‘Nothing common and there is no wealth’

Having narrated how republican India became a member of Britain's Commonwealth (IE, February 19), it is only fair that the subsequent story of this "free association of independent nations" should also be told. It was only in May 1949 that the "new Commonwealth" had come into being. Ironically, the first signs of trouble appeared in this country barely four months later.

In the September of that year Britain, with its post-war economy in a shambles, was forced to devalue the pound. Since the Indian economy had been virtually integrated with Britain's throughout the British Raj, this country followed suit within 24 hours and correspondingly devalued the rupee. Those who had unsuccessfully opposed the Commonwealth link seized the opportunity to proclaim that this was the first bitter fruit of the Commonwealth's membership, and more would follow. Jawaharlal Nehru hit back equally hard: "To say that this is a consequence of our being in the Commonwealth is an absurdity. Pakistan, in spite of being in the Commonwealth, has not devalued her currency. The fact is that we have to face a certain compulsion of events". After some days the storm subsided.

Some months later, Krishna Menon, a great Commonwealth enthusiast and still high commissioner in London, was miffed when he discovered that India had been excluded from a meeting of Commonwealth defence scientists. The British explained to him that since India did not want to be a part of any security arrangement, its representative could not be invited to meetings where NATO's secrets were likely to be discussed. Menon saw to it that this exchange did not enter the public domain back home.

It was in 1956 that the mother of all crises to hit the Commonwealth exploded. To say that the very existence of the Commonwealth in its new avatar was in peril would not be an exaggeration but an understatement. In the available space, only the bare bones of the highly complex and prolonged tale of the Suez crisis leading to the totally unacceptable Anglo-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt can be given. The essential and oversimplified facts are these: In the summer of 1956, the United States withdrew its offer of rather generous aid to Egypt for the construction of the Aswan Dam, dear to the great Egyptian and Arab leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser. In July he retaliated by nationalising the Suez Canal. All hell broke loose, particularly in Britain and France. Anthony Eden, having just succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister of Britain, called a conference of users of the Suez in London to get a decision in favour of the canal being controlled and run by an international board. Nasser refused to attend it and requested Nehru to do the same. Nehru told him that India's presence was necessary if the issue was to be resolved peacefully. Eden and his cohorts were adamant that the canal must be run by an international entity. Nehru — often acting through his Man Friday, Krishna Menon — rejected this and insisted that Egypt's sovereignty over the canal must be preserved while accepting the legitimate demands of the canal's users.

By mid-October, thanks to America's support to Nehru's views and to the intervention in the discussions by the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, it seemed that an agreement fair to all was about to be reached. No one, however, knew anything about Eden's different and diabolical plans. As Israel's legendary defence minister, Moshe Dayan, revealed years later, Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet had conspired with Israel to ensure that it would invade Egypt and, on the pretext of stopping the Israel-Egypt war, British and French troops would intervene and take over the canal as well as the former bases from which the British had been evicted earlier by agreement. This is precisely what they did at the end of October. Now Nehru — who had tried to be even-handed between the two sides — denounced Eden and co-sponsors of the aggression vigorously. He had a powerful, if relatively silent, ally in the US president Dwight Eisenhower who went to the extent of using America's clout in the IMF to make Eden and Mollet behave. So the Suez War ended in Britain's humiliation. Eden lost his job. Nehru achieved his objective of protecting Egypt's sovereignty and Nasser's honour.

Where did the Commonwealth come into this? Ah, well, from the earliest stages of the Suez crisis the pent-up Indian sentiment against the membership of the Commonwealth had come to the fore. Nehru knew that if Britain's extremist demands on Egypt were not thwarted, the Commonwealth in its present form would not last. Yet, he did not like that prospect. Consequently, when a Congress MP tabled a resolution for immediate withdrawal from the Commonwealth, Nehru quietly advised the Lok Sabha speaker to disallow the motion. He did expect an anti-Commonwealth campaign from the Left parties and left-leaning Congressmen. But to his surprise, the arch-conservative Congress leader C. Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji, joined the ranks of the critics. With him Nehru argued. Withstanding all pressure, he pointed out that the Commonwealth membership had "not inhibited India from expressing her views in the strongest possible manner." Britain had no monopoly of Commonwealth, and other members, such as Canada, had sided with India.

Thus saved in 1956, the Commonwealth was on the precipice once again nine years later. This time around the national sentiment against Britain was much the greater if only because this country, not a friend, was Britain's target. On September 6, 1965 Harold Wilson, Britain's Labour prime minister, infuriated all Indians by pontificating that it was India that had started the war with Pakistan, forgetting all the Pakistani infiltrations in Kashmir since August 5, and the march of Pakistani tanks into Indian territory on September 1, with a view to cutting off the army in Kashmir from the rest of the country. There was near unanimity in Parliament that the Commonwealth link be snapped right away. "There is nothing common and there is no wealth", said many members. Lal Bahadur Shastri gently persuaded them not to act in a huff.

Now no one bothers about what the Commonwealth or Britain says or does. Times do change.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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