Guest Post by Kalyani Ramnath
Manu Bhagavan’s ‘The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World’ provides a compelling account of India’s engagement with international institutions from the 1940s to the 1960s. The title of Wendell Wilkie’s book which Nehru encountered in the early 1940s is used as a means of organising the ideas that were propounded by several political notables during the last days of the British empire in India. It is, according to the narrative in this book, not only the rallying point for India’s international affairs programme, but also for the debates in the Constituent Assembly. One World is about a global community that is free from exploitation and war, and one that recognises and celebrates differences among nations. Set against the backdrop of the World Wars, the Indian political elite, especially Nehru and Gandhi, argued that colonialism in India was incompatible with the global outrage against fascism. One World placed human rights in direct opposition to fascism and colonialism. The narrative ends soon after the Sino-Indian war in 1962, against a world that had not fully grasped the import of Nehru’s “cooperate or perish”. The pace of the writing reflects the urgency of these times – the clamour for an international consensus on universality of human rights, the realpolitik between US and Britain on the colonialism question and Lord Mountbatten’s fasttracking of the British departure from India. The last man standing, in this version of the early years of the Indian republic, is Vijayalakshmi Pandit.
Bhagavan’s incredibly impressive work, which extended over twenty archives all over the world, shows not just what ideas about human dignity migrated, but answers important questions about how and why this “migration” happened. There is admittedly a Nehru-Gandhi narrative at the heart of the book, but the book focuses equally on Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Hansa Mehta and to a lesser extent Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as key players. They are portrayed as working towards a Nehruvian vision, but with their distinctive clarity of purpose and a consistent negotiation strategy - whether it was Pandit at the United Nations General Assembly or Mehta at the Human Rights Commission. Further, it illuminates Indian constitutionmaking as much as it provides the historical context for international affairs. Even as Nehru spoke in the Constituent Assembly about the need to treat nationals and non-nationals equally, he drew upon India’s successful experience gaining international support for the Ghetto Laws in South Africa. Hansa Mehta’s experience with the Human Rights Commission that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might have been brought to bear, one may conjecture, on the Fundamental Rights Sub Committee that was entrusted with drafting the Fundamental Rights. Not unlike international developments, the Fundamental Rights Sub Committee votes to split up internationally accepted human rights into the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy. The former would be enforceable in courts, the latter would not be. Both KM Munshi and Hansa Mehta were members of the Sub Committee and supporters of One World. However, the transcript of the Debates show that it is not merely Nehru who is the strongest proponent of the Directive Principles, but Ambedkar; it is not merely Nehru who suggests that the Directive Principles achieve primacy over Fundamental Rights, but BN Rau.
In addition to providing a fascinating account of the multiple registers on which law and politics engage, Bhagavan provides a historical context for the emergence of several grand debates around the notion of human rights. For instance, if national sovereignty were used to cloak human rights violations, colonialism and apartheid would be the unhappy fallout. Again, although legalisation of notions of human dignity had taken place, through international covenants and national constitutions, it left the question of their legal enforceability unanswered. Both Nehruvian and Gandhian resonances with the ideas in One World rethought the distinction between rights and obligations.
Worth a close read.