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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016

Remembering Krishna Menon

Monday 16 May 2016, by Barun Das Gupta

Vengali Krishnan Krishna Menon (1896-1974) whose 120th birthday on May 3 this year quietly passed by, unobserved and unremem-bered, is now an almost forgotten hero—or villain, according to one’s perception. Krishna Menon stood like a rock by the side of Jawaharlal Nehru when the Right in India was consoli-dating and challenging Nehru’s leadership, and especially his foreign policy, which had three component parts — fostering friendship with the Soviet Union and China, keeping consciously aloof from the Cold War and cementing the unity of the developing Third-World countries through the non-alignment movement. That the Chinese stabbed him in the back in 1962 and cut short his life — he could never recover from the shock of that treachery — is another matter.

The 1950s saw the formation of the Swatantra Party led by the former Congress veteran, C. Rajagopalachari, to whom the word ‘socialism’ was an anathema. The Right was targeting Nehru for befriending the Soviet Union and China and not cosying up to the US. In October 1962, came the Chinese aggression and India’s humiliating military defeat at the hands of a perfidious neighbour for securing whose permanent membership of the UN Security Council Nehru had fought untiringly.

The disastrous defeat made Prime Minister Nehru and his comrade-in-arms, Defence Minister Krishna Menon, the prime targets of the Rightists’ attack. They still did not have the courage to demand outright Nehru’s own resignation. So they concentrated their fire on Krishna Menon. He was dubbed a ‘crypto-communist’ who had deliberately neglected India’s defence preparation. Under him, it was alleged, the ordnance factories were making coffee percolators and such other domestic appliances but not arms and ammunition. It was cheap propaganda but in the circumstances then prevailing it went off well.

It was conveniently forgotten that in the 1950s and 1960s India had neither the indigenous technology nor the industrial infrastructure to manufacture such sophisticated military hardware as nuclear submarines like the Arihant or the Agni series of missiles or the main battle tank like the Arjun or a supersonic fighter aircraft like Tejas. These lay in the womb of the future.

But it was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru who had the foresight and the wisdom to lay the foundation for developing indigenous technology and a diversified industrial base. It was he who, with the help of Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, set up the string of research institutes. It was Nehru who laid the foundation of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1958 which is now ranked one of the world-class institutions in the field of defence research. In all these endeavours, Nehru turned to his fidus Achates Krishna Menon who lent him full support.

Krishna Menon had an abrasive personality which made him many enemies and won him few friends. He also had a sense of dry humour. I remember one incident. It was in 1961 or 1962. The US had announced military assistance to Pakistan. A protest meeting was organised at the Constitution Club in New Delhi. Krishna Menon was the main speaker. As he rose and started speaking “Mr President, ladies and gentlemen”, a baby sitting on the lap of its mother occupying one of the front seats, let out a shrill cry. Krishna Menon stopped, paused for a few seconds and resumed: “I am sorry. Mr President, ladies, gentlemen and not-so-gentle children”. The entire gathering tittered, much to the embarrassment of the child’s mother.

It was on Krishna Menon that Nehru primarily depended for effectively countering Pakistan’s anti-India propaganda about the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council. In 1957, Krishna Menon set a world record by speaking non-stop for eight long hours at the UNSC, exposing Pakistan’s false propaganda and explaining India’s principled stand on Kashmir. He fainted after this superhuman feat.

But the military debacle in 1962 changed all that. It gave the Rightist forces, habitual Menon-baiters, the opportunity they were seeking to throw him out of the Union Cabinet. Unfortu-nately, some Congress leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Acharya Kripalani were also trying to get Menon out. In 1962, a few months before the Chinese war, Kripalani contested Krishna Menon from the North Bombay Lok Sabha constituency. Krishna Menon won hands down.

I had a rare insight into the goings-on within the Congress about the North Bombay election by sheer chance. Sadiq Ali was the General Secretary of the Congress then. One day, Sadiq Ali’s wife Shanti-di invited Manoranjan Guha, the then editor of the Delhi edition of Hindustan Standard, and me for lunch. She used to invite us off and on and there was nothing special about it. As we reached the Alis’ house, I was surprised to find that Acharya Kripalani was there, closeted with Sadiq Ali, animatedly discussing the election strategy for North Bombay. As we moved to another room, I could not know what transpired from that meeting.

The surprise discovery of two politicians who apparently belonged to two opposite camps being huddled together gave me an insight into the subterranean ramifications of the Right within the Congress. That incident has remained permanently imprinted on my memory.

Krishna Menon inflicted a huge defeat on Kripalani in 1962. On the occasion of that historic election, Prem Dhawan composed an unforgettable song that became instantly and immensely popular: Idhar khare hain Krishna Menon/Udhar khare Kripalani/Idhar saath hai apni janta/Udhar unke raja rani. 

But the Chinese aggression of October 1962 and India’s military humiliation changed all that. Everything positive about Krishna Menon was forgotten, even the fact that just a few months ago, in December 1961, it was Krishna Menon as the Defence Minister who had ordered the Indian Army to march into Goa and liberate it from centuries of Portuguese colonial rule. Also forgotten was his brilliant exposure of Chinese hypocrisy supporting Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in the United Nations.

The Chinese representative, Mr Tsiang, had the temerity to put forward this preposterous argument that “What the Indian peoples demanded and wanted from the United Kingdom should, I hope, be granted to the people of Kashmir.”

Krishna Menon rebutted China effectively. He said: “First of all, we did not demand self-determination from the British. We asked for independence of our country... To suggest that Indian independence is based upon the conception that is now trying to be worked out in the wrong way here would not be in accordance with history. To suggest that the laws and legal systems, the contracts, treaties, obligations and rights which vested in the British Empire disappeared with the transfer of power would be a very serious thing for us. For one thing, we should not now be a member of the United Nations. India is a successor State.”

Krishna Menon went on to add: “We want to place it on record that we do not accept the position stated here to the effect that because British power was withdrawn from India all legal obligations and legal rights and everything else that flows from the position of a successor State departed with them.”1

After Nehru’s death Krishna Menon found himself severely alone in the Congress. It became difficult for him to remain in the Congress party. He was being continuously hounded. He finally resigned from the Congress in December 1966. He passed away in 1974, unwept, unsung and unmourned, except in his small circle of close friends.

Today, nearly five-and-a-half decades later, the Rightwing forces subscribing to a communal and divisive ideology are rearing their heads again, threatening to tear apart the plural fabric of this nation by their divisive and polarising politics. Even the saner elements among them are warning of the dangers of a “one-man presidential government without checks and balances”. One now keenly misses the strident voice of Krishna Menon in defence of democracy and against dictatorship—of any form and in any guise.

Footnote

  • Krishna Menon on Kashmir, Sanchar Publishing House, 1992, pp. 348-49. The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.