One of the most damaging aspects of colonialism is the way in which it twists or erases the colonised nation’s place in the world. As empires crumbled in the mid-20th century, it was up to these colonies to craft a way forward, and many decided they were better off figuring it out together.
In March-April 1947, a seminal meet meant to help define emerging ideas of nationalism, Pan-Asianism, decolonisation and anti-imperialism was held in New Delhi. In a fledgling nation and a post-war world, it was the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a think tank then just four years old, that set out to organise this major event. Hosted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, then head of an interim government in the run-up to Independence, it was the Asian Relations Conference (ARC).
What was it like to be attempting scholarship and international cooperation at a time when data and scholars themselves were hard to find? This excerpt from Sapru House: A Story of Institution-Building in World Affairs by career diplomat T C A Raghavan and scholar Vivek Mishra, takes a look at the early struggle, including a fund-raising effort led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Here’s an excerpt.
While the ICWA was founded in 1943, it would be true to say that it was defined by an event some four years later. This was the Asian Relations Conference (ARC) held in New Delhi from March 24 to April 2, 1947, which the Council organised and hosted. The timing and the political and intellectual dimensions of the Asian Relations Conference as an event representative of former colonies emerging on the world stage have now become a specialised sub-discipline in itself, of interest to historians and international relations scholars alike.
Ideas of nationalism, Pan-Asianism, decolonisation, anti-imperialism, etc. all came together on this platform in what is recognised to be a milestone movement of the process that led to the crystallisation of ideas of non-alignment, Afro-Asian solidarity and others.
Within the ICWA, once the idea of an Asian conference in India gained momentum, some of its members thought that the Council should take the lead in taking this initiative forward. The idea,
therefore, was proposed to the Executive Committee of the ICWA and was accepted. As a young organisation formed only three years earlier, the proposal was an unparalleled opportunity, not only to study Asia’s problems closely, but also to establish an organizational reputation.
. . .
The Executive Committee of the ICWA met on August 31, 1946, and invited 57 eminent persons to join the organising committee for what was termed initially as the “Inter Asian Relations Conference”. A Council report from the end of 1947 summarised the chain of events leading up to the convening of the conference:
The most important event of the year was the meeting of the Asia Relations Conference under the auspices of the Council at New Delhi, from March to 2nd April. The objects of the Conference were to review the position of Asia in the post-war world, exchange ideas on the problems which were common to all Asian countries and study the ways and means of promoting closer cooperation between these countries. The decision to organize the Conference had been taken in the latter part of 1946 and much of the preliminary work in connection with it had also been done by the beginning of 1947. Invitations had been sent out, the subjects for discussion decided, the Secretariat expanded, and Working Committee with (Mrs.) Sarojini Naidu as Chairman appointed to deal with all matters relating to the Conference.
Preparing the conference documentation was challenging for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the slender resources of the Council:
The production of basic material to help in Conference discussions, was also equally essential and this also presented some difficulty, for memoranda had to be prepared on eight topics which covered practically all aspects of Asian life and all Asian countries. There were hardly any statistics readily available about many of these countries, and such statistics as were available were not always authoritative or reliable, and it was risky to draw any conclusions on the basis of such date; the books available on several aspects of Asian life were very few; there were not many scholars in India who had specialized (sic) Asia’s problems; and above all, only a few months were available for the whole task. The Research Section of the Conference Secretariat
decided, however, to tackle the task as best as it could. With the material at its disposal, it first prepared an elaboration of five out of the eight topics on the agenda and sent it round to the scholars and institutions invited.
. . .
The five broad themes around which conference documents were prepared were:
. . .
In organising and planning the conference, the ICWA benefitted majorly from its close links with the full spectrum of India’s national leadership, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The latter’s own perceptions about and belief in Asian unity and universalism had also been a guiding factor in the Council’s overall approach to the Conference.
As the work began, an appeal for funds was issued, to which people responded from all corners of India. This fundraising drive was also spearheaded by Pandit Nehru, and following his letters to numerous eminent personalities of the time, the contributions—small and big—poured in. Many old account books in the Council show both the range of contributions received, as well as the care with which they were tabulated. A vast effort was now underway. The response in its own way was a demonstration, convincing the organisers that people genuinely saw India hosting the ARC as a matter of pride and honour for the country
One of the most important decisions taken by the working committee of the ARC was reflected in its decision to ensure a fair gender representation among the delegates who were invited and attended the conference. The Working Committee decided that “there should be a Women’s section of the conference and every effort would be made to have as large an attendance of women delegates and observers as was possible.”
The actual venue of the conference was a matter of some deliberation. The original idea was to hold the conference in the Council House (now Parliament House) with place for about 1000 attendees. However, growing public interest in the conference necessitated that a larger place be chosen.
The Working Committee finally took the decision to put a shamiana in the Purana Qila and hold the conference in the historic compound of the 16th-century fort.
The event finally saw representation from twenty-eight countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia (including Cochin-China and Laos), Ceylon, China, Egypt, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Korea, Malaya, Mongolia, Nepal, Hebrew University, Palestine, the Philippines, Siam, Tadjikistan, Tibet, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Viet Nam. The Conference also had observers from eight institutions including
the Arab League, Cairo; Australian Institute of International Affairs, Sydney; Australian Institute of Political Science, Sydney; India Institute, London; Institute of Pacific Relations, Moscow; Institute of Pacific Relations, New York; Royal Institute of International Affairs,
London; and the United Nations Organisation, New York.
. . .
The successful convening of the ARC also meant a vastly enhanced international profile, one that was acquired quickly…
The most striking evidence for this marked increase in the profile of the ICWA came, however, in April 1955 during the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Some have seen Bandung and the subsequent founding of the Non-Aligned Movement as a direct linear progression from the holding of the ARC in Delhi in 1947.
Excerpted with permission from Sapru House: A Story of Institution Building In World Affairs (2021) by T C A Raghavan and Vivek Mishra, and published by K W Publishers Pvt Ltd. You can buy the book here.
Guru Dutt was among the most iconic filmmakers of the Golden Age of Indian cinema, demonstrating that art and commercial success can coexist. In this book excerpt, find out how Dutt battled his demons before and after he made his masterpiece, Pyaasa (1951).
How has the study and perception of our history evolved? Historian Romila Thapar traces the different lenses through which the subcontinent’s history has been studied, and says the past must be carefully explained if our present is to be accurately portrayed. #MakingofModernIndia
The Indus River system is intimately tied to the subcontinent’s destiny, from ancient civilisations, to invaders, to modern-day geopolitics. Strategic affairs analyst Uttam Kumar Sinha puts into perspective the Indus Water Treaty, which is up for debate once again.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books