A philosopher turned diplomat who changed Stalin’s opinion on India and laid foundation for Indo-Russian ties

It was year 1921, students of Maharaja College, Mysore had decorated a horse cart with flowers. And they were waiting for their favourite teacher’s arrival.

When Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan came out after the farewell ceremony, he saw the decorated wagon, but the cart had no horses tied to. Students requested him to get inside the wagon. After he sat, few students took the place of horses and started pulling the wagon. students carried him till the Mysore railway station. This farewell was one of a kind and the brilliant teacher equally deserved it.

Dr. Radhakrishnan had gained a worldwide recognition as an eminent philosopher. His popularity as a teacher, philosopher are very well known, but lesser known facts are he was a great diplomat. He was known for his wit and sense of humor. In fact it was Dr. Radhakrishnan efforts which laid foundation for India-Russian ties.

Diplomatic ties between newly independent India and the USSR got off to a bad start.

Ashok Kapur in his book ‘The Diplomatic Ideas and Practices of Asian States,’ writes that Joseph Stalin had refused to meet India’s first ambassador to the country, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister). Stalin considered her arrogant and aristocratic and confined her to the Indian Embassy. This had a huge affect on Pandit’s psychological wellbeing.

In 1949, the failure of the first ambassador forced Nehru to send renowned philosopher Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to Moscow as India’s ambassador. In an eventful three years, Radhakrishnan managed to change the paradigm of India’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

In 1940’s and 50’s Russia had great respect for philosophers. Dr. Radhakrishnan utilized this to a great extent to establish diplomatic ties between two countries.

Ivan Griko, Russian historians  writes, “Radhakrishnan combined his philosophical wisdom with Chanakyan diplomacy, to change the way the government in Moscow saw India,” before Radhakrishnan visited Moscow, there was a  propaganda built around the him. He was projected as a man who worked tirelessly and slept just two hours a night, as he worked on his philosophical texts.

But by the time Dr. Radhakrishnan completed his term and was about to leave to India, his image was such that Stalin himself came down for a send off.

During his meeting with Stalin, Dr. Radhakrishnan answered Stalin’s many questions (like why Ceylon was not a part of India and if India still employed British officers in its army and navy) before suggesting that USSR take the initiative to end the Cold War.

Stalin answered by saying that it takes two hands to clap and that there was another side responsible for the Cold War too. Radhakrishnan immediately replied with a sentence that left Stalin at a loss for words. “As a peace-loving country, the Soviet Union should withdraw its own hand as it takes two hands to clap.”

His tenure as an ambassador was also responsible for garnering Soviet support on Kashmir. This can be seen in the UN Security Council meeting in 1951, where USSR had blasted USA and UK for meddling in Kashmir’s internal affairs.

After the meeting Stalin agreed to recall the TASS correspondent in Delhi, who was highly critical of the Indian government. Stalin said, the good relations and friendship that were built up in Moscow should not be spoilt by Soviet representatives in India.

Dr. Radhakrishnan had given a clear idea of India’s stand. He said “We are not with America and we are not with any power. We act according to our sense of right and do not yield to any political or economic pressure.”

This clarity if thoughts also made Stalin to change his attitude towards India and Nehru too.

Dr. Radhakrishnan’s legacy as a President of India is a special one. In the annals of Rashtrapati Bhawan, there are many anecdotes about the Philosopher President and his subtle sense of humour. Few of the most famous among them are as follows:

When the king of Greece came on a state visit to India in 1962, Radhakrishnan welcomed him saying: “Your Majesty, you are the first king of Greece to come as our guest. Alexander came uninvited! ”

When he was touring China to ease out the tension between two countries, he met Mao.

After shaking hands with Mao, Radhakrishnan patted Mao on his left cheek. Chairman Mao was surprised at the gesture but before he could say anything, Dr. Radhakrishnan said, “Mr Chairman, don’t be alarmed, I did the same to Stalin and the Pope.”

If anyone ask him how was his meeting with Stalin go when he was an ambassador, he would say, I stroked Stalin’s hair once did not get chance to do it again.

When Radhakrishnan was appointed the President of India in 1962, Bertrand Russell (one of the world’s greatest philosophers) welcomed the news by saying, “It is an honour to philosophy that Dr. Radhakrishnan should be President of India and I, as a philosopher, take special pleasure in this. Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President”

His tenure as President (1962-67) saw some of the biggest challenges to India’s integrity – the deaths of two prime ministers as well as two of Independent India’s wars (with China and Pakistan). His counsel helped see India through those trying years. every month, Dr. Radhakrishnan would accept only Rs. 2,500 out of his presidential salary of Rs. 10,000 and donate the rest of the amount to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

however, he remained a one-term President, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not keen on his continuance. and it can be safely assumed only if he had continued in Rashtrapathi Bhavan, India would have surely taken a new definitive path of development.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth