When one reads about Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon (V.K. Krishna Menon), the first question that would pop into the mind would be whether we are reading about a Super Villain like MegaMind. Over his lifetime many a names were ascribed to Krishna Menon, “Rasputin, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, Svengali, poisonous bastard, Evil Genius, The World’s Most Hated Diplomat…and other colourful images.”
From all corners he either evokes awe and respect or utmost contempt.
“Krishna Menon was endowed with a razor sharp mind, which he used and misused. He had a poor judgement. He collected a group of second rate hangers-on in London and New Delhi.
He threw well-timed tantrums, was a near psychopath suffering from insomnia and depression. Several times he wrote to Nehru, his patron-in-chief, that he wished to commit suicide.” writes Natwar Singh in his essay on V. K Krishna Menon.
V.K Krishna Menon was without doubt one of the most controversial Indian Statemen to have walked the 20th Century.
Setting out for London in 1924, V.K. Krishna Menon found himself in the awkward position of being the son of a very rich father with very empty pockets. “I telegraphed you yesterday that I wanted money,” he wrote to his sister, weeks later, hoping again “to get 100 pounds from Father”. The old man, of course, had no intention of subsidizing his son’s journey towards self-destruction. For at 28, Krishna Menon looked every inch a disappointment. He was sent to Madras (now Chennai) to qualify as a lawyer but returned to Calicut (now Kozhikode), instead, a bedazzled theosophist. He was raised to take over his father’s legal enterprise, but all he talked about was Annie Besant and the earth-shattering advent of a supposed “World Teacher”. Now, to add to his erratic peregrinations, he was off to London for a diploma in education, planning to become, of all things, a humble schoolteacher.
Krishna Menon’s was a family that thought modesty overrated. His father was a legal luminary in British Malabar and the son of a local raja. They paraded elephants (Sanku, Sankaran and Gopalan were favourites) and saw Queen Victoria’s passing as tragedy unparalleled. His mother was the daughter of Koodali Nair, master of tens of thousands of acres, and played chess when she wasn’t enjoying her ample inheritance. Of the eight children born to this proud and handsome couple, Kunjikrishna, as our protagonist was originally named, was from the start considered somewhat limited. Where a sister pursued French and Latin and upheld her family’s imperious standards by discarding a husband, young Krishna was busy being sensitive and gentle, insisting on feeding his pony milk and oats from the breakfast table.
Menon’s journey from aspiring schoolmaster to the 1962 cover of Time magazine as an international mischief-maker is fascinating. Soon after he arrived in London, he upped his ambitions and acquired a string of qualifications. He studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and wrote a thesis on psychology at University College London. On the eve of his father’s death in 1934, he at last even became a lawyer. Breaking from his theosophist mentors, he was the face of the India League, and chief lobbyist for Indian independence in Britain’s political circles. He cultivated links with the Labour Party, and, in the midst of all this, helped launch Penguin, the publishing house, only to quarrel and withdraw forever. In the late 1930s, the prospect of a parliament seat too appeared, but his “double loyalty” meant plans for a political career in Britain were ill-fated from the onset.
In 1935, the collapse of a romance left Menon suicidal and he became more dependent than ever on astrology and medication. Still, when Nehru came that year to Britain, it was this complicated Malayali who was anointed local spokesman of the Congress.
Krishna Menon was a prominent Indian freedom fighter against British rule. With an intellectual orientation in common, Menon and Jawaharlal Nehru had forged a close friendship during the independence struggle. V. K. Krishna Menon was first appointed minister without portfolio (1952–1956) and then defense minister (April 1957–November 1962) in Prime Minister Nehru’s government.
During this time, Menon also served as leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations (UN; 1952–1953 and 1954–1962). He first gained international prominence in 1957 for an eight-hour improvised speech at the United Nations Security Council in defense of India’s position on Kashmir. Menon, who was later known as “Indian Rasputin” and Nehrus “Evil Genius” was replying to a letter on Kashmir addressed to the UN Security Council by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan on 2 January 1957. The Pakistan Minister had also made a statement to the UN on 16 January. The long speech blunted the Pakistan’s case and won Soviet Union’s support. Subsequently, Soviet Union vetoed the U.N Resolution on Kashmir. However, this was not without blame. His nine-hour speech on Kashmir in the Security Council in 1956 got him world fame. In private, some UN delegates said, “If your case is so good, why nine hours?”
During his marathon address to the UNSC, Menon said (excerpted), “Why is that we have never heard voices in connection with the freedom of people under the suppression and tyranny of Pakistani authorities on the other side of the ceasefire line? Why is it that we have not heard here that in ten years these people have not seen a ballot paper? With what voice can either the Security Council or anyone coming before it demand a plebiscite for a people on our side who exercise franchise, who have freedom of speech, who function under a hundred local bodies?
Menon reportedly had to be hospitalized after collapsing from exhaustion towards the end of his speech. He returned to continue for another hour, with a doctor constantly monitoring his blood pressure.
As leader of the Indian delegation, he was prominent in the negotiations that resolved the Korean War and the Suez crisis. In 1961 the West condemned India when, on Menon’s advice to Nehru, Indian forces invaded Goa, seizing this colonial territory from the Portuguese in what was claimed to be a violation of the UN Charter on nonaggression and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means. A year later, Menon was pressured to resign as defense minister, following India’s disastrous military defeat by Chinese forces along the Himalayan frontiers in October 1962. He was blamed for India’s lack of military preparedness against China. Ironically, Prime Minister Nehru, the architect of Sino-Indian friendship, escaped blame.
Krishna Menon was born in Calicut, Cochin, now part of the state of Kerala, in 1896. He took an interest in the independence movement in the 1920s, first as an undergraduate student at Madras Presidency College, and then as a postgraduate law student at Madras Law College. As a law student he became associated with Annie Besant and her Home Rule Movement for India. Besant, impressed with the young Krishna Menon, sent him to England to study. In England he studied at the London School of Economics and at Lincoln’s Inn, London, from where he was admitted to the English Bar as a barrister-in-law.
Menon founded the India League in London in 1928, and it became the center of Indian nationalist activities in England. The British Labour Party was impressed with his political skills and public oratory and made him one of its spokesmen. In 1934 he was elected to the London Muncipal Council from St. Pancras on a Labour ticket.
He continued to be reelected from there until he became India’s first high commissioner (ambassador) after India gained independence in 1947. During his time as a London councilman, Menon appeared as a barrister in several cases on behalf of London’s poor. For his services, St. Pancras conferred on him the “Freedom of the Borough,” an honor that until then had only been conferred on George Bernard Shaw. Menon also became a member of the Communist Party in London, an affiliation that plagued him later as a member of Nehru’s Congress Party government. He was accused of excessive sympathy for China, blinding him to the threat from the north.
Even today Krishna Menon evokes scathe criticism from all corners. Natwar Singh writes so “One of his memorable diplomatic successes was to persuade Premier Chou En Lai to release four American prisoners. He converted Nehru to the view that Pakistan was our real enemy. There was no need to fear China. The rest is history.
Krishna Menon was not a team man. He was a disastrous Defence Minister. He had contempt for senior generals. His favourite was the lamentable Lt Gen B.K. Kaul.”
The 1962 election in the Bombay constituency drew national and international attention. It was, of course, a Krishna Menon versus J.B. Kripalani contest — a contest between a Congressman and an ex-Congressman. While the Prime Minister, Nehru supported Menon, there were heavy weights like C. Rajagopalachari and Jaiprakash Narayan who openly campaigned against Menon. They even went ahead to say that a victory for Menon would mean a victory for the communists. However, it was ultimately Menon who won the election, with Nehru having no small role to play in it. Having won against a heavy weight like J.B. Kriplani would have made Menon prouder and also provided him the assurance to be arrogant.
In May and June 1962, Krishna Menon was back in the UN, making four thundering speeches on Kashmir, which won him further plaudits at home. That he had taken on Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, the foreign minister of Pakistan who had got the better of Gopalaswami Ayyangar in 1948, added to his lustre.
On 25 July 1962, a future Prime Minister had written to Nehru saying that the frequent absence of the defence minister during a time when India faced a crisis on its borders with China in Ladakh was totally unjustifiable. That very day Nehru replied to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a member of the Rajya Sabha, saying that he saw nothing wrong in Krishna Menon going abroad for five days, particularly to attend the last stages of the Laos conference ‘in which we have been engaged and have played an important part’. He assured Vajpayee that the Ladakh matter was now under the defence chiefs.
Three months later China would attack India, and India would suffer a humiliating defeat in the war. The price that Nehru had to pay to pacify his own party colleagues and to get immediate military assistance from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada would be to accept Krishna Menon’s resignation as defence minister.
After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, Menon almost became a non-person. Indira Gandhi denied him a Lok Sabha ticket in 1967.
After his resignation from the Congress in 1967, he fought and lost the elections from a Mumbai constituency. In 1972, however, he won the elections from a Kerala constituency with support from the Left.
He spent the rest of his years giving lectures, arguing cases in the Supreme Court, and quarrelling with a niece’s husband over his traditional “right” to name her children. “Krishna Menon was essentially an extremely lonely man,” wrote a relation, and his was a life that married emotional instability to political petulance. But for all that, the dangers of his influence were overrated. As he himself said in an interview, “I was neither a buffoon nor a Rasputin.”
Menon died in 1974 at the age of seventy-eight.
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Ram, Janaki. V. K. Krishna Menon. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Varkey, K. T. V. K. Krishna Menon and India’s Foreign Policy. New Delhi: Indian Publishers Distributors, 2002.
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