Russell, Menon & Kumar

Bertrand Russell and India

It was a siege of sorts. We were tucked away in our hostel rooms due to a ruckus between the locals and the students and for a week or so, we were stuck in our hostel, with no classes. It all started with somebody assaulting somebody and many other bodies joining the fracas, like most thallu cases. The college ground to a halt, doors were boarded, and the Regional Engineering College at Calicut was shut down for a while. But naturally, we had to find ways of making merry in these newfound holidays. I possessed a cassette tape recorder, a great novelty in those days! I had convinced my friend the late IM Sankaranarayanan to part with two of his precious Mohammed Rafi LP records for a few hours, so that I could copy a selection to a cassette tape.  The copying was done with during this holiday and the cassette was played back and forth, for hours. One song stood out - ‘Aaj ki Raat yeh kaisi raat’ – a melodious and romantic number.

Youngsters reading this will wonder what this is all about, but we had such contraptions in those days, called record players, spool tape decks, and so on. Manu, my friend ran the college record room, he was the disc jockey, and music was aired in the evenings, to students living in the five residence halls (hostels). Western, Bollywood, Tamil, and Malayalam records were played and the music piped through the ‘loudspeakers’ mounted at vantage points. As for me, I had great company, with Manu in the next hostel room who held the keys to the record room, UK Haridas, the singing pride of our college living in the room across, and Venu who had a collection of lyrics to many hundred songs, just a few rooms away.

But my friends, this is not really about my college life (which without doubt, was colorful), but about the film in which that song was included, and some trivia around it. The song itself, sung by Mohammed Rafi, tuned by Shankar Jaikishan, including some crooning by Saira Banu, was made for a film called Aman. Sara Banu tells us in a 2017 interview - "It was an important film that we shot in Japan. And I did sing, and that too with the one and only Mohd. Rafi saab. I always wanted to sing but was too shy. My grandmother Shamshad Begum was an accomplished classical singer and I’d urge her to teach me. She would demand that I practice, which I never did. But finally, it happened in Kumar saab’s Aman."

And thus, we get to the topic of the day. It is about the film Aman (Peace) – a landmark film from 1967 with an important message, made by Mohan Kumar. It had Rajendra Kumar and Saira Banu in the lead. In a crowd scene, a young Naseeruddin Shah made his first film appearance (paid Rs 7 ½/- for he was picked up at a 50% discount, since unionized extras were paid Rs 15/-) as an ‘extra’, and Jagjit Singh (the late and great Ghazal singer), did a cameo, as a Sikh with a turban and beard.

The storyline is incredible, considering the potboilers of today and I saw it recently thanks to Youtube. It is about a British educated Dr Gautam Das (Rajendra Kumar) whose mother had been killed in Rangoon by a Japanese bombing. After studies, he decides to volunteer and work in war-torn Japan following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Das wants to find a cure for radiation sickness and in Japan, he meets Meloda (Saira Banu) a Japanese girl, born and brought up in India. Their love story takes up a portion of the film when the above song is sung and as the movie moves on, Das imperils his own life to rescue fishermen at the French atoll where, yet another nuclear test is carried out. Following the rescue, he is afflicted by radiation disease and succumbs to it. His body is ceremoniously brought to Delhi and millions arrive to pay their respects.

The decently made color film failed to do well, but what is fascinating about the movie is that Das, in the movie, meets and seeks the blessings of Lord Bertrand Russell before setting out to Japan, and that was the one and only appearance of the renowned British philosopher, pacifist, and Nobel Peace laureate, in a film!

Before we get to the heavy lifting of why Russell did all this, let us see what Rajendra Kumar had to say in his biography - During a brainstorming session involving the film’s creatives, Rajendra Kumar had come up with a suggestion. ‘Mohan,’ he said to the director, ‘let’s try and get Bertrand Russell in the opening scene.’

The other man laughed at the very idea. ‘You’re joking, right?’ he said. ‘Lord Russell is one of the greatest philosophers of our time and a famous member of Britain’s anti-war brigade. Look at his stature and look at us – just ordinary film-industry people! How could we even dream of bridging the divide?’

‘True!’ Rajendra admitted. ‘But he advocates nuclear disarmament. Our film Aman conveys the same message. No harm in asking him, is there?’ So, the next day, the two men composed a letter and mailed it to Lord Russell. To their surprise, they received a reply from the philosopher’s secretary ten days later. ‘Lord Russell,’ said the letter, ‘has agreed to appear in the film’s opening scene. However, because of his age, he is unable to travel to India. If you could be so kind as to come and meet him here, he will be glad to give you an hour of his time.

Elated by the news, Mohan Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, and their crew left for England without delay and made their way to Porthmadog, earlier known as Port Madoc, the small coastal town in North Wales where Bertrand Russell lived. The ailing Lord Russell received the Indian film star with great warmth and respect and so enjoyed the meeting and the shoot that he worked on the scene for all of four hours, instead of the allotted one hour.

The Russell scene in the movie is not done very well if you ask me, with the voice-over spoiling it all, as Kumar stumbles through his dialog and the 94-year-old dazed-looking Russell mumbles his reply. Russell replying to Rajendra Kumar says the following - ‘my well wishes are with you. This problem is the problem of the whole world and I hope that you will be successful in this endeavor. I respect your views. Your work is of great importance, and I hope that all the countries of the world would appreciate your work.’”

People in Japan and the Middle East were awed by the film, but it was a dud in India, landing with a thud. Kumar explains – “Aman released in May 1967. It was a very good film, but it didn’t run. For the Indian audience, the film was far ahead of its time. It enjoyed success mostly in Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and so on. It was such an honor for us to have Lord Bertrand Russell in our film, but the funny part was that the Indian audience neither knew who he was nor understood the value of his message and appearance. They thought, ‘Pata nahin kaunsa buddha - kahan se pakad layein hai? Who knows where they picked up some old man and brought him here.’

Kumar says - The climax of the film was shot in Delhi. It was a funeral-procession scene, an arthi scene for which we had placed a small advertisement in the newspaper, stating that fans who wanted to witness and be a part of the scene should come to India Gate with flowers. Next day, millions of people arrived, showering the arthi with flowers, while the song ‘Aman ka farishta’ (Angel of Peace) played in the background. Halla ho gaya! Pandemonium reigned. Even Madam [Indira] Gandhi couldn’t pass through because of the surging crowds. She asked, ‘What’s happening?’ A film shoot, she was told. From that day on, she banned shooting on Rajpath. When the film released, people thought [deceased Prime Minister Lal Bahadur] Shastriji ki arthi ka stock shot tha, but it wasn’t.”

In the end it was just another film, which bit the dust…

But what is Bertrand Russell’s connection to India and why did he decide to get involved? Therein lies a fascinating tale. Considering that his book mentioning Nehru and the Sino – India war of 1962 is still banned in India, his involvement takes even more significance. That is what the next part of this study is all about, something most Indians know little about.

As Julie Andrews sang, ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’

Krishna Menon, India league, and Russell

So btw, who is Bertrand Russell - Bertrand Arthur William Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual. Russell was a pacifist who championed anti-imperialism and chaired the India League, as well as a celebrated twentieth century mathematician. He is not only known for his work in the field of mathematics but also as a social critic, historian, author, and political activist. As a pacifist, he became an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. In 1950, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought".

Russell was part of the “India Crowd” in London during the 30’s and 40’s. While Krishna Menon, the super senior LSE student, in a perpetual rage (India’s first angry young man, perhaps), a doctrinaire specialist and never a communist -  as an American writer and one time KGB spy Michael Straight, as well as a fellow marcher at hunger strikes in London put it, was drumming up public awareness of the situation in India, through the India House activities, Bertrand Russell came in to support Menon and another literary great who was Menon’s associate – Mulk Raj Anand. Bertrand Russell and Sir Stafford Cripps had been chairmen of the league, but Menon its secretary‐general, was the life and soul of the league. As secretary of the league, they say, Menon spoke often and got sympathetic left-wing intellectuals like Laski, Bertrand Russell, and Stafford Cripps to preach the gospel of Indian independence.

Ray Perkins explains - Russell was Chair of the India League in London during the 1930s and penned five letters to the Manchester Guardian in support of Indian social reforms and was in general sympathy with the aspirations of Gandhi’s National Congress Party. While in the US during World War Two Russell continued to concern himself with Indian politics and wrote five more letters to the editor during the war…

Eventually India attained independence, and Menon after a period as the Indian HC in London, moved back to India to continue work with Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also a good friend of Bertrand Russell, as their correspondence testifies to. Russell was particularly supportive of India’s nonalignment policy, though Russell remarked that, after independence, he had “felt it no longer appropriate to meddle with Indian affairs, and my connection with them came to an end.”

Nuclear days – Cold War period

In July 1945, the first nuclear device test was carried out by the US and two months later, atom bombs were dropped at Nagasaki and Hiroshima., obliterating the two cities and killing thousands. The Soviets followed up with their tests in 1949. A race was on, and the hydrogen bomb was developed next. Long distance bombers and missiles to deliver the warheads came next, followed by satellites and GPS systems. Proliferation continued, and quickly UK (1952), France (1960), and China (1964) joined the club. When the US detected Soviet nuclear missile installations under construction in nearby Cuba in 1962, the s%^& hit the fan, and the world was on the brink of a nuclear war.

As the Americans and Soviets were staring down at each other over the Cuban missile crisis, the Sino-Indian conflict erupted. This then was the backdrop to the parlays between Nehru, Menon, and Russell.

Russell, Menon, and Nehru

While their respect for one another remained high, Menon distanced himself from Russell after the latter suggested a ‘preventative war’ against Russia when it went nuclear in the late 40’s. Russell insists that it was a mistaken apprehension and clarified in 1953, in a letter to the New York Nation - I once spoke at a meeting at which only one reporter was present and he was a Communist, though reporting for orthodox newspapers. He seized on his opportunity, and in spite of my utmost efforts I have never been able to undo the harm. Krishna Menon, with whom I had collaborated for years on Indian affairs, turned against me. "The New Statesman" in London wrote assuming the truth of the report, and it was only by visiting the editor in company with my lawyer that I induced "The New Statesman" to publish a long letter of refutation from me. You are at liberty to make any use you like of this letter, and I shall be glad if you can make its contents known to anybody who still believes the slanderous report.

Krishna Menon did not quite relent, even after Russell approached him at the eve of Nehru’s arrival in London in 1955. For him, India was the most important neutral state which held a key to human survival and Russell needed Nehru to support him in his anti-nuclear initiatives. He contacted Menon through Julie Medlock and Menon replied that he continued to hold Russell with high regard and affection. Nevertheless, he curtly informed Russel that the same West had killed off his suggestion to make available to the world a report on the effects of atomic & hydrogen weapon explosions, on humans. His attempts to have the Hydrogen bomb banned, had also been scuttled by the West, Menon said. But in all fairness, he arranged for Russell and Nehru to meet, and the trio met, in March 1955.

Menon went back and planned to set up a committee to explore the effects of such modern wars, presided by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Unfortunately, after further discussions with the IAEC and other members of the cabinet, Nehru decided not to take a public stance on the matter, though a paper was published. A plea signed by Einstein, Russell, and many more distinguished co-signatories was released, implicitly aimed at the only two nuclear-weapons states of the day, the U.S., and the Soviet Union, which in 1955 seemed on the path to war.

Nehru and Russell continued hold each other in high regard. In 1960, just two years before the Cuban missile crisis and the Sino-Indian war, Russell had written: "Nehru is known to stand for sanity and peace in this critical moment of history. Perhaps it will be he who will lead us out of the dark night of fear into a happier day."

Russell and the China-India War – 1962

Russel’s involvement in various international affairs in an individual capacity had made things so difficult that he was forced to create a foundation with personnel to spearhead and direct these efforts. Russell felt that he, as an individual stood a better chance with negotiations during crises, compared to egoistic and bureaucratic national organizations. A popular name in those days, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had agreed to serve as a sponsor of the new Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.

Russell said later- “Many people seem to have been amazed that I should mediate in such matters without having any official status to do so, but I think events show that, even in our highly organized world, there are things that a private individual can do which are much more difficult for a Minister or an organization. In particular, it is much easier to agree with a powerless individual without loss of face than it is to agree with those whose arguments are backed by H-bombs of almost infinite destructive power.”

When the border between India and China became a troubled zone during the late 50’s and the early 60’s, Russell became increasingly troubled, but he kept his distance, till actual hostilities erupted in Oct 1962. He then donned the role of a peacekeeper and started writing to both Nehru and Zhou En Lai. While Russel was initially convinced of China’s role as an aggressor, he started to feel that India was unwilling to compromise, for purely nationalistic reasons as well as the right-wing pressures on Nehru after the loss of his wingman Defense minister Krishna Menon, who had to face the axe. After the Chinese withdrawal in November, Russel urged Nehru to accept the ceasefire and the Colombo declarations. Russell even feared that the conflict between Asia’s two largest countries might eventually trigger a nuclear war between the cold war nations.

This conflict is a full half of the theme (Cuba being the other) of his book ‘Unarmed Victory’, a book banned in India due to the tilt in Russell’s stance towards China. The exact role which he played, and the tightrope he and Ceylon’s Sirimavo Bandaranayake had to walk, is not very well known in India, but it was illuminating for someone like me, who had read through many books and accounts on the conflict and yet missed this. The full story of the two emissaries he deputed to India, Ceylon and China, one of them perhaps the very secretary who replied to Rajendra Kumar’s letter, is quite incredible and I will recount it in detail, another day.

Nehru explained “There is such a strong feeling in India over the invasion by China that no Government can stand if it does not pay some heed to it.” He adds that “a sense of national surrender and humiliation” would result in “a very serious setback” to “all our efforts to build up the nation.” He then points out that “the popular upsurge all over India can be utilized for strengthening the unity and capacity for work of the nation.” The complete letter is a document which stands out, in explaining the situation within India, at that time.

As we all know, Nehru was facing pressures at home, including within his own Congress party. He had to maintain balance and attain a semblance of support from the right-wingers who were clamoring for action against China, so also the public. In the end, no agreements were reached on the Colombo proposals and both countries dragged their feet. Nehru felt that negotiations with China would just have to wait. The two nations continue to exchange diplomatic overtures, but to this day, the border issues remain unresolved.

As for Menon, he was staunchly against nuclear armament until the end.  Menon, as is well known, was passionately against nuclear weapons, and partnered in many quests against their proliferation. His discussions and arguments with KC Pant and Homi Bhabha make interesting reading. Krishna Menon, who had always advocated nuclear disarmament, was ill and in hospital when Indira Gandhi carried out the peaceful nuclear explosion on May 18, 1974. He summoned her to his hospital bed and voiced his disapproval of the PNE. Until the day he died, Menon continued to fight against it, as he saw India taking steps towards nuclear programs and seeking help to reach there.

Perhaps his simplistic view of a utopian world driven by ‘common sense’, very unlike his usual firm grasp of world affairs, continued to cloud his decision making, as it did when he never expected China to attack India.

I am sorry for taking you from a light college romp, through a romantic song, and dropping you with a thud into a boiling cauldron dealing with ‘nuclear disarmament’. But in the end, we have to be aware, that if the powers be irresponsible, we could very well be left in a world that Nevil Shute described beautifully, but forlornly in his apocalyptic novel ‘On the Beach’, a dark and cold world - down under in Australia, following a nuclear holocaust.

True, it was written in 1957, when there were only a few studies available on the effects of a nuclear war and the book is quite downbeat and gloomy. Scientists say that it is unnecessarily demoralizing and perpetuates the myth that any large-scale nuclear war would inevitably wipe out all human life. But well, it is a novel that made a point then and is still worth reading. If you can’t find the movie starring Gregory Peck, read the book.

And see ‘Aman’ on ‘youtube’ if you are so inclined.


Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar - Seema Sonik Alimchand
Yours Faithfully, Bertrand Russell: A Lifelong Fight for Peace, Justice, and Truth- Bertrand Russell, Ray Perkins (Jr.)
Man's Peril, 1954-55 By Bertrand Russell, Ed Andrew G Bone
Mulk Raj Anand: A Reader
Unarmed Victory – Bertrand Russell
Selected letters - Bertrand Russell