Resurrecting Menon And His Many Lives

Nearly six decades on, generations of Indians remain angry at the military debacle that China inflicted in 1962. It casts a long and deep shadow on bilateral and regional ties. India is compelled to strategize for a two-front war against China and Pakistan, the two “iron brothers”. Billions are spent on raising mountain divisions and airbases.

The border dispute that triggered it, however, remains unresolved. Mutual distrust persists in all spheres, and is unlikely to go, as China surges way ahead as a global player. India is unable to match.

ALSO READ: Nehru, Kashmir And The Lost Frontier

As present-day Indians seek to review, even rewrite, unpalatable past events, “sixty-two” rankles. A new book raises afresh an old question: How far Jawaharlal Nehru and his Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon, the two perennial villains, were responsible? 

“The truth is far more complex. Both made mistakes, but to blame them solely would be simplistic,” says Jairam Ramesh in ‘A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives Of VK Krishna Menon’.

He writes, “warts and all”, about their faulty political, diplomatic and military assessments, but also of tub-thumping politicians who opposed any compromise, even talks, on the British-drawn India-China border. They included Finance Minister Morarji Desai who rejected pleas for increased defence budget citing Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘ahimsa’.

They were also the ones who pilloried Nehru-Menon the most after the conflict. “If he doesn’t go, then you will have to go,” Mahavir Tyagi, senior lawmaker and fellow-freedom fighter, warned Nehru. Menon had to go.

Congressmen hated Menon’s proximity to and influence on Nehru. He had lived in British comforts and never went to jail like they did. This legion of Menon’s past critics agreed that he was acerbic, even arrogant, highly opinionated and disdainful of others’ views.

Even now, Kunwar Natwar Singh, diplomat-politician and one-time foreign minister, declares while reviewing this book: “Menon does not deserve a 700-page biography.”

Ramesh, a Congress lawmaker and former minister, is no apologist either of the duo and other actors of that era. He records Menon’s bad vibes with the military and his interfering in their working. His elevating a favourite, Lt. Gen. B M Kaul, to fight the Chinese was among the most glaring of his disastrous decisions.   

Although “not romantic”, the two were empathetic towards China. They would have liked a negotiated settlement of the border dispute. Menon, indeed, had a specific roadmap. But they were up against the conservatives. Also, they grossly miscalculated the Tibet factor after giving asylum to the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong’s compulsions to use conflict with India for domestic political gains.

Resurrecting Menon 45 years after he died, utlizing heaps of archival material, Ramesh traces his role as the principal spokesman of India’s freedom movement in Britain and as a minister post 1952 after his controversial tenure as the high commissioner in Britain. Ramesh thinks Nehru’s mistake was to be his own foreign minister and have Menon as his defence minister. Both areas suffered. When Menon toured the world as his envoy and was busy defending India at the United Nations on the Kashmir issue (including his record-breaking nine-hour speech) files piled up in the defence ministry.

His focus is on Menon, but he also creates an equally mesmerizing image of Nehru. Both had a common guru in Professor Harold Laski. Both were democrats. Both held similar world-view. Both were deeply suspicious of the West, trusted the Soviet Union, but being Fabians, were not communists. Calling himself an archival biographer, Ramesh does not pre-judge events whose conclusions are already well-known, nor does he intrude by making moral affirmations.

As individuals with differing backgrounds, he says, the two enjoyed great mutual trust. Both were creatures of colonialism and products of British education. They spoke and wrote immaculate English — Menon, only English. But they fought colonialism and the British rule.

Their detractors accused them of being ‘Westernized’, while the West distrusted the two socialists. Menon was a bigger target, considered close to the British Communist Party, the only British group that espoused India’s independence.

Was Menon, then, Nehru’s alter ego? No, Ramesh insists. He was Nehru’s “shock-absorber.” This is as sympathetic as people have been decades after the two have gone, leaving behind a flawed legacy.

They are, however, viewed differently. Menon never recovered from 1962 – he never defended himself. Nehru died a broken man 18 months later, but partly thanks to his daughter and grandson ruling for long years, remains the most iconic figure of post-independence India. Today’s rulers, however, demonize him.

ALSO READ: Why BJP Seeks To Discredit Nehru

Post-independence, Menon’s persuasion of Nehru led to India joining the British Commonwealth and play a leading role in the forging of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Strangely, one was considered an anti-communist front of former British colonies while India’s NAM advocacy pushed it close to the Soviet-led Bloc. In this century, India pays only lip service to the NAM and is lukewarm to the Commonwealth.

Menon’s role was not all evil. In the 1950s, a newly-independent India “got a much higher profile than its might and punched well above its weight”, taking initiatives to resolve the crises in Korea, Cyprus, Vietnam, the Suez, Indonesia and West Asia. Menon conferred with some of the most prominent figures of the mid-20th century – Nasser, Tito, Fidel Castro, Chou En Lai and Ho Chi Minh. John Kennedy, however, didn’t like him. Time magazine that never had a kind word for him, called him “India’s tea-fed tiger.”

Ramesh records how Menon, a bachelor, charmed women of the British elite. While many admired him, Pamela Mountbatten found him “most cynical.”

Menon’s role in the domestic affairs was significant, Ramesh says, citing his little-known contribution to the merger of princely India along with V P Menon.

Menon had drafted the Preamble to the Constitution with terms ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’. But Nehru, heading an all-party government that had Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Maha Sabha, saw no consensus on them. He asked Menon to “go easy”. Inserted only in 1976, in the 42nd amendment, they are part of the Preamble currently being recited across the country by those protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. But a consensus eludes even today.

Post-Nehru, the Congress shunned Menon. Although Indira Gandhi regarded him, it declined him party nomination. Menon fought elections as an independent – lost twice, won once.

Times have drastically changed. Shiv Sena denigrated all South Indians in Mumbai as ‘outsiders’ during an aggressive election campaign that felled Menon in 1967. Till then, Menon, a Keralite, would address large crowds, in English, at Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park. The present-day Maharashtrian, with Sena in power, cannot even imagine this.

In his last days, Menon remained sought-after. The BBC correspondent assigned to report the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict in the Sindh-Rajasthan theatre began by interviewing Krishna Menon. “You cannot conceive of a war in South Asia without that,” he told me.

Little is known about Menon’s love for the young. Students in the 1960s heard him in awe, over endless cups of tea. As one among them, I found it was difficult to keep pace on either tea or talk. He was, as Ramesh records, a humanist.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Lessons To Be Learnt From Kerala Disaster

“Hum Honge Kamyaab”. It is the Hindi version of the original gospel “We Shall Overcome” that had caught the popular imagination of Indians four decades back as a song of hope and united action. There cannot be a better way to send a message to drown the cacophony and divisive discourse of the present times, not just in India, but across the troubled world. Kerala needs sympathy and support, not just because of the intensity and extent of the calamity it faced, but also because it has strived, individually and collectively, to brave it with a measure of dignity. And it continues that way in facing the aftermath. Located at the south-western end of the Indian peninsula, it received 758.6 millimeter of rain between August one and 19 that was 2.6 times the average for that time of year. The unusually heavy downpours caused rivers to overflow. Over 400 people died. Many of the fatalities were caused by landslides in rural areas. Authorities say floods are the state’s most damaging in a hundred years. Amidst all that, egalitarianism was witnessed among the country’s most educated lot when, regardless of caste or religion, all came forward to help with relief and rehabilitation. Ideologues from outside the state sought to pit Hindus against Christians and Muslims, but the Malayam-speaking people would have none of it. From wealthy expatriate in the Gulf who opened up his cheque book to the fisherfolk who worked day and night to rescue victims, everyone set aside their social and political differences in this moment of tragedy. Stories abound of people in high places who got into their T-shirts and veshtis (lower garment), contributed to relief work and quietly left. Politics inevitably follows disasters in India. Help from the Modi Government is tardy – Rs 500 crore against the projected requirement of Rs 2,600 crore. A 2004 decision taken in the wake of the Tsunami has been invoked to decline help forthcoming from foreign quarters. Clarification by two former Foreign Secretaries, Shivshankar Menon and Nirupama Rao, that this pertained to immediate relief and relief operations and not for rehabilitation and infrastructural development has not helped. As a result, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that values contribution to its economy of the 800,000 white and blue-collared workers from Kerala, ready with USD 100 million (more than New Delhi) held back. It said the extent of damage was still being assessed.  Over two million Keralites live in the Gulf region and account for a significant portion of the USD 73 billion remittances India receives. Strong perceptions persist – and they matter a few months before general elections – that New Delhi, besides being niggardly, is also being obstructive. Combine that with loose talk by some that a communist-ruled Kerala deserved it as its people are beef-eaters. New Delhi has done nothing to distance itself or restrain these elements. Besides being regrettable, this is inexplicable considering ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s desire to win over the South. Even more than  BJP, its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has coveted Kerala. It has sought to develop a base in the face of frequent attacks on its cadres from the communists. Besides the anxiety to end the last communist bastion (after West Bengal and Tripura), the temptation could be high to bag a state with significant minorities ( 27 percent Muslims and  17.5 percent Christians as per 2011 census figures). By blocking relief from abroad, the Modi Government and the BJP have lost a “God-given” opportunity to woo Kerala, billed as “God’s own country”. Now, the larger picture: Vast and ecologically diverse India is prone to natural calamities with annual visitations of floods and droughts. Uniquely, some state chief ministers simultaneously run flood and drought relief funds. A accentuated by climate change, floods have become a common phenomenon. Their management has worked but partially. A dedicated disaster management body was set up as recently as in 2005 after Tsunami. Over the past few decades, areas facing recurring calamities have become relatively better prepared, with enhanced awareness of the risks. But this does not hold true for areas free from major calamity in the recent past. Ignoring safety guidelines, dwellings, factories and infrastructure facilities have been constructed in areas that are potentially vulnerable to natural hazards like floods. Questions about the status of preparedness are raised in the aftermath of each disaster. Efforts continue to be reactive. Following the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 and Kashmir floods in 2014, it was only after a lot of questions were raised and criticism directed at preparedness practices that flood forecast stations were set-up in these two states. To return to Kerala, faced with heavy rain, authorities released water from several of the state’s 44 dams where reservoirs were close to overflowing. The neighbouring Tamil Nadu also purged water from its over-filled Mullaperiyar dam, which wreaked more havoc downstream in Kerala. It required a Supreme Court directive on a complaint from Kerala. But such directives seldom work effectively in a country where the politicos make water-sharing an emotive issue. State governments often allow reservoirs to fill completely early in the monsoon season, and do not release water slowly at regular intervals to prevent overfilling later in the season. “India’s reservoir management is unscientific,” says meteorologist Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, secretary of India’s ministry of Earth sciences, which oversees the country’s meteorological institutes. Computer models and meteorological forecasts are used in Europe and the United States to predict the rate at which water flows into reservoirs and how much water needs to be stored — but few authorities in India use such systems, says Rajeevan. By all estimates, Kerala’s floods have completely destroyed this year’s cereal and non-cereal crops. Standing rice plants, under water for over four days, rotted. Only now, people are waking up to the disaster looming on the ecology and their lives. Several issues including soaring mercury level, unprecedented dip in river water levels, sudden drying-up of wells, depletion of groundwater reserves and mass perishing of earthworms are causing concern to farmers. The non-structural measures for flood forecasting — provide early warning in flood prone areas — have proved to be successful for flood management. However, for the early warning systems to be effective, continuous and collaborative efforts are required, rather than a one-time action. People affected by the Kerala floods reported that they had heard a faint announcement on the loudspeakers, but the message could not be heard clearly, so they were unsure about what it meant till the water entered their houses. The Western Ghats are threatened. Madhav Gadgil and his Centre for Ecological Sciences have worked ceaselessly for raising ecological responsibility of all and their contribution is most relevant now. Gadgil headed a committee that was commissioned by Jairam Ramesh when he was Union environment minister. It presented a comprehensive analysis of the threats posed to the Western Ghats by reckless resource extraction. The Gadgil Report noted that the Ghats had ‘been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.’ Then it added: ‘Yet, on the positive side, the Western Ghats region has some of the highest levels of literacy in the country, and a high level of environmental awareness. Democratic institutions are well entrenched, and Kerala leads the country in capacity building and empowering of Panchayat Raj Institutions.’ Renowned writer Ramachandra Guha points out that all across India, unregulated mining runs rampant, with politicians collaborating with contractors to destroy nature and impoverish local communities. Sadly, Guha points out, the Gadgil Report was junked by Ramesh’s successor who even obstructed its circulation. Till an upright Information Commissioner ensured that the report was uploaded online. The report deserves to be widely discussed in the wake of the Kerala  tragedy. Its lessons apply not only to Kerala, but also to Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra, whose own Western Ghats districts have been ravaged in recent decades. This counsel of Guha and Gadgil must be heeded – earlier the better for India. (The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com  )    ]]>