Besides being the daughter of Motilal Nehru and younger sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was among the most influential diplomats of independent India. She was sent as India’s first Ambassador to the USSR(1947-49). After that she represented the country in the US and Mexico between 1949 and 1951. She was elected the first woman President of the UN General Assembly in 1953. She served as the High Commissioner in the UK between 1954 and 1961, and the Ambassador to Ireland in the same period. She also served as the Ambassador to Spain (1958-61). Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit headed the Indian delegation at the UN between 1946 and 1968. Given her diplomatic exposure and her familial connections, it is but natural that she has left behind a treasure trove of experiences and anecdotes. Here I discuss just three of those meetings and ensuing conversations.
Josef Stalin was famously boorish with those who he considered ‘lackeys of Western Imperialism’ and hostile towards the Communist Revolution. For quite some time, he did not consider India as ‘truly independent’ since we kept the membership of the Commonwealth, and tried to maintain close relations with the West. He held India in such contempt that our first Ambassador, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was kept waiting for six months, before she was finally granted the audience.
And when he finally met her, occurred this awkward exchange between them, which further left the Soviet leader fuming-
Joseph Stalin: What is this Language?
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit: This is English.
Stalin: I See — Is it your language?
Stalin: Well, if it is not your Language, is it my Language then?
Stalin: Are you not ashamed of yourself? You present me your credentials in a language that is neither yours nor mine? You are here to ask for my help. You come to me like a beggar and talk to me in the language of the Pirates and Thugs? Do you have no shame at all?
Madam Pandit was not granted another audience by Stalin, and had to leave Russia in disgrace.
The next Ambassador, S.Radhakrishnan, was asked to present his credentials to a Deputy Minister. But Stalin did grant him an audience later and was more polite towards him, especially as philosophers were quite respected in Russia in the 40s.
Nevertheless, Stalin did ask him- “What is your country doing about its Language problem?”
The Ambassador replied “a Committee is still working on it.”
So now, there goes a joke in Russia:
The Ambassador from India has come.
We asked him “What is your language?”
He says that he does not know what his language is, and that His Government is still trying to find out. Until then he is going to speak to us in English!
(for all we know, this might be an anecdote. Many sources indicate that VL Pandit was NEVER granted an audience by Stalin, and that he only met Radha Babu for the first time in 1950. But it is also a fact that she had met Stalin, for when she met Mao in 1952, she found him as tired as Stalin, and as kind as Gandhi. It is possible that Indians found it convenient to brush the above exchange under the carpet for obvious reasons, hence this has gone undocumented.)
From USSR, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit proceeded to the US as India’s Ambassador. We faced severe food grain shortage in those days, and she had a rather uncomfortable exchange with Sam Rayburn, the legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives (17 years as the Speaker, 48 years in the House). It had gone something like this-
Sam: Why don’t you buy wheat from Pakistan which has wheat in surplus? The only reason you don’t is because Hindu India wants to do down Muslim Pakistan.
Pandit (replied testily): India is not Hindu India, and that it has more Muslims than Muslim Pakistan.
Rayburn: Oh, you have Muslims in India! Honey, why didn’t you say so earlier?
Ambassador: Sam, I have been saying this for two years, ever since I came here, but you don’t hear and you don’t understand.
Whereupon Rayburn’s tone suddenly changed, and he said: No, no, now that I know, now you will have no trouble. If they give you any more trouble, honey, you just tell me.
Pandit held her own, and gave it back to the old goose, but we must realize to our horror how the world perceived the Partition! Rightly or wrongly, it was seen as (and was expected to be) a division on the basis of two-nation theory, with complete exchange of populations. Sam Rayburn might have been an arrogant prick, but he was not to be blamed for considering India as ‘Hindu India’.
In 1952, at the invitation of the Chinese Government, a 14-member cultural delegation led by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, visited China and stayed there for six-weeks. Vijaya Lakshmi went around the country in a uniform worn by the female CPC cadres, stitched for her by Mao’s personal tailor. Ambassador K.M. Panikkar would address her as ‘Dear Madam and Leader’.
She found Mao a ‘man of few words, quiet, precise and rather tired-looking’ when she called on him. He offered her a cigarette which she politely declined. This prompted him to ask whether Indian women did not smoke. Ambassador Panikkar patronizingly answered that some women did, and so did Mrs Pandit, in fact, but that it was not considered proper to do so in front of elders and those ‘who one respects’.
Mao’s sarcasm was biting : ‘Ah, feudalism dies hard. Please smoke to keep me company, Madam, we are in China.’ Implying thereby that China had broken free from her feudal past, whereas India held on to it.
One does not know if ‘Dear Madam and Leader’ did indeed light up a cigarette after this gentle admonishment, and give the wily old Mao company, or kept her reverence for the Revolutionary Leader intact!
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