Home / Lounge / Features /  VK Krishna Menon: Nehru’s comrade and confidant

One of the key movers for India’s independence, V.K. Krishna Menon (1896-1974) isn’t as well remembered as his contemporaries. Close to Jawaharlal Nehru, stationed in the UK for nearly three decades, and a member of the British Labour Party, he was instrumental in campaigning for India’s freedom abroad. He gave numerous speeches, wrote tirelessly and travelled far and wide. He worked with Penguin, where he published books under the Pelican imprint in an effort to sway public opinion. Yet, posterity knows him as an unlikeable, difficult and intransigent man, who is held responsible for India’s debacle in the 1962 Indo-China War.

Jairam Ramesh
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Jairam Ramesh (Photo: Getty Images)

To blame him alone for that defeat is unfair, says Congress politician Jairam Ramesh, Menon’s latest biographer. A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives Of Krishna Menon is a monumental chronicle of the man, from his earliest years in Kerala to his reputation in the 1950s as a statesman par excellence at the peak of his career. Based partly on papers that were declassified in February, this is a portrait of a man with a scholarly bent, not cut out for politics, and as Ramesh puts it, “an undiplomatic diplomat". A theosophist mentored by British activist Annie Besant, Menon was hated by the American establishment, but academics and students loved him. In the 1950s, he was the most photographed and caricatured after Nehru.

Menon was ill-suited to be the defence minister in Nehru’s cabinet, a role that got him into trouble when war between India and China broke out. He had a bitter falling out with K.S. Thimayya and S.P.P. Thorat, generals of the Indian Army. Nehru wanted his government to take collective responsibility for the defeat but the Congress was having none of it. An Anglophile who spoke no Indian language, Menon had never been jailed, lathi-charged, or on a hunger strike. Those who had fought on the ground for India’s independence were resentful of his stature and wanted him to be fired. Yet, Menon’s role in lifting India’s reputation in the world remains unique, as Ramesh explained in an interview in Bengaluru last month. Edited excerpts:

Why were you interested in Menon’s life?

My interest is purely scholarly, as a student of Indian political history. Menon plays an important role in the period 1935-62, emanating from the fact that he was Nehru’s confidant, soulmate and ideological comrade-in-arms. This is my third biography: The first one was about Indira Gandhi as an environmentalist, while the second one was on (diplomat) P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi. The common thread is, apart from the fact that all three figures are part of the same cabal—so to speak— around Nehru, there is a lot of primary material on them at the Teen Murti Bhavan Library and Nehru Memorial Museum in Delhi, waiting to be analysed. Although the Indian biographical tradition is primarily that of hagiography, I have always maintained that biographies should be based on archival material, not on oral history, which is notoriously unreliable. These were all colourful and consequential people, even though they may have been controversial.

Why is Menon not known as much as his contemporaries in spite of being so consequential?

Whatever Menon achieved in his life has been blurred by (his role in the Indo-China war of) 1962. No doubt he made his mistakes that led up to 1962, but to condemn him only through that lens is grossly unfair. Menon played a crucial role in the 1930s by making the idea of Indian independence acceptable to the Labour Party in Britain. The latter’s commitment to India’s self-determination came largely because of Menon, who was close to (British economist) Harold Laski and (British Labour politician) Stafford Cripps.

In the 1940s, Menon was involved in the transfer of power as an intermediary between Nehru and (Louis) Mountbatten. Between 1947-52, he was the high commissioner to the UK, ensuring that India remained in the Commonwealth. Then he became a global envoy for Nehru to the United Nations (UN), where he was called “Formula Menon". Whether it was Korea, Suez, Algeria or disarmament, if you wanted a solution (to any issue), you would go to Menon. He also built up the defence production industry. Today we are talking about Make in India, but he started such a programme in the late 1950s. He negotiated the manufacture of the first aircraft in India—the MiG—with the (erstwhile) Soviet Union in 1962. He also built up the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). But then 1962 happens and everything is bushwhacked. He is held single-handedly responsible for the military debacle.

That’s ironic because Menon was the only man in the 1950s arguing for a negotiated border settlement between India and China. But nobody in India, from Nehru to the Parliament, was ready for the swap formula. One of the most bitter critics of the plan was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, during his first term as member of Parliament in 1957-62. However, in 2003, Vajpayee went to China and signed an agreement with his then counterpart, saying that India and China would embark on negotiations to settle the border dispute. Had Menon’s formula been applied, we might not have had an Indo-China War. But Menon had the last laugh.

It’s curious that while Menon was campaigning for the India League in London, he was also a member of the Labour Party and under surveillance from Scotland Yard. Was he playing a delicate game?

He was not a communist, but he used the communists. From the late 1920s to the 1930s, the only political formation in Britain arguing unequivocally for Indian independence was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), of which the main ideologue was a Swedish Bengali man, Rajani Palme Dutt. Menon became close to the CPGB because it gave him a platform to argue for independence. Scotland Yard thought Menon was one of the “Reds", but his relationship with the Labour Party was more complex. For instance, he played an important role in convincing (British politician) Clement Attlee in 1938 that Britain must agree to a constituent assembly for India.

Nehru faced much resistance within the Congress for bringing Menon into the party. Why did he stand by him?

Everybody hated Menon because he had a remarkable capacity for making enemies out of friends. Nehru was not blind to this fact, but he is also on record saying that Menon is the only person he could relate to. They were ideologically on the same wavelength, British in temperament and outlook, but also Indian at heart. They were educated in England, both were democratic socialists and book-lovers. Menon founded Pelican Books, an imprint of Penguin, and got Nehru’s autobiography published. Menon became part of Nehru’s family. He would call Indira Gandhi “Indu", while she would call him Krishna, though there was a gap of 21 years between them.

You write that Krishna Menon’s life is conducive to psychobiography. Why is that so?

Menon was a complicated man. He wrote resignation letters at the drop of a hat. He kept complaining to Nehru that he was unloved and not cared for. He had a string of relationships, though he never married. He got hospitalized, suffered from arthritis, took medication, and became prone to depression. In 14 May 1952, he wrote four suicide notes—to Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Kamla Jaspal (his then lady friend), and one of his sisters. But the next day he’s alive and back in business. I believe the job of a biographer is to provide a narrative, not to judge; it is to ascertain, not assert. However, other writers may find it interesting to pursue an inquiry into his psychology.

What made Krishna Menon so successful as a statesman?

It was his ability to identify the crux of a problem, cut through the fog and come up with solutions, as he did on multiple occasions in the UN. In 1955, Menon almost brought about a meeting between (then US president) Dwight D. Eisenhower and (the premier of China) Zhou Enlai. Remember that the American opening to China only took place in 1972. But Menon had almost accomplished this miracle 20 years earlier. In the ending of the Korean war, too, he played a crucial part. In the resolution of the crisis that had arisen out of the nationalization of the Suez Canal, he was deeply involved. Interestingly, Menon felt China was not the long-term danger to India, but it was Pakistan. In the current-day context, he was a dove when it came to China, but a hawk when it came to Pakistan.

For a diplomat, Menon was anything but diplomatic. He was a transparent man and an equal opportunity offence-giver. But love him or hate him, no one could ignore him. He was a “pheno-Menon".

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