Former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention in Egypt’s support 60 years ago won his country global respect for putting non-alignment into practice, writes Swapna Kona Nayudu
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis, an event that was of enormous importance to India’s approach to the Middle East region in general and to the rise of Arab nationalism. But India was blindsided by the developments that had led to the crisis in the first place, and there are many lessons to be learned from India’s handling of it.
The crisis had its genesis in the Tripartite Aggression when Israel, Britain and France invaded Egyptian territory on 29 October 1956. The crisis only lasted ten days, but it was a moment of profound anxiety for India, and indeed for relations between newly independent or rapidly decolonising states and their former colonisers.
As Nehru put it in a letter to the then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, “the whole future of the relations between Europe and Asia” hung in the balance. The Indian government anticipated enormous fallout from the crisis on India both economically and politically, as any “restriction of traffic through the canal or blockade or imposition of higher tolls would have harmful results and might even prejudice the progress of the Second Five Year Plan.”
In 1956, Egypt’s economic progress relied on controlling the flooding of the Nile, to be achieved by completing the building of the Aswan High Dam across the River in Upper Egypt. The Soviets and the Americans had both offered financial assistance to build the dam, but they withdrew their support, citing Egypt’s economic incapacity.
The then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was livid that neither the former colonisers nor the post-war superpowers were offering assistance to Egypt, even though they profited immensely from traffic through the Suez Canal. He responded to what he considered an insult by nationalising the Suez Canal Company and declaring that Egypt would build its dam. Nehru had had no inkling of Nasser’s planned response and chose to distance India from being perceived as complicit in the decision.
India had earlier developed a special relationship with Egypt. On his coming to power in 1954, the Western powers had derided Nasser as an “Asiatic Mussolini,” an “imitator of Hitler” and a “would-be dictator.” Both London and Paris saw Nasser’s Arab nationalism as a threat to their interests in Africa and West Asia. India, on the other hand, saw in “the wise leadership of Nasser” an opportunity to establish wider and friendlier relations within the region.
In what Nehru called a “spirit of brotherliness,” Nasser relied heavily on Nehru for advice on issues of international security. The Arab-Israeli conflict featured prominently in talks between the two, particularly since the “Gaza Strip was totally indefensible” and Nasser was anxious that “since [Israeli leader] Ben Gurion’s comeback, Israel had become more and more aggressive.” India had also moved away from the Western position on Israel and had instead consolidated efforts to encourage secular nationalism in West Asia.
Recognising Nasser as a significant partner in the process of fostering regional security, Nehru had discouraged Nasser from joining defence pacts and encouraged him instead to adopt a non-aligned posture. This collaboration was so successful in its early years that along with Tito’s Yugoslavia, Nasser’s Egypt and Nehru’s India became symbols of the unity of the non-aligned nations across Europe, Africa and Asia.
Thus, when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, it fell on India to anticipate the worsening of the crisis. Nehru was, of course, anxious to “prevent hostilities and to have a peaceful settlement which would ensure the use of the canal as before,” as he repeatedly emphasised at the time. Yet, the British and the French were belligerent in their attitudes. Alarmed at these developments, then US president Eisenhower suggested that the British host a meeting of interested and affected parties in the form of the London Conference that, unfortunately, proved to be a non-starter.
Before the matter could come up for a hearing at the UN Security Council, Israel launched an attack on Egyptian soil on 29 October. Allegedly acting in condemnation of the conflict, Britain and France first issued ultimatums to both Israel and Egypt, but then joined Israel in the attack on Egyptian airfields only two days later.
Nehru was shocked by this “dastardly action” and took a number of measures to mediate. Nehru knew that Egyptian military resistance was dwindling and that “Nasser proposed to lay down his life fighting.” India’s then representative at the UN, Arthur Lall, was instructed to actively court collaboration with Egyptian delegate Omar Lotfi. The US-sponsored Uniting for Peace Resolution, passed on 2 November, pushed the fighting behind armistice lines and opened the way for what came to be known as the Eisenhower-Nehru Formula.
In essence, the US pushed using all its heft at the UN to deal with the Western powers, while India canvassed the Asian and African nations, two days later moving a 19-member Asian-African Resolution urging full compliance with previous UN Resolutions calling for a ceasefire.
Another resolution moved by Canada, Columbia and Norway provided for the formation of the first UN peacekeeping force: The UN Emergency Force I (UNEF I). As this was not allowed to draw troops from any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the composition of UNEF I took on an urgent character, and even the British asked India “to come in heavily and assist in bringing about a speedy settlement”.
The Indian contingent (a first for India) left for Suez on 15 November and was placed in the Sinai Peninsula. Indian peacekeepers built a reputation for themselves, acting as Nehru had besought them to, “with credit to India and her gallant army”.
India’s repeated calls at the UN for the decolonisation of Asia and Africa and its support for the Egyptian position did not impede it from mediating with both sides, contributing substantially to the closing of the Crisis. It also cast India’s relations with West Asia in a certain mould, altered only recently with India’s perceived closeness to Israel.
If India’s experience in Suez tells us one thing, it is that the country gained in political capital and global reputation by remaining non-committed, yet engaged at the level of the UN, a policy known at the time as non-alignment.
Elements of that policy that hold continuing relevance to Indian diplomacy towards that region could be followed today, following exacting and exhaustive debate. In fashioning such a foreign policy, progress could only be made by paying heed to the antecedents of India’s relations with the Middle East region.
The writer is a fellow at the LSE in London and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.