The Security Studies Seminar is a monthly seminar series that aims to comprehensively discuss a new piece of academic research on matters pertaining to Indian and international security, with the author.

Few expected India to remain a member of the Commonwealth after it attained independence from British rule in 1947. Even the British viewed the Indian membership in the Commonwealth with much skepticism. However, the puzzle of how and why India ultimately became a member of the Commonwealth is relatively understudied. Britain’s desire to leverage India’s political capital in the region, and India’s own ambition of becoming a regional leader are crucial to understanding why India decided to continue its membership in the Commonwealth. 

Carnegie India hosted Sandeep Bharadwaj, a research associate at the Center for Policy Research, who examined the motivations that led India to remain in the Commonwealth of Nations, while also assessing Britain’s reasons for pursuing this relationship. The discussion was moderated by Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at Carnegie India.

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS

  • Understanding the British Perspective: Participants discussed the motives behind British support for India’s membership to the Commonwealth. Participants underlined that initially, Britain was skeptical, fearing that admitting Asian dominions such as India would weaken the organization and compromise its ethos. However, they agreed that ultimately, the British could use the Commonwealth as a vehicle to address the security crises that were unfurling in Southeast Asia following decolonization. For the British to do so, however, India would have to remain a part of the Commonwealth and be projected as a regional leader that was capable of mediating peace, mitigating the effects of the insecurity, and successfully stabilize the region, participants noted. Participants also recognized the importance of the 1947 Asian Relations Conference, wherein the then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee personally highlighted the keenness of the British in incorporating India into the Commonwealth.   
  • Evolution of the Indian Perspective: Participants noted that prior to independence, India was not keen on furthering its association with the Commonwealth due to a widespread belief that retaining any formal links with its former colonial power could be considered insincere given India’s Non-Alignment policy and its anti-colonial sentiments. They acknowledged that Prime Minister Nehru however was ambivalent in this regard, despite the domestic political opposition he faced to India’s membership in the Commonwealth, alongside extensive media criticism. Participants highlighted that Nehru reassured the Indian public that India would be deeply committed to a position of nonalignment and anti-imperialism while continuing its membership. This strengthened his case to the domestic population critical of India’s decision to continue its Commonwealth membership, they stated Finally, participants emphasized that the Asian Relations Conference was an important turning point, from the Indian perspective, since it resulted in Nehru adopting a more amenable attitude toward New Delhi’s relationship with Britain.
  • Indian Motivations: Participants noted that India perceived Commonwealth membership as a vehicle to further its ambition of being a regional power in Asia. They highlighted that by helping the British manage the deteriorating security situation in Southeast Asia, India could play the role of a mediator, thereby elevating its status and prestige in the region. Participants concurred that unlike its neighbors, and other third world nations, India’s enormous diplomatic network enabled it to play a leading role in global conversations, such as actively championing Indonesian independence.  
  • Evaluating India’s Experience: Participants discussed the benefits that accrued to India as a result of its decision to continue its Commonwealth membership. This primarily increased India’s visibility as a regional leader in Southeast Asian politics, they added. However, participants disagreed on the value of Indian membership in the Commonwealth. Some participants highlighted the poor quality of defense equipment that India received from Britain. Participants broke this incident down to two reasons. First, this was because Britain ended up prioritizing countries that it had “firm defense agreements” with, such as Jordan and Iraq, over India, participants agreed. Second, they noted that this also stemmed from Britain’s conscious decision to maintain a sense of parity between India and Pakistan and this was another way of ensuring the same. Therefore, participants felt that these decisions, taken by Britain, reflected the low priority accorded to India despite its membership in the Commonwealth. Overall, participants agreed that the Commonwealth’s importance was eventually diluted due to the increasing direct engagement between the United States and Asia following the Korean war, as the region was perceived as a frontline in the Cold War. 

This event summary was prepared by Upasana Sharma, a research assistant at Carnegie India.