VK Krishna Menon (Part 2)- The reluctant politician

Some months back, I started on a difficult project, trying to understand a forgotten luminary from the Indian political scene of the 50’s and 60’s, VK Krishna Menon. For a while it became a mini obsession, I read hundreds of articles related to him; I read autobiographies written by Janaki Ram and Madhavan Kutty and I discovered a man who was hated by many, liked only by a few and I wondered, why so? It is a tragedy actually; a great man who did so much for the country, only to be undone by the very politics he entered into…Because, in his lone quest for moral righteousness, he voiced his mind and started fights that he did not have firepower to fight with and lacked back up. Many a time, the finesse that he showed when he spoke on great pulpits like the UN, deserted him when he faced subordinates. The subordinates became his enemy.

Part 1, I introduced him; in Part 2, I cover some matters related to his defense ministry days, the infamous jeep scandal and the latest MI5 files.

MKB Nair introduces the protagonist perfectly - V. K. Krishna Menon is one of those who are not lost in a crowd. His face is attractive in a Mephistophelian way. Piercing eyes, an aquiline nose, broad forehead and disheveled hair, his face has a fanatical glow. His restless face mirrors the quick thinking that is going on in his mind. Even more expressive are his long fingers which can emphasize a point to supplement his precise words. Rough-hewn masculinity is the instantaneous, impression. When he begins to talk, a fanatical restlessness comes alive which is the result of deep convictions hardened in the rough and tumble of a hard life. He may be liked. He may be hated. But he can never be ignored.

New Delhi in the 50’s - It was a macabre setting, like a fine Shakespeare drama theatre or a Roman colloseum, with the guys in the middle comprising the protagonist, his dear friend, and a number of villains. The arena had onlookers who contributed little, joined by many hounds baying for blood. The air was thick with political talk, north/south divide omni present, rumors of an impending military coup, enemies at the north and west borders. In the middle of it all the lone sufferer, the protagonist, supported by only his only friend, his boss.

The protagonist was VK Krishna Menon, and his lone friend – Nehru, with Menon fighting his own and Nehru’s proxy battle with the powerful army HQ and the many officers who hated the very sight of this arrogant civilian giving them daily dressing downs. He was not the typical meek, submissive and cowering south Indian clerk type appointed by the Raj, which they had been used to in the past; here was a sneering, well educated, eloquent speaker, who argued like no other. The baying hounds were the anti congress politicians comprising Morarji, JP, Kriplani and many more. Pressures flared up, so did tempers, files were thrown around and during temporary retreats, both parties sat sulking & scowling, important work suffered.

VKKM was living contentedly in UK, but the jeep scandal and Nehru’s insistence that he come to India to help him out resulted in VKKM’s appointment as India’s defense minister – and with it commenced his many failings and achievements. Actually Menon wanted to start a reporting career in London at 21g per article.

It all started against a poignant background -
Nehru hated men in uniform. Menon usually carried out Nehru’s wishes and this time around, he walked into the defense ministry with that idea and started his turnaround plan – at the same time putting his own stamp on it – making a self reliant military. He hated the very British sounding & pompous military brass, guys like Thimmaya and Maneksaw, but (unfortunately!) favored Nehru’s nephew Kaul. He hated decorum and the military way of doing things ‘by the book’. And, Menon wanted the non aligned moment and the Panchsheel to survive. Geo politics in the meantime took its devious paths and resulted in a whole bunch of disappointed people, China, Tibet, India, USA, Pakistan…the list goes on…Menon stuck to rebuilding the military much to the chagrin of the generals, he wanted arms and armaments locally manufactured, he had learnt from his arms deals while at UK, whereas the brass possibly wanted the latest from the west.

Nehru in the meantime was quite unhappy over the
loss of Tibet to China and wanted the Chinese to withdraw from all disputed territory. The Chinese would have none of that and eventually the word was given by Nehru, ‘throw them out’. Incidentally, the final order to 'throw the Chinese out,' was given on September 22, 1962 by K Raghuramiah, then minister of state in the defense ministry.

It is debatable that Indo China skirmish resulted in a horrible loss for India, I think the real fact was that we held up against them on some fronts, though we lost on the Aksai Chen (North Ladakh) battle– This was largely due to the mess created by Kaul in redirecting a brigade who had just finished duty in the East, carrying just blankets and minimally equipped, to secure the Aksai Chen area… result lives lost, battle lost…retreat & humiliation. Menon’s strategy was to fight the Chinese on the low grounds as we were not really equipped for high altitude warfare, he was quickly branded a traitor for trying to let the enemy in, resulted in our taking on the enemy at the heights with 303 rifles and a handful of ammunition – and the loss..

Why the lack of preparedness and equipment? Why were the factories making cookers & kettles? Because of an ongoing tussle between the defense and finance ministries and because
Morarji Desai the FM never cleared the money for defense budgets!! Also during peacetime days, Krishna Menon wanted his ordnance factories to work to capacity and support the growing nation.

But there is so much of conflicting information and ‘spin’on this put out in the press by supporters and detractors, even today; I don’t know what to believe. All I know is that Menon would have gained nothing by doing what other say he did – going to war without a care, or for that matter the unprepared-ness of the
military (Actually Menon forced the defense budget up to 2.5% of the GNP from 1.4% in the past) when the day to day running was actually by the Army HQ!! So is it right that Menon howled and the Brass sulked when an enemy was at the border with guns poised? Well if that is the case, there is more than Menon to blame.

Malgaonkar concurs-
Krishna Menon didn't possess an independent power base and drew his power from his proximity to Nehru. Menon probably would have done better as foreign minister, but he proved to be a bad boss for defense. He disliked the set army procedures and tried to short-circuit them at every stage in every matter. He had a bad habit of treating his subordinates as if they were children.

But well, as minister, Menon took the blame, uttered not a word in his defense, resigned and retired from public life. He did not pass the buck or blame his boss. He left behind a legacy, the various institutions he created, forming a solid base for self reliant India, a major reason for success in border wars that followed. However, he was not necessarily a good leader - Menon lectured his highly decorated subordinates, scolded them viciously, and mocked them when they came out with outdated strategies and proposals. But, having said all that, let us look at some of his good work

Krishna Menon wrote in 1971, “…The building of a modern India needs the purposeful channelisation of the entire energies of her people towards well defined goals.” This was his underlying principle.
Menon brought in the concept that the defense system should have its own industrial base and should not be dependent upon imports. From recovery and reconstruction of condemned equipment lying in military depots to raising the salaries of defense personnel, he brought about several changes. He initiated extensive defense production programs, much to the detriment of the private sector.

And he helped create (the list is not complete), organizations which gave our defense structure, direction & momentum. These below were the some of his activities Army HQ never supported and dubbed as ‘play-things’ of VKKM.

Sainik Schools & Compulsory NCC, Ordnance factory, Heavy Vehicles factory Avadi, Bharat electronics, HAL at Bangalore, Armed forces medical college,
Hovercraft production, Avro production at Kanpur, SLR – Semi automatic rifles production, Shaktiman truck production, Leander frigate development at Bombay, DRDO Bangalore, ADE Bangalore, Missile (SWDT) development at DSL N Delhi

So here it is for you to see – judge the man by his actions and his legacy, not the people he fired or got upset, not his failings and aberrations. I agree with his detractors that he did have failings and I am not simply supporting him as one from his state (look at Indians today, when somebody like me makes a comment in support of VKKM, quickly comes a rejoinder, you are from his state & blindly supporting him). I should even add here that Menon had little to do with Kerala ( he always proposed a Dakshin Pradesh & not individual South Indian states), he forgot Malayalam after his years in UK and refused initially to contest for elections from Kerala, on the grounds that it was unfair & that if he was a good candidate, he should get elected from other constituencies. He got elected from Bombay.

VKKM said often - controversy chases me and I always meet it halfway, he had a very large share of controversies actually…the most notorious being the Jeep scandal.

VKKM, the UK high commissioner was asked by the Army to help procure a large number of jeeps (just after WW-II) at a very limited budget for deployment in the Andhra & Kashmir regions, for law & order enforcement. The army also sent a Brigadier as advisor for this purpose, which Menon disliked. The need was urgent (the Brits were also trying to source jeeps), so with great alacrity, Menon found agents (Cleminsan) who could source a number of used Allied forces (the hounds called it the WWII condemned lot) vehicles and he procured them without much ado. This blew up into a major scandal in India, as the local Brigadier had been bypassed. The sulking army brass initially refused to accept them even though they were Lloyds certified. The situation was muddied further by the hounds who stated that Menon did this all for personal benefit (ridiculous, it is said that he drew only Rs 1/- as salary when he was the UK-HC and occupied only a small corner room for himself), and that the jeeps were not roadworthy, were never delivered etc.

How sad, this one man, who had no interest or use for money (nor did he have any vices that needed monetary support) in his entire life, now being accused of accepting money for it. What the anti Nehru lobby wanted was Nehru’s key man, weakened, the usual political move, and the plan executed with Macbeth’ian precision. As for the jeeps, well, they were in put into service and remained in service for a decade thereafter (Source – Janaki Ram’s book). End result, a miffed army HQ and the sullying of the reputation of this fine man plus his losing the HC post in London. The real error in all this, Nehru’s summary closure of the case without proper explanation – that raised a furor and made the case smell like hell, like it does even today.

Another issue was also related to UK, Menon as High commissioner ordered two Rolls Royce’s for HC use, which nobody appreciated, in India. It was termed a waste of good money (MI5 states that they were financed by the jeep & other deals). Unfortunately Menon had a purpose; he wanted young India to be viewed in the right light and on par with all others, not as a country of beggars. Menon hardly possessed the virtues of patience and humility, and when questioned, he replied, rather snapped "I can scarcely hire a bullock-cart to call on 10 Downing Street." But well, was a Rolls Royce required to prove the point? Probably not…It only helped build a tougher anti Menon lobby, just as he was headed for home.

R Venkatraman rightly said – Menon was arrogant but only to those who tried to denigrate his country. His words were acid and bitter but only when he tore the mask of hypocrisy and laid bare the truth. He was harsh because he could not suffer mediocrity. Intellectually he was a giant and had the best in an argument and it is the habit of the world to compensate the loss with abuse.

The MI5 files on VKKM released on March 2nd,2007.

I was just planning to post this when two articles came up in the Indian press. A report by
Times of India, and another by Rediff. Initially the reporters based everything on highlights provided on the UK MI5 intelligence organizations, website. Unfortunately, they like the MI5 teaser just reported the scandalous bits. Intrigued by the accusations, I myself had a quick read of all the pages in the MI5 ‘Menon Dossier’. I can provide a quick summary, for those interested.
1.The first few files primarily focus on Menon’s relations with the British Communists. MI5 initially concluded that Menon is a communist and monitored him, attending his speeches and thence opening & copying his personal mail.
2.There are some opinions on KM’s moral standing provided by certain individuals. One of them writes that ‘it is common knowledge in Indian circles’ (now, you decide if that is reliable intelligence) that Bridget Tunnard, the Indian league secretary was Menon’s mistress. That’s it, one sentence.
3. I could not see at first look any reference to Menon’s recreational drug use. However I do know from various articles that Menon used Luminal for arthritis (or was it some kind of epilepsy?). MI5 files mention that he was sick often and probably had heart problems and TB.
4. A couple of files are entirely on the Jeep deal and other Indian arms purchase deals.
5. In later files and in a reply to the US state department, the MI5 state that Menon was originally using the Communist party as a prop for the purpose of Indian independence and that after he became the UK HC, he distanced himself from them. They also clarify that in the Jeep deal, Menon’s actions were irregular, but not illegal or meant for personal profit. They go on to confirm that he lived frugally and he took no salary, but they insinuate that he spread that money around to help Indians and other Indian organizations in UK like the India league.
6. While reading the files, it becomes quite apparent that the investigators had little knowledge of the Indian mindset, habits & differing ways of viewing things. From page one they are anti Menon and only in one matter do they support him, it is the fact that Menon always insisted on India not straying from the commonwealth.

I found the MI5 dossier full of innuendo & many contradictions plus lack of depth & precision, but I guess that the way they are, clinically documented text for others to tailor inferences as they chose. Personally I am quite apolitical, so most of the stuff & views in those files were of little interest to me.


Anonymous said…
Hi Manmadhan,
Very good analysis, I did enjoy reading it.
You may want to check some spelling errors... Maneksaw, non aligned moment.....
lost_scotoma said…
Thanks for the info on VKKM...we absolutely owe a lot to this service to our nation....
Maddy said…
thanks lost_scotoma...pls do check often plenty of similar people pictured in this blog..
Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy, I am also an admirer of VKK and I have written in my blog about him and KP Keshava Menon '.Two Indian Patriots'. If interested you can check it out. He could be very cutting if provoked. There is an anecdote about Mr. Velayudhan (KR Vijaya fame) who called on him in Delhi to invite for the opening of his hotel Sudarsan in Chennai. He explained the purpose of his visit. Mr.Menon heard him out.He ended saying he said the hotel had everything latest.
In reply he merely said,' Hotel? It is nothing but a brothel.'
Maddy said…
Thanks Benny..
I will read your blog in detail soon,. that was a great anecdote...at least he should have considered KR Vijaya and cooled off a bit..
Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy,
As a nomad myself I have thought India shows up its lack of ideas and moral stature in the absence of VKK Sardar Patel and CR. There may be thousands of politicians who had sterling qualities. But they seem to have hidden their better selves under a bushel( where they keep also ill-gotten gains) and showed only the mentality needed for a politician. I am not sure we shall ever be in the present holding up our heads high as VKK could in the international community . So low have we come in terms of transparency.
Had VKK a mistress? Better for him. He still shines all the more better in comparison with the ilks of Nehru, Vajpai and thousands of them.
Hi Maddy!

I am a big Krishna Menon fan. I was wondering whether in your research on Menon you came across the series of articles published on Menon in one of the national dailies post the 1962 war. I have been looking for them, unsuccessfully till now.

Maddy said…
Thanks Patanjali Pundit,
No, I am not aware of those articles, I will check around, maybe try & contact his biographer PJS George If I can find his contacts
Narayanswamy S said…
O.P. Mathai has given wrong picture of VKKM in his book on Nehru