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K.P.S.Menon on Dr. Radhakrishnan as Diplomat (1976)


From the Collection of Articles "Yesterday and Today" (1976)


In 1950 when Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, our first Ambassador to the USSR, relinquished her appointment in Moscow in order to go to Washington, the question arose as to who should succeed her. Many names came under consideration, including those of Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who was then our Ambassador in Peking, and Devdas Gandhi, Editor of The Hindustan Times. Jawaharlal Nehn himself was inclined to appoint Dr. Radhakrishnan to Moscow.

Some people thought that it would be odd to send an idealistic philosopher, and a vegetarian and teetotaller to boot, to the land of dialectical materialism. I happened to be Foreign Secretary then and Nehru consulted me. I had no hesitation in supporting Dr. Radhakrishnan.

I had met Dr. Radhakrishnan in 1931 in Ceylon, where I was the Indian Representative. The speech which he made in Colombo on ‘The Legacy of Buddha’ still remains in my mind as the most brilliant speech I have ever heard. 1 came into closer contact with him when he came in 1946 on a fortnight’s goodwill mission to China, where I was India’s Agent-General, and travelled with him from Chungking to Chengiu. His was a triumphal tour. He left an indelible impression on Chinese minds not merely as a philosopher and an orator but as a man. I felt that the Russians, too, would take to him.

The Russians did indeed do’ so. They were pleased with the the ap­pointment of a world-renowned philosopher as India’s Representative. Moreover, they knew his impeccable record as a nationalist. True, he had been knighted by the British Government, but that was in recogni­tion of his eminence as a scholar. Before recommending him for a Knighthood, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, consulted the Governor of Bengal, as Dr. Radhakrishnan was then teaching at the Calcutta University. His reply was: ‘All the police reports are against him, but I. like him.’

The Soviet people liked him. Stalin received him soon after his arrival and had a cordial talk with him. He received him again before his departure from Moscow as Vice-President-designate of India. Unlike Khrushchev, who was ready to see every Tom and Harry, Stalin saw but few diplomats. To have been received by Stalin, therefore, was a special honour; and this ensured that the Foreign Office, too, would treat him with special deference. Stalin’s reception of Dr. Radhakrishnan was also a recognition, on the part of the USSR, of the potential geo-political importance of India which, incidentally, the USA seems still reluctant to recognise, except in words.

Even before Stalin received Dr. Radhakrishnan, the Soviet Govern­ment showed its approval of his appointment by the promptitude with which it arranged for the presentation of his credentials. The length of time which a Government takes to receive the credentials of an Am­bassador is generally an index to the degree of the friendship between the two countries. One recalls how President Nixon kept our Ambas­sador, L.K. Jha, waiting for an unconscionably long time before he received him. On the contrary, Kalinin, the Head of the Soviet State, received Dr. Radhakrishnan within a few days of his arrival. Lamping, then Ambassador of the Netherlands in Moscow, had to wait in Moscow for 6 months before he could present his credentials.

The diplomatic corps in Moscow regarded Dr. Radhakrishnan as a strange phenomenon. He was the most unconventional diplomat who ever served in Moscow. For instance, he would receive his fellow- Ambassadors in his bed-room. Once, Churchill gave the following ad­vice to a friend who was leaving England to take up a high appoint­ment in the East. ‘In the Orient’, said Churchill, ‘if you have a chance of sitting, do not stand; and if you have chance of lying down, do not sit.’ Dr. Radhakrishnan followed this precept. He spent most of his time in bed, reading and writing and translating the Brahmopanishad. I had the privilege of succeeding him in Moscow; and I found on the back of the bed in the Embassy, the stain left by the hairoil on his head.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was irked by the rules of protocol, to which diplomats are generally apt to pay excessive importance. For instance, diplomats are expected to leave a banquet in strict order of precedence; under no circumstances should a junior ambassador leave before the doyen does. Dr. Radhakrishnan believed in the adage

Early to bed and early to rise

Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Diplomats, on the contrary, seldom retire before midnight, a habit to which I am still addicted. By 10 P.M. Dr. Radhakrishnan would begin to be impatient; as a sign of his impatience he would begin tapp­ing the table; then he would hum a sloka from the Gita and finally he would rise and go up to the host, protocol or no protocol, and take leave of him. And his colleagues would nudge one another and say ‘There goes the philosopher!’

Our philosopher-diplomat, however, sowed more goodwill in Moscow than the professional diplomats of other countries. He kept himself above the dust and din of diplomacy and the drudgery of office work. Fortunately he had, as his Minister-Counsellor, Yezdi Gundevia, a very able Foreign Service Officer, who took complete charge of the chancery. With his charming wife, Rokshi, he also looked after the social side of diplomatic life.

In those days, the cold war was rife. Both sides were apt to think, ‘He that is not with me is against me.’ The Soviet Union welcomed the independence of India, but it was not sure whether India would be really independent or whether it would continue to be tied economical­ly to the chariot-wheels of the West. Many people in India, too, suf­fered from the aftermath of a generation of intensive British propaganda against the Soviet Union. The circumstances, therefore, were not favourable for Dr. Radhakrishnan to make much headway in the relations between India and the Soviet Union. He, however, by his gracious personality and unfathomable goodwill, paved the way for the development of Indo-Soviet relations on a most impressive scale after Stalin’s death, which occurred not long after he left Moscow.

How meagre Indo-Soviet relations were in Dr. Radhakrishnan’s time may be gauged from the fact that, while holding the post of Am­bassador in Moscow, he retained the post of Professor of Com­parative Religion at Oxford. In fact, he used to spend half the year at Oxford and the other half in Moscow. But, as I wrote in one of my let­ters to the Government of India, the day was coming when it would no longer be possible to combine philosophy and diplomacy, Oxford and Moscow.

The position held by Dr. Radhakrishnan in Moscow shows that what counts in an Ambassador is not simply, or primarily, what he does but what he is. It has been said, ‘He is truly great who is not afraid to be himself.’ Dr. Radhakrishnan was a faithful representative of his country which, too, is not afraid to be itself. And that is the es­sence of non-alignment.

{Indian Express, 1975)