I was prompted to write this biography of V.K Krishna Menon after going through Condition of India, a book he co-authored with three British members of the India League who toured India in 1932. Its preface is succinctly written by Bertrand Russell and the credit of bringing out the edition goes to Professor Suhash Chakravarthy who has also provided a splendid introduction. Critic P.Ananthakrishan who reviewed the book for the May 3rd 1999 issue of India Today writes, “V.K Krishna Menon is a much-maligned man. His disastrous tenure as defence minister has obscured his unselfish service to the nation during the India League days, prior to Independence… Lord Willingdon, the then Viceroy chose to rule India through a series of ordinances after imprisoning the national leaders. The British did everything in their power to stop this book from being published in England”. When it finally came out of press in 1934, it was proscribed in India.
A Voyage of Discovery
During my teens I had heard a lot about Krishna Menon. Condition of India and the review it received led me to once again peruse the works written on the man which were on my bookshelf. It was another Voyage of discovery. Precious information could be added to the knowledge I already had about him, his tenure as Minister of Defence from April 17th, 1957 to October 31st, 1962 and other aspects of his life and career. I thus came to know that Krishna Menon was a multi-faceted personality and could elicit as much love and appreciation as hostility. Time magazine described him as the second most powerful man in India after his close and intimate friend, Jawaharlal Nehru. His niece Janaki Ram has written V.K Krishna Menon – A Personal Memoir. In the series “Builders on Modern India”, V.K Madhavan Kutty ends the preface to his work thus, “When the Publication Division asked me to write his biography, they were entrusting me with a task of love”. It is with as much love, understanding and objectivity as I could muster that I embarked on a perusal of the two books and other sources of information I have carefully and dutifully kept over the years. Together with people like Ramanathan Krishnan, R.K. Narayan, and J.Krishnamurti, Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, commonly referred to as Krishna Menon, Indian nationalist, diplomat and statesman has been the subject of fascination galore on my part. He was no doubt one of the most brilliant personalities of his time. It is unfortunate that he wrote nothing about his life and left no papers for the record.
Education and the Theosophical Society
Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon was born of May 3rd, 1896 at Panniankara, a suburb of Calicut in the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency. His father, Komath Krishna Kurup was the son of a Prince of the Kadathanad Royal Family, whose authority extended over a large territory north of Calicut. His mother, Lakshmikutty, was a gifted lady of great intellect who had mastered Sanskrit and excelled as a musician. She had a forceful personality which was greatly reflected in the son.
Krishna Kurup cherished great ambitions for his son and wanted him to follow into his footsteps and become a lawyer. He also inculcated in Krishna Menon strong traits of individuality and was somewhat disappointed when his son joined politics. However, he was happy when he ultimately qualified for the Bar at the Middle Temple.
He matriculated in 1913 before being admitted to the then Zamorin’s College, Calicut. He passed the Intermediate examination of Madras University. It was during his days in Calicut that he developed an interest in the way India was governed. He came to the conclusion that he was not living in a free country. Even as a boy the spirit of nationalism influenced him. Later, he would relate how he had dreamt of a free India in his boyhood. He graduated from Presidency College in 1918. He became involved in Theosophy and was actively associated with Annie Besant and the Home Rule Movement. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by an American, Colonel Ollcot and a Russian, Madame Blavatsky.
The three objects of the society were: (1) to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex or colour; (2) to encourage the study of comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science; (3) to investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man. Krishna Menon spent almost all his time on the premises of the Theosophical Society – a sprawling state located on the banks of the Adayar river in Madras (now Chennai). Under the guidance of its President, Annie Besant, he devoted much of his time to educational work and the Boy Scout Movement. He later became Scout Commissioner for Madras and Cochin State.
The Theosophical Society began to take an interest in the political scene in the subcontinent. Dr. Annie Besant joined the Congress. Soon after, she started the Home Rule Movement, similar to the Home Rule Movement in her homeland, Ireland, with the tacit blessings of the Congress. The Home Rule Movement was Krishna Menon’s first encounter with politics. To Mrs Annie Besant also goes the credit of moulding Krishna Menon into a skilled orator.
Passage to England
An Italian ship took him to Venice in June 1924. He was accompanied by George Arundale who was later to become president of the Theosophical Society and was married to the famous dancer, Rukmini Devi, founder of the Kalakshetra in Madras. This friendship survived right up to Krishna Menon’s death. Arundale and Krishna Menon then travelled overland to reach Victoria Station, London on a wet and dreary day. Another perhaps long-lasting influence that affected his life was that of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great Philosopher and seer. Even after his arrival in England, Krishnaji, as Jiddu Krishnamurti was known, continued to exert a great influence on him.
To Krishna Menon, and possibly to several young men of his generation, England was the land of Milton and Keats; of Saville Row and Ascot; of Oxford and Cambridge. One went to England to round one’s education off in more ways than one. He involved himself with the Theosophical Society and with J.Krishnamurti initially. Education, then and always, was a subject close to Krishna Menon’s heart. He joined the London School of Economics, which was at the Zenith of its prestige under Harold Laski. The latter became an admired professor, an invaluable help to the India League and a cherished friend. Laski thought highly of his student whom he considered to be one of the most brilliant he had ever taught.
Soon after his arrival, Krishna Menon joined the Independent Labour Party. However, he would later be closely associated with the Labour Party when the gap between the two parties widened. He started and also ran several periodicals like India Today and News India. He believed that measures had to be taken to educate the British public about the situation in India. In the 1930s, a new Labour Party had taken charge but it did not come up to Menon’s expectations. Under the directions of the Labour Government, the British Government in India actually surpassed the previous government in enacting repressing measures.
Nehru and Menon
Nehru and Krishna Menon had first met when the India League delegation travelled to India in 1932. The later friendship and rapport, however, developed during Nehru’s visit to England in 1935. The friendship that was to play such an important role in Krishna Menon’s life began with Nehru recognizing Menon’s Political worth. Krishna Menon also became Nehru’s literary agent in London. In 1935, with a co-worker, Menon established the Penguin and Pelican series of inexpensive paperbacks which made it possible for more people to buy books. At first, Nehru and Menon were brought together by politics but they also got on very well together on a personal level. Both were men of integrity, with similar aspirations and dreams for India. It dawned upon Nehru that Krishna Menon was the ideal person to represent the Congress at international forums.
In British Politics
Krishna Menon became more or less the Congress spokesman at international meets. It marked the beginning of the perfect partnership between Nehru and Menon. The secret of this lay in Menon’s ability to grasp Nehru’s instructions and to translate them into viable policies. Nehru’s and Kripalini’s instructions to Menon in 1936, for example, gave him a lot of initiative in formulating a foreign policy. In fact, India’s foreign policy which was given eloquent expression by Krishna Menon in the 1950s and 1960s had its beginnings in the late 1930s. Like Nehru, he was of opinion that the Congress should have a clear foreign policy. Krishna Menon suffered from depression. When he recovered the India League became even more active and Menon more determined that India must be free.
Krishna Menon, in the meantime, had joined the South West St. Pancras Labour Party, an area located in the East End of London. He was elected repeatedly with increasing majority for thirteen years until he became India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in 1947.
As Secretary, he contributed to make of the India League the most influential Indian Lobby in the British Parliament and actively changed British popular sentiment towards the cause of Indian Independence.
At another level, the prevailing atmosphere motivated Krishna Menon to put the case of India’s independence in the hands of the right people. Thus he came in close contact with the most important Labour Party leaders. Once they were convinced of his sincerity of purpose, they both encouraged him and actively supported the claim of Indian leaders who were clamouring for Independence. At the Southport Labour Party Conference in October 1934, a resolution was submitted by Krishna Menon expressing the conviction that “it is imperative that the principles of the self-determination for the establishment of full self-government for India should be implemented forthwith”. In 1945 the Labour Party accepted the resolution on India’s independence. The independence of India was not far away.
When the Labour Party came to power in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, the British Railway Union, the largest and the most powerful union in the United Kingdom, moved a resolution at the Annual Conference strongly recommending to the government the case for granting freedom to India. Krishna Menon was solely responsible for having this resolution moved at the conference. The outcome was the Cabinet Mission to India to examine and explore the possibilities for recommending the transfer of power to Indian hands.
High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
After India gained Independence, Krishna Menon was appointed High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, a position he would hold until 1952. To those who knew Menon, like Jawaharlal Nehru and India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, his role in the freedom struggle made him the ideal choice. Nehru had written to the British Prime Minister as early as 11 July 1947 about the appointment of Krishna Menon. “In consultation with the Viceroy and my colleagues we have decided to appoint Krishna Menon to this post. I feel sure that with his knowledge of both India and England and the intimate contacts he has in both countries, he will be of great help to us in the new conditions that we shall have to face”.
New York and the glass-fronted skyscraper that housed the United Nations were to be Krishna Menon’s stage for the next few years. He became an accomplished negotiator, a suave diplomat, often playing to the gallery and creating strong pro- and anti-Menon lobbies.
His association had, in fact, begun in 1946 when he was part of an Indian delegation to New York. He earned a well-deserved reputation for brilliance in the United Nations frequently engineering elegant solutions to complex political issues which include a peace plan for Korea, a ceasefire in the Indo-China conflict, the deadlocked disarmament talks and the French withdrawal from the Organisation over the issue of Algeria.
Menon involved India, as an emerging and new nation, in as many issues before the United Nations as possible. Afro-Asian power was displayed as never before, and he advocated a solidarity among these nations. From here emerged the concept of Non-Alignment. To Krishna Menon it was a means of not aligning with any power bloc – the then Soviet Bloc or the one led by the United States. He was the last foreign official to pay a visit to Josef Stalin in 1957 prior to the latter’s death. Menon was a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons. India was the first country in the world to raise its voice against testing of nuclear weapons by any country.
On January 23rd, 1957 Menon delivered an unprecedented eight-hour speech defending India’s stand on Kashmir; the speech is believed to be the longest ever delivered in the United Nations Security Council covering five hours of the 762nd meeting on January 23rd and two hours and forty-eight minutes on the 24th, reportedly ending with Menon’s collapse on the Security Council floor.
The Maelstrom of Politics
Krishna Menon became member of the Rajya Sabha in 1953. On February 3rd, 1956, he joined the Union Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. In 1957, he sought a seat in the Lok Sabha while contesting a constituency from North Bombay. He won a landslide victory and was, consequently, appointed Minister of Defence in April of that year. In 1962, China invaded India, leading to the brief Sino-Indian war and a temporary reversal in India’s non-aligned foreign policy. Menon was blamed for India’s lack of military readiness and resigned as Minister of Defence. In 1971 he won a seat in Parliament from Trivandrum, in his homestate of Kerala.
However, his disillusion with the world of Politics grew over the years. He was not given the Congress ticket to contest from his former constituency in 1967. He had no alternative but to resign. In 1969, Krishna Menon contested and won from Midnapore, West Bengal, as an Independent candidate.
Though Krishna Menon had been ailing since the 1930s, he later kept reasonable good health. It came as a shock to everyone when he had a heart attack in 1972. Menon recovered but was shaken. He suddenly fell ill in March 1974 in London where he had gone to organise a function to collect funds for a Nehru Memorial there. After that he was in and out of hospital many times. He breathed his last on October 6th 1974. His niece Janaki Ram writes, “It was a dreadful shock, while my mother and I were at home, we were informed on the telephone that Uncle, who had had to go to hospital on a minor complaint a couple of days earlier had died late in the night….”.
Krishna Menon’s ashes were immersed in the Arabian Sea from the coast of Kerala. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in her eulogy, stated, inter alia, “Even in an era of great people, he stood out as being different and a person who had the courage to remain different. No matter how much the circumstances change, no matter what the people around him and those who did not take kindly to his views said, he had this great courage to remain what he was… I can only hope that India will produce more such sons and daughters”. To my mind no better tribute could be paid to him and it accounts for the respect I have for him.
I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him in 1973 when he came to the University of Delhi to receive the award Doctor Honoris Causa which was conferred upon him by my alma mater.