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Home / Books / Review: A Chequered Brilliance; The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon by Jairam Ramesh

Review: A Chequered Brilliance; The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon by Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh’s massive biography of VK Krishna Menon dispels the notion that Nehru’s defence minister was solely responsible for the debacle of the 1962 war with China

books Updated: Jan 17, 2020 19:15 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
VK Krishna Menon (1896 - 1974, left), chief Indian delegate to the United Nations, and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964), Prime Minister of India, leave 10 Downing Street in London after the morning session of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference on  February 1, 1955.
VK Krishna Menon (1896 - 1974, left), chief Indian delegate to the United Nations, and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964), Prime Minister of India, leave 10 Downing Street in London after the morning session of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference on February 1, 1955.(Reg Speller/Getty Images)
725pp, Rs 999; Penguin
725pp, Rs 999; Penguin

There is a whole new generation that does not remember Krishna Menon which, I guess, is fair enough. Menon was forced out of Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in 1962 and died in 1974. His glory years were during the struggle for Indian independence when he mobilised support for the freedom movement in London. Later, during the 1950s, he became a major voice in global affairs helping resolve such international disputes as those in Cyprus, Korea and Suez.

To those who do remember him, his role is usually restricted to a single event: the 1962 War with China. In the public imagination, he is the man who lost us that war. And indeed the defeat led to his resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet -- and he was never quite rehabilitated in the public eye.

Jairam Ramesh’s massive and painstakingly-researched biography covers all of Menon’s life, from his birth into a wealthy Malayali family, to his early association with the Theosophical Society (he called Annie Besant ‘mother’) to his time in London. As you read about Menon it rapidly becomes clear that he was a remarkable man, rising in British politics, helping found Penguin Books, and working tirelessly for Indian Independence.

VK Krishna Menon being attended to by his doctor after he collapsed at a United Nations Security Council meeting, having delivered an eight-hour filibuster in defence of India's involvement in Kashmir on January 24, 1957.
VK Krishna Menon being attended to by his doctor after he collapsed at a United Nations Security Council meeting, having delivered an eight-hour filibuster in defence of India's involvement in Kashmir on January 24, 1957. ( Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images )

His post-independence accomplishments were also noteworthy. It was a time when countries still went to the UN to resolve disputes and a time when India was a respected voice in world affairs. Menon met on equal terms with most of the great global statesman of that era and more than held his own.

So what went so wrong? Why is he still a villainous figure in the minds of those who do remember him?

Well, some of it had to do with his own personality. He was arrogant, acerbic, needlessly rude and seemingly always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He had a close but complicated relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and as the letters they exchanged (which Ramesh quotes extensively from) make clear, Nehru trusted him enough to confide his deepest fears and misgivings .And Menon was not above exploiting this closeness to shore up his position.

On the substantive issue of the 1962 debacle, as Ramesh points out, the case against Menon is far from clear-cut. Within the army, the caricature view of him (and of the reasons for the 1962 defeat) is that, like all dhoti-wearing Congressmen of that period, he had come to power on the basis of a non-violent movement and therefore had contempt for the military. He mistreated generals, denied the army the resources it needed to arm itself and relied only on diplomacy. Moreover, like others who had taken part in the freedom struggle, he was suspicious of the army’s still largely British ethos and never comfortable with the mess culture that had been handed down by the Raj.

This view, as Ramesh shows, is a massive oversimplification. Menon may have worn Malayali dress while in India but he was no caricature dhotiwalla. He wore Saville Row suits when he was abroad, had spent much of his life mixing easily with Brits in London and English was the language he spoke best.

He was no enemy of the army either. Ramesh quotes Field Marshal Cariappa who got along with Menon and there is no doubt that Menon was more comfortable with Earl Mountbatten (they were lifelong friends) and other important British figures than he was with most Indian politicians.

Nor was he an old fashioned Gandhian who was uncomfortable with a modern ethos or against the use of force. The Liberation of Goa was Menon’s operation, boldly carried out in the face of international opposition to a military action against the Portuguese.

Author Jairam Ramesh
Author Jairam Ramesh ( Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO )

Even the view, often repeated, that he opposed giving the army the resources it needed is questioned by Ramesh who quotes Menon arguing for increasing defence spending and fighting to get the forces the equipment they needed: the INS Vikrant was purchased on his watch as were the MIGs that became so important to the air force.

Reading Ramesh’s account of events, three possibilities suggest themselves for the derision with which Menon’s memory is treated. One: Menon was rude and arrogant with everyone, not just generals. Two: he spent too much time on foreign policy when he should have focused on defence. And three: Menon liked cliques and played favourites. Along with Nehru, he vastly over estimated flatterers such as General BM Kaul and could not handle proud and complex figures like General Thimayya. Worse still, he pursued grudges. The action the army took against such officers as Thimayya and General Sam Manekshaw during his time is a low spot in the history of our defence forces.

But was he really responsible for the China debacle?

Ramesh avoids giving a yes or no answer but on balance, his view seems to be that had India followed Menon’s strategy for handling the Chinese there may have been no war at all.

The Chinese sincerely believed that their territorial claims were valid. We disputed this but the evidence provided by both sides (old British maps) was not conclusive. Menon suggested that the solution was a deal. The Chinese could build roads in disputed territories (perhaps through some lease arrangement) and India could gain access to disputed territory that China controlled.

This proposal was never officially minuted but most people concede that it existed. When Menon died, Indira Gandhi said, “Had the solution which he had proposed on behalf of India in the 50s for the India-China situation been accepted, a great deal of hardship, waste and suffering would have been avoided.”

Except that the mood in India was not in favour of accommodation. Congress MPs, many of whom hated Menon anyway, opposed any deal with the Chinese that could be seen as a retreat from our absolutist position on the border and Nehru was unable to bring them around. Eventually Nehru provoked the Chinese by announcing that they would be thrown out; this, at a time when our army was not yet ready for a high altitude conflict.

Read more: The creation of Telangana: An excerpt from Jairam Ramesh’s new book

As for the defeat itself, Ramesh does not go into the details of the war but there is no doubt that our forces were woefully under prepared and poorly led by generals, many of whom Menon had appointed. So yes, even Ramesh can’t let Menon off the hook on that one though he does point out that the generals themselves were badly divided and that these divisions and a command failure contributed to the defeat.

This is an important book and one that confirms Ramesh’s stature as the best political biographer of our times. All too often, when Indian politicians find themselves in opposition, they waste their time on politicking and favour-begging.

It is good to find at least one politician who has put this time to good use, employing his formidable intellectual skills to record our recent history.