Revisiting Nehru and Menon

Aditi Tandon joins a conversation between a leading historian and a scholar-politician whose works are sure to change the way the world views India of the 20th century

Launched in 1960, the monumental historical project, ‘The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’, concluded last year after six decades of laborious dredging up of the Nehru archives. Edited by leading historian Madhavan K Palat, the insightful 100 volumes not only reveal the finer nuances of Nehru’s personality and his worldview on matters, including Indian citizenship, these also open up a treasure trove of primary sources for researchers of modern Indian history.

Almost simultaneous to the release of ‘The Selected Works’ came the first-ever biography of VK Krishna Menon based on the former Defence Minister’s own archives that were opened up for scrutiny last February. Authored by Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh, ‘A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon’ traces the life of one of India’s most controversial figures, the man the nation remembers most for his ‘failings’ during the 1962 India-China war.

Jairam Ramesh: Well, here I am, a pseudo-historian, with one of India’s finest historians Madhavan Palat, who has just completed editing the entire hundred volumes of ‘The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’, an impeccable, priceless work of scholarship. So Madhavan, nearly 50 years, a hundred volumes. Are you satisfied?

Read also: On the Liaquat pact, citizenship



Madhavan Palat: Yes and no, as with all these things. Satisfied that we have brought it to a conclusion at least, but very unsatisfied that there is so much left out, so much more to be done. In the earlier volumes there were many items which were not taken into this selection, which I would have taken because I suppose they interpreted selected works as selected works. I intended to make them more like complete works.

Jairam Ramesh: So we have hundred volumes of ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ and hundred volumes of ‘The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’. To a student of history, to the public interested in the evolution of Indian politics in the 20th century, how valuable are these works?

On Jawaharlal Nehru

I edited 42 volumes and my view of Nehru changed incredibly for the better. I was an admirer of Nehru in any case, to start with. And as it went on, I was more and more impressed by how much a greater man he was than I thought he was...

Madhavan K Palat

Madhavan Palat: Immensely. If you start the study of modern Indian history in the 20th century, you would start with precisely these two. Gandhi gives you a panorama of the whole of the development of the Independence movement and it is so wide-ranging. Gandhi was not a mere political leader. He was everything. So he commented on everything from the most private aspects of life to the most national and global and profoundly moral, religious, ethical, everything. There is no subject he didn’t touch. Nehru did not go so far. He was a national leader and a global leader and touched upon every aspect of politics, of ideology, of the development of the nation and pretty nearly everything that Gandhi did, but not in quite the same way — that is, not personal lives.

Jairam Ramesh: Did your views on Nehru change? You edited 50 of these 100 volumes?

Madhavan Palat: I edited 42 and my view of Nehru changed incredibly for the better. I was an admirer of Nehru in any case, to start with. And as it went on, I was more and more impressed by how much a greater man he was than I thought he was.

Jairam Ramesh: In what way were you critical to begin with that you had to change your mind after 42 volumes?

Madhavan Palat: The usual way. We thought he was a bit weak and fumbling and so on. He didn’t take decisions as firmly as he should have. That is a sort of received opinion so often. But when I see all the correspondence right through — certainly there is no question of him being fumbling and weak. It is what is required to keep the country together. You have to carry such diverse elements together in one big movement and in one complex state.

Jairam Ramesh: It is interesting that the Krishna Menon book draws extensively on ‘The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’ because he is a very pivotal figure in Nehru’s life from 1935 to 1962. What is the sense you got after reading ‘A Chequered Brilliance’?

Madhavan Palat: Krishna Menon is the third figure I would say along with Subhas Chandra Bose; the third figure in this galaxy. He is global and national and that only Subhas Chandra Bose also is.

On Krishna Menon

Menon was the only leader in the 1960s to consistently argue for a negotiated border settlement with China. In 2003, the man (Vajpayee) who attacked Menon day in and day out for his views on China goes to Beijing as PM and signs a pact that we must negotiate a settlement


Jairam Ramesh: Even Gandhi was actually. He was national and local.

Madhavan Palat: But Gandhi had the role of a prophet for the globe. And he did, by the way, have very subtle views on how certain aspects of international representation should be done. For example, the manner in which he visited Mussolini. Krishna Menon would have opposed totally.

Jairam Ramesh: And Nehru refused to meet him.

Madhavan Palat: Nehru refused to go but Gandhi said yes, I will go... what Gandhi was saying is ‘if I am negotiating with one dictator in India, why can’t I talk to another dictator elsewhere?’

Jairam Ramesh: Two of your very close kith and kin figure in this biography. Your own grandfather MA Candeth got Krishna Menon admission into the famous Presidency College in then Madras and got him out of trouble when you know he raised the flag. And your uncle Lt Gen KP Candeth, who led the Indian Army into Goa in 1961 when Krishna Menon was the Defence Minister.

Madhavan Palat: It is always amusing and interesting to have a personal involvement in these kinds of things or to this extent. But I suppose they were somewhat peripheral to the story.

Jairam Ramesh: But you know it’s extraordinary. You think back, look back on it in the 1950s. You had VP Menon advising Sardar Patel. You had Krishna Menon advising Nehru. You had KPS Menon. You had KM Panikkar. You had Raghavan Pillai.

Madhavan Palat: Yes, and a whole lot of Menons in the civil service who were secretaries.

Jairam Ramesh: So Menon-gitis in the 1950s…

Madhavan Palat: The next person who suffered from similar Kerala-philia, if I might call it that way, is (former PM) Manmohan Singh.

Jairam Ramesh: Yes, but by the way, we should not forget (MO) Mathai, who was a very central figure in the life of both Menon as well as Nehru to begin with but yes, the Malayalis did have a great hold. One great surprise was how Menon opposed the creation of Kerala. He’s a demi-God there…

Madhavan Palat: He is a demi-God there but that’s the irony of these things. They do not realise what his real position was on many of these matters.

Jairam Ramesh: He actually supported Nehru in the imposition of President’s rule in Kerala in 1959.

Madhavan Palat: But he was not parochial at all. That is the whole point. You see, his vision was established in London and he arrived at all his ideological positions there. So it was a global fight against imperialism and fascism, domestic fight to gain Independence, to preserve the unity of the country and like those who went through the trauma of Partition, he looked upon that linguistic states were likely to create another Partition.

Jairam Ramesh: Did your views on Krishna Menon change after reading ‘A Chequered Brilliance’?

Madhavan Palat: It filled in all the gaps I might say and I must congratulate you on a wonderful book. It didn’t so much change as reinforced my conviction that this was a person of immense brilliance, great conviction, capacities, commitment but who was his own worst enemy, as you have repeatedly demonstrated. Because all that he was accused of he was not guilty of, except of course personal abrasiveness. That certainly he was. That we know. But he was accused of being a communist which he was not. In fact, as you just pointed out, he did not want Kerala to become another state because it would become a bastion of communism. Everyone made the mistake that being friendly to the communists for tactical reasons was being communist. Or being friendly to the Soviet Union was being communist.

Jairam Ramesh: You spent a lifetime studying the Soviet Union. One of the things that really weakened Menon in 1962 during the war with China was that the Soviets were not as forthcoming as they should have been. They supported their Chinese brothers and then they also made some genuflections towards the Indian friends and in Parliament. Menon was accused of being pro-Soviet and the Soviets did not deliver.

Madhavan Palat: It was not as though he was being pro-Soviet in expecting military supplies from the Soviet Union. He hoped to get a commitment of Soviet military supplies but since that got delayed, the American option was accepted.

Jairam Ramesh: Why were the Soviets so ambivalent to begin with on the China war?

Madhavan Palat: Well, they had broken with the Chinese but it was not yet so clear that they could come down firmly on the side of India.

Jairam Ramesh: My theory is, there were two crises going on contemporaneously. There was the Chinese invasion of India and there was the Cuban missile crisis. At the same time literally. And they needed China’s support. I think we need to look at it in a larger perspective.

Madhavan Palat: Yes, they have to be seen globally. It could not be seen only in Indian terms. And at the same time China wanted to separate a possible entente between India and the Soviet Union. And therefore also drove the wedge through.

Jairam Ramesh: By 1962, was it evident that the Soviets and the Chinese were drifting apart?

Madhavan Palat: Very much so. They had already split. Nehru had predicted it much earlier. The Americans also had predicted it. So everyone was expecting them to draw apart. But that it would be so bitter nobody expected so soon. The Chinese felt the heat of isolation very much and one of the ways of overcoming that isolation was to attack India and hope to drive the Soviet Union away.

Jairam Ramesh: Mr Modi has made a big thing of ‘Make in India’ but in the early 1960s when we needed a fighter aircraft, the Americans were not giving us to make in India. The Brits were not giving us to make in India. Krishna Menon signed the agreement with the Soviet Union for MiG-21s.

Madhavan Palat: Which caused great anxiety in Britain and America…

Jairam Ramesh: And in fact we lost a lot of friends and Nehru was very careful, very cautious. He said don’t antagonise the Americans, don’t antagonise the British but finally it is the ‘Make in India’ argument that Krishna Menon did.

Madhavan Palat: You made that point regularly in the volume that Menon had actually got his sides right that you have to have defence capacity developed internally and therefore the tank factories, the DRDO especially and something if I might ask, what about the Sainik Schools?

Menon had it right that you go for self-reliance and this is where he saw eye to eye with Nehru. Nehru saw it in a much larger national sense and Menon did it all through the planning mechanism. Menon did it through his department, which is Defence.

Jairam Ramesh: The father of the current External Affairs Minister, K Subrahmanyam, who was India’s foremost defence expert, in an interview with Madhavan Kutty, the noted journalist who wrote a book on Menon in 1988, says that in 1962 it was fundamentally a failure of military leadership, military command, but the politicians took all the blame.

Madhavan Palat: I fully agree. Both Nehru and Menon took it on the chin. As leaders, they took the responsibility but when you read all the reports, the failures were of military leadership and Srinath Raghavan has also pointed out precisely such details of uncertainties and bungling. There was no plan as it were.

Jairam Ramesh: In fact people say if General KS Thimayya was the Army Chief, we would not have had this disaster but General Thimayya wrote five months before the war in July of 1962 in ‘Seminar’ that we can’t fight the Chinese; that we should not fight the Chinese and that the solution should be through political and diplomatic means.

Madhavan Palat: I would go further. General Thimayya comes out rather badly. I mean he was there almost intriguing with the then British High Commissioner claiming that Menon, the Defence Minister, was planning some sort of a coup or creating a base within the Army to take over after Nehru, which I find incredible, but that seems to have been a story that was circulating in the Army circles.

Jairam Ramesh: The other thing I discovered was that JN Chaudhuri, who was to go on and become the Army Chief, was moonlighting as the military correspondent of ‘The Statesman’.

Madhavan Palat: You have given me that point as well as General Thimayya writing straight to the President for the appointment of the next Chief of Army Staff, which was highly irregular. Suggests to me that Nehru gave the Army a very long rope. There is folklore that Nehru was very dismissive and restrictive of the armed forces. I always got the feeling that he pandered to them rather the other way round and they merely lost all their importance because they were no longer the top notch as they were in the colonial times because they were subject to civilian leadership.

They felt it and therefore they took it all out on Nehru. But from all the details that you have given in your book, it seems the other way round. All the top Generals were intriguing against each other in a shocking way. Lt Gen PN Thapar (selected to succeed General Thimayya as Army Chief) sending letters to Thimayya and Lt Gen SPP Thorat? Asking for explanations? How can Thapar do it when he is still their deputy? You said it is obviously with the concurrence of the Defence Minister?

Jairam Ramesh: Yes, cannot be done without the Defence Minister knowing.

Madhavan Palat: Thapar is writing saying I am directed by the Prime Minister. So is Nehru himself in the story? Can a subordinate write to superiors asking for explanations? It is bizarre.

Jairam Ramesh: I could not resist the conclusion that the PM and the Defence Minister both knew that Thapar was writing this and behind all this was the Mephistophelian figure of BM Kaul, who really was a singularly disastrous appointment.

Madhavan Palat: About Kaul, everybody is unanimous. But of course he came up in the Army system. That also must be recognised.

Jairam Ramesh: Thimayya was very close to Kaul.

Jairam Ramesh: Back to ‘The Selected Works’. Do you see this as valuable reference material?

Madhavan Palat: It is immensely valuable because it gives you the documentary history of modern India in one sense, of the 20th century after Nehru’s PM-ship to the end of it. It is the primary source.

Jairam Ramesh: By the way there were some letters of Nehru which are not there in the Nehru archives which I found in the Menon archives.

Madhavan Palat: We must overcome the sheer irrationality of our archives policies that you close some things and open some and at different times. Keep everything open. We must have it all together.

Jairam Ramesh: What would be the relevance of these selected works for the current public discourse other than being historical material?

Madhavan Palat: Well, you can understand the most important aspects of what constitutes India today. One of the most important things in it is ‘what is a citizen of India?’That is something you can see on every page practically. It is discussed one way or the other through communalism, through what Nehru calls linguism, casteism; again and again the same question arises and Nehru firmly stands in favour of secular individuality as the primary nature of Indian citizenship and not any other group. Every other group has to be protected and given advantages for historical deprivation.

Jairam Ramesh: And he keeps talking of the secular state. He doesn’t reject the idea of a religious society. In fact, he says that we are a multi-religious society but he is talking of a secular state and I think that distinction is often lost in public debate.

Madhavan Palat: Nehru keeps that on the front-burner all the time that this is a secular state and within the process of secularisation you can have any number of religions. And religions are, in fact, protected and secured and maintained by a secular system. It is not an attack upon religion at all.

Jairam Ramesh: I find it very interesting that today everybody is reading the Preamble in every public meeting. Krishna Menon played a very important role in the drafting of the Preamble. The words ‘independent sovereign republic’ have come from Menon and he actually is a consistent supporter and advocate of the idea of having a Constituent Assembly from 1933 onwards. In fact it was Gandhi who was a bit reluctant on the idea.

Madhavan Palat: When everybody now recites the Preamble so passionately, they are reinforcing Nehru’s original vision that we are all citizens of this country and not members of any community. That is what takes priority over everything else. And there is no other way of defining citizenship except by the fact that you are a resident here and that is called civic citizenship.

Jairam Ramesh: When you look at ‘The Selected Works’, Nehru is replying on April 14 saying I have received your letter on April 13.

Madhavan Palat: Yes, it is so often that Nehru has received the letter the same day and is replying the same day and if he takes four days over, he says, ‘I am sorry I took so long.’

Jairam Ramesh: So I think both Menon and Nehru, as did Gandhi, belonged to the era in which writing letters, putting down thoughts on paper was very important. We are not a written culture. We are an oral culture. We lost that after Nehru?

Madhavan Palat: By then they had become a writing culture. Now, of course, it is all about sound bites. I suppose it is Twitter responses we have and people do not reply the same way. Today it a case of entitlement that you are not under any obligation, you are not answerable to people the same way. Then you were campaigning, you were answerable. You responded on every matter. You thought it was your duty to do so and make yourself clear to everybody. There was a work ethic to it.

Jairam Ramesh: I would say Nehru and Menon both were good Britishers but true Indians.

Madhavan Palat: Very British and Gandhi not less. Gandhi was trained professionally, all lawyers. They were all professionals in the European mould. So nothing was of the chalta hai attitude. But why didn’t Menon take part, come to the Constituent Assembly?

Jairam Ramesh: Menon didn’t want to leave London. He wanted to be Nehru’s global envoy. The Constituent Assembly comes in December 1946. By then Menon is already Nehru’s global envoy. By August of 1947, Menon plays a role in the Transfer of Power, in the negotiations with Lord Mountbatten and then he becomes the High Commissioner. I think Menon was really reluctant to come back to India frankly. He went to England in 1924.

Madhavan Palat: Places like the Constituent Assembly were ideal for him.

Jairam Ramesh: Menon never asked Nehru that he wanted to come to the Constituent Assembly. The only request he makes is to let him be on the panel of experts. Nehru makes him a member of the panel in July 1946. He was very reluctant to come back.

Madhavan Palat: He was more involved in British politics than in Indian politics at that time.

Jairam Ramesh: Nehru saw Menon as his global extension, Menon was a trouble-shooter.

Madhavan Palat: I can understand Nehru seeing him that way but for Menon to be absent at such a crucial moment when you are shaping the future of the country through a Constituent Assembly.

Jairam Ramesh: He was too committed to the India League. He was too comfortable living in London.

Madhavan Palat: But was he comfortable?

Jairam Ramesh: Living comfortably in poverty. He was not exactly living very comfortably in London but he was really more of a Britisher. He had no friends in India. He had been borough councillor for 14 years, editor of Penguin and Pelican. So he was more in the English mould. He was a British public intellectual and member of the Labour Party but he played a very important role in the decision ultimately to have a Constituent Assembly. A revelation was the extraordinary relationship that he and Minoo Masani had because Masani was his bitterest critic.

Madhavan Palat: But Masani was a fellow traveller. Masani was more pro-Soviet, more than Nehru was. But why do you think Menon was climbing on to the bandwagon when he joined Nehru and abandoned the Congress Socialist Party?

Jairam Ramesh: There were five to six agencies in England claiming to speak on behalf of the Indian nationalist movement of which India League was one. Menon did not have the exalted place in British politics till he is seen as Nehru’s man.

Madhavan Palat: Wouldn’t Nehru have been Menon’s choice by conviction rather than any opportunity?

Jairam Ramesh: They were both democratic socialists. They shared similar interests, same friends, the same vision of the Indian national movement as part of a global movement against anti-imperialist forces but you know the CSP, he realised, was not in the mainstream of the Congress. There was something splinter about it. He was very close to Ram Manohar Lohia, Ashok Mehta.

Madhavan Palat: But Lohia was a different kind of person then. We cannot recognise the two Lohias.

Jairam Ramesh: Absolutely. You can’t recognise the two Ashok Mehtas. You can’t recognise the two Masanis.

Madhavan Palat: No, Masanis I can almost recognise because that is the sort of trajectory that many of them now follow.

Jairam Ramesh: The people who stand out for consistency are Krishna Menon and Nehru because from the mid-1930s they are advocating this democratic socialist line unlike Masani or Lohia or Ashok Mehta, who swing from one end to the other or even like Jayaprakash Narayan. JP was the founder of the CSP.

Madhavan Palat: But here there is another interesting point. When the war came, Menon wanted India to be on the British side. He did not see the importance of the position Nehru took that you are anti-fascist. but you are not pro-British. That is crucial. Now that is what allowed Nehru, I suspect, to go smoothly into non-alignment and Menon’s accepting NAM was not of the same theoretical fervour or commitment as Nehru’s was. Menon was pro-British. That is why he could think of being in the Commonwealth and advocate it.

Jairam Ramesh: Without Menon, it is unlikely that India would have remained in the Commonwealth because Nehru was very ambivalent. It was Mountbatten from the British side and Attlee but from the Indian side, it was Krishna Menon and Girija Shankar Bajpai who were pushing it.

Madhavan Palat: Look at the contrast. Krishna Menon on the one hand advocating the Commonwealth, on the other hand being pro-Soviet and anti-American, anti-western later on. This is where Nehru’s strategic thinking and global vision has a clarity which is superior to anybody else’s.

Jairam Ramesh: I think Menon used the British Communist Party because it was the only party which was arguing for full Indian independence. He often said that the fact that the communists are supporting me does not mean that I love the communists. It means the communists love me. And you know there is a Scotland Yard report which says he is attending all these meetings of the British Communist Party, but Menon can never be a communist because he lacks the discipline. That is the problem with him as Defence Minister. The Army is built on hierarchy, built on systems.

Madhavan Palat: There is a further reason I would suggest about the Army. Why were the relations so bad? Menon’s relations with anybody would have been bad but with the Army particularly. We must remember that Menon for 30 years was sitting abroad fighting imperialism, the British and all the stuffiness they represented. He is a man, as you said in your book, who was thrown out of India regularly. He suffered those indignities and then to come back to independent India and find these highly pompous, incredibly British… that kind of people, he found them contemptible.

Jairam Ramesh: I think that explains why BM Kaul was so acceptable. He was a nationalist. You see Kaul was the secretary of the Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee that was set up by Sardar Baldev Singh in 1946. He was the secretary and Thimayya served with him and Nehru was very impressed with Kaul. Kaul was seen to be a local.

Madhavan Palat: Kaul’s nationalist heart was in the right place. Of course he was not a good soldier, but…

Jairam Ramesh: I have described him as a superb military administrator, but he was a bureaucrat.

Jairam Ramesh: How do you see ‘A Chequered Brilliance’? I did not go out to vilify Menon.

Madhavan Palat: No, not at all. You have done very well on him because I think all the erratic aspects of his behaviour come out very well. I think you are a bit harsh on him over Gen Thimayya’s resignation issue, whether he actually conspired to that extent. The evidence is not so clear and you do not know who is playing. You could as well blame Nehru since Thapar is quoting Nehru’s authority to write the way he did. So I think that seemed a bit harsh. Otherwise there is enough ground for Thimayya to despise all these people because they have been conspiring in many ways.

Jairam Ramesh: I find it interesting that Menon was the only Indian leader in the 1960s to consistently argue for a negotiated border settlement with China. He was the only one along with Nehru but after 1958, Nehru becomes closer to the right wing in his Cabinet led by GB Pant and when Zhou Enlai comes to India in April 1960 (which Srinath Raghavan calls the last missed opportunity), Menon is nowhere to be seen. It is Swaran Singh but it is interesting that in 2003, the man who attacked Menon day in and day out for his views on China, that same man goes to Beijing as PM and signs an agreement saying we must negotiate a border settlement. That was Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Madhavan Palat: Precisely. Nehru and Krishna Menon were attacked so much in Parliament that they rarely had an option. They could not negotiate. So where does the story come in that India was obdurate? That’s a Left wing position.

Jairam Ramesh: That was Neville Maxwell single-handedly.

Madhavan Palat: But it is also maintained by the Left that Nehru and Krishna Menon were being chauvinists. Anything but.

Jairam Ramesh: In fact, Menon till 1962 (his meeting with Marshal Chen Yi in Geneva) was willing to negotiate but Parliament was not allowing and don’t forget even the Socialists in Parliament were against a negotiated settlement.

Madhavan Palat: Menon wanted better budgets for defence and who was stopping it? Morarji Desai.

Jairam Ramesh: Acharya Kripalani in 1963 in the first no-confidence motion runs down Menon saying you neglected defence. Krishna Menon then dug out all the speeches of Kripalani which he had made in 1950s saying that any increase in defence budgets was an insult to Mahatma Gandhi.

Madhavan Palat: People could take very contradictory positions. Morarji was blocking it all the way.

Jairam Ramesh: And once the war is there and Krishna Menon resigns, Morarji Desai says why are you asking me money for two factories. Have three, I will give you four. But that was the political failure of Krishna Menon. He could not negotiate with his colleagues. He thought that Nehru would bail him out but frankly after 1958, do you get a sense of the slow political decline of Nehru? He is a prisoner of heavyweights in his Cabinet.

Madhavan Palat: And planning is failing, China policy is failing.

Jairam Ramesh: And he is being criticised by his own MPs. He loses TT Krishnamachari. So is it the autumn of the patriarch after 1958-59?

Madhavan Palat: But that is the fate of leading the country. He started out as a democrat. He had to increasingly become a disciplinarian. The movement, he had to convert into a party machine, the party machine then had to compete in elections and if you are in competitive elections, you are only one of the players, not the lead player. Planning was running into the doldrums. India had its first big foreign exchange crisis in 1958.

Jairam Ramesh: It forces Nehru to make choices which Menon didn’t approve of. After 1958, Menon is veering more towards the Americans...

Madhavan Palat: And Menon was in favour of less of controls. He was for more exports. We were export pessimistic in the Second Plan. So Nehru does begin to face the kind of problems that Congress eventually faced — you are in a much reduced position in a very competitive world, in a much more pluralist world and what kept everybody together in the Independence movement was no longer keeping them together.


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