Rashtrapati Bhavan

A peep into the past

Print edition : May 27, 2016

An elevated view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photo: Dr Thomas Mathew

Vice President S. Radhakrishnan with USSR President Leonid Brezhnev at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in December 1961. Photo: Photo Cell, Rashtrapati Bhavan

President Rajendra Prasad and Queen Elizabeth II arriving for the Republic Day parade on January 26, 1961. Photo: Photo Cell, Rashtrapati Bhavan

President Rajendra Prasad and Yugoslavian President Josip Tito trying their hand at music at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in December 1954. Photo: Photo Cell, Rashtrapati Bhavan

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the First Deputy Chairman of the USSR, Anastas Mikoyan (right) enjoying Holi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in March 1956. Photo: Photo Division, I&B Ministry

Nehru, Radhakrishnan, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Rajendra Prasad in June 1954. Photo: Photo Cell, Rashtrapati Bhavan

Lord and Lady Mountbatten and the Maharani and Maharaja Padma Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana of Nepal climbing the steps to the Durbar Hall of Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) in March 1948. Photo: Photo Division, I&B Ministry

Abode under the Dome documents the significant events that the Rashtrapati Bhavan hosted during the 1950s and 1960s and weaves a narrative around these events to give readers a glimpse of India’s emerging diplomatic excellence.

IN 1973, Rashtrapati Bhavan officials received an uncommon request just ahead of the visit of Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had just managed to neutralise the United States’ tilt towards Pakistan, and India, therefore, viewed Brezhnev’s “friendly-official” visit as a great possibility to strengthen its relationship with that country. Brezhnev had visited India in 1961 as the president of the CPSU, but this visit as the general secretary of the party was deemed much more important because of the unwavering support the Soviet Union extended to India during the Bangladesh war of 1971.

The unusual request was to place a “Lifebuoy” soap bar in every room. Lifebuoy was a soap which India manufactured and made popular among the masses. It was meant as a token of respect for India. Although bewildered, the officials put Lifebuoy soaps, along with other brands of soap, in each room.

Similarly, Premier Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China, during his visit to India in 1956, specifically asked his staff to let India know of his preference for Indian coffee and Indian cigarettes, and also his aversion to goat meat, curd and cheese. Abode Under the Dome, authored by Thomas Mathew, Additional Secretary to the President of India, is full of such interesting anecdotes and documents the visits of state dignitaries who stayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan between 1947 and 1967. Brought out by the Publications Division, the book makes a significant contribution to understanding the building of a new nation, its values and its glorious tradition of hospitality. The author stresses that the philosophy of atithidevobhava (guest is akin to god) was taken very seriously by Rashtrapati Bhavan. The author has culled details from various sources, including news reports, archival photos and official papers, to create narratives that give readers a sense of India’s initial diplomatic history. He does this successfully by providing a political context around each world leader’s visit.

The wonder that was India

The photographs and the context presented in the book go well beyond the itinerary of every visit and build a diplomatic narrative by highlighting the great camaraderie India enjoyed with world leaders soon after it became independent. The stories clearly give the reader the impression that India intrigued many leaders. They wanted to know, see and understand the cultural enigma that was India. For instance, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during his visit in 1959, said that his desire to visit India was partly because he was intrigued by it. “The evincing of sudden interest was understandable. Until Independence, India was a colony, whose material and human resources could be harnessed at a short notice and at will, by orders from London. All this changed and an independent India could now voice its own opinion, support and oppose issues, positions and nations. This freedom exercisable on international issues was a new dimension that other powers had to factor in their strategic calculus. Equally important was the sustainment of the pluralistic political system in India, more so for the unpredictable consequences its failure could spawn,” writes Matthew in the introduction.

In this context, a significant part of the book is devoted to India’s role and leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India after Independence asserted its right not to be part of the Cold War dynamics. At one level, it refused to be an ally of either of the superpowers, at another level it drew strategic support from both to chart its own neutral path of development. As a result, world leaders were intrigued at the confidence that India showed. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, owing to his extensive knowledge of history and politics and a genuine interest in pure sciences, commanded respect like no other Asian leader did. His efforts to form a formidable front in NAM by uniting developing nations, which had a history of colonialism, drew praises from not just within but also outside the country. His statesmanship, impartiality and judiciousness were unquestionable even when world leaders differed with his opinions.

The visits of NAM leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of the United Arab Republic (now two different nations, Egypt and Syria), and Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian President, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, therefore, became extremely important. These leaders were welcomed with great pomp and show that later became a normal practice whenever any world leader stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Matthew writes about Nasser’s visit thus: “After the welcome ceremony, President Nasser drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan in the Indian President’s Mercedes Benz. The 10-mile drive afforded President Nasser a view of the enthusiastic crowds that had lined the streets. They waved paper flags and cheered as the motorcade drove past, adding to the joyous mood of the city that was in the grip of excited anticipation of the two important festivals of Dussehra and Durga Pooja that were fast approaching. Buntings and streamers welcoming President Nasser added more colour to an already festooned city and even Parliament Street which [is] not normally decorated had a paper arch of flowers.”

Diplomatic initiatives

In a similar vein, the book delves deep into India’s initial efforts to find peace with aggressive nations like Pakistan and China. The six visits by Pakistan’s Presidents and Prime Ministers and four visits by Zhou Enlai provide an astute understanding of the diplomatic initiatives India made. It was Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon who extended an invitation to the Chinese Premier during the Geneva Conference of 1954, which was held to bring an end to the Korean War. Zhou Enlai accepted the invitation, but his visit was kept a secret until he arrived. Nehru postponed his customary 10-day trip to Shimla that was planned during this time. In a welcoming gesture, India sent a special aircraft to bring him and his 15-member entourage to New Delhi from Geneva. Because of such attempts, Zhou Enlai told the Indian press during his fourth visit to India in 1960: “The Chinese government holds that Sino-Indian friendship is of extremely great significance between the 1,000 million people of the two countries and to the Asian and world peace. This friendship should not be, nor can it be, jeopardised because of the temporary lack of settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary question.”

In 1950, when India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, invited Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, to stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he readily accepted. His meeting with Nehru over contentious issues, especially over Bengal, which was torn apart by communal clashes, lasted over two hours. The book draws upon various documents which show that there was great optimism between the leaders and both tried to bridge the widening gap after Partition.

Later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Bogra and Governor-General Malik Ghulam Mohammed also visited India. Matthew writes about the grand civic reception India gave to Bogra at the Red Fort in New Delhi: “The entire route from Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Red Fort was lined by enthusiastic crowds that cheered the motorcade of the leaders as it drove by. At the venue of the reception, too, the enthusiasm to see Bogra was no less. A sudden drizzle did nothing to damp the excitement of the 10,000 people, including ministers and diplomats, who had gathered at the Red Fort.

“The Pakistani Prime Minister was demonstrably moved by the warmth of his welcome and he described it as ‘warm, cordial and exuberant’. He said, ‘I feel that I am in no foreign country and I am no stranger to you’ and that Delhi has ‘given me a right royal reception and I shall cherish this memory for the whole of my life’.”

The book is not meant to be a critical appraisal of India’s diplomatic history. It documents the significant events that the Rashtrapati Bhavan hosted during the 1950s and 1960s. However, Matthew’s success lies in the way he weaves a narrative around these events to give readers a glimpse of India’s emerging diplomatic excellence. His academic training as a PhD in international relations helped him do so, he said. The book presents an eclectic mix of photographs, stories, events and important details of the presidential residence to present a comprehensive picture to readers.

Readers may choose to read it as a coffee-table book or a document that tells you about India’s emergence as a global power. In both ways, it is an entertaining and informative journey.

Through the presidential residence

The foregrounding of the 29-room, three-storey “guest wing” or north-west wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan as witness to these events also provides a visual history of the early period of the Indian political system. The hospitality the Rashtrapati Bhavan extended to all its guests embodies the spirit of atithidevobhava, as has been noted in the book. The book tells the readers of the immense efforts on the part of the officials to arrange for a memorable stay for the guests.

Matthew got in touch with retired staff of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to recreate stories around that time. As a result, the book becomes an important resource to understand how India’s founding fathers asserted its independence in the world and how the most significant colonial heritage, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, played an important role in it. Eisenhower, who stayed in the guest wing in 1959, said: “Although I have, through many years, become largely insensitive to the appointments to the quarters where I lay my head, I must confess I experienced a feeling of amazement in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.”

At a time when there is a sustained attempt to erase histories written by the founding fathers of our nation, the book comes across as a document of immense value. Looked at in today’s context, the book is a must-read to assess the changes and continuities in Indian diplomacy.

It is also important to know how India got the respectability it has in the world because it chose to remain outside the Cold War dynamics—a vision envisaged by Nehru—and chart its own course as a republic. It made itself truly independent when it came to the question of aligning with nations. Sometimes, it was strategic, and sometimes it was moral. In all these tactical moves, India showcased its pluralistic and syncretic character, an aspect that intrigued all the world leaders. Finally, the book is about the warmth and compassion that India showed to the world.

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