Monday, May. 10, 1954

Discord in Colombo

Our instructions to our delegates have always been firstly to consider each question in terms of India's interest, secondly on its merits.

Jawaharlal Nehru

In squally monsoon weather, India's Prime Minister Nehru flew south last week to Ceylon. The occasion: the first conference of South Asian Prime Ministers. Nehru's purpose: to get a South Asian vote of confidence for three of his pet projects. They were: i) an immediate cease-fire in Indo-China; 2) indefinite suspension of H-bomb tests; 3) a vote of censure against "colonialism." Nehru expected some opposition at Colombo from Pakistan's young (45), pro-American Prime Minister Mohammed Ali. But he counted on support from Burma's Thakin Nu, Indonesia's Ali Sastroamidjojo and Ceylon's Sir John Kotalawala. All of them had recognized Red China, were trading freely with it, and had often let Nehru speak for them in the past.

Item: Indo-China. Around a great satinwood table in Ceylon's government offices, the five Prime Ministers convened. Between them they represented some 540 million human beings-more than one-fourth of mankind-and they moved soberly to their agenda. Item No. i: Nehru's peace plan for Indo-China. At once came objection. In view of South Asia's own unsettled Kashmir dispute, said Pakistan's Mohammed Ali, would it not be "perhaps a little presumptuous for us to preach peace to others?" Nehru fired right back: if Pakistan wants to discuss Kashmir, India is ready. He, Nehru, could tear Pakistan's argument "to pieces," and would then proceed to discuss Pakistan's acceptance of U.S. military aid. Ceylon's tactful Kotalawala steered the Prime Ministers back to Indo-China.

Nehru outlined his peace plan, and again ran into trouble. Pakistan's Ali insisted that withdrawal of the Big Powers from Indo-China would be meaningless: there was no way of insuring that Red China would stop supplying the Red Viet Minh. To Nehru's surprise. Ceylon's Kotalawala supported Ali. Indonesia's Sastroamidjojo, who rules back home with Red support, took his stand to the left of Nehru and stayed there for the rest of the conference. But then came another surprise: Burma's young (47), soft-spoken Nu, a longtime Nehru man, came out hard against the Nehru plan: the plan would create a vacuum; the Communists might take over Indo-China-and Burma was the next nation but one (Siam) away. The Prime Ministers approved Nehru's appeal for a ceasefire, and his suggestion that France must guarantee IndoChina's independence at Geneva-but nothing more. They conceded Nehru's resolution against H-bomb tests, and said they would gladly go along against colonialism. "We wanted to dilute Nehru, not to deflate him," said a Ceylonese afterwards.

Item: Communism. But Nehru was soon in trouble again. Ceylon's Kotalawala proposed a twin vote of censure against colonialism and "aggressive Communism." in place of Nehru's resolution. Nehru, who has always fought Communism at home, angrily retorted that Asians should not disturb external relations "with friendly powers." Once more Pakistan's Ali lashed at Nehru: "We can rid ourselves of colonialism," he said, "but any country that is overrun by Communism may be lost forever."

For two more days, the Prime Ministers argued. At week's end, Nehru mellowed. He knew that Pakistan and maybe Ceylon and Burma would veto his anticolonial resolution if he did not censure Communism. So Nehru agreed to yield, on condition that the Prime Ministers also censure what he vaguely termed "anti-Communism." In this manner, South Asian brotherhood was restored, and the Prime Ministers returned to their lands along the sliding edge between Red China and the West. Behind them they left no remaining doubt that Jawaharlal Nehru may speak for India itself, but it is a myth that he can speak for South Asia.