The ill-fated Kashmir princess

Air terrorism in the 50's

The year was 1955. Indo China relations were quite warm, the Panschsheel had been signed the previous year. In 1954, Premier Zhou Enlai had visited Delhi, the ICFA was setting up bhai-bhai meetings all over, Nehru visited Beijing, exchange students were selected, delegations and cultural groups go back and forth, and Indian films are carted off to be shown in China. Later in 1955, Defense minister Krishna Menon visits Zhou and Mao in Beijing, Vijayalakshmi Pandit follows, Beijing organizes a 5,000 person meeting to support India’s Goa claims, India arranges a Mecca Hajj trip for Chinese Muslims, ten Chinese students come to Delhi to learn Hindi, while an Indian team plays the Chinese Volleyball team, under the watchful eyes of Mao while Pritviraj Kapoor leads an Indian film show trip around China. The relations between the two countries are carefully stewarded by Ambassador KN Raghavan. Unbeknownst to all, there was a swift undercurrent rushing through to upset the boat which had so far been inching through placid waters.

The Non-Alignment movement was getting warm and the Bandung conference in Indonesia, sponsored by the Indian and Chinese leaders was an important event planned for April 1955. The first of the planned large-scale conferences, it would bring together 29 Asian and African states, during 18–24 April 1955 to Bandung, and represent over 54% of the global population. It was important indeed, very important and not including any of the ‘other’ big powers out west. At Bandung, Nehru planned to work on twin objectives. He wanted to try and frustrate the aims of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO while the second was to better engage China. Martin Luther king would remark later - As a mediator between the great powers of the East and the West, Nehru had the prestige, the wisdom and the daring to play that role.

Burbank in California is a little North West of Los Angeles and had in the 19th century, started out as David Burbank’s sheep ranch. By the turn of the 21st century, it was a different place, it had become a media capital and was home to a number of film studios. But decades ago, sandwiched between the centuries, it was not exactly artful, it was the place where Lockheed made some of its great flying machines. During the war years, it was home to the huge Vega airplane factory, hidden under a painted canvas depicting a rural neighborhood, complete with fake automobiles and so on to fool the enemy. From under those canopies, emerged the great planes such as the Flying Fortress, the U2 spy plane, the blackbird, the nighthawk, while housing some 98,000 employees!

After the war, the plant produced the legendary Constellation series (Connie’s) commercial aircraft and Air India was one of its first customers, receiving what was to become the Princess series. The Malabar, the Rajput, The Moghul, The Maratha, the Himalayan, the Bengal and the Kashmir princess. The first, the Malabar Princess was to crash on the Mont Blanc in Switzerland, enroute London, killing 48 people, in March 1950. The Kashmir princess, VT-DEP was picked up in 1951 and at Burbank to receive it and obtain training was its AME Anant Sridhar Karnik. He recalled his days there, close to Hollywood, of the thousands of ladies who worked in the plant making these machines, and the relaxed and open work ethic, unreal and alien to an Indian. He was to accompany the plane in its millions of miles during the next four years as its maintenance engineer.

On the 10th-11th April 1955, it was on a special unscheduled chartered mission (flight 300), to fly many delegates and journalists to Bandung for the elite conference. Among its listed passengers was Chinese Prime minister Zhou Enlai. Karnik posted a letter to his fiancé (he was to marry Kamal the following month) and boarded the plane. Commander Neeves flew the plane to Bangkok, was then relieved by Capt Jatar and the plane flew on to Hong Kong, to pick up the Chinese passengers.

Have any of you flown into the old Hong Kong airport? It used to be an experience to land into and fly off the short runway with water on all sides and hills in front, a bit scary if the captain was new to the airport! Nowadays they have the spanking new terminal, and it is like any other major hub, but it was different once upon a time and I still recall a trip many years ago and the old airport!

The plane was now on its last leg, to Jakarta. The engineers supervised the refueling at Hongkong, checked for leaks etc. while the pilots and hostess rested and freshened up. It was the only plane scheduled to depart HK on the 11th.

Navigator Pathak, Capt DK Jatar, 1st officer Cap MC Dikshit, Flt Engr K D’Kunha, Navigator JC Pathak, Pursuers C D’Souza and Joe Pimenta and Aircraft maintenance engineer AS Karnik were having their food at the staff restaurant together with the 23-year-old vivacious hostess, Gloria Berry D’Souza. Many out in the east believed that the lovely Berry D’Souza was a real Kashmir princess (she was crowned with that title, the previous year at Singapore). As they ate, a stranger, a westerner joined them uninvited and tried to quiz them on the trip specifics but was snubbed by the crew. He shot off, as soon as the flight departure was announced on the PA system.

Meanwhile, an AI official from HK asked Karnik to be on the lookout for strangers since there was a fear of sabotage. The suitcases belonging to Karnik and D’Souza were initially missing but reappeared on board.  The Chinese delegates arrived and boarded. Karnik was alone in the front cabin.

The Bengal Princess, a sister plane to the Kashmir Princess
It was supposed to be a calm flight, for 7½ hours, down South over the emerald waters of the South China Sea. Underneath the placid waters prowled sharks and barracudas, and one never knew if they were waiting for new prey or just milling around. The sky was blue and clear, and the takeoff was smooth. The passengers ate and smoked out of tins of cigarettes passed around by Gloria. The young revolutionary Chinese and the lone Viet Minh journalist declined to drink alcohol and sipped orange juice. Two European journalists, Polish Strace Jeremi and Austrian Friedrich Jansen completed the entourage. Zhou Enlai who was to come, had decided not to board this flight.

Over five hours of the journey had elapsed and the plane was crossing the Bombay reef (near Parcel islands). Capt Jatar walked down and met the passengers and went back to join Cap Dixit in the cabin. The plane was on autopilot, and the aircraft was being tracked by ATF Singapore on the radio, due to the VIP nature of the flight. Victor Echo papa (its call sign) answered to say all was well. Altitude 18,000 feet, airspeed 185 knots (280mph) location 4degrees N and 108 degrees East, OAT (outside temperature) 2 degrees, ETA 1125 Zebra (GMT) at Jakarta. Night landing facilities needed at Jakarta as it would land at 730PM local time.

Jakarta called to check if VVIP Zhou Enlai was on board – Jatar replied in the negative. The time was 0924 GMT. Everybody must have been caught up in their own worlds and thoughts, Karnik and Gloria were thinking about their partners, Jatar was thinking about an impeding transfer, the delegates were absorbed in their historic conference coming up, Dixit was thinking about the possibility of moving with Jatar and his family. They were all drifting off, some lulled into sleep by the droning 18-cylinder twin-row supercharged Cyclone engines of Connie # 300.

A muffled but loud explosion woke them. White smoke entered the passenger cabin, Karnik suspected a bomb explosion in the passenger compartment and ran to the cockpit to inform Capt Jatar, who ordered ‘Carry out emergency depressurization and extinguish fires’. The right wing then caught fire signaling that the explosion was not in the baggage compartment. Dixit took the plane off autopilot and went into a steep dive as Jatar scooted back to find the source of the fire. Seconds later, he was back and signaling MAYDAY on the radio. He knew the engine and fuel tank were on fire and the chances of survival were bleak.

Within a minute the fire was spreading and entering the cabin, the pilots were desperately trying to control the plane with just one wing and bring it down near the Natuna islands, the passengers were calm, belted and life jacketed, and to confound matters, the radio went dead. Victor Echo Papa had ceased to exist to the ATC’s at Jakarta and Singapore. Ditching operations were on in the plane’s cockpit. The looks on the pilot’s faces and the Navigator Pathak peering over them were desperate. The pilot switched off electric power and Karnik awaited the order to open the emergency exits after full depressurization had been accomplished. CO2 had been released into the burning engine to extinguish it, with no effect, it was just too massive. The order to open exits came, finally.

Now you may wonder why these exits are opened before a crash, well for those who have some engineering knowledge, it is to ensure that egress is available since the fuselage buckles and changes shape on crashing. At that point it will no longer be possible to open doors and window exits.

Karnik rushed and opened as many exits as he could over the left wing, but the passenger cabin was already full of dense black smoke. There were no oxygen masks those days and well, you can imagine how it was for the people inside. They were suffocating and it was only Dixit’s act of opening the cockpit windows which brought in some fresh air. The cabin door was not yet opened, it seemed to be stuck, Karnik simply did not have any strength left to do anything, other than watch with abject despair as the aircraft rushed to meet the seas. It slammed into the waters, broke up into three pieces on impact, still a raging ball of fire.

AIR announced later that night – An air India constellation on a flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta is feared to have been lost in the S China sea, North of Sarawak. Indian newspapers reported that all eleven passengers and the crew of eight perished in the crash.

The ICAO crash records later stated - Around 09:25 GMT, while cruising at FL180, a muffled explosion was heard and smoke entered the cabin. A fire erupted on the right wing behind the no. 3 engine. The no. 3 prop was feathered and an emergency descent was started. During the descent hydraulic failure occurred, followed by an electrical failure. A ditching was planned, but dense smoke entered the cockpit. The aircraft struck the water surface with the right wingtip and crashed. PROBABLE CAUSE: "An explosion of a timed infernal machine (Bomb) placed in the starboard wheel well of the aircraft. This explosion resulted in the puncturing of no.3 fuel tank and an uncontrollable fire."

But miraculously, three of the crew had escaped the crash and the fire, to tell a tale, them being Karnik, Dikshit and Pathak, who were later picked up from the waters by a British frigate HMS Demper. The tale of their survival against terrible odds, is the subject of the book Karnik wrote.

The bodies of D’Cunha and Pimenta were later recovered, so also that of a third unidentified person.

Peking was indignant – They declared that this was a US-CIA plot to assassinate Zhou Enlai and sabotage the Bandung conference. HK officials admitted that they had received word from the Chinese of a sabotage attempt on the 10th, but that the plane had been kept under close guard as soon as it arrived. It turned out that Air India also received a vague warning from Peking to be on the lookout for trouble.

Zhou traveled two days later and met Nehru at Rangoon on April 14. He affirmed that China and India were both victims in this incident, and that both governments should collectively push the British government to secure the culprits. Krishna Menon was sent to take care of the matter the Chinese.

Menon had an additional task in those days, which was to secure the release of the American airmen (A 11-man, B-29 crew had been shot down during a Koran mission, on Jan 12, 1953) who had been captured by the Chinese. He rushed to Peking and later Hong Kong to check up on the crash investigations. Meanwhile Indonesians were carrying out a salvage of the wreck and preparing a formal report. Menon did have another motive, according to HK Governor Alexander Grantham – that if Menon could cough up something to please Peking, he could secure the release of the airmen and get some kudos himself. Menon’s plan was to steward a speedy investigation, secure the saboteur and hand him over to China. He also wanted to seek justice for the Indians who died unnecessarily in the sabotage attempt. Tsang tells us that Mao Zedong told Krishna Menon, that "Hong Kong must now attack the center of the trouble, i.e., the 'secret agent’s organization'". VKKM recommended a third degree on the suspected persons according to Alexander. But it did not quite happen though Menon did manage to secure the release of four Americans.

Investigations continued and focused on a team working for Formosa’s (Taiwan) KMT Kuomintang. It was also quickly clear that the cause of the explosion was a time bomb, planted while the plane was in HK. It is surmised that the man who planted the bomb was one Zhou Zhu, who worked in the airport. Tsang who prepared an excellent paper of the case explains - Zhou Zhu, better known as Zhou Zemin, was 34 years old, a gambler, womanizer, and in debt. He had worked for the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company since he arrived in the Colony in 1950 and was an aircraft cleaner in 1955. He was recruited for the operation and trained to plant the explosive, in return for a very substantial reward of 600,000 Hong Kong dollars and refuge in Taiwan. He put the bomb into the wheel well, from where it drifted in the tubular structure towards the #3 engine area and blew up as planned. After the sabotage, Zhou remained in HK, was briefly interviewed by the police and later fled to Taiwan.

From the Indian side, in addition to the aviation team, RN Kao was deputed to take part in the investigations and learnt that just before his arrival, Zhou had fled to Taiwan. The HK police toyed with Kao during his 6 months in HK, according to his notes. Since Kao had access to the Chinese top brass, the HK team was using him only to get the information they wanted from the Chinese. As the investigations dragged on, HK concluded that they could do nothing to secure a conclusion and tried to force Kao out. The complete story was still not clear to the public for ages, till the Tsang paper was published following release of Chinese archives.

Those not quite up to date with the Chinese revolution may note that when the Mao led communist civil war happened, the nationalists led by Chiang Kei Shek fled to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949 and established their bases there. KMT had planned the operation to take out Zhou out with this sabotage, and disturb the Bandung meetings. Nehru as we know, was the leading light in the rapid steps being taken to get China into the UN and help warm up Chinese relations with the US and Britain.

Chinese intelligence who were tracking the substantial KMT operations in HK, did come to know of all these well in advance. It appears that Zhou was in the know and decided to change the AI charter and the travel date from 18th to 11th in order to trick the KMT. He then took himself off the manifest and went instead to Yangon (Rangoon) on 14th where he met Nehru and Nu and from there traveled to Jakarta. The reasoning and thought process behind all this is well explained in the Steve Tsang paper mentioned under references, for those interested. To summarize, China had two objectives, one to use this opportunity to ferret out, expose and eliminate the large KMT intelligence apparatus in HK and secondly to launch a huge propaganda campaign against the Americans, as an affected party. Of course, the plane, the Indian crew, the journalists and the Chinese delegates would be collateral damage.

Air India got advance information that something was up, they made sure baggage loading was supervised and to prevent any physical attacks, had passengers driven to the aircraft. Interestingly, the KMT were also aware that Zhou was not traveling on the designated day but went ahead with the operation, to show their capability. But did the Chinese allow the flight to be compromised, in order to force the hand of HK to cough up the KMT conspirators, knowing that an aggrieved India would push for it? Perhaps it was so, nevertheless the crash, the compensation negotiations and the death of the crew cast a shadow on the comradely Indo-Chinese relationship.

Why was the American CIA implicated? It was a golden opportunity for Zhou to point fingers at America when it became clear that the detonator was American made, but what people did not know was that it was easily available and did not require any CIA involvement. A few observed that the plane Zhou stowed away to flee to Taiwan was some kind of a CIA front company. Tsang explains that the Americans were surely not involved due to their differing national interests and continuing support in trying to get Taiwan to repatriate Zhou to HK, which Taiwan never did.

A sharp reader may recall the westerner who met with the crew at the restaurant. That was indeed an unresolved issue. But decades later, an American named John Smith who worked as a code clerk in the US embassy in Delhi, defected to the USSR and claimed that he was the CIA man who delivered two heavy suitcases to a KMT agent in 1955. While John Smith's claims and relations with the CIA have been largely scoffed at as cold war fabrication, the westerner who met the crew seems to have been a nosy-parker.

Tsang concludes the story thus - There is no doubt that KMT agents organized the assassination, and PRC agents knew of it beforehand. Both sides achieved part of their objectives, but the PRC came out on top. By successfully blowing up the "Kashmir Princess," the Nationalist secret service boosted its own morale, and provoked a renewed Communist propaganda attack against the Americans. Chiang Kai-shek, however, failed in his primary objectives. Zhou Enlai was missed as a target, the PRC's chance of joining the United Nations was not affected and Anglo-Chinese relations were not damaged. The PRC managed to rid Hong Kong of a significant number of Nationalist agents, won the propaganda battle and gained a better understanding of Hong Kong's policy and Britain's "sincerity," at a cost of eight cadres. On moral ground both sides were losers.

Well, academics usually tend to forget collateral damage, in this case the ill-fated crew of the downed plane. The bombing of the Kashmir Princess is a sad tale, in which 16 innocent people died needlessly, pawns in a larger political game to which they played little or no part. All AI crew members were awarded Ashoka Chakra medals.

VK Krishna Menon did not forget, he was the defense minister then and he wrote a forward for Karnik’s book, The Kashmir princess. He said - The fate of the “Kashmir Princess is thus, not just another airplane disaster, but an unpunished, though not undiscovered, international crime The responsibility for it rests not only on the hands that placed the time bomb in the plane, but also on those who planned and condoned the evil deed. These are parts of the tragedy of world conflicts and intolerance and of the tension that keeps the world awed by the menace of war and annihilation. I cannot do better than echo the sentiments of the author in the tribute that he has recorded in his chapter of dedication to the glorious memory of Captain Jatar, D’Cunha, Pimenta, D Souza, and Gloria Berry, and the eleven passengers, Chinese and others all of whom were on their errands of peace and fraternity and service but fell at the hands and machinations of international assassins This book is dedicated to their memory. I feel, as the author does now, years after the crash, the horror of it even as one is moved by the thrilling story….

The Bandung conference took place as scheduled, with Nehru and Zhou in attendance. Three days later, Zhou would emerge in Jakarta for the conference, riding a wave of positive press coverage in the wake of an attempted assassination that had gone wrong and killed innocent people.

The bhai bhai celebrations continued with a three year plan, delegations went back and forth, ‘Learn Chinese’ classes were started in Bombay, Zhou arrived on a 12 day visit, he is later awarded a D.Litt degree by Viswabharati University, the Laxman sisters and Uday Shankar performed in Beijing, Zhou watched ‘Shakuntala’, Military teams exchanged visits, just to mention a few. This continued until mid-1959 till the Dalai Lama fled to India, and then, well, you know the rest - Everything went downhill.

The HK sabotage investigation was never closed conclusively, and nobody knows what happened to Zhou Zhu. Karnik continued with Air India and rose up to head the AI maintenance department, but at the end, he had to take the flak for a maintenance lapse related to another VVIP plane on which Indira Gandhi was to travel, the so-called Makalu affair.

Target Zhou Enlai: The "Kashmir Princess" Incident of 1955, Steve Tsang - The China Quarterly, 1994
Kashmir Princess – AS Karnik
Drama of air sabotages – AS Karnik
The Truth Behind the “Kashmir Princess” Incident - Li Hong
R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster – Nitin N Gokhale, (Chapter 4, 5)
Indonesian COE report on the air crash.

Pic - The Air India Lockheed L-749A Constellation VT-DEO “Bengal Princess”, sister ship to the “Kashmir Princess”, is photographed at Heathrow Airport in 1953. Photo Credit: RuthAS


Greatness, lurking in the shadows – VP Menon's Story

A chat with Narayani Basu, author of - VP Menon - The Unsung Architect of Modern India.

When Narayani Basu signaled her intent to inform history enthusiasts about the life and times of her great grandfather, Vappala Pangunni Menon, I knew that the time was right. The Nehru years were slowly fading into an insignificant memory, the architects who dreamed of a united nation, a republic from among five hundred and sixty five warring and wayward kingdoms were long forgotten, and the pillars of the strongmen who later propped up the new nation on their mighty shoulders had fallen. Perhaps it was time to tell people the tale of a different era, when there used to be a white man lording over a large many back coolies, when a small island out west found the ways, means and the method to drain and humiliate a once proud, but divided land.

Two recent studies written in completely differing styles dealt with the shortfall. Jairam Ramesh took the path of telling the story of Krishna Menon in a methodical, exact and archival fashion – writing which is sometimes termed archival history, while Narayani Basu has released her work on VP Menon, in a more traditional eulogistic fashion. Though some may term it a work of history laced with a dose of productive imagination, the crux of the matter is dealt with great enthusiasm. VP Menon long imagined as a cold, calculating ‘behind the scenes’ bureaucrat, the hammer of the iron man Sardar Patel, comes to life in this biography, a first book written on VP Menon, some five decades after his death. It details the life of a 7th standard educated coolie who worked his way up to become a very powerful and fearless figure in our history.

I came across Narayani some years ago, when she wrote to me after I had penned a small study on VP, way back in 2010. She mentioned that she had started her project on a VP biography, and I was pleased to hear that. Now we get to see the results of her painstaking work and see the caricature of VP spring alive, if only in the mind of the discerning reader.

Narayani Basu
Ottapalam – a town near Palghat, has been for some curious reasons, the ‘native place’ to so many great persons. They grew up and drifted away, most often to the political and administrative corridors of South Delhi. If one were to go there now, you will not see much other than some traditional homesteads and paddy fields lining the banks of the great Bharatapuzha snaking through, trying to empty its waters in the nearby Arabian Sea. VP Menon, KPS Menon, C Sankaran Nair, MGK Menon, Shivshankar Menon, the Candeth family, MK Narayanan, the list goes on. Old timers there would recall tidbits and family connections or anecdotes, if asked. There are not many of them left and soon the younger generation would have forgotten these stalwarts completely. Others, mainly artistes and film personalities like Gautam Menon and Stephen Devassy are the only names which spring to the younger set these days.

But that is not the subject and so let us get to know the book and its author a little better. Her publisher Simon and Schuster introduces her thus - Narayani Basu is a historian and foreign policy analyst. A post graduate in history and Chinese foreign policy from the University of Delhi, she is the author of The United States and China: Competing Discourses of Regionalism in East Asia and a forthcoming monograph on the history and significance of the Kashgar Consulate in bilateral relations between India and China. She writes extensively on foreign policy for several acclaimed international journals while remaining actively involved with her parent discipline—modern Indian history. She lives in New Delhi.

Her most recent book is VP Menon - The Unsung Architect of Modern India.

I was never a history enthusiast in my younger years. My readers were quick to explain the reason, it was a relegated subject, a boring requirement in universities, usually neglected - something nobody was proud about, for they assumed it was just stories of a motley lot, thoroughly subjugated by a bunch of interlopers from the blighty. It was not exciting, and the teachers were usually morose, not passionate about the subject themselves, just going through the motions. As time went by and I got interested in the past, I took it upon myself to bring it to the fore, not only retelling some of those tales, but also the people who brought about a change. It is therefore so much more gratifying to see so many new books, writers and personalities toying with history, nowadays!

Let’s get started with Narayani Basu.

Maddy: We can see from the publisher’s introduction that you are quite involved in a field of policy and governance, and that you are a historian. Other than this personal subject of VP which we will get into in more detail, what other subjects of history interest you?

Narayani Basu: I’ve grown up with a great love of history. I love reading about the foibles of personalities, the events that come about because of egos and – sometimes – immense love or hatred. The complexities of human nature and how those might influence a chain of events has always fascinated me. That’s why I have always gravitated towards reading biographies and memoirs

Maddy: Have you ever lived in Kerala or spent long stretches of time at Ottapalam? The initial chapters in your book talk about VP’s childhood in Palghat. Do later generations still live at Vappalakkalam or has the ancestral property fallen into disuse? How did you build in your mind, a vivid picture of Ottapalam and the childhood days of VP?

Narayani Basu: It was the book that actually took me back to Kerala. It has been a personal journey in many ways, and that is but natural given the subject I was writing about. I wanted the biography to paint a portrait of the boy, as well as of the man. For this, yes, I had to return to Ottapalam. I also had to travel between Kochi and Ottapalam. VP’s relatives still live in Elamakkara, in Kochi. The old tharavad still stands. In fact, there are two Vappalakalams. The original one – VP’s ancestral home – in Kothakurussi, which is today the site of the family deity and temple. It is where the family congregates annually. The other is the home that VP built for his mother later – it is close by, but in Panamanna, just next door. This latter one is today owned by a Muslim family. In the 1990s, it featured in a Mamootty movie, as well, called “Valsalyam.”

To draw a picture of VP’s childhood, I used his own memories of his days growing up. He left the impressions of his childhood in a slim little book of recollections for his step-daughter, Meenakshi.

Maddy: You start off the forward in the book with an interesting quip and an explanation. “VP Menon, our defense minister? It’s a common mix-up. V.K. Krishna Menon was, obviously, a far more compelling man. He strode into the political limelight as though he was born to it, and his relationship with India was both controversial and very public. V.P. Menon, on the other hand, merits a furrowed brow and a blank expression. Nobody knows anything about him, and yet, his importance to the Government of India, at a time when India stood on the verge of independence, remains unparalleled.In your studies of VP as a person, did you ever see VP expressing any amount of reticence over this?

Narayani Basu: Yes, most definitely. In the tape recorded interviews that Harry Hodson conducted, and which are currently housed in SOAS, in London, VP was a sad, frustrated man. After all, it was VP who held negotiations with over 500 princely states, who drew up the transfer of power plan in May 1947, and who chaperoned the 1937 elections. Despite his undoubted contributions – and they remain almost unparalleled in scale and scope – to the history of modern India, he was never given his due.

He was very aware of that.

Maddy: It is interesting to observe that VP possessed quite an ego, and the incidents of taking offence to the teashop owner, setting fire to the school thatch, running away from home hearing his father complain of financial constraints and so on are delightfully recounted in your book, did he go on to become somewhat placid as time went by? A question pops up, what did he feel when the borders themselves were lit by communal fires?

Narayani Basu: He felt, as did everyone involved, that it was a moment of almost nightmarish horror in India’s history. As Secretary, Ministry of States, he was privy to intelligence reports of the carnage that was taking place across the country. He saw things he would never forget when he visited Bahawalpur. In his own words, he would say, that at the time, “every man was like a wild beast.”

Maddy: You imply that VP had enough of the constrained village life at Ottapalam and enjoyed a liberation in Delhi and Simla, and we see that he did not savor a dull married life with Sushila. The messy triangle involving VP, Sushila and Kanakam is detailed in your book, but it must have been a difficult time for the children growing up and to put up with a stentorian father, right?

Narayani Basu: Absolutely. The breakdown of his first marriage left an indelible impact on two young boys who were, at the time, nine and seven years old respectively. VP was not an attentive father, nor was he at all close to his sons. They grew up, straining every nerve for his validation and approval. The peculiar formality of their relationship is best summarized by the fact that they called him “Sir.”

And yet, it was not that VP was entirely incapable of softer emotions. His marriage to Kanakam was underlined with steadfastness and constancy. She was the anchor he had always searched for. Meenakshi Anantan, his step-daughter, saw the real paternal side of VP. He adored her – an entirely reciprocated emotion.

He was also a very warm, extremely available grandfather. His grandchildren remember a man who was never too busy to talk to them. More importantly, they remember a man who talked to them as equals – always significant for children.

Maddy: How did VP and Sardar Patel strike up their glorious working relationship? Patel was a tough guy and quite brusque, how did VP who was pretty much the same, hit it off with Patel? As a very capable man, why was he a lost soul after the demise of Patel, his main sponsor? Was it due to the Nehru - Patel dynamics or was it so that VP was not given any due weightage, being a lifelong bureaucrat who worked with the British? Was the change from British rule to and Independent India too much for his personal liking?

Narayani Basu: VP met Sardar Patel in the autumn of 1946. Theirs was a relationship that worked wonderfully at the professional level, and soon became personal as well. VP would visit Aurangzeb Road (where Patel resided in Delhi) in the morning, and again in the evening. In between, there would be numerous telephone calls, depending on a given day and its events. By the summer of 1947, VP was very vital to Patel. He was, in every sense, Patel’s ear to the ground, keeping the Sardar informed of changing political winds, and reporting to him about everyday politics as well.

They were men who were very similar, yes, but they enjoyed a healthy debate over political issues. The Sardar was a man who encouraged listening to different ideas – even if they differed from his own – and discussing them. VP’s rise to the top – an entirely self-made one – impressed the Sardar, as did his political knowledge and acumen.

After Patel died, VP began to slide into professional obscurity. It was certainly not due to the fact that he had worked with the British. Nearly every Indian civil servant had, at that time, worked with the British – so that is definitely not a factor. Nor was it that the change from British rule to independent India affected VP. After all, he had spent his life working for the attainment of India’s independence. He had used his time within the British Indian Government to work on the front-lines of political reform.

The sheer scale of his career speaks volumes of the extent to which he was involved with India’s progress towards constitutional and political reform : he was the principal typist of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report; he was present in London on the sidelines of the Round Table Conference (where he observed the elaborate discussions regarding India’s federal future); he would supervise the 1937 elections (where he added women to the electoral list); he would, in the course of the 1930s and the early 1940s, put forward three plans for the transfer of power; he would author the Instrument of Accession as early as 1935. This is all much before the key movements of the mid to late 1940s, where his contributions are most noticed. So, I would vehemently disagree with the fact that the shift to independent India was not to his personal liking. His ambition was to do his best to deliver freedom to his country. He might not have done it in the streets, like the rest of the country – but he did it the best way he knew how.

That leaves one aspect, and even here, I would advise caution in how the phrase “Nehru-Patel dynamics” is used. Today, it’s easy to mire VP’s story in political controversy. Yet it is true that when Sardar Patel died, an extremely petty side of Nehru was laid bare. There are several who have left their voices on record about this. VP is one of them – he was told that he was not allowed to go to the Sardar’s funeral. He lost his temper, chartered a plane, onto which he boarded every one of the men who had worked with the Sardar in the States Ministry and flew them to Bombay. HVR Iengar, then Home Secretary (and a man who had worked closely with Patel as well), tells the story of how Nehru refused to allow Iengar to board the plane that would take Nehru to Bombay – for no earthly reason that Iengar could tell.

VP’s voice – a wonderful source of oral history – records several other instances which made a continued service in government without Patel’s presence both bitter and unhappy. The trajectory of his career thereafter speaks for itself – he was given an Acting Governorship of Orissa in 1951, and six months later, a rubber-stamp position in India’s First Financial Commission. By the mid 1950s, he was retired and living in quiet solitude in Bangalore. He died a decade later, in absolute obscurity.

Maddy: In the negotiations, wheeling and dealing with the recalcitrant princes, who were not very much inclined to join the Indian union, VP was the one who had to cajole, coax or sometimes, threaten the princes. Many an interesting story can be found in the records of the event, so also your book. As a person who was quite staid and conservative himself, how did he put up with or push hard for so much change?

Narayani Basu: On the contrary, VP possessed a remarkable ability to adapt himself to the times he lived in. He might have been born in rural Kerala, but the experiences he went through and the people and ideas he encountered early in his career shaped a huge part of his outlook on political progress for India. To give just one example, his trip to London – and his observation of the suffragette movement there – made him determined to give women an equal electoral franchise as soon as he could. He was never a conservative man, but a man with a chameleon-like ability to adapt ideas to a given political situation. He knew change was coming for India – for both the princes and provinces. 

VP’s methods of dealing with the hundreds of reluctant royal houses were adapted from Sardar Patel. Patel’s negotiations with the princes had begun much earlier, in 1946. His methods were a perfect blend of personal charm and veiled threats. Princes were called for lunches and dinners at Aurangzeb Road, and in the same vein, Patel was capable of letting them know – as he let the Nawab of Bhopal know during a meeting of the States Negotiating Committee in early 1947 – that as long as “burdens” were handed over, there would be no desire to take them over. These were tactics that were ably and most capably adopted by his Deputy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was not a prince that did not recognize the power wielded by VP Menon.

What must also be remembered here was that while the concept of integration was very important for both Patel and VP, both men remembered that the rulers of these houses dated their lineage back to almost Vedic times. For them, it was not just a question of losing their privileges and sovereignty, but their pride as well. VP and Patel never forgot that they were dealing with men who, without their mystical powers of throne and crown, were mere mortals, stripped and laid bare. This is perhaps best highlighted in the debates around the Privy Purse. Patel and VP fought to keep their promises of Privy Purses and privileges to the princes, when a concerted movement sprang up – within the Congress – to undermine their efforts. We know how history panned out in this particular case, but it’s important to remember that for Patel and VP, the princes were not merely the means to an end – but humans as well.

Maddy: I have been intrigued about a few aspects related to VP and foreign policy, the first being VP’s interaction with KM Panikkar (KMP said - VP would finally prove to be the next sword of Parusurama and decimate kingdoms), secondly VP’s thoughts about the China debacle of 1962. Finally, VP was very much involved in the Pakistan creation, and perhaps you could also touch upon his relationship with Jinnah?

Narayani Basu: At the outset, VP was never fully convinced about the viability of Pakistan or Partition. Indeed, the penultimate transfer of power plan – sent to London with Patel’s blessings in 1946 – was the first plan that VP penned which took into account the prospect of Partition and Pakistan. Until then, he had insisted that every effort be made to preserve the country from just such a fate.

Jinnah and VP had a curious relationship. In the early 1920s, VP would encounter Jinnah for the first time. Jinnah took him off to have lunch at the Cecil Hotel, in Simla. It was a lunch that VP never forgot – he was still a clerk in those days, and Jinnah was someone he had, until now, seen from a distance. But it was an avuncular, very friendly relationship in the early days of the freedom movement. Jinnah and VP would meet again on board the SS Multan, the ship carrying the Indian delegation to London for the First Round Table Conference in 1930. Jinnah would take VP around Cairo in his car. They talked history and politics and ate fresh dates in one of Cairo’s best hotels. The friendship lapsed thereafter, and VP never met Jinnah again until 1946, whereupon Jinnah was a changed man. They would never share the same friendship.

Maddy’s note: KM Panikkar in his autobiography (pp162) mentions – Vappala Pangunni Menon was a remarkable man, starting with limited education and in a subordinate position, he climbed to the top of the official ladder. No one imagined at that time that he would be another sword of Parasurama and eliminate princely rule from India. He explains the expression later - (pp190) - “How all these grand and grandiose titleholders were swept under the carpet of history in the twinkling of an eye! Many are amazed that Vallabhbhai Patel was able to sweep them away in so short a time. The Puranas say that Parasurama fought twenty-one battles before he could exterminate the Kshatriya princes, but the new Parasurama needed no battle to make a clean sweep of kingship in India. One by one they queued up to sign their Instruments of Accession, and collected their pensions and left with good grace!

Regarding the 1962 debacle, the author mentioned that VP did not leave any notes on the 62 event.

Maddy: VP’s evenings were considered quite private, especially when he was sipping his favored Scotch. I recall humorous anecdotes around it and Patel’s suggestion that all ICS officers be prescribed a couple of pegs, in order to be efficient like VP. Was he always very British like in demeanor, actions, behavior and dealings? Now, this brings up another question, did he ever speak in Malayalam at home?

Narayani Basu: He was never English at all, and he always spoke to Kanakam and all his Malayali friends and visitors in Malayalam. What I admired about VP was his complete sangfroid in accepting who he was. He was an ordinary man from the Malabar Coast, and he never thought himself to be an Englishman. Yes, he most certainly enjoyed a peg or two in the evenings, and he was very fond of his suits and cigars. His first car was a slate-blue Cadillac. But he was always a very down-to-earth, grounded Malayali. When you hear his voice on the tapes of the interviews in SOAS, his voice is unchanged in accent or patois. It is 100% Malayali. He was never ashamed of that, nor did he try to hide it.  

Maddy: The late Capt Krishnan Nair of the Leela group, was perhaps one luminary who remembered and respected VP to the end. You have detailed the story of Nair’s involvement with VP, and readers may be interested to know that Nair was Menon’s secretary while he was the Dy Governor of Hyderabad. Some readers may also remember a budding cartoonist Kutty’s introduction to Shankar (both are famous cartoonists) was done by VP. A kind man indeed, but was he a different man at home from the man outdoors?

Narayani Basu: As I have said, VP was a man capable of immense emotional coldness – to the extent that one might call him stunted. He preferred to hide intense emotions, and he disliked looking at emotional problems in the eye. He was not the best father to his sons, and his relationship with those he loved would always be marred by the fact that he was not the easiest man to love either. He was certainly capable of kindness (as with Krishnan Nair and Kutty), and he was certainly no stranger to tender emotions (witness Meenakshi and Kanakam), but he was equally capable of selfish aloofness. But then, human nature is not easy to understand.

Maddy: How did VP spend his free time; did he have any hobbies? Was he an outdoors type or always cooped indoors afterhours? You do mention him and ‘Mummy’ Kanakam relaxing in their rocking chairs every evening and enjoying the peace of Bangalore!

Narayani Basu: Yes, he liked spending some quiet time at home with Kanakam and his books. But he also liked going for a drive with her too – which he did at an appointed time every evening. Sometimes his grandchildren accompanied them. On those occasions he would ask the driver to stop in Cubbon Park where the children would get out to play for half an hour. It was perhaps one of the only times that he could snatch to relax his mind fully and focus on his wife and family. But really speaking, the wear and tear of his relentless career in government had left him almost drained of any energy to follow any kind of hobbies with some passion. Remember that he worked non-stop without a break, and by 1947, when the Sardar asked him to be his Deputy in the Ministry of States, VP was already exhausted and in fact, pleaded that he needed to rest. By the mid-1950s, he was on the way to being ill, though emphysema would be a slow-burning killer in the end.

Maddy: It is common knowledge that Patel and Nehru crossed swords often and that both Menon’s (VP and VKKM) were considered the proverbial Arjuna’s of these two political bigwigs. So, there must have been a certain amount of competition between these Malabar Menon compatriots. In general, did they tolerate each other or were they distant with each other?

Narayani Basu: I think this is something Jairam Ramesh has also been asked – not unnaturally! These were two Menons who never got along. VP thought Krishna Menon was Nehru’s busybody and Krishna thought the same about VP being Patel’s mouthpiece. So there was a constant pushback between the two. After all, these were very different men, and dealt with their surroundings very differently!

Maddy: VP did enjoy a bit of pomp, especially when it came to his cigars, scotch and his blue Cadillac. I was wondering how it would have been with VP going to Vappalakalam in his Cadillac, an event you touch upon in your book. Did he ever have any dealings with the common man, the man on the street, so to say?

Narayani Basu: I don’t think that’s pomp, precisely. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like a good peg in the evening after a long day’s work sometimes! But he was never someone who lost track of the common man, nor did he ever think that he was above the man on the street. He had, after all, been in worse positions in his lifetime, and he never forgot the road he had traveled to get to where he did.

Maddy: Now a question to you, I see that you are working on the topic of Xinjiang Uyghurs and the Kashgar consulate, a very touchy subject as far as the Chinese are concerned. What is the Indian stance when it comes to the Uyghurs? Is it akin to the Balochi stance? I still recall eating at a Uyghur restaurant at Beijing, the food was marvelous, to say the least.

Narayani Basu: I’m not working on the Uyghurs, but the geopolitical history of the Kashgar Consulate during the time of the transfer of power between India and Britain. That’s a rather long story, which I won’t go into now, but it’s definitely an exciting one!

Thank you Narayani, for your time and patience, and wishing you the very best, hoping to see more works from your pen!

Maddys note: There were been some discussions about Nehru's cabinet list, especially after the recent book launch event. Since I had perused the Hodson book (The Great Divide), I remembered the particular section, so let me provide a little explanation for those who have neither read the Hodson book or know the background. When Nehru and Mountbatten discussed the cabinet requirements, Mountbatten was of the opinion that Nehru consider a younger, dynamic cabinet, and not be hampered by long timers. Hodson suggests through a foot note connected to another section in the book that this was perhaps in line with Gandhiji's advice to Nehru in which he saw the government differentiated from the party, and the Congress party be led by Patel. For exact details, see pages 388, 389 and 426.

Whether this ended up in the creation or submission of a preliminary list or if it was just a brainstorming exercise, is not clear. I believe this may clarify matters a bit and feel it was more of an input to a healthy discussion, and the so called first list may not be a substantiated fact.

VP, the man and his character have been complex, and his life had been until now, remained largely hidden in those niches and corners of pre-independence Delhi and Simla. I am sure many people would love to know more about the architect of Modern India which VP was, and Narayani’s book will go a long way to fill the gaps.

You may also wonder at the end why he was never cast into the limelight he deserved or why he slunk away to retire in obscurity at Bangalore, 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….