Pullin, America in the Asian CenturyHyderabad House, which served as the original location of Independent India’s External Publicity Division, hosts UK and Indian Prime Ministers Theresa May and Narendra Modi in 2016.  

Written by Eric D. Pullin

The superpowers regarded newly independent India as a key battleground in the ideological Cold War. Indeed, India’s refusal to choose sides particularly attracted the attention of the Soviet Union and the United States, with both determined to draw that nation into the global contest.

The superpowers established elaborate propaganda operations in India during the first two decades of the Cold War: the Soviets worked through the Communist Party of India, but also through official state institutions and front groups; meanwhile, the United States, also working through state institutions and front groups, established its most extensive international propaganda operations in India (with the single exception of West Germany). However, the Indian Government, unwilling to sacrifice its hard won independence, also established its own international propaganda operations in the form of the External Affairs Division (XP Division), which was designed to promote an alternative vision to the Cold War. Moreover, India attempted to conduct propaganda operations on its own terms, for its own purposes, instead of simply reacting to the efforts of the superpowers. On the contrary, Jawaharlal Nehru argued that post-colonial India should project a unique sort of Indian propaganda as distinct from other nations: ‘India is not just a copy of the West. We have our own way of thought and action, though we try to modernise it, but the roots remain’.

Drawing upon documents from the National Archives of India, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the National Archives of the United Kingdom and the US National Archives and Records Administration, the paper presented at this symposium represents a portion of a larger project on propaganda and ideological struggles during World War II and the Cold War. Rather than examine India as an object of superpower struggle, the paper examines India’s attempts to assert itself in the ideological Cold War. More specifically, the paper investigates the assumptions, strategies and operations of India’s efforts to build an international propaganda apparatus in the decades after becoming an independent nation. This paper’s method overlaps with a number of approaches to investigating the history of the Cold War, including the scholarship of diplomatic relations, area studies, propaganda, and, especially, attempts to de-center the Cold War. Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War (2007) did not suddenly establish that the Cold War amounted to more than a bi-polar engagement between the United States and the Soviet Union, but it performed signal service by encouraging historians to look beyond Washington and Moscow in order to understand how broadly and deeply the Cold War affected the planet. Similarly, historians such as M.S. Venkataramani, Gary Hess, Ken Clymer and Robert McMahon affirmed not merely the importance of South Asia in the strategic calculations of the Soviet Union and the United States, but also the effect of the superpowers on South Asia. Furthermore, scholars such as Walter Hixson, Kenneth Osgood, Nicholas Cull, Laura Belmonte, Hugh Wilford and Jason Parker (to name just a few stars in this growing sub field) have probed the ways in which ideology and propaganda shaped the Cold War. Though undoubtedly a diplomatic and nuclear struggle, the Cold War could not have occurred without a significant ideological component. In fact, propaganda studies have necessarily reminded scholars of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s belief that propaganda stood as one of the four legs that supported American global power: ‘psychological activity [i.e., propaganda] is not a field of endeavor separable from the main body of diplomatic, economic, and military measures by which the United States seeks to achieve its national objectives’. According to the Americans in the 1950s, ‘there is no strategic concept for “psychological operations” separate and distinct from a strategic concept for gaining national aims without war’. This was certainly true of the United States, but the Soviet Union, India and others believed this to a large extent as well. Given that these superb forays into propaganda studies (with a few exceptions; for example, Jason Parker) have yet to make detailed explorations of the propaganda and ideological struggle beyond the ‘Atlantic’ Cold War, this paper examines the degree to which nations in the post-colonial and nonaligned world—in particular India—waged their own ideological Cold War.

In particular, the paper argues that limited financial resources unquestionably hindered India’s ability to conduct international propaganda, but poverty cannot fully explain the Indian approach to propaganda. Nehru’s leadership goes further than budgetary considerations in explaining the Indian approach. When the XP Division was created in 1948, less than a year after Independence, Nehru generally ignored the organisation and acted essentially as India’s own propagandist-in-chief. He regarded communism as a domestic threat, but not as an international ideological challenge. Instead, Nehru expressed more contempt for American than Soviet methods of propaganda. The American approach, which appears to have served as India’s counter-example for conducting information activities, struck Nehru as lacking substance and seriousness, yet simultaneously as invasive and intrusive. Accordingly, India’s Prime Minister believed that India’s approach should favour principle and gravitas. The XP Division suffered from inattention, under-funding and strategic confusion from its inception. According to Nehru, American propaganda and publicity methods obscured more than they clarified, and thus reduced the possibility that moral considerations would be taken seriously in foreign policy. Unfortunately for Nehru, his passionate commitment to morality in foreign policy also seemed to foster inflexibility in his approach to information activities. In large measure, India’s propaganda strategy and operations reflected the stiffness of Nehru’s attitudes.

Nehru’s opinions, though significant, were not unique. Nehru’s sister and Indian Ambassador to the United States, Vijaya Lahksmi Pandit, recognised that India had an ‘image’ problem in the United States, but also regarded American methods with condescension. Her blinkered desire to be ‘different’ from the Americans prevented the establishment of the XP Division as an effective propaganda organisation. The Indian Embassy in the United States briefly attempted to hire American public relations consultants to advise the XP Division, but soon soured on the effort. Perhaps American ‘experts’ such as Edward Bernays and Indian expatriates such as J.J. Singh genuinely deserved the contempt they received from Indian officials, but Indian propaganda did not improve after the Indians’ concluded that these consultants did little to enhance India’s image in the United States. Quite the opposite, the Shelvankar and Pillai reports on propaganda (commissioned by the Lok Sabha), which looked at India’s propaganda in the 1950s, faulted the Indian Government’s parsimony and lack of strategic vision. Whether or not the Indian Government could have contributed to positive changes in American attitudes toward India remains an open matter, because the XP Division had neither a coherent strategy nor effective operations. Nehru intended for India’s information activities to promote nonalignment, but demonstrated an unwillingness and inability to compromise his principles. Nehru thought it better that India should endure setbacks and have its ‘own way of thought and action’ than that India should emulate American methods or become dependent upon foreigners. On the contrary, it seemed to foster a narrowly self-righteous view that tried to disguise necessity as principle. Unfortunately for India’s ideological struggle, independent India failed to develop a propaganda strategy that supported or complemented its posture of nonalignment.

Eric D. Pullin has recently written “Quest: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics” in The Ideological Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, edited by Giles Scott-Smith, (London: Palgrave Macmillan: Forthcoming April 2017) and “The Bandung Conference: Ideological Conflict and the Limitations of US Propaganda,” in Neutrality and Neutralism in the Global Cold War: Between or Within the Blocs?, edited by Sandra Bott, Jussi M. Hanhimäki, Janick Marina Schaufelbuehl, and Marco Wyss, (London: Routledge, 2016). He is currently completing a manuscript titled Noise and Flutter: India, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cold War Ideological Conflict, which explores political/institutional/operational history of how the United States, the Soviet Union, and India used propaganda in the ideological battles of World War II and the Cold War. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit:  CC/Wikimedia Commons

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