History

Hungarian Revolution and Suez Crisis: Exploring the (Mis)Adventures of Nehru’s Foreign Policy

The twin crises of 1956 underlined a key problem with Jawaharlal Nehrus foreign policy – non-alignment only dictated what shouldn’t to be done (allying with a major power), but couldn’t provide a framework for thinking about what ought to. 

Jawaharlal Nehru gives his 'Tryst with Destiny' speech. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru gives his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is Israel which attacked Egypt. The guilty party is the Israeli government and not Egypt,” said Jawaharlal Nehru on November 1, 1956. Only two days earlier, Israel and the Anglo-French forces had attacked Egypt in what came to be known as the Suez crisis. At the same time, a crisis was brewing in Eastern Europe. On October 23, 1956, the Hungarian revolution took place. Although Nehru was aware of the situation in Hungary within a week, he waited for nearly three weeks before making any public statement about the revolution.

Both crises played out simultaneously, yet Nehru chose to speak up swiftly and forcefully about only one. Sixty years since these events, it is crucial to revisit Nehru’s foreign policy decisions. Why did he speak on the Suez crisis when he did? What does his prolonged silence on the Hungarian revolution tell us about his foreign policy? 

In 1947, while India was awakening to freedom, a continent away, Hungary had just experienced it’s very first brush with free and fair elections. But Hungarys democratic experience was short lived. In 1948, the Communist Party forced a merger with the Hungarian social democrats creating a one-party system and abandoning democratic norms. The communists imposed extensive regulations on the Hungarian citizens and forced the workers to meet unrealistic economic goals, creating an air of dissatisfaction. Things came to a head on October 23, 1956, when university students rallied with hundreds of thousands of their compatriots in their demands for a democratic government. In the coming days, as the Hungarian revolution proceeded, Nehrus non-alignment policy would come under the searchlight.

The protests of October 23 led to a popular government being set up in Hungary with Imre Nagy as prime minister. On November 1, as armed Soviet troops poured into Hungary in a bid to suppress the popular uprising, the Hungarian government denounced the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungarys neutrality. Nehru received a number of telegrams from organisations within and outside Hungary, requesting him to put pressure on the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops.

A statue of Stalin is dismantled in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Stalin is dismantled in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a telegram to K.P.S. Menon, the Indian envoy to Moscow and Hungary, on November 2, Nehru noted that, Reports from and about Hungary are confusing, but it appears clear that there has been powerful and widespread national uprising there against Soviet forces and interference.He added that India, was under the impression that Soviet forces were being withdrawn and some kinds of a stable government would emerge in Hungary. Latest reports are that additional Soviet forces are going to Hungary. This is naturally creating much concern, although attention is largely taken up by events in the Middle East.In effect, Nehru had deemed the Suez crisis of much greater concern compared to the Hungarian crisis.

By November 4, Nehru became aware of the seriousness of the Hungarian revolution. He cabled Menon that latest developments in Hungary are depressing”. However, writing to G.L. Mehta (the Indian ambassador in Washington) the next day, Nehru insisted that the action of the Soviet government is deplorable, we dont yet have full information as to how and why these changes occurred. The case of Egypt is absolutely clear and because of this, we had to express our opinion immediately and forcibly.Here we clearly see the distinction between Nehrus treatment of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian revolution. In both cases, Nehru had sufficient information at his disposal, yet the speed and certainty with which he handled both matters differed widely. The fact that the Suez crisis also represented a reassertion of European imperialism to Nehru may account for his strong, quick rebuttal of the Anglo-French. With the Hungarian revolution, Nehru chose to make it clear informally to the Soviets that India was displeased.

As the Soviets ultimately crushed the popular Hungarian uprising, Nehru, rather belatedly, proclaimed that the Hungarians had the right of self-determination and the Soviets ought to recognise Hungarian sovereignty. However, Nehru made these public comments almost three weeks after the Hungarian revolution had occurred. The swiftness with which India had acted on the Suez crisis wasnt on display with regards to the Hungarian revolution.

Nehrus public silence during those three weeks spoke volumes and was viewed as softness towards the Soviets. But a key reason for this silence was strategic. This was a period when the US was getting cosy with Pakistan through arms and humanitarian deals. Nehru saw this as an attempt by the Americans to establish a foothold in the region. India, wary of the US-Pakistan relation, turned towards the other superpower to maintain a balance. Besides, Nehru felt that even if India openly criticised the Soviet Union, it wouldnt have made any tangible difference to the situation in Hungary. By contrast, as a member of the Commonwealth, India had some leverage over Britain on the Suez crisis.  

A De Havilland Sea Venoms of 809 Naval Air Squadron taking off from the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Albion (R07) to participate in a strike on Egyptian positions at Port Said. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A De Havilland Sea Venoms of 809 Naval Air Squadron taking off from the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Albion (R07) to participate in a strike on Egyptian positions at Port Said. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Still, the twin crises of 1956 underlined a key problem with Nehrus foreign policy – non-alignment only dictated what shouldn’t to be done (allying with a major power), but couldn’t provide a framework for thinking about what ought to. Even as Nehru managed to respond reasonably well to the Suez crisis, his foreign policy faltered on the Hungarian revolution. The twin crises of 1956 marked a significant moment in Nehruvian non-alignment, showcasing both its strengths and limitations.

Shreyas Shende is a third-year student at Ashoka University majoring in political science with concentrations in economics and international relations.