Comparing VK and VP is odious. They made the best of what destiny offered them
G Sreekumar | 16 Mar, 2020
Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon, London, 1949 (Photo: Getty Images)
The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, among other things, brought pay parity between Indian and British government officials. By then, it was not a question of whether India will become independent, but when, in what manner and to what extent. With this, serving in India became less and less attractive to British officials, who started withdrawing. With fresh incumbents also coming down, their numbers started declining. This provided an opportunity to Indian officials, including the non-ICS, to rise higher in the hierarchy. These were mostly from Bengal, Kashmir, Kayasths, Tamil Brahmins and Nairs from Malabar District of the Madras Presidency, who went by various surnames including Menon, Panikkar and Pillai.
At independence, Nairs wielded immense clout in the corridors of power. They had come up through different routes: from the ICS like NR Pillai, the first Cabinet Secretary, and KPS Menon, the first Foreign Secretary, from allied services such as revenue, like KRK Menon, the first Finance Secretary, and TG Sanjeevi Pillai from the Imperial Police, the first Director of the Intelligence Bureau. There were many others like N Raghavan, MK Vellodi and K Ramunni Menon.
Some others came through distinguished service with the states, such as Sardar KM Panikkar, who was Dewan of Bikaner, became permanent representative to the UN and later Ambassador to China, Egypt and France, before becoming a member of the States Reorganisation Commission. From an altogether different track came PP Pillai, first Permanent Representative to the UN. Among the first Indian doctorates in economics, he was the first Indian to publish a paper in an international economics journal. He was also the first Indian to join the League of Nations before heading the Indian branch of the International Labour Organization for around 20 years.
Apart from those in high positions, the Central Secretariat had hordes of south Indians, mostly Tamil Brahmins and Nairs. When a department had too many Nairs, it was joked that it was afflicted with Menon-gitis. But that is not as creeping and debilitating as an incurable attack of TB, retorted the Nairs, in a not so veiled reference to Tamil Brahmins.
Of current interest are two other Menons who charted their own unique paths: VK Krishna Menon and VP Menon. These largely forgotten men are back into limelight because of two recent biographies: one on VK by Jairam Ramesh and another on VP by his great-granddaughter, Narayani Basu. VK Krishna Menon is today best known as the Defence Minister during the disastrous China War of 1962. He is hardly remembered as independent India’s first High Commissioner to the UK after being Secretary to the India League in the UK for over two decades. VP Menon was perhaps the only government clerk to work his way up, through sheer hard work and determination, to become a secretary-level official as Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Adviser to three Viceroys (Lord Linlithgow, Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten). After independence, he was also Secretary of the Ministry of States, assisting Sardar Patel in integrating around 565 native states with the Indian Union.
No two men could have had so many similarities but also had several stark differences. Apart from being Menons, both were from the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency, VP from Ottapalam in Palghat and VK from Panniankara near Calicut. Neither wrote an autobiography. But both left behind large volumes of papers. VP also wrote significant books of lasting importance. His Story of the Integration of Indian States, Transfer of Power in India and a thin volume on constitutional history are so bereft of personal details that they do not even qualify as memoir. VP did not leave any letter of note, but VK left many. VK also wrote many pamphlets and reports, most during his India League days. VP did not have any biography before the one by Basu. VK had a few, at least two in his lifetime, one by Emil Lengyel and the other by TJS George. VK was at his acerbic best when he told George: “Autobiographies are written by those who believe that the world is centred on them—and the world is not centred on any individual—and biographies are written by those who have nothing else to do.”
Both were great visionaries, for which there are far too many examples. It was VK who had in the early 1930s called for a constituent assembly and also made the first draft of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. VK provided the intellectual heft to India’s non-alignment and other foreign policy positions. As a Fabian socialist influenced by the likes of Harold Laski and Bertrand Russell, who had gone to jail for his pacifism, VK’s numerous speeches on disarmament at the UN are prescient and a seminal contribution to the subject. He was the one who first argued for recognition of Bangladesh and ending of apartheid in South Africa. VK had argued for nationalisation of banks at least a decade and a half before Indira Gandhi implemented it in1969.
As Defence Minister, VK laid the foundation for India’s indigenous defence research and production capabilities, which his predecessors, including Nehru who had the portfolio for two years, had not thought of. Many of his efforts to improve defence preparedness were scuttled by those he argued for nonviolence and Gandhian values, like Morarji Desai, the Finance Minister, who earmarked only a fraction of what VK was asking for. He was the one who insisted that India go in for a negotiated settlement of our border dispute with China, which could have avoided the India-China War in 1962. But when Chou En-Lai visited India in 1959, VK was kept out of the official negotiations. And yet, after the war, it was VK who was made a scapegoat for India’s humiliating defeat! More on this later.
In the early 1950s, VK listed out to Nehru three young economists, all in their twenties, who could be called upon for future work for the country. These were KN Raj, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, a rollcall of honour among Indian economists.
There are many instances of how VP’s practical wisdom and foresight helped manage various ticklish issues and seeming deadlocks while ensuring that 565 states integrated with the Indian Union. It was VP who had convinced both Mountbatten and Patel that partition was the only viable option, going forward. VK had done this with Nehru, the reason why Maulana Azad did not want him in the Cabinet.
Both were undoubtedly persons of great integrity. In VK’s case, his personal reputation was not marred even by the carelessness with which he handled jeep purchase contracts, dealing with persons of dubious reputation.
Both were not wholly uncritical of Gandhi and seemed to have had an uneasy relationship with him. Both were very close to and fiercely loyal to their political bosses: VK to Pandit Nehru, and VP, to Sardar Patel. At least in the case of VK, he often became a proxy for those targeting Nehru. VP attended Patel’s funeral in his private capacity even after being barred by Nehru. VK was the one who got Nehru’s books published and popularised them in the West, contributing in no small measure to building the international aura behind the name of Nehru.
But the similarities end there. Both were, literally, pheno-Menons in their own unique way.
Born three years earlier, Vappala Pangunni Menon (1893-1965) was the son of a school headmaster and from a lower-middle-class family. Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon (1896-1974), on the other hand, was the son of a rich lawyer, whose maternal great grandfather was a former Dewan of Travancore.
Both left their homes while still in their teens, never to return home much. VP was a school dropout who ran away from home, after setting fire to his school to spite the teacher who had insulted him. He worked as a labourer in the Kolar gold fields and as a coolie, among other odd jobs in Mumbai. VK, on the other hand, was an eternal student. He followed a more conventional route. He studied in Presidency College, Madras, before going to London where he studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics for 10 years, continuing his education till the ripe old age of 38 when he was finally called to the bar.
VK had strong and influential mentors. The first was Annie Besant, the theosophist and educationist based in Madras, where he met her while still a student. She arranged to have him sent to the UK, where he continued for 29 years. The second was his professor, political scientist and Fabian socialist Harold Laski, for whose funeral he would lend the Indian High Commission’s Rolls-Royce. VK also had eminent collaborators in Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, mathematician and pacifist, and Allen Lane, with whom he co-founded Penguin and Pelican books.
VP did not have a real mentor in the real sense though he had his lucky breaks. The story handed down to me was that VP’s key break came while working as a punkah puller for a British officer, to whom he would volunteer comments on whatever he was working on. The precocious young VP’s observations must have impressed this unknown British official enough, for him to recommend VP for a clerical job with the Government of India.
The personalities of the two Menons also differed. VK was abrasive and did not suffer fools easily. A diplomat who was not diplomatic. He had no time for self-servers. He was also prone to depression, false modesty, self-pity and writing suicidal notes. On the other hand, VP must have drawn on his tact and diplomatic skills to get hundreds of Princely States to sign the Instrument of Accession.
VK was a bundle of contradictions. The socialist, and perhaps atheist, entertained enduring interest in astrology forever troubling his sister to send him predictions from the local astrologer. He feared what would happen to the vast family land possessions if communists were to implement land reforms. He also opposed linguistic reorganisation of states for fear that a unified Kerala would become a bastion of communism.
An anecdote on VP goes that he was a great mimic. In one of the meetings that secretaries used to have (remember the Yes Minister series), VP once mimicked Nehru himself. In a subsequent meeting that he had with the Prime Minister, Nehru observed in a grave tone, “VP, I believe you are a great mimic.” The culprit could have only been HVR Iengar, who was Secretary to the Prime Minister. In the next meeting, VP lashed out at whoever had carried it to Nehru, without naming anyone. That was the end of such meetings.
VK’s best known anecdotes revolved around his quick repartees and one grew up hearing these stories. When once told that the sun never set on the British Empire, he replied that it was because God would never trust the Englishman in the dark. This anecdote is now found misattributed to many others. When Sir Pearson Dixon, the British delegate to the UN Security Council picked holes in VK’s choice of words, VK interrupted him, “Sir, I can understand your difficulty in understanding what I have said; you picked up your English on the streets of London, I devoted several years of my life to learn it with the care and respect it deserves!” On another occasion, when Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan was going on about plebiscite in Kashmir, VK addressed the chair and said, “Plebiscite, plebiscite, plebiscite! Sir, ask this gentleman whether his country has ever seen a ballot box!” VP was apparently more placid, not particularly known for his repartees.
VK remained a bachelor, perhaps not so chronic, and a reluctant bridegroom, known for many affairs mostly with non-Indian women. VP had a troubled married life, the first wife having left him and their two sons without a trace. Thereafter, he lived with the wife of a friend and mentor, from a different caste. Apparently, his two sons never forgave him, maybe for not bringing their mother back to their lives.
VK was a vegetarian and teetotaller, known for his endless appetite for tea and biscuits. VP enjoyed his two pegs of whiskey and was not a vegetarian. Story has it that HVR Iengar made it known to Sardar Patel, to whom he was a private secretary, that VP drinks. The idea seems to have been to pit the Sardar against VP. But in a subsequent meeting with senior officials where both VP and HVR were present, Sardar asked VP point blank what brand of whiskey he drank. VP mumbled out something and inquired why he was asking. To this, the Sardar is believed to have replied, “I would like to recommend the same to some of your colleagues.”
VK, though from an affluent background, had strong socialist leanings. He was even suspected by the British and Americans of being a closet communist sympathetic to Russians. This was perhaps because he was closer to members of the Labour Party, which was more sympathetic to India’s demand for full freedom. VP, though from a humbler background, opposed Nehru’s socialist ideas, even joining the Swatantra Party founded by Rajaji, which had espoused liberal economic policies. In the process, he would be in the company of many royals with whom he had negotiated integrating into the Indian Union. He was even found tiger hunting with a few of them. The socialist that he was, VK was not known to have entertained the company of any Indian Royals.
VK was a great orator, the seats in the UN General Assembly filling up when he was scheduled to address. Among his classic speeches are those on disarmament and the famous eight-hour-long speech on Kashmir, the longest ever at the UN, during which he had fainted. VP was a typical civil servant, seen and not heard. So, there are no known public speeches of VP.
While in the UK, VK was elected as borough councillor of St Pancras, London, which also conferred on him the Freedom of Borough, the only other person so honoured being George Bernard Shaw. VP never contested elections. VK contested thrice from Bombay, winning twice in 1957 and 1962 and losing in 1967. He went on to win from West Bengal in 1969 and again from Trivandrum. He thus became probably the first and only person to contest and win from three corners of the country.
Relations with the bureaucracy
Both VK and VP were victims of the ICS disdain for the not-twice born. But, at least, VK had many admirers among civil servants. Jairam Ramesh’s biography of VK quotes letters by Nehru to CD Deshmukh, the Finance Minister, defending Krishna Menon. These must have been in response to what Deshmukh himself had written to Nehru about. Deshmukh studied natural sciences at Cambridge, while VK studied economics at LSE, among many other things that he dabbled in while in London. Therefore, it was only natural that VK considered himself more competent to hold views on economic matters, notwithstanding Deshmukh’s earlier stint with the Reserve Bank of India as its first Indian Governor. Then there were the ego clashes that VK had with Sanjeevi Pillai of the IB and the old jeep scandal that kept rearing its head at inappropriate times.
VK was not diplomatic, but no other Indian reached the heights of success in diplomacy as VK had. He was the original Kissinger, nicknamed Formula Menon, the one people reached out to when they wanted to find a way out of an international deadlock. As a roving ambassador, his larger-than-life presence loomed over numerous meetings in Geneva and issues across countries and regions including Cyprus, Korea, Nepal, Suez Canal, Indochina, Algeria, Hungary and Formosa (now Taiwan). His successes included the many meetings with Chou En-Lai in Geneva and successfully negotiating the release of US pilots held by China which even Dag Hammarskjöld, then UN Secretary General, could not manage. That raises a question: would he not have made a great secretary general of the UN? Or even better, a great foreign minister for India?
As Defence Minister, VK was an institution builder, establishing the National Defence Academy, Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Border Roads Organisation, Sainik Schools and so on. His other accomplishments included acquisition of INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft carrier, takeover of the Mazgaon Dockyard in Mumbai and Garden Reach in Kolkata, launch of the indigenously manufactured Avro 748, establishment of the groundwork for Hindustan Aeronautics and establishment of the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi. He was thus the original ‘Make in India’ man. It was as Defence Minister that VK got round to completing one of the unfinished jobs of integration, that of Goa, earning him the epithet ‘Goa Constrictor’. It was a sign of his integrity and the success of the non-aligned stance that Americans, including President Kennedy, wanted VK to be eased out, probably under pressure from the defence production lobby.
Notwithstanding these achievements, VK remains known mainly for what people see as his lapse as a defence minister in the India-China War. This narrative, according to Jairam Ramesh, is because the early books on the war were written by army officials with whom VK did not have a particularly good relationship. Chief among them was General Thimayya who used to frequent the British High Commission, where foreign liquor was freely served. A major revelation in Jairam Ramesh’s book is the revelation that Malcom MacDonald, the British High Commissioner, recorded that in such meetings Thimayya would badmouth both his bosses, VK and the Prime Ministers, even making the egregious claim that the former was plotting a coup. This was nothing short of high treason. Thimayya should have known better that Krishna Menon, having lived in London for three decades, would have got to know of these comments from his own sources.
What is also less remembered is the fact that India’s lack of defence preparedness owed a lot to Finance Minister Morarji Desai and Members of Parliament (MPs) like JB Kripalani, both of whom argued against allotment of funds for defence in the name of nonviolence, Gandhian ideology, etcetera. And after the Chinese fiasco, the same persons were questioning without any sense of morality why Indian forces were ill-prepared.
MKK Nayar, a first-batch IAS officer, wrote in his memoirs that VK had scuttled the plans of the Birla group to manufacture Shaktiman trucks. That was how Heavy Vehicles Factory was set up in Avadi to manufacture these trucks and Vijayanta tanks. According to Nayar, about 60 MPs owed their allegiance to Birlas. This was joined by MO Mathai, Private Secretary to Nehru, and also by Morarji Desai. This group, according to him, was responsible for a vicious campaign against VK, both before the China War and afterwards. They were also responsible, according to him, for keeping alive the jeep scandal of the early 1950s, something which was long forgotten by Nehru.
Positions after retirement
In a sense, both did not actively pursue offices on their own. After Sardar Patel died in December 1950, the Ministry of States, of which VP was the only Secretary, was closed down the following April. In May he was appointed Governor of Orissa, which he resigned two months later. He was then appointed a member of the first Finance Commission, which also he resigned a year later. He held no official positions thereafter.
VK’s main career was that of an activist in the UK and as Secretary to the India League. This became infructuous with independence. He did suggest that he was best suited to become the first high commissioner in the UK, given his long record and personal contacts. As he wrote in one of his letters to Nehru, ‘The British Government still appear to think that they can order us about.’ Though this was true, he left it to the larger judgement of Nehru. The need to have a ‘strong High Commissioner who knew UK government, knew the way round… for a quarter century… ’ was repeatedly stressed. But he did turn down an ambassadorial post in the Soviet Union, which was given to KPS Menon instead.
In his second career as diplomat, VK went from the High Commission to head the Indian Mission at the UN, succeeding Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. This was followed by a third career, as a politician and minister, first as minister without portfolio and later as Defence Minister.
After he had resigned as Defence Minister, VK continued to be active politically contesting elections, losing once and winning twice, the last as an independent from Trivandrum supported by communists. Neither Lal Bahadur Shastri nor Indira Gandhi considered Krishna Menon for being given any official responsibility. He was bitter, but did not bother to write his version of the events that led to his resignation.
VP was bestowed with a Rao Bahadur title by the British Government before independence. VK did not receive any such honour as these were usually reserved for those serving the government or its cause. After independence, VK was among the first Padma Vibhushan awardees in 1954. VP did not receive any such honour after independence.
When the nation needs it, there are capable men and women who rise to the occasion. These two Menons were worthy examples of such visionaries. Both men have lasting legacies. In the case of VP, the sheer task of integrating 565 native states alone is sufficient for perpetuating his memory in a fit manner.
PN Haksar and MK Rasgotra, eminent civil servants, have both written about how VK was fiercely dedicated to the cause of the nation. While independence was being fought for in India, what facilitated the process was the hard spade work done in the UK for shaping British public opinion towards granting India independence. This was an almost singlehanded effort of VK Krishna Menon, for which alone his memory needs to be honoured in the right manner. Thereafter, his contributions in international diplomacy and as Defence Minister are without parallel. VK has his statue and a road in Delhi named after him, something which some bigots want renamed. VP has neither.
Menon vs Menon
VK’s sphere of activity and what made him known across the world was mainly outside India. VP’s work life confined him to India barring a visit to London for a Round Table Conference. By the time VK came back to India for good, in 1957, VP’s official career had ended a few years earlier. Still, there are suggestions that they disliked each other.
There is no reason for any real animosity between the two Menons as both the books might suggest. The only time their paths cross is only during the few months before independence when VK visited New Delhi after Mountbatten had taken charge. He was engaged in hectic parleys, having known both Lady and Lord Mountbatten for some years. Was he the subject of envy, because VP refers to him as a ‘busybody’ in one of his notes? His biographer also makes a passing reference to the ‘vaulting political ambition’ of VK, something which was uncalled for and not borne out by facts.
Notwithstanding the high position that VP reached, the fact remains that his sphere of activity was narrow though very significant and limited to a few years. VK’s canvas was much wider: theosophist, publisher, freedom fighter, pacifist, diplomat and so on. Therefore, a comparison of their achievements would be odious. They stand tall for their own reasons based on what destiny offered them. Both the Menons deserve to be remembered and honoured in a more appropriate way than they have so far been. Let us hope these two biographies are only a beginning.
VP Menon had settled down in Bangalore after retirement. He passed away in 1965, by when his family had grown much bigger. Krishna Menon passed away on October 5th, 1974 at his residence in New Delhi. The family of Romesh Bhandari, later Foreign Secretary, who had worked with him in the UK, was staying with him. PN Haksar, who met him during his last days, remembered that he was at peace with himself. Troubled, but without rancour and serene. But he could still make devastating comments about people. MKK Nayar, who himself was facing a motivated investigation, had called on Krishna Menon a few days before he passed away. He described Menon as sad and lonely. Krishna Menon held both his hands and told him: “From the time of Ramayana, our country’s tradition has been to reject the most faithful.”