During World War II, Was India Closer to the US Than We Think?

Atul Bhardwaj's new book raises some interesting questions, but fails to provide persuasive answers.

Atul Bhardwaj’s India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order, a volume in the ‘Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy’ series, examines Indo-US relations from the early stages of World War II – when the US established a formal political presence in New Delhi – to 1962, which marked the zenith of its strategic presence in India.

The book argues that independent India and the US “were much closer than they appeared to onlookers. The appearance of the distance between the two was a choice that they made in the interest of the liberal international order” and that though “India proclaimed neutrality, yet it was tethered to the liberal international order constructed by America in the 1940s.”

Bhardwaj poses some interesting questions in his study and delves deeply into archival records in search of answers. There is much new material on the US’s involvement in Indian affairs during World War II and an interesting account of the way in which the power asymmetry influenced the course of Indo-US relations in the post-independence years. The author raises important questions concerning the role of US foundations and universities, asserting that “American soft power was instrumental in building an epistemic community in India, which helped build a cultural and political consensus within India on the threat posed to Indian security by Chinese expansionism and atrocities in Tibet.”

Watch | How the US Called the Shots in 2+2 Meeting With India

These are important questions, but the narrative is marred by an absence of rigorous analysis. The author repeatedly refers to India’s non-alignment as a policy of ‘neutrality’, ignoring the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru took pains to draw a clear distinction between the two. Failing to make the distinction, the author claims that “by joining the Commonwealth, India consented to be a part of the Anglo-American world and almost sealed its chances of being a genuine neutral”.

Even more serious is a tendency to conflate outcome with intent. It is a fact that the US took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split. It is also a fact that China’s border policy vis-à-vis India was a factor in the Sino-Soviet split. But can we conclude on the basis of these facts that the US caused the Sino-Soviet split and engineered the India-China border issue to further this aim?

In Bhardwaj’s view, the “American grand strategy of ‘Soviet containment’…was achieved by causing the Sino-Soviet split”. Furthermore, “America effectively used the Soviet-India ties to sow the seeds of distrust in the Sino-Soviet communist bloc.” It also “sought India’s indulgence in pressurizing China hard on the Himalayan border as well as highlighting violations of human rights in Tibet. The US used foreign aid to pursue its strategic objectives while simultaneously nudge India to seek Soviet aid.”

Also read: What Trump’s National Security Strategy Means For India

Even more bizarre is the author’s take on the 1962 war. According to him, “had India used its fighters…India could have emerged victorious. But that victory would have put paid to the political manoeuvering that was underway during the war to demonize Mao and Menon in India.” The “Indian conservatives, right liberals (socialists) and the American administration wanted to make sure that victory against China did not make Menon a national hero”. Thus, “Indian politicians joined [US ambassador] Galbraith in denying Menon any political victory from war.”

Bhardwaj concludes that India’s military defeat “was not only a victory for the American strategists, but through it, the dominant classes in India also achieved their purpose of relegating Indian communists to the fringes of the Indian political landscape”.

The book raises some interesting questions, but fails to provide persuasive answers.

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta is a retired ambassador.