The saga of Krishna Menon and the Indian Army
Much folklore has grown around VK Krishna Menon, India’s second most powerful politician in the 1950-60 decade. He is a reviled and demonised figure, especially in the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worldview as the “villain of 1962”. It’s wonderful, therefore, that we now have a brilliantly-researched biography of Menon by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.
Was he an angel or a demon? Neither, as Ramesh’s research in his aptly named 725-page tome A Chequered Brilliance shows. Menon could be brilliant, as in the United Nations over Kashmir, eminently skilful, as in persuading Chou En Lai in 1955 to return American Air Force prisoners of the Korean War, and also display the “pettiest and meanest” mind in his dealings with the generals as India’s most controversial defence minister ever yet.
That Krishna Menon, a mix of extreme vanity and arrogance, and insecurity laced with self-pity at the same time, became Jawaharlal Nehru’s kindred soul from the 1930s on is well known. It is also amazing how much they confided in each other. In 1939, for example, Nehru wrote a long, distraught letter to Menon complaining about his failing physical health. He added however that his constitution was strong and he may ride it out. But what worried him much more was the state of his mental health. Ramesh guesses that this must have been around time Indira would have told him she wanted to marry Feroze Gandhi.
For us children of the 1960s, the most fascinating, and for today’s generation the newsiest section, however is the five years Menon served as defence minister, and, second most powerful man in Nehru’s Cabinet (1957-62).
Ramesh’s use of the description “meanest and pettiest” specifically refers to how Menon put up the second senior-most Army officer, Lieutenant-General PN Thapar into making allegations against his own chief KM Thimayya (13 charges including leaking classified information, loose talk about the prime minister, and hobnobbing with arms dealers) to another five-point “charge-sheet” on Lt-Gen SPP Thorat, widely seen as Thimayya’s preferred choice as his successor.
In his letters to them, one his boss and the other his equal, Thapar mentioned that he was doing this with the PM’s knowledge and he would greatly appreciate to hear their side of the story too. Ramesh concludes, and I think quite rightly, that Menon, who detested Thimayya, had put Thapar up to it, and also taken Nehru into confidence. Wheels of fratricidal conspiracies were moving fast. Knowing Menon would veto his choice, Thorat, Thimayya wrote his recommendation directly to President Rajendra Prasad as Supreme Commander. The president promptly approved it too. The Republic was still settling down and nobody quite understood the Rashtrapati’s powers. Not even Prasad himself. Nehru and Menon closed ranks to reject it.
If you think this wasn’t already a divided Army in the run-up to a war, more conspiracies emerged. First, Thimayya wrote a letter complaining he had information of some “smell” about another Lt-Gen, SD Verma. And after the latter had been moved out punitively, came to Menon to say that he had erred. The only “smell” about Verma was that he wasn’t too popular. Menon recorded this in his notes to Nehru. Next was against another top officer, Sam Manekshaw, then commanding the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington. It was again the charge of “loose talk”, and of being Anglophile to the extent that he had “hanged portraits of Warren Hastings and Robert Clive” in his office. His career was nearly ruined too, as Menon sidelined him and ordered an inquiry. It cleared him subsequently. Or the history of 1971 may have been different.
Ramesh’s documents throw up three surprises on one of the biggest stories of that period, which has morphed into much folklore as a Thimayya versus Nehru, Army versus politician saga over the decades, and which Narendra Modi referred to in his last Karnataka campaign as Nehru’s humiliation of local hero Thimayya. One, that The Statesman scooped the story of his resignation in 1959. It was under another byline. Ramesh, however, establishes that Gen JN Chaudhri (who later became Chief of Army Staff), had moonlighted anonymously as The Statesman (then British-owned) military correspondent for more than a decade. He was on the inside track of this resignation but could not have written the story himself and passed it on. Think of a serving top general working as a leading paper’s military correspondent incognito.
Second, there are stunning notes from the personal archives of the then British High Commissioner Malcolm Macdonald detailing how Thimayya was sharing all his problems with Menon, Nehru, the resignation plans and much classified information with him — like how Thimayya thought Menon deliberately painted Pakistan as India’s main enemy and threat, and played down China. All of which Macdonald was dutifully reporting back to London.
And third, that true to what’s come to be believed later, India would not have lost that war in 1962 if Nehru and Menon had listened to Thimayya. But not because he was so brilliant he would have won. But because he was prescient and insisted — even writing five months after his retirement — that there was no way the Army could protect India from the Chinese. And that this had to be done by politicians and diplomats.
All the stories of a bumbling Nehru led by a paranoid and compulsive conspiracy-theorist Menon are true. The notion that, left to the generals, India would have done much better in that war is shown up as an awful myth. The generals of that period were too busy and too good at fighting each other, to have no time left for the Chinese. And we haven’t even mentioned a Lt-Gen BM Kaul yet.