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50 years after Suez and Hungary

Monday 4 December 2006, by MALHOTRA*Inder

It has been a period of anniversaries and concomitant celebrations of which the centenary of the birth in distant South Africa of Satyagraha, the unique weapon of non-violent resistance, was naturally the most important and exciting. Appropriately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Durban to honour Satyagraha’s inventor. He went even to the wayside railway station where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a relatively unknown Indian attorney, was unceremoniously thrown out of the first class compartment even though he possessed a valid ticket. Back home, too, there was a succession of exuberant ceremonies though it sometimes seemed that Munnabhai was overshadowing the Mahatma.

At the same time, there was here a lot of embarrassment when the movers and shakers realised that the birth centenary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh had passed unsung, indeed unnoticed. They are now furiously busy preparing to observe, in March next, the 75th anniversary of the great revolutionary’s execution. Yesterday (October 30) was the 97th birthday of the incomparable Homi J. Bhaba who, under Jawaharlal Nehru’s visionary leadership, was the founder of India’s nuclear programme and prowess. And today ” by one of those coincidences history abounds in” is the anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth and of Indira Gandhi’s death, the two events separated from each other by 109 years.

Vallabhbhai, Indira and Bhaba must be saluted at some length but that has to wait until some other day. For prior note has to be taken of the golden jubilee of an event that was a major turning point in the world’s history in the 20th century. The episode that terminated one era and started another was the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt on October 29, 1956 on a completely false and fabricated casus belli that resulted, in The Economist’s eloquent words, in the "humiliating end of imperial influence for two European countries, Britain and France." It also "cost the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden (who had succeeded Churchill barely a year earlier) his job" and "hastened" the end of the Fourth Republic in France and De Gaulle’s "arrival" as the head of the Fifth. Above all, it made "unambiguous, even to the most nostalgic blimps, America’s supremacy over its western allies", besides promoting pan-Arab nationalism and completing the "transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute into an Israeli-Arab one". For the Soviet Union, the international outcry, especially by the Third World, against the "tripartite aggression on Egypt"; was a "useful diversion". It enabled Moscow mercilessly to crush the Hungarian Uprising while the world was preoccupied with Suez.

Inevitably, Nehru was the first to protest vigorously against the Anglo-French-Israeli effrontery. He spoke of the "collapse of the world conscience" and worked tirelessly for the immediate withdrawal of the trio of invaders. On the gory events in Hungary, however, he was initially cautious in "deploring" the Soviet Union. For this he was widely criticised. Of the critics, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) was the most trenchant. Later, when Nehru spoke of Hungary more sharply, the Russians were not amused. They tersely reminded him that Hungary was "as important to the Soviet Union as Kashmir was to India". But he ignored this.

What most historians describe as the "Suez Crisis" had begun several months before the tripartite invasion of the Suez Canal zone. Interestingly, it had started with the sudden withdrawal by the United States secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, of the American promise of a big loan to help pay for the construction of Aswan Dam on the Nile, the centre-piece of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s plans to modernise his country. Dulles was reconciled to the Russians coming in when the Americans left. But he had not bargained for Nasser’s enraged response that came on July 26. In Egypt everybody’s attention that day was focused on a mammoth rally he addressed at Alexandria. His speech against British imperialism was also his most vehement, but what foxed his audience was his frequent reference by name to the French builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Only after the rally had dispersed did the world discover that "De Lesseps" was the codeword for the Egyptian Army to start the seizure and nationalisation of the canal.

Nasser had every legal and moral right to do what he did. But Eden thought otherwise. To him, "Grabber Nasser" was a Middle Eastern Hitler or Mussolini. The Suez, Eden said, was Britain’s "great imperial lifeline," especially for oil. Nasser could not be allowed to have his "hand on our windpipe". After unproductive discussions at meetings of the Suez Canal Users’ Association the war followed.

At that stage Dulles faced another ironic surprise. His boss, President Dwight Eisenhower, kept in the dark by his European and Israeli allies about their diabolical intentions, felt "betrayed" and took steps to end the mischief. Britain needed a huge "emergency loan" from the IMF. Ike saw to it that this was not available until London called off the invasion. Fearing economic collapse, Eden "surrendered" to American demands on November 7, with his troops "stranded half way down the canal"; The French were furious but obliged to agree.

By a previous arrangement, Nehru visited the US in mid-December 1956. He had detailed talks with Eisenhower both in Washington and at the President’s Gettysburg Farm. The 36th volume in the second series of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, released only in January this year, contains a detailed and revealing account of these discussions, as also of Nehru’s elaborate conversations with the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, back home at the turn of the year. Remarkably, there was a large measure of agreement between Eisenhower and Nehru on Suez and even on Hungary. Ike told the Prime Minister that his aides had tried to "restrain" him from taking a strong stand against his allies, especially Israel, lest this should affect adversely his re-election. But he had "made it clear" that this was a matter of principle and, whatever the election result, he would "stick to the principle"; By contrast, Zhou, in his parleys with Nehru "endorsed" every word of the Indian Prime Minister on Suez but disagreed "emphatically" on Hungary, sticking all the way to the standard Soviet position. No wonder. For the Sino-Soviet Split was still some years away.

See online : Asian Age

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