initial thoughts – would disagree due to their established ‘cold’ enmity with the Soviet. Furthermore, India-Russia ties were stronger than India-US, obviously, due to the Pakistan equation and their respective disagreements on colonialism and communism. Hence, the other members would use the U.S.-Russia disagreement as the margin to choose sides rather than the deserving/undeserving status of India: as the Cold War took precedence. Hence, with a unanimous vote entirely out of the question, India would invite or obtain nothing except China’s aggression at a far earlier stage than we received it. Nehru, and India had friendly relations with Beijing at a time when the US had shunned it – an argument over the UNSC seat would have thrown a fork in the works of delicate international relations.

Yes, it was folly, or overly idealistic to aim to be on good terms with China, Russia and the USA at a time where all three of them had nukes pointing all over the world, especially at each other. But isn’t that what mobilized Nehru posthumously as a champion of the non aligned movement? And indeed, the aforementioned three countries were all already quibbling back when Nehru was not even a world player: India would definitely not be what united them. Instead, Hindi-Chini-Bhaai-Bhaai would have turned into Hindi-Chini Saas-Bahu way before anyone, let alone Nehru expected: China would turn the aggression of the UN slight to India, who was wholly unprepared for war at that stage, having only just gained independence. India then also possessed links with the Soviet, who was not yet altercating with China. So yes, Nehru’s analysis of what may have happened had he taken the pseudo-offered seat ‘at the cost of China’ was the truth: India wouldn’t have gotten a seat, and international relations with India from all three countries would have been affected.

But that’s during the Cold War. It’s all well and good blaming Nehru for not taking a seat which he wasn’t even offered:  but have you considered what we’ve achieved since? After Indira Gandhi’s death, India has been trying very, very hard to get US approval by any means: why hasn’t any government, Congress, Janata, or BJP after Nehru, achieved anything with regards to the UNSC yet not expected to shoulder the blame for it? Even if Nehru may have personally disapproved of a seat on the Security Council due to the implications of threats to India’s security: he certainly would not have rubbished it in a single conversation: the man was notorious for having extensive consultations of his ministers.

Nehru’s hate of warfare is why India didn’t get into NSG

Nehru, as said by Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign secretary Rasgotra, had declined Kennedy’s offer for helping India into the elite nuclear weapons club, and assisting the country in procuring nuclear weapons: a handwritten letter which Nehru allegedly declined. This is now being quoted as a ‘reason’ for why India did not get the backing of several countries to enter the NSG. Whilst the question of the UNSC seat required quite a bit of probing and consideration of circumstance, the nuclear question is far easier to answer.

Pandit Nehru was Gandhian, not Gandhi. He had, although personally and publically preferring non violence and the idealistic doctrine of non alignment and friendship with every country: kept the nuclear option wide open. Only a year after Independence, in 1948 India under Nehru passed the Atomic Energy Act that led to the creation of Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). At the time Nehru had said: “We must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war – indeed I think we must develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes. Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way.” Hence, it’s a fact that whilst he despised using nuclear energy in the creation of weapons, he was cognizant that they would be developed in that manner had it come to that.[5][6]

Furthermore, the staunchest anti-Nehru campaigners forget that the alleged offer was coming from Kennedy: Kennedy’s America was still leaning toward Pakistan when it came to supplying weapons. In fact, his personal affection for the man aside, America had urged Nehru to come to a settlement on Kashmir which he continuously declined (again, connecting to our above argument that the US was rather irritated by India, and wouldn’t support its bid for the UNSC) – the supply of nuclear weapons, if at all a significant offer: was not handed on a silver platter. After all, one only has to look at Pakistan to see that becoming the US’ best friend and ally long before anyone does not lead to extreme world power and hegemony as critics today might think.

In conclusion: it’s neither wise nor advantageous to blame Nehru for every mistake committed today. Today, India’s bid to enter the NSG had transcended from a political exercise to the Prime Minister’s own battle in nationalism and foreign policy; with the antithesis of Modi being Nehru, Modi’s loss was certain to be blamed on the former. Yet it was not merely China that opposed us, like popular media have trumpeted, it was also countries like Switzerland with whom our relationship has been mild. Blame has a limit, and India’s failure in the NSG has nothing to do with Nehru, nor does it have anything to do with the UNSC – is it not plausible there may have been other reasons as to why non-China countries opposed Indian entry? Perhaps we should look to the future, rather than have a finger pointed permanently at the past and a man long since dead.


This article first appeared here, it has been reproduced with author's pemission.


Y. Sharada Prasad, H., Sarvepalli Gopal, and A. Damodaran K. 2003. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. 2nd ed. Vol. 29. Oxford University Press.
The Hindu : Miscellaneous / This Day That Age : dated September 28, 1955: UN seat: Nehru clarifies . 2016. Accessed October 17.
Gopal, Sarvepalli. 1980. Jawaharlal Nehru. Harvard Univ Pr.
About the United Nations Security Council. 2016. Accessed October 17.
Chengappa, Raj. 2000. Weapons of Peace. Harpercollins Pub India Pvt Limited.
Perkovich, George. 2001. India’s Nuclear Bomb. Univ of California Press.
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