The Purana Qila, in the spring of 1947, was transformed into a venue for delegates for the Asian Relations conference …recalls L.C. Jain

In the final weeks of March 1947, a remarkable assemblage gathered inside the walls of New Delhi's Purana Qila. Delegates from 22 Asian countries – some free, some on the cusp of Independence, some ruled by generals, others by monarchs – came together for the Asian Relation's Conference, India's first , dramatic entry into the world stage of foreign affairs. In scope and ambition it embodied the Nehruvian high idealism that shaped India's early experiments with foreign policy – the idea of a united bloc of newly emerging Asian nations, with India as the beacon, forging a new dawn that would eclipse the dying light of Imperialism. In words that seem striking for their prescience, this was Nehru at the opening: ‘ Standing on this watershed which divides two epochs of human history and endeavour, we can look back on our long past and look forward to the future that is taking shape before our eyes. Asia, after a long period of quiescence, has suddenly become important again in world affairs.' Six decades on , it is worth returning to this often–overlooked event, not only because the Conference anticipated almost every major dynamic that continues to shape our neighbourhood – West Asia, Pakistan, the South East Asian tigers, China - but as a reminder of the slow ebbing of that early promise.

Play of personalities

But in that heady spring of 1947, as a 22-year-old student volunteer on the conference's organising committee, everything seemed possible. The organisers of the conference were also the titans of the Independence movement, and the meetings of the committee became the perfect vantage to observe history in the making, as also the clash and play of these personalities. Right at the first meeting, Nehru declared that without the Indonesian delegates, banned from travelling by the Dutch regime, the conference was a non-starter. ‘There can be no free Asia without a free Indonesia' he thundered. A suggestion by a young Biju Patnaik, already earning a reputation as a daredevil in the skies, that he would fly in behind Dutch lines and fly them out brought on this Nehruvian rebuke : “ Don't bluff. How will you do it ?!” Nehru had to be pacified by Sarojini Naidu, the Chairman of the organising committee, who agreed to Biju's only condition : that he needed 40,000 rupees for the secret mission. (Sarojini was the sole check on Nehru's exuberance, at one point taking hold of both his cheeks and saying ‘Jawahar, you talk too much, let others talk now.')

I was confronted with more domestic, but no less challenging logistical challenges, like persuading Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who was the then Director-General of Archaeology, to allow the use of Purana Qila as the venue. He was ultimately convinced when I promised him a large team of student volunteers from the Delhi University to protect every inch of the architectural and botanical heritage of the fort. Then, six days before the conference was to open, a mighty whirlwind devastated the elaborate pandalbuilt at the venue. When a distraught Nehru came to inspect the wreckage, he was reassured by Mohan Singh, the contractor, that he will rebuild the pandal in time since ‘it is a matter of India's prestige and your honour'. Mohan Singh brought in 500 workers from all over Delhi to camp at the Qila, but by next morning a new threat had developed. Pre-partition riots had erupted across Delhi, and his workers, who came from all religions and ethnicities, risked being caught in the crossfire. I rushed, as always, to Sarojini Naidu. She picked up the phone and talked to Home Minister Sardar Patel. ‘You brag of being a powerful person. Show me.' Within two hours a large force had arrived to guard all entrances to Purana Qila and the roads leading to it. For hospitality for the guests, Sarojini requisitioned the palatial buildings and staff of the Princes (Baroda, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Travancore-Cochin , Patiala) that circle India Gate. Dance , music and theatre : curated by Kapila Vatsyayan and Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, the legendary principal of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Art: none less than Nand Lal Bose, who attended the event, and who, along with Jamini Roy, had their work on display at the venue.

By the time the conference opened , it was clear that India had pulled off a major coup. The 40 Indonesians flow in by Biju Patnaik were greeted at Purana Qila with a prolonged standing ovation. (The future ) Central Asian Republics were present, despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations between India and Stalin-era Russia. The Vietnamese had come in the teeth of the French colonial regime. True, the discussions at the conference were not ‘official' consultations between delegates representing their governments , and that the conference had been billed as a cultural event to soften its political overtones. But it was unique nonetheless – hosted by a not –yet independent nation, the absence of Western voices, the self-identified community of Asia, drawn together by the logic of racial identification, and by the belief that the practices of colonialism and racism should be ended.

It wasn't as if the event was free of controversy. When Professor Hugo Bergman , who represented the Jewish community stood up to speak, the Secretary General of the Arab League began to walk out in protest. In the kind of improvised diplomacy that would come to mark the event, Sir Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, the well known scientist and one of the Indian delegates , took off his hat and placed it at the feet of the angry dignitary saying ‘please sir, save India's honour.' The two stood there for what seemed like an eternal moment before the Arab League delegate embraced Bhatnagar and returned to his seat, to thunderous applause.

And then, there was the shadow-boxing with China over Tibet. While not raising their objections officially, the Chinese delegation exerted enormous pressure on the Indian organisers for inviting the Tibetans separately. Later, they tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Tibetans to sit along with them. The Chinese also protested to a map of Asia that formed the backdrop to the main dais which showed Tibet as an independent country. They asked for the painting to be modified immediately. (it is still unclear if that request was done.)

These minor skirmishes between the two Asian powers, a premonition of future tensions, were mirrored in the anxieties raised again and again by the smaller Asian states. Burma and Malaya expressed apprehension that the two giants may dwarf their autonomy through Chinese and Indians settled in their country during colonial rule. Indonesia said India should withdraw its troops deployed by the colonial rulers. India and China separately tried to allay these fears. The leader of the Chinese delegation, Cheng Yin-fun quoted an old Chinese saying, ‘Within the four seas all men are brothers', to emphasise China's anti-imperialist policies.

An impasse?

The Chinese anxiety, that the seminar was in part India's aim to implicitly acquire leadership in Asia, came to the fore towards the end. The flashpoint was the location of the secretariat for the proposed Asian Relations Organisation, the apex body meant to be made up of the member countries which would carry forward the principles of the conference. India assumed it would be in India, the Chinese objected, and it was only after midnight parleys led by Krishna Menon and KM Panniker that it was decided to rotate the ARO every six months between Delhi and Beijing, starting with India. B. Shiva Rao senior correspondent of The Hindu was chosen to be its first Secretary-General of the Asian Relations Organization. Six months later, when it was moved to China, it met a premature death. No more of it was heard.

Despite the Chinese recalcitrance, there were enough early warnings, leads, and goodwill generated by the Conference for India to take forward. Here, for instance, is the representative of the Arab League, Mr Taquiddeen El Solh, who declared that the 7 countries of the League “run between the East and the West and have always been known as the door to India. Most of the troubles we suffered from came to us because of this position, and we now share with you your freedom, as your freedom is necessary for our freedom.”, a coup of sorts , given that the Muslim League had boycotted the meeting as a manoeuvre of “Hindu imperialism” !

Six decades later, it seems impossible not to regret the demise of the optimism that I witnessed during that remarkable week in the spring of 1947, slowly gone to ruin, much like the magnificent ruins of the fort that formed the backdrop to India's first foray into the world.

L.C. Jain is a Gandhian activist, former High Commissioner to South Africa and former Member, Planning Commission.