This book spills secrets of a General & his boss

NO doubt, there have been clashes between prime ministers and army chiefs aplenty, but, perhaps, none more controversial — but also, surprisingly, less understood — than that which happened exactly 60 years ago.

This book spills secrets of a General & his boss

Ambitious: Menon was the Defence Minister from 1957 to 1962.

Karan Thapar

Karan Thapar
Senior journalist & commentator

NO doubt, there have been clashes between prime ministers and army chiefs aplenty, but, perhaps, none more controversial — but also, surprisingly, less understood — than that which happened exactly 60 years ago. Gen KS Thimayya’s shock resignation in 1959, the unexplained leak of this news which made front-page banner headlines in The Statesman and its equally surprising withdrawal the very next day was the cause celebre of the time. With Parliament in session, it also created a political storm. It embarrassed the Prime Minister, damaged the Defence Minister and brought little credit to the Army Chief.

Jairam Ramesh’s biography of Krishna Menon, who was Defence Minister from 1957 to 1962, answers two critical questions: what was the precise reason for Thimayya’s resignation? And who was responsible for the leak to The Statesman? Called A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon, it quotes from Thimayya’s so-far unseen resignation letter as also from his extensive conversations with Malcolm MacDonald, then British High Commissioner and Thimayya’s next-door neighbour on King George’s Avenue, as Rajaji Marg was then called. What emerges is both fascinating and disturbing.

Thimayya’s resignation letter of August 31, 1959, is addressed to Nehru. “A few days ago, I mentioned to you how impossible it was for me and the other two Chiefs of Staff to carry out our responsibilities under the present Defence Minister and that we sought your advice.” Nehru, the letter continues, had conveyed Thimayya’s feelings to Krishna Menon, who, it adds, “quite rightly feels that my talking to you directly is an act of disloyalty to him.” Thimayya then concludes, “under these circumstances you will understand how impossible it is for me to carry out my duties as Chief of the Army Staff under Mr. Krishna Menon. I, therefore, have no alternative but to submit my resignation.”

 In his report to the British government, Malcolm MacDonald, referring to his conversations with Thimayya, wrote in similar terms. “The General told me…the Minister…and the situation had become more and more impossible. In the end, he had felt it necessary to tell the Prime Minister and to send in his resignation.” 

So, clearly, Thimayya resigned because he had complained about his boss, the Defence Minister, to his boss’s boss, the Prime Minister, which his boss had not liked. He had, thus, put himself in an invidious position and resignation was the only way out. 

Perhaps, because he sensed this was irregular, if not also improper, Ramesh attempts to present the details in a significantly different way. He writes: “In one of his frequent meetings with the Prime Minister, Nehru seems to have asked Thimayya how things were at the Ministry of Defence,” thus hiding the fact that Thimayya himself approached the Prime Minister and, instead, claiming that Nehru questioned him and Thimayya only spoke in response. It’s possible this reflects a fondness the author feels for Thimayya, but it is starkly contradicted by the evidence his book provides. And if I’m right, that evidence has been revealed for the first time by none other than Ramesh. So how he’s interpreted it is odd, wouldn’t you say? 

More revealing and disturbing are other lengthy extracts from MacDonald’s report on the Army Chief’s resignation which are based on his conversation with General Thimayya of October 6, 1959, just a month after the resignation episode. Remember, Thimayya had withdrawn his resignation and, therefore, spoke to the British High Commissioner as the serving Army Chief. 

This report is part of MacDonald’s papers kept at Durham University. In it, MacDonald writes, “Stimulated by one or two questions from me, the General said that Mr Menon had no idea of how to deal with people…he tried to steamroller them into agreement with him…he was unscrupulous in his unfriendliness towards those who stood up to him; and he was 

cunning in the exploitation of those who were prepared to give way to him.” But that’s not all. 

MacDonald also reports something of far greater concern. He writes that Thimayya told him Menon “was perhaps trying deliberately to make himself the master of the armed forces so that he might one day have their support in the achievement of his political ambition to take Mr Nehru’s place either after, or even before, Mr Nehru’s withdrawal from public life.” 

Frankly, this is astonishing and deeply disturbing. First, you have a serving Army Chief criticising the Defence Minister to the British High Commissioner and doing so openly, not subtly, and pretty comprehensively. Then, even worse, the Army Chief clearly suggests the Defence Minister has Bonapartist ambitions which could threaten the Prime Minister’s position. In simple language, that amounts to a putsch! 

It’s almost embarrassing to characterise what General Thimayya as Army Chief seems to have done. This is the sort of conversation one normally reads of in spy novels when informants brief their handlers. From an Army Chief, it’s unforgiveable. But that’s not how Ramesh writes of it.

He euphemistically calls it ‘highly unusual’. He goes no further than stating that this “call(s) into question the General’s judgement.” Once again — but even more so than earlier — this suggests another attempt to whitewash Thimayya. 

However, the bombshell is what Ramesh writes about how the leak to The Statesman happened. He claims the man who told the paper was Lt Gen JN Chaudhuri who, in November 1962, went on to become the Army Chief. Relying on the fact that Chaudhuri admitted in his 1978 autobiography that he had anonymously moonlighted as The Statesman’s military correspondent from 1951 for a decade — which has been separately confirmed by The Statesman Editor Ravindra Kumar — Ramesh writes, “My conclusion is that Chaudhuri was in the loop on Thimayya’s resignation and instead of writing the story himself, passed it on to the paper’s political correspondent.” And, remember, right through this period, The Statesman was British-owned and -edited. It only passed into Indian hands in 1967.

So, a former Army Chief not only had a second job hidden from the government but was also passing on secret information to a British-owned paper! And he did all of this as a serving Lieutenant General, what Ramesh calls ‘a top army officer’. If true, this ‘whistleblowing’ is unquestionably a breach of official government secrets.

Ramesh does not reveal what led him to this conclusion, but simply asserts it. More bizarrely, he makes no comment about what he alleges happened. This reluctance, amounting to silence, is puzzling. And, again, one must ask: could it be an attempt to exculpate Chaudhuri?

Of course, there’s a lot more in Ramesh’s 725-page tome. Much of it will be rich pickings for researchers, but indigestible for the lay reader. No doubt, he’s unearthed good stuff, but Ramesh could have been more selective in using it. And, of course, more analytical and candid in what he makes of it.

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