October 1954: J.L. Nehru Goes To Angkor

by Angkor Database

Seventy years ago, Prime Minister Nehru went to Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei during a diplomatic mission which took him to China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Nehru banteay srei 41744

Publication: ADB Research Documents #NEHR1954

Published: 2024

Author: Angkor Database

Pages: 10

Language : English

It was a time when the world was opening up. In 1954, India Prime Minister J. L. Nehru made history by being 1) the first head of state visiting Cambodia (which had peacefully gained its independence on 9 November 1953) 2) the first chief of state allowed to step on China’s Great Wall. Time of hope, and expectations that would soon unravel.

Pandit Nehru in Banteay Srei, Cambodia, Oct 1954. Unknown photographer. (Getty Images 3241762 licensed to Angkor Database)

Nehru and the Unsurpassed Beauty of Angkor”

J.L. Nehru’s speech at a public meeting, Ramlila Maidan [1], Delhi, 28 November 1954, upon his return from his historic visit to China and Southeast Asia (excerpts from the complete version posted on The Nehru Blog)

[…] I am trying to show you that revolutions do not occur in the air. The Chinese Revolution was born out of forty years of civil war. They have at last found peace. Those who feel that what has occurred in other countries should be repeated here, understand neither history nor realities. Must we also undergo forty years of civil war culminating in a revolution? That is absurd. It is meaningless to want chaos and ruin so that a generation or two later we may build anew. I am saying this because people are easily carried away, particularly our communist brethren, who have a great deal of enthusiasm, but very little common sense. They seem to think that slogans can be a substitute for common sense. It is most strange. I have just returned from China. It is, by and large, a communist country. Their Government is made up of well known communists, men of extraordinary brilliance, whose ideology has been moulded by thirty years of warfare and suffering and what not. Chinese communism is not a carbon copy of Soviet Marxism, but has been evolved out of their own experiences. I have great respect for their leaders who are extremely intelligent and are leading their country towards progress with great courage and daring. […]

Why did Mahatma Gandhi succeed so well in India? It is because he was a product of the Indian soil and could recognize the real inner spirit and strength of India. So he made them his weapons to fight against British imperialism. His philosophy could be understood by even a simple peasant. He had no readymade slogans to be learnt and repeated at will. I am prepared to admire and respect the Chinese Government and organization. They have built something with great difficulty and I have no quarrel with their system. But if anyone suggests that we should copy China or the Soviet Union or the United States, I cannot understand that. I would say that such people have not yet mentally arrived in the twentieth century. They are still living in the past. The communalists are, of course, even worse. They live in an even remote past. It is people of similar mentality who ruined India a few centuries ago. The communalists today want to repeat the things which had led the country to ruin in the past. […]

India has a storehouse of thousands of years of experience. We have made many mistakes. We fell and were enslaved because of our disunity and internecine feuds in the name of religion and caste and what not. Other countries advanced in the meanwhile. All this is before us, that is the lessons that the history of India and Asia teaches us. What is one to say about people, who want us to follow the same path which led to ruin in the past? They are people who are capable of neither learning from others or from their own experience. I am truly amazed at their lack of intelligence. […]

Well, what is the message that I want to give you on my return from China? I did not see anything new that I had not already read or heard about. The only difference is that seeing something with one’s own eyes makes a greater impact. Then I went to Indo-China where every nook and corner is full of telltale signs of the impact of India’s ancient culture. You can find exquisite examples of art and culture there which may be difficult to find in India. Their old monuments, language, dance form, all bear India’s imprint. The people of India had gone there over 1500 years ago with their arts and culture and influenced them profoundly. It is the same story in Cambodia — the ancient Kamboja. Its capital of Angkor has temples of such grandeur and beauty that I was amazed at the excellence of the architects who built them. There is one monument in Angkor which is considered to be unique in the world. It is an immense one and has been standing for over a thousand years. Today it is in a bad state of repair in parts. But the architectural beauty is unsurpassed. Legends from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are engraved on stone all around the temple walls. You cannot find such fine work even in India.

Angkor Vat is a symbol of sublime aesthetic quality. It is only when a nation is highly evolved that it can produce work of such excellence. Temples are built today in Delhi and other places in India. They are huge in size but nobody can praise them for their artistry. After all, a building needs not only bricks and mortar but imagination as well. The Taj Mahal is famous throughout the world not because it is built of marble, for there are many such in Delhi, but because of its unmatched beauty of design and execution. The Taj Mahal has managed to capture the spirit of a nation. The credit must go to the excellence of the architects and masons who built it. It is artists like them who went out to Cambodia and Indonesia and built temple and other monuments which stand to this day. We must strive to recapture that excellence.

I saw the impact that ancient India had made on the countries of South East Asia. Please do not forget that the people of India had not gone there with armies to fight and conquer. Their conquests lay in the realm of letters and arts. Indian arts and religion and literature exerted a profound influence on those countries. Similarly, China was another great country which exerted its influence upon the countries all around it. That is why the region in between bears the joint names of India and China and is called Indo-China. Both countries exerted great influence on the region, particularly in the realm of arts, literature and ideas. The strange thing is that our forefathers more than two thousand years ago had the spirit of adventure to travel far and wide. Their daring and courage fills one with amazement. What kind of people were they and how did the ideas of taboo and caste system develop so rigidly later? We were bold enough at one time to cross thousands of miles of ocean braving great dangers to spread our arts and religion and ideas in distant places. Yet, just a few centuries later, we find that we had closed our minds to the outside world and were content to sit like frogs in the well, in our narrow compartments of caste and what not. You can see how India grew in stature and exerted a profound influence on the world and then went into decline when the people became narrow-minded and caste-ridden. Foreign travel became taboo and if any persons dared to cross the seas, they were declared outcastes.

When my father went to Europe, he was declared an outcaste. Things are changing now. We must get out of our narrow mental ruts and let the fresh winds of change blow into the country. We must strive to regain that spirit of daring and courage which led us to great intellectual efforts and scientific and spiritual discoveries. Those are the signs of a great nation. We must progress in peace and friendship with all nations.[…] [SWJNS2V27PP508/22]

Original caption: Visit of the Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru to the Angkor Vat Temple (Indo-China) on November 1, 1954:
The Prime Minister is seen there studying the exquisite carvings on the walls of the Temple.” [Internet Archive, ph. 41609]
Pandit Nehru and King Sihanouk at Phnom Penh Royal Palace, Oct. 1954 (unknown photographer)
Original caption: Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to China in October, 1954. Banquet by Mr. Chou En-lai Prime Minister of China at Peking Hotel. Photo Shows from (L. to R.) Mrs. Wang Kuang-mei; Prime Minister Shri Nehru; Premier Mr. Chou En-Lai; Mrs. Raghavan.”[Internet Archive, ph. 42313]
Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk and wife Monique (Monineath) greeted by Nehru at Delhi Airport for his first official visit as Cambodian chief of state in March 1955, shortly after abdicating the throne. (photo AP)

See our photo gallery of the 1954 visit and related pictures

King Sihanouk on Pandit Nehru’s visit to Cambodia and India-Cambodia relations

Only five months after Nehru’s historic visit, King Norodom Sihanouk took up the bold move and abdicating his royal throne, pass it onto his father Suramarith, and lead the modernization of Cambodian as head of the Sangkum. the fact is that King Sihanouk informed Nehru of his decision in a private letter (only to the Indian head of state, not to anyone else), and then flew to Delhi for his first official visit.

Here is what the King-Father thought of Nehru. [in Prince Norodom Sihanouk (with Bernard Krisher), Charisma and Leadership: The human side of great leaders of the twentieth century, 1990, Tokyo Yohan Publications, 183 p, pp 19 – 25 [thanks to Julio Jeldres for pointing out this text to us]]

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first of non-aligned leaders whom I had the pleasure to meet and, like any first experience in the presence of a great man, he left an indelible impression. Beyond that, as Cambodia owes its cultural roots to India, I respected his wisdom and he became one of my gurus.

[Cambodia’s cultural history can be likened to America’s. The first civilized settlers, Europeans, reached North America where they encountered wild Indians. More than a thousand years ago an Indian prince, Kambu reached our shores and also saw wild people. The Indians introduced all levels of civilization-architecture, philosophy, our alphabet (which came from sanskrit), religion (Hinduism and Brahmanism on the one hand, and Buddhism, which subsequently prevailed, on the other), they built the pre-Angkorian temples in the south and southwest of Cambodia and provided us with our first prince, an Indian, who became King of Cambodia. The Chinese began sending immigrants later on, but we got only blood from the Chinese: they brought in the merchants and bankers, no culture. Ironically, while Cambodians are cognizant of their Indian heritage they are much closer, mentally to China, though today they are not too happy with the Chinese either, blaming their present misery on the Chinese, who still support the Khmer Rouge. The only country that remains truly popular in Cambodia is France.]

Our first meeting took place in Phnom Penh. Nehru, accompanied by his charming daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was to succeed him later as Prime Minister, visited Cambodia in 1954, shortly after our independence.

Between 1955 and the early Sixties, but before his death in 1964, I had been to India and met Nehru on many other occasions, both official and private visits. I enjoyed being in his company and he enjoyed receiving me in the privacy of his comfortable house, which was elegantly furnished and offered a pleasing blend of British comfort and Indian interior decoration and art. He was visibly sensitive to my compliments and the adoration I bore him. He was also very proud of the Indian origin of the Khmer civilization. On his visit to Phnom Penh I recall that he said: We are cousins. The Khmer civilization is a child of the Indian civilization and we are very proud of that.

But in fact we improved on their civilization. A temple like Angkor Wat, according to French experts and other Western scholars, is something very Khmer and superior to the Indian temples. The theme of my conversations with the leaders of that era reflected their personalities. With Nehru the mood was always serious, contemplative, philosophical. I felt I was in the presence of a very rare teacher, or even an older brother, and I had much to learn. Nehru spent many hours, explaining his views on non-alignment and pantjasila [2]. 

His doctrine which was to spread widely throughout the world, perfectly suited the policies I intended to pursue for Cambodia and the outcome proved successful until the ill-fated day when the Lon Nol-Sirik Matak group engineered their putsch, [while I was abroad seeking to keep us free from the Vietnam war], and foolishly reversed my non-alignment policy. This had tragic consequences. It brought Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into power in April 1975 who established one of his- tory’s most inhumane and bloody regimes. My unfortunate Cambodia was plunged into total submission to a foreign power, into the Vietnam war, and subsequently into ruin and hell.

But let me return to 1955, the year I made my first official visit to India. I had abdicated my title of King to my father in order to assume the position of (an elected) Prime Minister and have a more direct role in running the government. My fraternal friendship with Nehru, since our previous meeting, had deepened. He came to meet me at New Delhi International Airport and lay a fragrant garland of flowers around my neck, a touching and noble sign of welcome. We were to meet again that same year at the first summit of the Afro-Asian countries and once again in 1961 in Belgrade, at the first summit conference of the Non-Aligned countries. In these movements we worked hand in hand as our mutual trust and friendship became indestructible.

When we met privately, outside the formal sen of these historic conferences, in his home in Delhi, would detain me for long sessions and we would dise everything from politics, the Khmer and Indian civil mons, his particular concerns and mine, the lives of respective families, problems besetting India Cambodia, and our relations with the U.S., China, Soviet Union. He enjoyed inviting Indira and also close friend and advisor, Minister Desai, to join us have them hear my views on Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

Sometimes he would lead me to his pleasant Indian British” garden to meet his charming grandchildren and watch the squirrels freely scampering about. Back in a cozy sitting room, seated together on the same sofa we would converse, he with his soft spoken, voice and I often with a petulance that amused him. But he always remained very lenient toward me. The discreet Desa was almost always there, facing us, quietly seated in an armchair.

The burden of Nehru’s great responsibilities and worries related to governing a nation as large complex as India, and especially his concern over skirmishes at the Indo-Chinese border, seemed an unsupportable load for his aged shoulders. Thus, he would sometimes doze off. Desai and I would remain seated and silent, respectful of his fatigue, and wait until he was up. Usually he was unaware he had dozed off and woukd move right back, smiling, into the train of the conversation.

Some leaders of this era had great international presence and others could only rally the masses in their own countries. Nehru had the rare oratorical ability to draw the attention of any group that heard him. The ele- gance of his style, his high intellectual level, the wisdom of his proposals were always delivered in a calm tone and his well-bred and elegant appearance, all contributed to his charisma. If he were still alive I believe our people would have a much closer affinity for India. India’s support of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia and generally superior attitude are factors that tend to keep us apart these days. An example of Indian lack of modesty which I still cannot forget, occurred during one of my state visits to New Delhi which then took us to Calcutta and Madras. After being hosted by the governors of Madras and Calcutta, it was my turn to entertain them, so I flew in the Royal Cambodian Ballet, featuring my daughter Bopha Dévi, the prima ballerina, for a performance. High-ranking Indian officials came up to me at the reception later to ask how I liked their dances.

What dances?” I asked. — Our Indian dances you saw a few minutes ago,” was the response. — Your excellencies and gentlemen,” I replied, that was our Royal Corps de Ballet which just performed Cambodian dances for you.”

Incredible. They believed that at my reception it was an Indian troupe performing for them. Then the asked me how these dancers got to India. I told them we had two Dakotas-DC-3s. You have a runway in Cambodia?” Someone asked! Can you imagine, they thought we had no airports, no highways and that our mode of transportation was the elephant? I could not accept this air of superiority among the Indians but I could respect Nehru. But I have since be sadly disappointed that neither Indira and now her son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, have perpetuated the warm relationship I developed with Nehru. I became for Indira an untouchable. She supported Lon Nol against me and now Rajiv backs the Vietnamese colonialists and Khmer Communists. Adding insult to injury, Rajiv declined to attend the 30th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in 1985, of which I was the last living charter member, if I were to have been present.

Nehru, as most of the charismatic leaders of this era, had his own fashion silhouette. His usual dress consisted of a long white jacket and a white brimless cap, both following Indian fashion, and close-fitting trousers, also white. He was rarely without a beautiful freshly cut red rose inserted in his jacket buttonhole, level with his chest. His discreet elegance bore the charm which came from the rose.

I am saddened, 25 years later, that Nehru’s grand vision for a non-aligned force did not materialize on the scale that he had hoped and that India and so many other countries have abandoned true non-alignment. His position in history was also impaired by the manner which India grabbed Goa from the Portuguese, granted their right to do so, but look how skillfully China has dealt with Hong Kong and Macao. And Bhuttan’s [Sikkim] [3] annexation also wasn’t consistent with Nehru’s pronounced pantjasila philosophy. It could easily have remained a Monaco of Asia. But on the whole, Nehru left an impressive legacy and remains one of the pol cal giants of our-century.

The news of his death in 1964 reached me in Phnom Penh and caused me deep sorrow. The grandiose funeral ceremony was to take place in New Delhi at too short notice to enable me to attend. There were no commercial airlines linking Phnom Penh and New Delhi and I couldn’t not resort to my own private aircraft as the air space of Thailand via Burma could not be entered, my kingdom and the Thai kingdom being enemies over a dispute concerning the Angkor Temple of Preah Vihear.

Nehru’s Notes

In a 14 Nov. 1954 Note on his visit to China and Indochina (Wilson Center Digital Library), mostly dealing with his talks with Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai, Nehru noted that

47. I paid brief visits to Vientiane in Laos, Hanoi and Saigon, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I also visited the famous ruins of Angkor vat. In all these places I met prominent personalities. 48. The person who impressed me most was Dr. Ho Chi-minh of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, who came to see me at Hanoi. Hanoi had passed into his hands just five days previous to my arrival. This was a peaceful and very disciplined transfer from the French to the Viet-Minh. Dr. Ho Chi-minh impressed me as an unusually frank, straight-forward and likable person. […] 49. South Viet-Nam produced a completely opposite effect on me. The whole place seemed to be at sixed and sevens with hardly any dominant authority. The Prime Minister and his Generals were opposed to each other. There were three private armies of some kind of semi-religious sects. Foreign Representatives apparently also pulled in different directions. It was generally estimated that if there was a vote now, 90 percent or more of the population would vote for Viet-Minh. What would happen a year or two later, one could not say.

50. Laos also appeared to be a sleepy and rather depressing place. There was a good deal of French influence there still and the International Commission was facing rather difficult problems. 51. Cambodia was somewhat different. It could be considered more or less independent although there were one or two issues still to be settled with the French. The International Commission had completed the greater part of its labors and the Joint Commission of the two parties had finished its work. The young king is popular and is a bright and agreeable person. But it was said that he was in the hands of a palace clique. Some of his high-placed officers told me that unless the king got the support of some prominent leaders who stood for far-reaching political and economic reforms, the future was not happy.

Background

  • Subimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office (Minerva Associates, Delhi, 1977, ISBN 0883869055, pp 63 – 71): 

The Geneva settlement included three separate ceasefire Agreements in respect of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. These Agreements provided that three International Commissions, one for each of the three States, composed of representatives of Canada, India and Poland, with India as the Chairman, should be set up to control and supervise the cease-fire Agreements. Nehru directed the Foreign Office to initiate steps immediately to set up the Commissions. An essential first step was to settle the preliminary details as to how the Supervisory Commissions were to function. For this a Conference of the representatives of the three member countries on the Supervisory Commissions as well as the representatives of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, was called in Delhi in the first week of August. It was [then] agreed that India should provide the personnel for the common services, security, transport and communication. It was also decided to send an advance mission to Indochina on a preliminary survey. As Indochina fell within the territorial responsibility of the Commonwealth Secretary, I was asked to lead the advance party. Our party which included Canadian and Polish representatives left Delhi on 8th August in two I.A.F. Dakotas. Prime Minister U Nu of Burma had been taking a keen interest in the Geneva Conference and subsequent developments. Representatives of the Burmese Foreign Office gave us a warm send-off at Rangoon during a brief halt there and we reached Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, about midday. There was evidently great excitement in the city. We were officially received by Cambodian Ministers and crowds greeted us all along the route to the large palace that the Cambodian Government placed at our disposal. There was a holiday atmosphere everywhere. The same afternoon we called on King Norodom Sihanouk. He received us very cordially and promised the fullest cooperation of his Government in the work of our Commission. Unlike Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia had no internal problems and the King and his people were happy that at long last they were going to achieve freedom from colonial rule. We were enthusiastically feted and a special visit was arranged for us to the historic ruins of Angkor Vat with a ministerial escort.

[…] After two days we proceeded to Saigon. The situation there was much more difficult. The Diem Government had not accepted the Geneva Agreement and there was an express hostility towards the International Commission. The French were everywhere but apparently they did not have much influence with the Saigon Government. On the date of our arrival a big ship carrying refugees from North Vietnam laid anchor in the Mekong river just opposite our hotel and the usual crowd of relief wokers was there to receive them. Stories of oppression on Catholics and noncommunists in the north brought in by the refugees added to the tension in the town. When we called on Diem at the palace, we found him glum and uncommunicative. From the few words we had with him it was obvious that while his Government would not directly oppose the setting up of the International Commission on their territory, we could not expect much willing cooperation from them We next proceeded to Hanoi. The Ho Chi Minh Government had not yet taken over the city which was still under nominal French control but there was great excitement amongst common people at the impending change of régime. Most of the shops were closed and few cars were to be seen on the wide boulevards which the French had built. The French traders and civil servants were leaving en masse and the local businessmen and professional people who had done well in the past joined in the exodus apprehending trouble at the hands of the new régime. The French manager of the leading hotel where we had reserved our accommodation told us as soon as we arrived that he was about to close the establishment and had already given notice to his staff. Curiously, we saw few Viet Minh volunteers and there were few demonstrations of any kind. We were most anxious to meet the leaders of North Vietnam and the resistance fighters without delay, and made our wish known to the North Vietnamese liaison officers. Within a day or two we received a message that Ho Chi Minh and his Ministers would be glad to meet us at a spot in the country some distance from Hanoi. […] We then flew off to Vientiane, the seat of the Government of Laos. Vientiane was not much of a town and we wondered how a small place like it could provide the facilities required by our Commission. We called on Prime Minister Sananikone. The Laotian Government had their trouble with the Pathet Laos, and only reluctantly did they agree to the Geneva Agreement insofar as it recognised Pathet Lao control over the two northern provinces, Phong Saly and Sam-neua. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister assured us of the fullest cooperation and we had inaugural meeting of the Commission for Laos the same day. Returning to Saigon we sought to settle some of the preliminary difficulties which had arisen during our absence. The Saigon authorities were creating difficulties about accommodation and other facilities for the North Vietnamese liaison officers attached to the Commission. We took a strong stand on this and ultimately the difficulties were solved. My Polish and Canadian colleagues and I acted as a united team and we had none of the difficulties that were to plague the work of the Commission later.
I had sent a number of telegrams to the Foreign Office in New Delhi on our work in Indochina, followed by a long personal telegram to the Prime Minister giving him an account of my interview with Ho Chi Minh. Without realising it I had probably become sentimental over the personality and achievements of the great leader of the Vietnamese people. After my return to New Delhi I was told by Vice-President Radhakrishnan that Nehru had shown my telegram to his colleagues and others and some felt that I had been unduly affected by the local atmosphere. Nehru himself, Radhakrishnan said, did not share the view.
The only message that reached me in Indochina from the Foreign Office was one asking me to return to Delhi as early as I could. I was a little surprised at the somewhat peremptory direction but the task that had been entrusted to me to set up the three Commissions and to .arrange the necessary details for their proper functioning had been completed and I was not anxious to prolong my stay abroad. […]
On 25th August Nehru made a long statement on international affairs in the Lok Sabha. Dealing with the recent developments in Indochina he referred appreciatively to our recent visit to the Indochinese States. A Chairman had yet to be selected for the International Commission on Vietnam which was much the most important of the three Supervisory Commissions. I was not anxious for the assignment. I had just returned home after two years’ absence. Krishna Menon had his own ideas. His choice fell on M. J. Desai who had worked as Minister-Counsellor under him in the High .Commission in London and enjoyed his full confidence. For the Commission in Laos, he selected Khosla, a senior member of the Foreign Service, who had also worked earlier under him in London. For the Cambodian Commission, he recommended G. Parthasarathy [2], son of the late Gopalaswamy Ayangar, once a trusted colleague of Nehru in the Indian Cabinet. Parthasarathy was then Assistant Editor of the Madras newspaper The Hindu. His selection was somewhat extraordinary but he had the reputation of a sober and thoughtful person with progressive views and his appointment caused no flutter in the close circle of the Indian Foreign Service. The Geneva Agreements in respect of Cambodia were implemented in full without any difficulty. After general elections had been peacefully completed in October, 1955 the Supervisory Commission for Cambodia announced that its major task had been fulfilled. The work of the Commission on Laos did not prove as easy because of the differences between the Laotian Government and the Pathet Laos who controlled the two northern provinces, Phong Saly and Sam-neua. […] Nehru threatened more than once that if the Geneva Agreements were not to be implemented in letter and spirit, India might have to withdraw from the International Commissions. He knew, however, that India’s withdrawal would bring down the entire edifice of the Geneva settlement and immediately endanger peace in South East Asia. However unhappy he was with the working of the Geneva Agreement in regard to Vietnam, this was a risk he could not take. In October 1955 I assumed charge as Foreign Secretary but at the Prime Minister’s wish continued to look after the Indochina desk for some time.” 

  • It has to be remembered that the critical Battle of Điện Biên Phủ had been just fought, and lost by the French Union’s colonial Far East Expeditionary Corps,13 March‑7 May 1954
  • Pandit Nehru’s visit to China and Indochina” (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) came at a time when India was still defining its own diplomacy. As Swapna Kona Nayudu observed in ““India Looks at the World”: Nehru, the Indian Foreign Service & World Diplomacy”[Diplomatica 2, Brill, 2020, p 100 – 107]: 

Early Indian diplomacy was founded largely in the political thought of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Indian diplomatic practice emerged from the working of the Indian Foreign Service, an institution molded by Nehru, who was also India’s first Foreign Minister. […] While emerging from its colonial past into independence, India undertook a diplomatic practice that was not comfortable with Eurocentric assumptions about the nature of diplomacy and deliberately rejected ideas of diplomacy that it saw as emanating solely from the metropole, and being thrust on the colonies. This was in addition to an Indian approach to world politics per se, an approach including but not limited to Indian non-alignment, and some combination of Third Worldism, Asian-African cooperation, Pan-Asianism, political thought from the Global South, and simultaneously, an aspirational approach to the nation-state, with a keen sense of territoriality, and of sovereignty. This peculiar two-pronged approach to world politics is fascinating because it emphasized India’s cosmopolitan desires while working through realist assumptions about a world made up of nation-states. […] The main theme running through the writing from this period was that of the problem of peace.” Nehru constituted peace in opposition to Empire, rather than in opposition to war or violence. When he wrote that the essence of the problem of peace [was] the problem of empire,” he was in fact, alluding to the idea that there would be no real peace as long as the threat of imperialism loomed large over the world, including the newly independent nation-states. In this problematization, it was clear that true sovereignty, as embodied in the people of a nation, the citizens of a state, could only come from having complete independence of thought and action and freedom from their colonial past. This approach to sovereignty was in fact, a Gandhian formula, one that saw sovereignty as defragmented further and further until it was made indivisible in the person of a citizen. […] Thus, in this conceptual framing, peace became inevitably linked to the sovereignty of the nation-state, and both the Empire and the Cold War were rendered problematic because they represented allegiance and alliance, which Nehru considered an assault on a state’s sovereignty, a ploy to render it hollow. Yet, India had emerged into such a world, one still colonized and/​or divided into blocs. How would India then approach such a system of states? Would this mean that India would become insular, protective of the state it had built and the nation it had inherited? Faced with such questions, Nehru sought to overcome them by using yet another Gandhian method – the idea that for Empire to be problematized, the relation between the colonizer and the colonized had to be disrupted. Gandhi had successfully achieved this in phases of the Indian independence movement by famously compelling the British to confront in India the inadequacies of their own liberalism, thereby placating the radicals. Yet, Gandhi’s ruse had been to hold the British to their own political standards by employing language so steeped in morality that it had pleased the liberals. Thus, on the Indian political landscape, he was able to launch a mass movement for Indians of all stripes and political dispensations to follow, and claim a stake in. This was a masterstroke, one that Gandhi achieved through his mastery of that historical moment, in which he embodied his own ideas, and successfully translated those belonging to others.
Nehru remained alive to the prospect that this could work in India’s approach to world politics as it did in India’s approach to its colonial subjugation. In the first instance, the Nehruvian approach to diplomacy was to present it outside of its past. In configuring diplomacy in relation to peace” but not in contradiction to war,” but instead to Empire,” Nehru attempted to dislocate the binaries in which diplomacy had become lost.

  • New York Times, 19 Oct. 1954:

Hanoi: Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru flew to Peking today [Oct. 18] with a promise from the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi-minh that he would respect the sovereignty of Laos and Cambodia and refrain from attacking them. An official communiqué́ said Ho told Mr. Nehru that he believed fully in the five principles which had been agreed upon between the Prime Ministers of China and India, and wished to apply them in the relations of Viet Nam with Laos and Cambodia, as well as with other countries.” The five principles were: mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; non-aggression; no interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful co-existence.

  • The National Archive of Australia [NAA: A1838, 3016÷11÷147, 354 pages, Cambodia — Relations with India” holds many precious documents for researchers, in particular regarding the ICC (International Control Commission) force. Researchers can gauge here the Indian concern that the US was using the peace corps force to build up their military resources against Vietnam, constantly trying to use Cambodian territory. This pressure was to lead to the severing of diplomatic ties between Cambodia and USA, restored only in 1968, after Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit. email hidden; JavaScript is required
  • On 16 April 1955, in a classified secret cable, Malcom McDonald wrote to the Office of the Commissioner General for the United Kingdom in South East Asia [National Archives of Australia NAA: A1 838, 30161 1147 PART 1]: 

In foreign affairs Cambodia wished to work in close association with old and trusted friends like the United Kingdom. He had confidence in British policy and influence.[…] I said that I was glad at his visit to New Delhi, and that I hoped that he would stimulate Mr. Nehru’s concern about Cambodian security. I felt sure that Nehru attached high importance to the national independence of Cambodia and Laos, and that the Indian Government had resolved to do everything that they thought wise to support it . Prince Sihanouk said that he appreciated this. His own judgment on Nehru was that, although he wished to try to keep friendly with everyone and was neutral between the two contending world blocs, he was well aware ot the threat of Communist aggression, and feared it . He would assist Cambodia to maintain itself against any external interference. His Royal Highness added that Cambodian policy in international affairs would be neutralist. This did not mean it would not be anti-Communist. On the contrary, he thought that neutralism was the most effective way in present circumstances of preventing Vietminh and Communist advances against Cambodia. I urged that he should talk again with Nehru at the Bandoeng Conference , pressing the Indian Prime Minister to make cleur once more to the Chinese and Vietnamese delegations that they should keep their hands off Cambodia and Laos. The Prince said that Nehru had uttered such a warning to the Vietminh Foreign Minister, Pham van Dong recently in Delhi, and that he expected him to repeat it at Bandoeng. Prince Sihanouk said that he hoped that I would stay with him at Siem Reap during my forthcoming visit to Cambodia. That would give us an opportunity for further private talks in an informal atmosphere.

  • India’s involvement into ICC was substantial, as it deployed a full battalion of infantry, 2nd Bn. the Guards Regiment, as security for the subordinate headquarters and as an operational reserve. In addition, the Indian Army’s Corps of Signals established and manned the communications network between the field teams and the headquarters, and linked the capital cities. In 1955, peace control forces in Indochina were as follows: India: 1, 086, Canada: c.160, Poland: c.160. [4]
  • Le Monde, 16 October 1954
  • Avant d’arriver à Pékin M. Nehru va s’arrêter à Vientiane et à Hanoï, où il rencontrera Ho Chi-Minh. A son retour il fera escale à Saigon et à Pnom-Penh. C’est dire que les conversations qu’il aura dans la capitale chinoise sont étroitement liées à la nouvelle situation créée en Asie par les accords de Genève. Mais à Pékin M. Nehru né se rend pas seulement nomme le chef du gouvernement d’une puissance voisine. Il est en quelque sorte le porte-parole officieux des Etats de cette ” zone de paix ” qu’il voudrait instituer. Il vient de s’entretenir pendant plusieurs jours à Delhi successivement avec M. Sastroa-midjoje, premier ministre d’Indonésie, et avec Sir John Kotelawala, premier ministre de Ceylan. Il s’arrêtera demain à Rangoun pour conférer avec le premier ministre de Birmanie. Ces Etats sont précisément ceux qui ont refusé de participer à la S.E.A.T.O. C’est à cet égard que les entretiens de Pékin revêtent une signification particulière.

    Ibid., 30 Oct. 1954: M. Jawaharlal Nehru, premier ministre de l’Inde, est arrivé cet après-midi à Saigon. Il a été accueilli à l’aérodrome par M. Ngo Dinh-Diem, président du conseil; le général Ely, commissaire général de France en Indochine; les membres du gouvernement vietnamien, les représentants du corps diplomatique, les membres de la commission de contrôle international de l’armistice. L’accueil gouvernemental, courtois en apparence, a été néanmoins profondément hostile dans le fond, et l’attitude du président Diem à l’égard de l’homme d’État indien a provoque une vive stupéfaction dans les milieux vietnamiens, français et étrangers de Saigon. Tout au long du parcours emprunté par M. Nehru de l’aérodrome au palais de l’Indépendance le gouvernement Ngo Dinh-Diem avait en effet fait placer des banderoles portant des inscriptions en langue anglaise telles que : ” À bas la politique de coexistence.” D’autre part, des tracts intitulés : À bas la politique de coexistence de Nehru” ont été lances sur l’aire d’atterrissage au moment où le premier ministre indien descendait de son avion. Ces tracts, dont il né fait guère de doute qu’ils sont des faux portaient la signature de personnalités connues pour leurs sentiments neutralistes, et se terminaient par ces mois : ” Vive le communisme ! ” On y pouvait lire notamment: Le front pour la défense de la paix accuse devant le monde le manqué de sincérité de l’attitude de Nehru.” Les personnalités hostiles au gouvernement, tels les généraux Hinh et Le Van Vien, auxquels se sont joints des chefs caodaïstes et hoa-hao membres du cabinet, comme les généraux Phuong et Soaï, ont publié un message exprimant leur sympathie au président Nehru, ” chef du peuple indien qu’il libéra de l’esclavage”. Tout en manifestant le désir de resserrer les liens d’amitié avec l’Union indienne, ce texte ” prend position contre la politique de coexistence et affirme la décision d’attaquer la politique de collaboration avec le communisme “. Il est à noter que le général Hinh l’a signé, non pas en tant que chef d’état-major, mais au nom du Mouvement pour la libération du Vietnam”.

  • India, and Krishna Menon, played a crucial role at the Geneva Conference in July 1954 that ended the fightingin Indo-China and recognised the successor states of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (the last of which was partitioned along the 17th Parallel). Non-alignment, an idea of which Nehru had come to be regarded as author, was gathering to itself a number of adherents: Indonesia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal, Ceylon, a number of Arab states, and soon, newly independent African states; but non-alignment’ was less a clear policy decision than a residual category that could comfortably accommodate those that did not or would not, for a variety of reasons, fit in the superpowers’ blocs (Yugoslavia’s non-alignment, for instance, was an accident of its leader’s heresy against Stalin).” [in Benjamin Zachariah, Nehru, Routledge, 2004]
  • Brief on India-Cambodia relations, Embassy of India in Phnom Penh, May 2023: On an appeal by Cambodian Government in 1980, India was the first country to offer help in restoration and conservation of the world famous Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. After undertaking the feasibility and other related studies, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) undertook the work relating to restoration and conservation of the Angkor Wat temple from 1986 – 1993 at a total cost of about US$ 4 million. India was the first country to offer such assistance and the fact is well appreciated even today by the Cambodian leadership and public alike.”
  • Address by HE the President of the Republic of India, Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil at the Banquet Hosted by the King of Cambodia, His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni in Phnom Penh, 14th September 2010

It is, indeed, a great pleasure to visit the Kingdom of Cambodia. We are overwhelmed with the warmth and affection received since our arrival in your beautiful country. I and the members of my delegation greatly appreciate the gracious hospitality extended to us.

Historically, India-Cambodia relations are a product of strong civilizational links spanning two millennia. The many magnificent historical monuments spread all over Cambodia are symbols of our shared cultural heritage. Looking back, one is also reminded of the close association between Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Prince Norodom Sihanouk, which helped in developing extremely friendly ties between our two newly independent countries. Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited Cambodia in 1954. President Dr. Rajendra Prasad paid a State visit to Cambodia in March 1959. We in India fondly remember the visit of His Royal Highness, Prince Norodom Sihanouk undertaken in March 1955 and his subsequent visits to India. There has always been a strong desire on part of both our countries to strengthen bonds of friendship. India never wavered in its commitment to support Cambodia even at the most difficult phases of its history, immediately after the fall of Khmer Rouge régime.

  • 15h session of UN General Assembly in 1960: Among the leaders assembled Prince Sihanouk, head of the State of Cambodia, impressed the Assembly by his dignified and constructive speech. He urged the great powers to stop arming small countries and persuading them to kill each other under the pretext of the anti-communism and anti-imperialism. He proposed the creation of an alliance between Cambodia and Laos the neutralisation of which would be guaranteed by the great powers.”[p 257 – 8
  • One leader on whom Nehru chose to call within two or three days of his arrival was Prime Minister Fidel
    Castro of Cuba. Refused accommodation by the leading hotels of New York, Castro succeeded after a good deal of dfort in finding room in a small hotel at Harlem, and Nehru called on him in his room. When Nehru and his party arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon, Castro was not there. All the rooms on the particular floor seemed occupied by young Cubans, men and women, and Nehru was led into a room which was almost entirely filled by two huge beds. There were papers lying all about and next to the wall were three or four old wooden chairs. Within a few minutes Castro arrived apparently from another engagement outside the hotel. He warmly greeted Nehru, made him sit on one of the beds and immediately began to discuss at great length the changes which had been brought by his Government. The enthusiasm of the man was infective. He did not show the slightest complex in dealing with Nehru, occasionally shook him by the shoulder and read out pages
    from official handouts which were lying scattered in the room. He was by no means discourteous to Nehru, but
    obviously he had no use for formal diplomatic courtesies or conventional manners. It was a novel experience for those in Nehru’s party to see their idol treated so informally by a young person half his age.”[p 258]
With Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House, 1961 (photo JFK Library)
Nehru and Indira Gandhi at Beijing Summer Palace, Oct. 1954 (Internet)
Toasting with Mao Zedong in Beijing, 22 Oct. 1954 (Internet)
Nehru and daughter Indira Gandhi, c. 1954. Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson.

Our photo gallery of the 1954 visit and related pictures

[1] Ramlila Maidan, also called Ramlila Ground is a large open ground — originally a filled pond — stretching between Aruna Asaf Ali Marg and Jawaharlal Nehru Road, close to New Delhi Railway Station. Used for the Ramlila annual celebration (in October), it has been the stage for political rallies and national events, such as the 1961 public gathering led by Prime Minister for welcoming Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to India. In 1975, opposition leaders around Jayaprakash Narayan held the first massive protest rally against Indira Gandhi’s governement. In 2011, large anti-corruption rallies were held there.

[2] Pantjasila”: the Indian concept of Panchsheela (from Sanskrit: pañca” (“five”) and śīla” (“principles”, precepts”). Nehru was prone to refer to it as the principle which lays down the norms of conduct between nations” (see for instance his Address from the Red Fort on 15 Aug. 1955, on the eight anniversary of Indian independence). In 1953, during his visit to Delhi, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai formulated for the first time the Chinese Panchsheel (和平共处五项原则), The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, mentioned in the 1954 Sino-Indian Agreement. Also, note that Pancasila is the official philosophical theory of Indonesia, stated in the fourth paragraph of the preamble of the Constitution of Indonesia. 

[3] Here, the King Father confused Bhutan with the Kingdom of Sikkim, founded by the Namgyal dynasty in the 17th century. It was ruled by Buddhist priest-kings known as the Chogyal. It became a princely state of the British Indian Empire in 1890. Following Indian independence, Sikkim continued its protectorate status with the Union of India after 1947 and the Republic of India after 1950. In 1973, anti-royalist riots took place in front of the Chogyal’s palace. In 1975, after the Indian Army took over the city of Gangtok, a disputed referendum was held that led to the dissolution of the monarchy and Sikkim joining India as its 22nd state. Pandit Nehru had traveled (on yak back) to Buthan in 1958.

[4] Gopalaswami Parthasarathi GP” (7 July 1912 – 1 Aug 1995), was an Indian journalist, educationist, and diplomat who served as Chief Commissioner of the International Control Commission (ICC) set up to monitor the Geneva Accords, first in Cambodia and then in Vietnam, and then as PermanenRepresentative t to the United Nations from August 1954 to December 1968. At the time of Nehru’s visit, there were 96 military and civilian personnel based in Cambodia: India (32), Canada (32) and Poland (32).

Tags: India, Modern Cambodia, King Sihanouk, Nehru, Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, India-Cambodia cultural ties, China, Cambodian dance, 1950s

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Angkor Database

Angkor Database — មូលដ្ឋានទិន្នន័យអង្គរ — 吴哥数据库

All you want to know about Angkor and the Ancient Khmer civilization, how it keeps attracting worldwide attention and permeates modern Cambodia.

Indexed and reviewed books, online documentation, photo and film collections, enriched authors’ biographies, searchable publications.

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Our resources include the on-site Library at Templation Angkor Resort, Siem Reap, Cambodia, with exclusive access for the resort’s guests. Non-staying visitors can ask for a daily pass email hidden; JavaScript is required.