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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 36, August 28, 2010

Radhakrishnan as Statesman

Thursday 2 September 2010, by G. Parthasarthi


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had an integral view of the individual, society and the world community. This integral view was like a thread that ran through and held together his philosophy of education, of religion and social regeneration, and of the One World of the human family. He perceived the building of this One World as the challenge to statesmanship in the era after the Second World War and the advent of nuclear weaponry.

One of the great teachers of our century, whose lectures and writings left a lasting impress on audiences around the world, Radhakrishnan regarded education as an instrument to help man to understand and control himself, to relate himself rightly to nature and society, to serve his country and at the same time develop a world outlook.

Similarly, the pursuit of philosophy meant to Radhakrishnan not only a supreme intellectual effort in search of synthesis but also an attempt to restore order and values to individual and collective human activity. He believed in the creation of a new outlook and a new way of life which will establish the fundamental unity of man’s life on Earth.

During his long and distinguished association with UNESCO, Radhakrishnan always emphasised the basic unity of all religions, the common factors between the philosophies of the East and the West, and the need to build up “a world brain, a world mind or a world culture”. The major project on mutual appreciation of Eastern and Western cultural values, which UNESCO initiated in 1956, owed a great deal to his inspiration.

In his memorial meeting held in Paris in 1975 rich tributes were paid to Radhakrishnan. The Chairman of the Executive Board, Hector Wynter of Jamaica, referred to Radhakrishnan as “one of the inspirers of UNESCO and one of the early guardians of its conscience, championing always the primacy of precept and principle in the search for peace”.

Radhakrishnan had the great gift of being able to reconcile and synthesise seemingly different, if not contrary, viewpoints and values. His genius as a synthesiser found expression in numerous ways.

He fused the concept, inspired by religion, of a humane and equitable social order with the modern concept of socialism. Gandhiji, employing traditional cultural idiom, spoke of the ideal state as Rama Rajya and called for the service of Daridranaryana or God in the form of the poor and the deprived. He envisaged “an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. This is the India of my dreams.”

The India envisioned by Gandhiji is, in a sense, what could be described, in non-religious terms, as a secular, democratic and socialist republic. No wonder that Radhakrishnan said: “The socialist implications of freedom were understood by Gandhi. If we are true followers of Gandhi, we should work for social and national integration, emancipation of women, absolute social equality, complete abolition of untouchability and caste discrimination, and removal of economic disparities.” Radhakrishnan’s own belief in the possibility and necessity of a peaceful but fundamental change is summed up in his memorable affirmation: “We should be the advocates of peaceful change and advocates of radical reform.”

Influenced profoundly by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru used the language of the modern age while applying Gandhiji’s message of non-violence both at home and abroad. Thus Nehru sought to build a socialist pattern of society in our country by the democratic process and planned development. He also formulated an independent, non-aligned foreign policy of promoting international peace on the basis of national independence and the cooperative co-existence of countries with different ideologies and social systems.

A signal contribution of Radhakrishnan as statesman was to enrich with philosophical underpinning, and to spread widely with his persuasive eloquence, the Gandhi-Nehru vision of an equitable social-economic order at home and of cooperative international living.

Radhakrishnan did not see a conflict between, and was able to reconcile, secularism and a genuinely religious inclination. He was Chairman of the first University Education Commission, whose report pointed out that, under the Constitution, “there is no State religion. The State must not be partial to any one religion. All the different forms are given equal place, provided they do not lead to corrupt practices. Each one is at liberty to approach the Unseen as it suits his capacity and inclination. If this is the basis of our Secular State, to be secular is not to be religiously illiterate. It is to be deeply spiritual and not narrowly religious.” The Commission accordingly recommended that the profoundly humanist insights of all the major religions of the world should be taught at every stage of education.

Similarly, Radhakrishnan saw no conflict between economic planning and individual liberty. He said: “We have to provide ourselves with the material conditions of life—food, clothing and shelter—before we can develop our cultural life. We believe in a distinction between the mechanics of living and the art of living. So far as the mechanics of living is concerned—the provision of the material conditions which are essential for any nation to progress—we believe in control, planning and regulation. So far as the art of living is concerned—literature, philosophy, religion, meditation and worship—we believe in absolute freedom.”

Radhakrishnan’s great success in his role as a statesman is attributable to this gift of a synthesising insight.

THOSE who knew of Radhakrishnan only as a philosopher were somewhat surprised when he was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949 to serve as India’s Ambassador in Moscow. The fact is that Radhakrishnan combined his devotion to philosophy with a keen interest in history and current affairs, of which he was an astute analyst.

On the eve of Radhakrishnan’s departure for the Soviet Union, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke about the importance of the assignment at a reception organised by the Delhi Andhra Association on August 24, 1949. He said: “We consider our relations with the Soviet Union very important, not only because the Soviet Union is a very great country in extent, power, prestige and capacity, and in so many other ways is playing a great part in the world today, but also because the Soviet Union is our neighbour. And neighbours cannot afford to be indifferent to each other. We have many important missions in the world but from the point of view of delicacy, the Soviet mission is the greatest, and it was not an easy matter to choose a person who could fulfil such an important and delicate mission.” Nehru described Radhakrishnan as “the symbol of India” and said: “It is matter of satisfaction to me that at this very difficult post we have a man of ability, who has a capacity to understand and make others understand also.”

The Soviet Union was at the time inclined to be dogmatic and to regard India as having become only nominally independent. To the correction of this misperception Radhakrishnan’s patient and persuasive presentation of India’s recent history and current position contributed not a little, along with the Indian Government’s independent and peace-oriented policies in relation to the Korean hostilities and other issues.

Radhakrishnan’s tenure as Ambassador in Moscow saw not only the clearing of the mists of misunderstanding but the laying of the foundations of cooperation between the two countries in the economic and political spheres. The development of this cooperation over two decades was to culminate in the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation that was signed in 1971.

The eminent position of Radhakrishnan as an elder statesman was recognised when, within weeks of his return from the assignment in Moscow, he was elected in 1952, unopposed, as the Vice-President of the Republic. In this capacity he presided over the Rajya Sabha as its Chairman with great distinction.

When Radhakrishnan was elected as the President of the Republic, Jawaharlal Nehru said on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on May 11, 1962: “Today is the last day when we shall have the honour of your presiding over this House. Henceforth you will preside over an even more important organisation, that is, the nation itself. We are a little sad that you are leaving us, because you have made this a rather unique place and converted it into a family, sometimes apparently quarrelling but really a family, under your guidance. On the other hand, you are going to the highest office that this country has to offer, and we are quite sure that you will exercise your charm to convert this huge nation also into a large family—what we call national integration.”

More than any other President or Vice-President, Radhakrishnan took a keen interest in the country’s foreign policy. Both during the ten years of his Vice-Presidency and as President, he undertook numerous visits abroad at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru. Whenever he went, Radhakrishnan was heard with attention and respect because of his intellectual and moral stature and his human approach to persons and problems. He endeavoured to consolidate and strengthen India’s external relations, and to bring the United States of America and the Soviet Union to a better understanding of each other.

During these visits, as well as in his talks with the leaders of other countries when they came to India, Radhakrishnan would express his views with friendliness and candour. He did not hesitate to interpret India’s socialist aspirations to American audiences, or to commend intellectual and creative freedom to the leaders of the Soviet Union.

Addressing the United States Senate on November 17, 1954, Radhakrishnan said: “We realise that political freedom is not an end in itself. It is a means to social equality and economic justice.” He reminded his listeners of what Thomas Jefferson had said in the last letter he ever wrote: “The mass of mankind was not born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”

Radhakrishnan went on to say: “We, in our country, are now engaged in the enterprise of effecting a social and economic revolution. The word ‘revolution’ need not scare us. It does not mean barricades and bloodshed. It means only speedy and drastic changes.”

Similarly, while responding to the speeches of the Soviet leaders Marshal Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev at an informal meeting with members of the Indian Parliament on November 21, 1955 Radhakrishnan said: “Now that the Soviet Union has consolidated its base and provided its people with the vital things of life without which they cannot live, we hope they will give them opportunities to develop the graces of the mind and the virtues of the spirit without which life is not worth living.”

Again, on a visit to the Soviet Union in September 1964, Radhakrishnan said in the course of a speech on Moscow Television: “The Soviet Union in recent times is placing great emphasis on intellectual, artistic and spiritual values. Freedom of thought is the nerve centre, so to say, of every kind of higher life, intellectual and artistic. And as I look around I find a greater intellectual freedom, greater intellectual cooperation, greater cultural unification taking place in the Soviet Union and in other countries also. We must make the world safe for diversity, for peace, for cultural cooperation, for international understanding.”

Radhakrishnan constantly emphasised that the peaceful co-existence commended by India was “not a policy of passive and negative co-existence but one of active and fruitful cooperation among the peoples of the world”. Again, “when we talk about co-existence it does not mean that the aggrieved and the aggressor should live together. We will do our utmost to help the oppressed to redeem themselves from oppression.”

As the President of the Indian Republic, Radhakrishnan acted as friend and counsellor to three Prime Ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. When Radhakrishnan passed away in April 1975, Indira Gandhi said of him: “It was our good fortune to have him as the Vice-President for ten years and as President for five years. As a statesman, he had developed understanding of all the practical problems of nation building, and contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political and parliamentary traditions.”

Radhakrishnan’s longest and closest association in public life was with Jawaharlal Nehru. In any country the relationship between a head of the State and the head of the government, the relationship between the two calls for mutual understanding and respect, candour and trust. These prevailed in the highest degree during the years that Radhakrishnan was President and Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister.

There was a void in Radhakrishnan’s life, as in that of the country, with the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964. In a broadcast to the nation on May 26, 1965, Radhakrishnan described Nehru as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of world men with world compassion. The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work for peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad.”

Radhakrishnan himself made a great contribution towards the realisation of these objectives. To remind ourselves of it and, more importantly, to make the younger generations aware of the significance of Radhakrishnan’s life-work is our duty not only on this occasion of the birth centenary but on a sustained basis in the coming years. This should serve as a stimulus to thinking and dedicated service in consonance with the values cherished by Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Radhakrishnan.

(Mainstream Annual, October 8, 1988)

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