Why Are We Forgetting the Contribution of Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi for the De-Colonisation of Africa and the End of Apartheid

Vappala Balachandran
Tuesday, October 20,2015

The Third Africa-India Forum Summit (AIFS-III) on October 29-30 in New Delhi is expected to be a grand protocol affair although its final outcome would depend on various imponderables. The First 2008 Summit in New Delhi had pledged removing the “Information Deficit” between India and Africa. But that was not translated into action and more and more stories about “Indian racism” are appearing in African media.

Out of 54 member states in the African Union (AU), 52 are attending. India has embassies only in 29 of these 54 states, leading to a complaint that we are very casual towards Africa. Two members, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic are suspended due reasons like coup and conflict. Israel supported by Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria tried to join as observer but failed. Palestine was admitted in 2013. There were rumours that Egypt had prevented Israel’s admission.

AU, which was originally the Organization of African Unity (OAU), was set up in 1963. Initially radicals like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah envisaged a Pan-African Union government of all newly independent states. However pro-Western countries like Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Liberia advocated a gradual approach towards integration. As The Guardian (UK) said (21 May 2013): “Decolonisation and majority rule, particularly in the colonial-settler states of Algeria, Kenya and South Africa where racism was institutionalised, were a major achievement of the project. The culminating event was the liberation of South Africa from apartheid in 1994, ending 82 years of struggle led by the African National Congress and 31 years of support by the continent through the OAU”.

It is unfortunate that the names of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his grandson Rajiv Gandhi who had made stellar contribution for African de-colonization and for the ending of apartheid are not mentioned in any of our op-Ed columns or official media releases in the run up to the AIFS-III. It is not clear whether this was deliberate due to the present political atmosphere or accidental due to the ignorance of the present mandarins in our External Affairs ministry. Also there is no mention about the “Africa Fund” set up by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 in the Ministry of External Affairs’ Annual Report for 2013-14 although the 1987-88 report had given an encouraging indication that US$ 242 million were pledged as on 1 December 1987 with India promising Rs. 50 crores. It started with a bang and seemed to have ended in a whimper. This happens after all such “glittering” protocol gatherings.

Africa was centre-stage for India’s foreign policy from 1947 to 1967 because of Gandhiji’s legacy as veteran diplomat Dilip Lahiri had said in his book “Engaging with a resurgent Africa”. However the real motivator was Pandit Nehru “who saw India as the flag bearer and champion of the cause of the liberation of all nations who were still under colonial administration”. Lahiri reminds us that at the 1955 Afro-Asian Bandung Conference Nehru had exhorted the members that it was up to Asia to help Africa to the best of their ability as “we are sister continents”.

Lahiri’s analysis was supported by Nelson Mandela himself. In his book “Conversations with myself” (2010) put together by Richard Stengel, Mandela tells his friend Ahmed Kathrada in prison that Nehru was his hero. Like Gandhiji, Mandela also cleaned toilets in prison. One day a prisoner who could not clean his bucket toilet, asked his friend to do it but he refused. Mandela volunteered to do it and he cleaned the bucket toilet. During one such conversation Kathrada asks him “Did you read Gandhi too?” Mandela replies: “Oh, yes, no, that’s true. No, that’s true”. Kathrada says: “So, that’s true”. Mandela added: “But Nehru was my really my hero”. (Page 53).

I have personal experience how Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had successfully mixed diplomacy with covert intelligence operations to put an end to the inhuman apartheid regime in South Africa. For overt facts let me turn to Dilip Lahiri. Rajiv Gandhi, “who had a passion for Africa” traveled to Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe in 1986 and declared India’s solidarity with the frontline states of Southern Africa. During the 1986 Harare NAM summit he announced the creation of the “Africa Fund”. It was set up next year during the January 1987 Delhi Summit. Senior Indian diplomat N.Krishnan, who was PM’s Special Envoy for Africa, was put in charge of the Fund.

Rajiv Gandhi followed this strategy through intense diplomacy and intrusive intelligence operations with the cooperation of frontline states. I cannot reveal what exactly was done. However Mandela’s close associate Mac Maharaj had unwittingly revealed quite a few details in his interview with an Indian national daily on 22 August 2001. “Not many people can claim a bio-data as diverse as that of Mac Maharaj. Over the decades, this 66 year-old South African has been truck driver and teacher, garbage collector and newspaper manager. This may seem an unconventional record for a man who ended his career as transport minister. But it was behind the screen of these desultory day jobs that Maharaj conducted his ‘real life’- that of an armed activist in South Africa’s tumultuous movement for democracy”.

Maharaj was arrested in 1963 on 177 charges of sabotage. He was sentenced to 12 years in Robben Island where Mandela and others were imprisoned. He was released but again put on house arrest. But he escaped and became the Secretary of the “Underground” African National Congress (ANC). He says: “India has a very special record with us. It was the first country to take up the case of South Africa in the United Nations, and also the first to impose sanctions”.

To quote Lahiri: “India’s African diplomacy succeeded in causing the demolition of apartheid in South Africa and the emergence of Namibia as an independent nation. The goal of decolonization proclaimed by Pandit Nehru was completed by his grandson Rajiv Gandhi”.

I may conclude that Rajiv Gandhi’s African policy is a shining example of how diplomacy, supported by covert intelligence, could achieve the strategic aims of a country.



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