Book Title: A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of Krishna Menon
Author: Jairam Ramesh
Few Indians have dominated global politics or aroused as much awe and antagonism as V. K. Krishna Menon, one of the most extraordinary personalities of the 20th century — astute, arrogant, acerbic, brilliant, erudite, egoistic, opinionated and impatient. Menon ensured that the aphorism “love him or hate him, but you cannot ignore him” seldom fitted anyone better. He strode the international political arena like a colossus, creating friends and enemies in equal numbers. Though he remains, without doubt, one of the foremost statesmen produced by India, he is remembered more as the person held responsible for the debacle that the nation’s armed forces suffered during the war with China in 1962.
Menon gained fame as the indefatigable secretary of London-based India League, which espoused in England the cause of Indian independence. While attending college in Madras, he came under the influence of Annie Besant, who convinced him to go to England to pursue further studies. There he became a disciple of the famous Prof. Harold Laski of the London School of Economics (LSE), who was to describe Menon as the only student from who he learnt something. He was called to the Bar but chose not to become a full-time lawyer, opting instead to become an agitator, working full time for India League, while living a life of penury and surviving on endless cups of tea and buns. He developed close contact with leading lights of the Labour Party, who even considered nominating him a candidate for the elections to the House of Commons in 1939. He also tried his hand as a freelance editor, working for two prominent publishing houses before setting up Pelican Books, the non-fiction arm of Penguin Books.
It was during his time in London that Menon established a close personal friendship with Pandit Nehru. He acted as the literary agent of Nehru, who soon found a kindred soul in Menon. The fact that they shared the same world view and had similar political beliefs might also have helped but the truth was that Nehru found in Menon a person with who he could relate at an intellectual level. From 1935, till his death in 1964, Nehru would promote as well as protect Menon, who evolved into his closest political as well as ideological companion.
After a stint as independent India’s first High Commissioner in the UK, where he played an important role in convincing Nehru that the nation should remain in the Commonwealth despite turning into a Republic, Menon became the Leader of the Indian Mission to United Nations (UN) in 1953. His oratorical prowess and enlightened thinking on world affairs made Menon take to the UN, where he held centre stage for the next 10 years. There was hardly any issue where he did not intervene and his words invariably influenced opinion-making in this body. He championed India’s proposals towards ending the Korean crisis, which was approved by both the US and China, and led to Delhi heading the Neutral Nations Reparations Committee. He played important roles in defusing the Suez crisis of 1956 and bringing peace to the India-China region and Laos. He spoke passionately about disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.
However, his performances in the UN created a host of enemies for Menon, starting from President Eisenhower of the US, who described him as a “menace and boor”! Menon, on his part, made no bones about his dislike for the policies espoused by the US and the UK, particularly towards the countries in Asia and Africa. He was pilloried many a time in the American press, but Menon took it all in his stride. There were even allegations that he was a “crypto communist” when he voted against the resolution seeking active intervention in Hungary in the wake of deployment of forces of the erstwhile USSR to crush an uprising there in 1956.
The biggest contribution of Menon for India in the UN was the manner in which he presented the Kashmir issue before the world body. Prior to Menon arriving on the scene, the general consensus was that Pakistan had succeeded before the UN on account of being able to present their case better. But Menon changed that. Speaking eloquently for seven hours and 35 minutes over two days in January 1957, Menon held the Security Council in thrall and placed before that body all historical facts as well as the legal and political nuances of the dispute in a forceful manner. He made four more speeches on the same topic in February 1957, which went a long way in the UN denying Pakistan the victory that it had grown accustomed to.
After being appointed as Union minister in 1956, Menon was allotted the Defence portfolio a year later. The military top brass, who initially welcomed his appointment, soon fell out with him on account of his acidic tongue and overbearing behaviour, which they found insulting. Matters reached a crisis when General Thimmayya, then Army chief, put in his papers. Though Nehru intervened and had the resignation withdrawn, the damage was done, as this incident was reported by the media, who accused Menon of playing politics with the forces.
The reverses suffered by the Indian Army in the month-long border war with China finished off Menon as a political heavyweight. The public uproar in the wake of severe setbacks led to his resignation, though Nehru initially tried to protect him by changing his portfolio. All the good work that Menon had done in defence, such as setting up indigenous facilities for manufacture of arms, armaments, ammunition and other equipment, building organisations committed to research in this sector, and procuring aircraft carriers for the Navy and new planes for the Air Force, faded from public memory in the aftermath of this debacle.
Menon remained at the fringes of public life after ceasing to be a minister. Though denied the ticket by the Congress party to contest the general election in 1967, he found his way to Parliament as an Independent, with support from the Communists. He continued to voice his opinions on various matters in national and international fora till his death in 1974.
The book, “A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of Krishna Menon”, written by Jairam Ramesh, performs the difficult task of covering all facets of the life journey of Menon. It is extremely well researched and brings to light many facts that have not come to the public eye before. The work chronicles in detail the role played by Menon during the transfer of power in 1947, including the appointment of Lord Mountbatten, with who he maintained close personal relations, as the last Viceroy.
The author has not fought shy of discussing the relationships that Menon, a bachelor, had with the fairer sex, nor is there any attempt to hide his various weaknesses, failings and insecurities. The only possible criticism could be that the book has avoided discussion on the “forward policy” adopted by India, involving the setting up of military posts in disputed areas in Aksai Chin, which is widely considered to have aroused Mao’s anger and led to the war with China.
It is rarely that one comes across a biography that falls under the category of page turners. The fascinating life that the subject led adds to the allure of the brilliant prose that embellishes this work. This superbly scripted book does ample justice to Krishna Menon and the many enchanting lives he lived.