Book review: Humanising the villain of 1962 - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 17 January 2020

Book review: Humanising the villain of 1962

A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon
Author: Jairam Ramesh
Publisher: Penguin Random House
725 pages
Price: Rs 999/-

VK Krishna Menon, one of modern India’s most cerebral, sardonic and acerbic political leaders, was described tellingly after his death in 1974, in an obituary sentence in the London Times: “[A] remarkable, yet unlikable man who worked untiringly all his life for his country, yet never received a nation’s gratitude, or even acceptance.” Even within the Congress Party, which he served selflessly despite his markedly left wing personal convictions, he was regarded as an outsider and relentlessly undermined by mainstream leaders, lasting as long as he did only because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s unwavering support.

Much has already been written about Menon, mostly criticism of his role as defence minister in the lead-up to the 1962 war, in which the Indian Army was comprehensively drubbed by China. At least two generations of Indians after 1962 see Krishna Menon as the political villain who sent primitively armed, poorly clad and barely trained Indian soldiers to senseless deaths at the hands of a rampaging Chinese army. Now Jairam Ramesh, in this extraordinary tour de force, offers a more balanced and wide-ranging account of an outspoken freedom fighter, skilful diplomat, take-no-prisoners negotiator and visionary who has been unfairly denied the credit he deserves. 

It would be easy – and mistaken – to dismiss the author’s sympathy for his subject as stemming from their common identity as Congress Party members. In fact, most Congressmen of the freedom struggle era considered Menon more a communist than a Congressman. His most committed detractors were Congress Party members, most notably Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and powerful, right-wingers like Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant. Following the 1962 debacle, it was infuriated Congressmen who arm-twisted Nehru into dropping Menon from his cabinet and casting him into the political wilderness. Many of the Congress’s stalwarts, having spent decades confronting the British in India, lacked an understanding of the crucial role that Menon played during those years, living hand-to-mouth in London to canvass and mobilise British left-of-centre opinion to create sympathy for Indian self-rule. 

Menon picked relentlessly at an uncomfortable fault line in the British conscience: that the subjugation of India was inconsistent with Britain’s claim to be a moral power. In 1932, Menon established the India League as the forum for his activities and ran it up till independence on a shoestring budget, surviving, it emerges, on endless cups of tea. During these years he forged invaluable relationships with prominent left-wing British intellectuals Bertrand Russell and Harold Laski, future Labour Party prime ministers such as Clement Attlee and influential British policymakers, such as Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Louis Mountbatten (Spoiler alert: Menon played a big role in his appointment as viceroy).

British Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, summed up Menon’s role in the freedom struggle: “[Annie] Besant fought for India’s freedom in India, while Krishna Menon worked for India’s freedom in Britain… We gave you Annie Besant and you gave us Krishna Menon who spoke to us in a language that we could understand.”

One of the most compelling themes of the book is its psychological portrayal of Menon – as a tortured soul in whom brusque ruthlessness went hand-in-hand with a deep desire for approval. Over the decades, Menon bombarded Nehru, his intellectual soul mate, with offers to resign because he felt under-appreciated or undermined by one of his rivals. Nehru’s patience was phenomenal; he would reply promptly, reassuring and pacifying his moody comrade, but only until the next bout of petulance. Occasionally, such as when Menon embroiled the government in the “jeep scandal”, Nehru would write more reproachfully, but never transgressing a line. Ramesh recounts a hilarious exchange in 1953, when even Nehru’s patience ran out while brokering peace between Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Menon. The prime minister wrote to Pandit: “By far the best part of my time is taken up reconciling people or in soothing them… I do not know if in other countries [leaders] are faced with these difficulties of individuals behaving too individualistically. In the Soviet Union, I suppose, when this happens they are liquidated…”

As the author painstakingly details – and that is one reason why this book is an elbow-taxing 725 pages long – Menon’s diplomatic achievements go well beyond his marathon, eight-hour-long speech in the United Nations, where, as even his detractors admit, he memorably defended India’s position on Kashmir. Menon also played a key role in mediating between the US and China on Korea, salvaging the Indo-China (Vietnam) accords in Geneva in 1954 and, incredibly, in almost managing to bring together America and China in 1955 – something that Pakistan eventually pulled off in 1971.

With Gemal Abdul Nasser (both in front row)

Ironically, given that so many of these triumphs involved China, Menon’s Waterloo came with the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Ramesh details the euphoria that greeted Menon’s appointment as defence minister in 1957, and the widespread optimism about the benefits of Menon’s partnership with the highly regarded army chief, General KM Thimayya. But, while Menon established the Defence Research & Development Organisation, the Border Roads Organisation, launched the navy onto a Blue Water trajectory with the purchase of an aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, and began the building of fighter aircraft in the country by concluding the MiG-21 contract with the Soviet Union, his inability to get along with his senior commanders (like him, heavily anglicised) severely undermined the military’s organisational coherence. In one of the most shocking parts of the book, Ramesh cites diplomatic despatches that recount Indian generals and officials, including Thimayya and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, complaining bitterly about Menon to the British ambassador, even alleging that the defence minister was readying a coup to supplant Nehru. Today, this would seem disloyal, even treasonous but, in those days, not long after independence, the British continued to enjoy an exalted status that led to such confidences. It should not be forgotten that, until the late 1950s, the Indian Air Force and navy continued to be commanded by British officers. Menon himself told the British envoy that “General Thimayya was a fool and not a very nice fool either”, and blamed a lot of the backbiting on “too much whisky in the American embassy”.

The author challenges several truisms about 1962, notably the widespread belief that Menon was responsible for starving the army of resources. In April 1955, Menon sent Nehru an eight-page note on “Defence Expenditure and Economic Development”, arguing strongly for increased defence spending, given Pakistan’s entry into two US-led military alliances. It was Finance Minister Morarji Desai who declined to release more money for defence. Menon is also unfairly blamed for a hard line stance that provoking the Chinese into attacking India. In fact, he knew Zhou Enlai well, having negotiated with him for endless hours over the Korean and Indo-China conflicts and believed, even after their last, little-known meeting in Geneva just four months before China attacked India in October 1962, that war could be avoided. Yet, the 1962 debacle demanded a high-level political scapegoat, which meant the end of Menon’s career. Typically, this proud Malayali insisted for the rest of his life that he resigned, and was never sacked.

This is a book for everyone – the professional and amateur military historian, the student of India’s freedom struggle, and even the non-specialist reader. It is, perhaps, excessively rich in detail and at times annoying in its meanderings across chronology. It leaves a few important questions unaddressed, such as: Who was responsible for the decision not to use air power to stop the Chinese attack in 1962. But these are minor quibbles. In the final balance, it rivets the reader and will surely be one of the important books of recent times.

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