VP Menon: An unsung hero of modern India | Opinion
He left a rich legacy — expanding suffrage, pushing federalism, and, of course, integrating princely statesUpdated: Feb 10, 2020 20:11 IST
On a sunny spring day in 1914, a young Malayali walked into the Government of India’s summer offices in Gorton Castle (in the then Simla). Nobody knew who Vappala Pangunni Menon was then. He was all of 19-years-old, and he came with nothing but a letter recommending him for a typist’s job in the home department. Over the course of the next four decades, VP — as he would come to be known — would be at the frontline of India’s progress towards Independence. He was the principal typist of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report. In 1924, he would join the Reforms Office, a branch of the government of India, which would shepherd India along the path to self-governance. He would remain with the Reforms Office until 1947.
Today, VP Menon is remembered for being Sardar Vallabhbahi Patel’s right-hand man, for assisting in the integration of the princely states into the Indian Union. But, between 1914-1951, VP’s contributions to modern India were both immense and immensely understated.
In 1930, a trip (his first overseas) as part of the secretariat to London for the First Round Table Conference brought home to VP the importance of the ongoing
suffragette movement. Five years later, when he was working on the electoral rolls for the upcoming provincial elections of 1937, VP would give women — including those whose marriages had been dissolved — the right to vote. He would also provide a space for the multitudes of India’s uneducated on the voters’ list, by providing symbols and coloured boxes on ballot papers and insisting that provincial governments lower their educational standards for the average voter.
His was the voice that ensured the inclusion of such diverse clauses as the enfranchisement of the residents of India’s numerous railway settlements, and the estimation of the representatives from urban and rural areas. He was in his mid-forties then, and alone, for the first time, at the helm of constitutional change in the country. It is a contribution that has got lost in the dryness of the technicalities of constitutional semantics, but it deserves to be richly highlighted.
This was just the beginning.
The exposure to debates around a prospective federal future for the country gave VP the idea that India would do well as a federation. He would, in fact, put forward three plans for the transfer of power from the Raj to an independent India — in 1936, in 1941, and in 1946. Each plan hinged on one concept: A unified, federal India could well be achieved if the Centre took defence, foreign affairs and communications from the princely states, and left all the other powers with the royal houses. It would mean no extreme humiliation for the princes, but it would allow the overall authority to be held by the Government of India. Two different Viceroys heard his plan — and each time, the plan was shelved. It would be June 1947 before the Menon Plan for Indian Independence would finally see the light of day.
The constant thwarting of his ideas never prevented VP from trying to save India from the Partition. He strongly believed in trying to get all the political stakeholders at the same table in order to stitch together a coalition. The last desperate stab at this came in 1945, when VP pushed the then viceroy, Lord Wavell, into calling, what would become known as the Simla Conference. The failure of the conference is generally attributed to the clash of the personalities and egos that sat around the table in the Viceregal Lodge in Simla. But it is not well-known that VP Menon was the man who not only laid out the blueprint of the conference but insisted that it was Wavell’s duty to try to gain a political consensus about the future of India.
In the summer of 1947, India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, would give his Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor six hours to hammer out a plan that would mollify both the Congress and the Muslim League, and potentially change the map of South Asia. By nightfall, VP had chain-smoked his way through endless cartons of cigarettes, and did exactly that. He would remember thinking that it read “passably well”, but his main concern was his grammar.
Patel would turn to VP in 1947, insisting that only VP would do as his secretary in the newly-established Ministry of States. To Patel has gone the credit for the integration of India, yet it is VP Menon’s signature on every Instrument of Accession. He was an invaluable asset to the Sardar. His knowledge of India’s constitutional lore was both intimate and unparalleled. He deployed a unique mix of charm and ruthlessness when it came to the princes. The Raja of Sarila, watching VP at an assembly in Nowgong in 1948, was amazed at the power that this short, stocky man in his open-toed slippers and safari suit was capable of exuding.
In 1951, following the death of the Sardar, Vappala Pangunni Menon slipped into political and professional obscurity, where he remained until the end of his days in 1966. Today, it is only right that we rectify this.
Narayani Basu is the author of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India. She is also Menon’s great-granddaughter
The views expressed are personal