Bringing order from the nightmare of Chaos
Introducing - Rao Bahadur Vapal Pangunni Menon.
While perusing the stories of Nehru, Krishna Menon and many others I had covered in these blogs, I came across VP’s name now and then. And like the man he was, he and his character were such that they remained largely hidden in those niches and corners. It took me much effort to prise open some of that persona behind them. It could be so that VP wanted to remain hidden, for it is certainly curious that a person of such greatness has not a single biography or major biographical article written about him. In fact even in encyclopedias, his private life is given a couple of paragraphs of space, though much is written about the actions he took and his work. So this article tries to keep the long narrative connected to the person while only gleaning over his majestic work
I am happy that Vijay my friend prodded me to check his story out. VP belonged to to a place I know reasonably well, for at Ottapalam, we have many a relative and friend. So that is where we have to go to start the story. Like Krishna Menon, VP as he was called, had his friends and detractors and during various periods of his career, also powerful sponsors. Long ago I had learned that for one to go up and up in life, it helps to have such a powerful sponsor. But only some are lucky in such matters.
I pass by Ottapalam often, for it is on the way to many places, especially if you are from Palakkad. It is a place made famous by writers like our great MT Vasudevan Nair and needless to remind the reader that before MT many a luminary hailed from the banks of the Bhratapuzha or the Nila valley. So as we start, once upon a time, there lived in those terrains a poor man, who toiled and rose to become the most trusted Indians amongst the ruling British. Later, he turned out to be the master negotiator for the Indians and the Congress, with the British. On one side was Mountbatten, and on the other Sardar Patel, Nehru, Krishna Menon and a multitude of other heavy duty and seasoned politicians including Gandhiji. In between them was our man from Ottapalam, and his name was Pangunni. Strange name actually, it probably means the person born in the month of Panguni or possibly after the lame Sage of the Himalayas. Maybe it means something else, I don’t know. Today the name is hardly heard in Kerala, and like the Indian independence struggle, it sounds rather ancient.
As an Indian express article mentioned –Few small towns in the country could claim as many movers and shakers in the top bureaucracy as this pastoral municipality of barely 50,000 people. Ottappalam, clearly, has got too used to its men making news to notice. A few minutes down the dusty and narrow bone-shaker of a road winding away from Shankaran Nair’s original home here was the house of the wily V P Menon, Std VII dropout and one-time coolie-turned-secretary of state who more than helped Sardar Vallabhai Patel annex the many princely states to Independent India - more land and more people, in fact, than even Bismarck did in Germany.
Pangunni or VP as he was known moved back and forth negotiating the paperwork of English withdrawal from India and as secretary of state the creation of most of the states that we know today, wresting them away from some 564 princes and kings, sultans and nawabs. He created together with Sardar Patel the union or statehood we know today and swear by, though he has sadly been forgotten by all. That is the incredible story of V.P.Menon, an eminent administrator and diplomat.
For it was VP himself who reminded us many years ago that “A nation that forgets its history or its geography does so at its peril”. Poignant isn’t it, that we forgot not only the history but also the creators of such history?
If you go into the incorporation certificate of many an Indian state today, you will see this at the end - In confirmation whereof Mr. Vapal Pangunni Menon, Adviser to the Government of India in the Ministry of States, has appended his signature on behalf and with the authority of the Governor General of India and His Highness…………..There lies imprinted his name, forever, for those who come across it perchance.
A lot of people have some knowledge about the freedom struggle and many of the players in that game, for that is what it was in hindsight. Nehru and VKK Menon on one side, Patel and VP Menon on the other side…Those were heady days when Nehru ruled the roost and more visible people like Krishna Menon, Patel, Gandhiji and many others made the scenes at Delhi hectic and turbulent to say the least. The Raj was slowly disbanding, the farewell parties were in full swing in Delhi and the ships and the goras were heading back to the Blighty. The P&B liners were sagging with the weight of the looters and the booty, as some snide remarks suggest, for the last time. In the melee, there was one person who was steadfast in his beliefs standing firmly behind Sardar Patel. His name was VP Menon. There is no authoritative biography written about him, so the information penned here is gleaned from a number of sources.
VP was not highly educated, in fact many a write up mentions that he finished 7th standard at the Ottapalam High school. He was born on 30th Sept 1894, a son to a school headmaster with 12 siblings. As the story goes, VP overheard his father discussing the unbearable cost of educating the young boys. VP decided to be a burden no more and left home, like many others, in a train bound for the North. He worked in a gold mine (some other mentions of coal mines as well) and as a day laborer in Mysore to start with and continued at a Tobacco firm in Bangalore. The days in Mysore & Bangalore never left his memory, for when he retired, Bangalore was his destination, and probably the place reminded him of his days in cool Simla. Vappalakalam was where he came from; though he himself shortened it to Vapal and others like KM Panikkar called him Vepali (Vappalakalam is near Panamanna, a mile north of Ottapalam town). The tharavad house still exists and you can see it as well as the family pond, marked in the map.
To trace his path and the distances he traveled and reached, I peruse through some pages devoted to VP Menon by HG Hodson in his charming autobiography.
Brought up in a matriarchal extended family in that part of Madras province which is now Mysore (?) state, VP did well at school, learning English as all secondary pupils did in Madras; but when he overheard a family conversation about the cost of his further education he decided not to be a burden, but to leave home and make his own way in the world. An Englishman gave him a clerical job in Bangalore, where, he told me, he sat under a crimson gulmohor tree and pondered his future. He decided to move towards the centre of government of India. On his way north, he was offered a job teaching English in a small Muslim-ruled state. “There is one little condition,” they said; “you will have to become a Mussulman.” The agnostic young Menon thought this no fatal obstacle, until he learnt that virtually the only requirement for conversion was circumcision: permanent amputation for a temporary job he thought too high a price.
As we see from Hodson’s notes, VP reached Simla in the 1914 time frame, aged 20, connected somehow with the Madrasi crowd there and joined the British bureaucracy as a lowly clerk or steno typist. (Please see corrections regarding the years at Delhi, below)
In Simla the “Madras connection” helped him to a post in a government office. Thence his ability and industry alone took him up the ladder of promotion to become deputy to my predecessor as Reforms Commissioner, Sir Hawthorne Lewis. Menon was lucky to be drafted to the Reforms office, for merit could shine more effectively there than in a large hierarchical department manned in all its upper ranks by ICS men. He had the opportunity to show his brains, assiduity and sound sense in the arduous work of serving the Round Table Conferences on Indian constitutional reform (for which the Reforms Office had indeed been created) and implementing the new constitution, the Government of India Act 1935.
My friend Premanth provided me with some detail of the early years in Delhi. Menon reached Delhi and connected up with some very helpful and well played Malayalis. One of them, the eminent Mr CK Kunhiraman from the Viceroys secretariat helped him in his time of need and provided him the necessary recommendations for a job there. Another well wisher and supporter was Mr Anandan. Mr Kunhiraman later moved to Sri Lanka and worked to start the Ceylon Congress.
Even though we have the faded, grainy photograph of him, Menon was described as bespectacled, bald and cheerful but engaging man with snaggled teeth. Was he a jovial guy? Was he a serious chap, a nerd perhaps? Was he timid or outspoken? I would think from all I read that he was the serious and meticulous type, very firm in manner and speech. This firmness was to stand in good stead when he later worked with political stalwarts like Gandhi, Krishna Menon, Nehru, Patel, various pompous Englishmen and of course the many hundred egoistic kings and princes during the formation of states. But in those early days, it also resulted in him getting bullied terribly by a junior ICS officer named Lancaster. Another interesting story tells it all, as accounted by Hodosn.
On his first visit to England as part of the secretariat of the first Round Table Conference he had an unforgettable experience. When he had just joined the government service and was under training in his home province he was horribly bullied by a junior ICS officer, Lancaster by name. Later, when working in the Home Department he had to deal with the file on this same man’s compulsory retirement for arbitrary behaviour and general unsuitability. Arriving in London with very few personal contacts, and somewhat bewildered, he was agreeably surprised when an Englishman came up to him on Victoria station and asked did he not come from Madras, whereabouts, and so on, explaining that he himself was a former Madras civilian. He turned out to be none other than Mr Lancaster, unrecognisable with a beard. He insisted that for the rest of Menon’s stay in England he should spend every weekend in his house. When their friendship had become close enough to allow it, VP asked Lancaster why he had behaved as he had. He replied: “Imagine a young man of 23, without much training or background, suddenly finding himself with almost absolute power over a large number of subject people. Can you wonder that he forgets his discretion, his balance, his manners? People exclaim at the wickedness of some rajahs: I am surprised that any of them are good.” He had realised how wrong he had been and was trying to make amends for his misbehaviour by befriending lonely Indians. That encounter was one of the foundations of VP’s undying affection and loyalty towards the British—sentiments which in no way trammelled his Indian-ness or his aspirations for his country’s freedom.
For 11 years Menon toiled, and steadily impressed his superiors and rose up the ranks. It appears that he married Smt Kanakamma around 1941 at the late age of 46 and fathered three children, two sons and a daughter. His greatest abilities as stated by his peers was that he knew how to get things done and had both the knowledge and abilities to go with it. Pangunni Menon was by temperament a conservative, with no time for the social radicalism of Nehru or Gandhi. By 1942 (when quit India started) he had risen to become the constitutional secretary to the Viceroy. As Fernando writes - When the post of Reforms Commissioner became vacant in 1942 following the departure of H V Hodson, there was some reluctance to appoint an Indian to a position of such intimate trust on political and constitutional matters. However, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, had been so impressed by Menon’s loyalty, judgement and technical knowledge that he was appointed to the post.
To me he was the best of friends and colleagues. It must have been a wretched disappointment to him not to move up to the Reforms Commissionership when Lewis became Governor of Orissa, but he never showed the slightest sign of jealousy or coolness towards the young ignorant Englishman who had been appointed instead. I think he craved the post as much because it had been a job for the ICS, who had looked down on him as an uncovenanted civil servant, as for its rank and emoluments. There was a natural reluctance to appoint an Indian, however well qualified, to a position of intimate trust on political and constitutional affairs, but Lord Linlithgow had been impressed by Menon’s loyalty as well as his judgment and technical knowledge, and he duly succeeded me as constitutional adviser.
But his greatest associations came first with Mountbatten and later with Sardar Patel.
He had the full confidence of Lord Wavell, though he was not at one with the Viceroy over the conduct of the Simla conference in 1945 (his memorandum on the alternatives open after the failure of the conference, printed in an appendix to the last volume of the Transfer of Power documents, is a monument of good sense); but in the earlier weeks of the last viceroyalty he was neglected by Mountbatten, who had brought eminent advisers from England to reinforce the Viceroy’s private secretariat and who no doubt felt that an Indian, a Hindu, could not avoid being partisan in the tense inter-party and inter-communal negotiations for independence.
However, Mountbatten realised before long what an invaluable counsellor he had in Menon, who brought not only unrivalled knowledge of Indian constitutional matters but also confidential personal contacts with important Indian figures, including top civil servants like Mahomed Ali, administrative architect of Pakistan and BN Rao, draftsman of the new Indian constitution. And at the moment of crisis, when Nehru spurned Mountbatten’s first plan for the transfer of power, it was to Menon that the Viceroy turned. In a matter of hours Menon devised, and secretly negotiated with Patel, the plan for an early demission of power to two Dominions under the existing constitution, altered to eliminate British control, which proved the key to the whole problem. It was a masterly effort, drawing upon the deep thought that VP had given over many years to India’s constitutional progress, which he and his predecessors in the Reforms Office believed could be best advanced on the historical pattern already set in the British Commonwealth. In all this, Menon was the devoted servant both of the regime to which he had given his working life, and to his own country whose constitutional freedom he had perceived as his ultimate professional goal.
VP Menon and Indian independence
It is not a good idea to cover this part of his life in this blog, for Menon himself has covered it all in a voluminous book called ‘The Transfer of Power’. An avid student of politics or history may refer to it, but needless to say that Menon after working with the British during their times took the lead together with Wavell and Mountbatten in clearing the way towards freedom. The interesting stories like how he and Edwina persuaded the disappointed Dickie from not abandoning the efforts, how VP in a matter of hours, typing with his two fingers as he did all his life, completed the famous plan that decided Indian independence and partition and reached an agreement with Nehru and Jinnah are legendary. He himself says in “The Transfer of Power”: “I had only two or three hours in which to prepare an alternative draft plan and I sat to work on it at once”.
Sardar Patel & the formation of states
Once the British had gone, it was VP’s decision to quit and retire to his favorite Bangalore, but that was not to be so for there was one final master stroke left in his pen. India just before the Independence was not a union but a conglomeration of some 564 kingdoms, and the potential for a right royal mess was looming. Sardar Patel decided to get VP on his side in the accession and formation of states. Between them, they cajoled, persuaded, and even threatened the difficult kings and nawabs to join the Indian union. As it happened, they succeeded admirably, barring Junagad, Kashmir and Hyderabad. These facts and events are also well documented, in Menon’s ‘The story of the integration of Indian states’ (which I have not been able to get a hold of, unfortunately). Many interesting and some controversial stories are still quoted today, like the Kashmir signatures, the Travancore, Junagad and Hyderabad accessions. The Kashmir story is fascinating and I will get to it in a separate blog. The story of how another ruler (Jodhpur ruler who pulled out his pistol pen) drew a pistol at him and how Manekshaw went with him to Kashmir are all fascinating caricatures of this largely invisible man, a stalwart who shaped Indian history and the India we see today. Whatever happened to the pen? The rajah gifted it (or as other stories say was confiscated) to Mountbatten!!
One writer says - The partnership between Patel and Menon was of a rare kind. Almost every Indian politician was allergic to civil servants, owing to their participation in the British Raj. Many Congressmen had demanded stripping the service of its privileges or disbanding it all together, owing to the role of British-era officers in imprisoning Congress leaders. Nehru himself was reluctant to listen to the civil servants who worked under him.
The Patel Menon understanding started in August 1946, was key to the transfer of power, division of India and the merger of the princely states into India. Their relationship is famous and many a time, Menon was singled out by Patel to broach things to difficult people and secure their agreement. One example is the famous case of the early princely integration efforts that Gandiji did not think will succeed.
The iron man Patel used tough methods to coerce the princes, but the question was what would Bapuji say? Suppose he called it coercion, a breach of his principle of non-violence? Patel did not like to face Gandhi, and left the job of convincing Gandhi to Menon. Menon met Gandhi in Birla House and told him that it was all done in the interest of the concerned Princes themselves. Gandhi finally agreed and accepted that it was like administering ‘castor oil to resisting children'.
Quoting Menon to sum up the relationship ‘The Sardar was endowed with the art of getting things done, and we established an ideal team spirit between the political head and the officials working under him. When once a policy was agreed upon, the Sardar never interfered or bothered about details. It was as if I was the driver and he trusted me to get him to the agreed destination: he never indulged in ‘back seat’ driving. I kept him informed, morning and evening, and often late at night, of the progress made, and, if specially important or difficult decision had to be made, I consulted him. Otherwise he was content to leave everything to me. When he had his unfortunate heart attack in 1948 I realized the necessity of hurrying through the process of integration, for without him at the head of the Ministry, I doubt whether the job would ever have been completed. I therefore redoubled the speed with which I worked, and fortunately it was brought to a conclusion while he was still in charge.’
When Patel died, the funeral in Bombay was a tame affair at a public crematorium. Many of the Princes whose states Patel had taken away took special planes to reach Bombay for the event. V. P. Menon was there, isolated and forlorn. Nehru was among the mourners but left the funeral oration to Rajaji, as Nehru said that he was emotionally disturbed. Rajendra Prasad, now President of India, broke protocol (to Nehru's annoyance) and attended the funeral.
Menon, Nehru and Orissa
At this point of time, all that was left was to conclude with a position commensurate with his experience and brilliance. Menon upon Mountbatten’s recommendation to Nehru, was appointed acting governor of Orissa but was never promoted as a full governor. With that Menon bitterly bid adieu from Delhi, bureaucracy and politics.
Yet he died, in retirement in Bangalore, where I spent many hours with him recording on tape his recollections both of the run-up to independence and of the integration of the princely states, a disappointed man; for Nehru, who was not temperamentally in tune with him, denied him the promotion to a provincial governorship which was his final ambition and which his great services before and after independence had made his due. I salute his memory.
Retirement in Bangalore
Menon resigned from the service in 1951 to settle in Bangalore. And thus he came back to his beloved Bangalore, moved to his house in Cooks town and the old timers of Banagalore still mention the big car and the presence of Menon in august functions and as the fighter for civic rights in Bangalore & Mysore. Here he sat and wrote the two great and oft quoted books, The transfer of Power and The formation of states. In addition he contributed frequently to newspapers and magazines, also writing great euologies about people he had difficulties with such as CP Ramaswamy Iyer who had once fought long with him on the accession of the kingdom of Travancore.
Menon was a serious Bangalore resident, mentioning many a time of his having owned a house there for thirty years and having lived there for 10 years. Well, it was in his house that he sat to write the two great memoirs on the request of Patel. But once Patel was gone, Menon had hardly the great drive he possessed once before.
But there is another even better anecdote related to this great man, occurring as he was wandering around in search of work.
As a young man newly arrived in Delhi enroute Simla to seek his first job in government, all his possessions, including money, were stolen. In desperation he turned to an elderly Sikh at the station, described his plight, and asked for a loan of 15 rupees to continue on to Simla. The Sikh gave him the money, but when V.P. asked for his address so that he might repay the loan, the Sikh said that he owed the debt to any stranger who came to him in need, as long as he lived. The help which came from a stranger was to be repaid to a stranger. He never forgot that debt, even on his death bed. At that unfortunate time a beggar came to the family home in Bangalore asking for help to buy sandals as his feet were covered with sores, V.P. asked his daughter to take 15 rupees from his wallet and give it to the beggar. That was his last conscious act.
Menon has left behind for us two most important publications. As KZ Islam stated succintly, ‘The Transfer of Power in India’ is a remarkably calm and impartial review of the events leading to the partition and independence and ‘The Integration of the Indian States’ is a colorful tragi-comic story of the end of the princely system in India. Both these books were written virtually as text-books and they are presently prescribed in the reading of history in the Indian Universities. He wrote a number of other books as well such as An Outline of Indian Constitutional History. The books, especially the former is very interesting and stories such as how Jinnah desperately tried to get Calcutta and the whole of Bengal during the partition make interesting reading.
LK Advani states - Menon’s two books The Story of the Integration of Indian States and Transfer of Power are classics, indispensable for anybody who wishes to study the triumphs and tragedies in that important era in India’s history.
Menon and Mountbatten
Menon was regarded highly by Mountbatten as his predecessors. Their relationships were cordial and friendly and there are stories of Menon rushing in waking Mountbatten in his bedroom once during a crisis, Quoting KZ Islam from weeklyholiday.net
It is doubtful if any Indian official or non-official saw the workings of the British Indian Government more closely than V.P. Menon. V.P. attended the Round Table conferences in 1932-33. He was one of the two Secretaries of the Simla Conference called by Wavell in August 1945. Among the Indian Officials who assisted the Cabinet Mission Delegation in 1946 was V.P. Menon. And the grand finale was his single-handed drafting of the Partition Plan as directed by Mountbatten.
Imagine, the liberty being given to V.P. It was left to Menon to change and chop the (Transfer of power) Plan as he thought fit. Menon's draft was circulated a few days later to the Governors of India's eleven provinces who had been summoned to Delhi for a conference with the Viceroy. The moment they read it, they realized that their days were numbered. 'The blighter's pulled it off,' one of them said. 'What is he - a swami or something?'
Mountbatten says ‘When I arrived in India in March 1947, I was indeed fortunate to find V P Menon as the Reforms Commissioner on the Governor-General’s staff. I had never previously met him but I found immediately that his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indian problem and his close contacts with the major Indian leaders especially Sardar Patel were invaluable to me - indeed it is fair to say that without the constant help and advice of V P Menon, the transfer of power as early as August 1947 would not have been possible’. George Abell the viceroy’s private secretary for example was the first to admit that Mountbatten’s vision and good sense in bringing V.P. right into the policy-making fold had been perhaps the biggest single personal factor in his success. Mountbatten wanted to award Menon a knighthood but Menon felt that as the servant of the new Government, it would be inappropriate. Hence he was given just a certificate.
Some people mention the relationship Menon had with Mountbatten, how he was considered a kind of ear, eye and mouthpiece of Mountbatten. But here others counter stating that he was actually the planner & negotiator who first proposed it to tehd ecider Mountbatten, then got Nehru and Patel to accept the plans and finally managed to get Gandhiji’s approval. Both Menon’s, Krishna and Pangunni were mentioned in this snide comment Mountabtten made many years later in his life. Others even remark that Menon painted himself in a better light than actual in his two books. And finally much is made into Menon’s recalling Mountbatten to a riot struck Delhi to take charge stating that Patel and Nehru had requested so, when Nehru had not actually done it. And I would say - yeah right ‘in hindsight everybody has 20/20 vision’.
For a while possibly because he had nothing better to do, he joined the managing committee of the Swatantra party as joint secretary. Between this period, and his death in 1966, he was also involved in many negotiations with various princely rulers, though he had become very ill towards his last days. His presence in the Swatantra party resulted in the induction of many senior distinguished members into the party like Hegde, Lobo and Sreenivasan. Menon did however belong to the old school for he once stood up to oppose abolition of hereditary village officers in Mysore, stating that “the efficiency of the hereditary cadre can never be equaled by men recruited on miserable salaries from other families”. Menon however had an aversion for mass politics and supported conservatism.
Menon and Travancore
One of the states that proved difficult to accession was Travancore. Menon had a tough adversary in Dewan CP Ramaswamy Iyer. It took a good amount of coercion, persuasion and luck to get Travancore to accept, following CP’s unfortunate stabbing at a rally. In the end the Maharani just wanted her daughter Lakshmi Bayi to get a higher privy purse than Princess Lalithamba bayi.
The story of how the Cochin ruler just wanted free copies of the Almanac (Panchangam) and a hand fan in return to joining the Indian union is another interesting story.
As KM Panikkar was to write later, VP a Malayali would finally prove to be the next sword of Parusurama and decimate the Kerala kingdoms once created by Parasurama.
VP Menon’s family
His daughter is mentioned often in books. She is married to of Maj Gen DC Misra. Not much mention is found about his wife Kanakam or children in the public media.
Vapal Pangunni Menon after all the furor, wrote of Britain: "They left of their own will; there was no war, there was no treaty - an act without parallel in history." Sixty years after the event, Clarke establishes that, after all, nothing became the British in India so much as the leaving of it.
As somebody said there is not a word said, not a train named, not a road named, not a building named after the architect of the negotiation and the creation of the Republic of India, Vapal Pangunni Menon. From what I know, there is only one minor recognition for this great man - V. P. Menon Award for environmental initiatives.
But as I said before, history is unkind to some, kind to others - that is how it was and that is how it will always be….
Harry Hodson -“Autobiography”
The Man Who Divided India - Rafiq Zakaria
The Transfer of Power in India – VP Menon
The Swatantra Party and Indian Conservatism - H. L. Erdman
Jawaharlal Nehru, a biography - Sankar Ghose
At the turn of the tide - Lakshmi Raghunandan
Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire -Alex Von Tunzelmann
Great Administrators of India - M.L. Ahuja
Pics – Hand sketch from Ahuja’s article with thanks. Nawab with Menon from Rajbhavan Bhopal ( though Menon looks somewhat different here) , Simla conference from ‘Transfer of Power’