V P Menon: Builder of United India
Continued from “The Great Consolidator”
Living in an elegantly designed, solidly-built mansion, have you ever asked yourself who was its architect? You unfailingly admire Taj Mahal but seldom care to ascertain the name of the real person – or rather persons – who designed and had it built under his supervision? (Should you be interested to know, do refer to the footnote.)
While perusing the stories of the early years of the Republic and its movers and shapers – Nehru, Patel, Rajen Babu and others - you may have run into the name of V P Menon almost in parentheses. It calls for some effort and bit of research to ferret out the real persona behind the name who was the real architect of today’s united India. He was the person who with ruthless efficiency of a truly dedicated civil servant worked as per the grand design of Vallabhbhai Patel. It is curious – in fact, intriguing – that there’s not a single authoritative biography of the man.
It took me quite some effort to collect data about the man who made very significant contribution in the making of modern India. In fact even in encyclopedias, his private life is given a couple of paragraphs while dealing with the monumental work he did in his Ministry.
Ottapalam is a small mofussil town in Kerala. It owes its fame because of its association with great Malayali writers like M T Vasudevan Nair and others. Here was born in a poor family VP, who toiled and rose to become the most trusted Indian adviser at the time of transfer of power. On one side was Mountbatten, and on the other Sardar Patel, Nehru, Krishna Menon and a multitude of other political heavy-weight, seasoned politicians including Gandhi. In between them was this man from Ottapalam.
His name was Pangunni Menon. Strange-sounding indeed! Possibly, it means the person born in the month of Panguni or possibly after the so-called lame Sage of the Himalayas. Today, I learn, the name is hardly heard in Kerala, and like the Indian independence struggle, it sounds rather ancient.
It is an interesting fact that few small towns in the country could claim as many movers and shakers in the top bureaucracy as this pastoral municipality of barely 50,000 people. Ottappalam, it appears, has got too used to its men making news to care to notice.
A few minutes down the dusty and narrow bone-shaker of a road winding away from Shankaran Nair’s original home stands the house of V P Menon – a school dropout and one-time coolie-turned-Secretary of Ministry of States who helped Sardar Vallabhai Patel get more land and more people by the merger of princely states in the Union than the much-praised Bismarck did in Germany.
Pangunni or VP as he was later known moved back and forth negotiating the English withdrawal from India and thereafter, as Secretary of States Ministry, the creation of India we know today by wresting them away from 564 princes and kings, sultans and nawabs. (The 565th State was Jammu and Kashmir which was directly under the charge of the Hon’be Prime Minister. Hence, the continuing mess even after 65 years.) He created together with Sardar Patel the Union of India as we swear by today.
Neglect of History and Geography
It was VP himself who reminded us many years ago that “A nation that forgets its history or its geography does so at its peril”. Isn’t it profoundly sad that we forgot not only the history along with the creators of such history and also the importance of geography? I needn’t emphasize the importance of history. Often have I, in these columns, discussed our fatal flaw of forgetting our history and the lessons we should have learnt from it.
Allow me to draw your attention to a very significant study: Why Geography Matters by Harm de Blij, a former editor of the prestigious National Geographic magazine. The reputed geographer points out how important it is to pay attention to maps published by the Governments of the day. For instance, we explained away the maps that the Chinese have been publishing in early 1950’s showing large parts of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet and paid in 1962 a horrendous price. Ponder over the following from Blij’s book:
Cartographic aggression takes several forms. Some overt, as in the case of Iraq, others more subtle. In 1993 I received a book titled Physical Geography of China, written by Zhao Sonqiao, published in 1986 in Beijing. One the frontispiece is a map of China. But that map, to the trained eye, looks a bit strange. Why? Because in the south, it takes from India virtually all of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, plus a piece of the state of Assam.
Now this book is not a political geography of China, nor is the matter of appropriated Indian territory ever discussed in it. China’s border is simply assumed to lie deep inside India, and the mountains and valleys thus claimed are discussed as though they are routinely a part of China. Make no mistake: such a map could not, in the 1980s at least, have been published without official approval. It should put not just India but the whole international community on notice of a latent trouble spot. (Highlights added.)
Back to Vapal Pangunni Menon. If you ever care to look at the incorporation certificate of an Indian state today, you will see the following at the end:
In confirmation whereof Mr. Vapal Pangunni Menon, Adviser to the Government of India in the Ministry of States, has appended his signature on behalf and with the authority of the Governor General of India and His Highness….
As the Raj was slowly disbanding, the farewell parties were in full swing in Delhi and the shiploads of sahibs and memsahibs were heading back to the Blighty. (Refer to the footnotes for the origin of Blighty for Britain.) The P&B liners were sagging with the weight of the looters and, more importantly, the booty collected.
Patel’s Alter Ego
In this melee, there was one person who was steadfast in his beliefs standing firmly behind Sardar Patel to create a new India. It was VP Menon.
VP was born on 30th Sept 1894, a son to a school headmaster with 12 siblings. He was not much educated. In fact, many a write-up on him mention that he finished 7th standard at the Ottapalam High school. VP decided to be a burden no more and left home, like many others, in a train bound for the North. He worked in a gold mine (some others mention of coal mines as well) and as a day laborer in Mysore to start with. Later he worked in a tobacco firm in Bangalore
To trace his path and the distances he traveled and reached, read the charming Autobiography of HG Hodson , the famous Reform Commissioner of the then Government of India. It provides some details about VP Menon.
VP did well at school, learning English as all secondary pupils did in Madras; but when he overheard a family conversation about the cost of his further education he decided not to be a burden, but to leave home and make his own way in the world. An Englishman gave him a clerical job in Bangalore, where, he told me, he sat under a crimson gulmohor tree and pondered his future. He decided to move towards the centre of government of India. On his way north, he was offered a job teaching English in a small Muslim-ruled state. “There is one little condition,” they said; “you will have to become a Mussulman.” The agnostic young Menon thought this no fatal obstacle, until he learnt that virtually the only requirement for conversion was circumcision: permanent amputation for a temporary job he thought too high a price.
As per Hodson’s memoirs, VP reached Simla in the 1914. He was 20 then. To survive he cultivated the Madrasi crowd. He managed to join the British bureaucracy as a lowly clerk, steno typist as it was then called. Hodson further records
In Shimla, the “Madras connection” helped him to a post in a government office. Thence his ability and industry alone took him up the ladder of promotion to become deputy to my predecessor as Reforms Commissioner, Sir Hawthorne Lewis. Menon was lucky to be drafted to the Reforms office, for merit could shine more effectively there than in a large hierarchical department manned in all its upper ranks by ICS men. He had the opportunity to show his brains, assiduity and sound sense in the arduous work of serving the Round Table Conferences on Indian constitutional reform (for which the Reforms Office had indeed been created) and implementing the new constitution, the Government of India Act 1935.
In Delhi Menon connected up with some very helpful and well placed Malayalis. One of them, the eminent Mr CK Kunhiraman from the Viceroy’s secretariat helped him in his time of need and provided him the necessary recommendations for a job there. Another well wisher and supporter was Mr Anandan.
Meeting his Tormentor
During his years in Delhi VP was also bullied terribly by a junior ICS officer named Lancaster. Hodosn records:
On his first visit to England as part of the secretariat of the first Round Table Conference he (Meno) had an unforgettable experience. When he had just joined the government service and was under training in his home province he was horribly bullied by a junior ICS officer, Lancaster by name. Later, when working in the Home Department he had to deal with the file on this same man’s compulsory retirement for arbitrary behaviour and general unsuitability. Arriving in London with very few personal contacts, and somewhat bewildered, he was agreeably surprised when an Englishman came up to him on Victoria station and asked did he not come from Madras, whereabouts, and so on, explaining that he himself was a former Madras civilian. He turned out to be none other than Mr Lancaster, unrecognisable with a beard. He insisted that for the rest of Menon’s stay in England he should spend every weekend in his house. When their friendship had become close enough to allow it, VP asked Lancaster why he had behaved as he had. He replied: “Imagine a young man of 23, without much training or background, suddenly finding himself with almost absolute power over a large number of subject people. Can you wonder that he forgets his discretion, his balance, his manners? People exclaim at the wickedness of some rajahs: I am surprised that many of them are good.” He had realised how wrong he had been and was trying to make amends for his misbehaviour by befriending lonely Indians. That encounter was one of the foundations of VP’s undying affection and loyalty towards the British—sentiments which in no way trammelled his Indian-ness or his aspirations for his country’s freedom.
For 11 years Menon toiled, and steadily impressed his superiors and rose up the ranks. It appears that he married Shrimati Kanakamma around 1941 at the late age of 46 and fathered three children, two sons and a daughter. His greatest abilities as stated by his peers was that he knew how to get things done and had both the knowledge and ability to go with it. By 1942 (when quit India started) he had risen to become the constitutional secretary to the Viceroy.
Harry Hodson continues
To me he was the best of friends and colleagues. It must have been a wretched disappointment to him not to move up to the Reforms Commissionership when Lewis became Governor of Orissa, but he never showed the slightest sign of jealousy or coolness towards the young ignorant Englishman who had been appointed instead. I think he craved the post as much because it had been a job for the ICS, who had looked down on him as an uncovenanted civil servant, as for its rank and emoluments. There was a natural reluctance to appoint an Indian, however well qualified, to a position of intimate trust on political and constitutional affairs, but Lord Linlithgow had been impressed by Menon’s loyalty as well as his judgment and technical knowledge, and he duly succeeded me as constitutional adviser.
But his greatest associations came first with Mountbatten, and later with Sardar Patel.
He had the full confidence of Lord Wavell, though he was not at one with the Viceroy over the conduct of the Shimla conference in 1945. (His memorandum on the alternatives open after the failure of the conference, printed in an appendix to the last volume of the Transfer of Power documents, is a monument of good sense); but in the earlier weeks of the last viceroyalty he was neglected by Mountbatten, who had brought eminent advisers from England to reinforce the Viceroy’s private secretariat and who no doubt felt that an Indian, a Hindu, could not avoid being partisan in the tense inter-party and inter-communal negotiations for independence.
However, Mountbatten realized before long what an invaluable counselor he had in Menon, who brought not only unrivalled knowledge of Indian constitutional matters but also confidential personal contacts with important Indian figures, including top civil servants like Mahomed Ali, administrative architect of Pakistan and Sir B N Rao, draftsman of the new Indian constitution. And at the moment of crisis, when Nehru spurned Mountbatten’s first plan for the transfer of power, it was to Menon that the Viceroy turned. In a matter of hours Menon devised, and secretly negotiated with Patel, the plan for an early transfer of power to two Dominions under the existing constitution, altered to eliminate British control, which proved the key to the whole problem. It was a masterly effort, drawing upon the deep thought that VP had given over many years to India’s constitutional progress, which he and his predecessors in the Reforms Office believed could be best advanced on the historical pattern already set in the British Commonwealth. In all this, Menon was the devoted servant both of the regime to which he had given his working life, and to his own country whose constitutional freedom he had perceived as his ultimate professional goal.
Who was the chief architect of the Taj, has been endlessly debated. According to the noted art historian Milo Beach, “This is something we simply have to speculate about. We know Shah Jahan was interested in architecture…. But an architect was, in a sense, a kind of functionary. Architects and painters never achieved the kind of acclaim that placed them within the ranks of the nobility, for example. They were recognized, but they were never given an enormous amount of importance.”
Ustad Ahmad (a.k.a. Isa Khan), an architect from Lahore in the court of Shah Jahan, is most often credited as the chief architect who drew the plan of the Taj Mahal, based on a seventeenth century manuscript which claims that Ustad Ahmad was the architect of both the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort at Delhi.
There are also historians who maintain that the Taj was built by demolishing some Hindu temples – something that Muslim rulers specialized in - whose pillars and structures were reused.
Perhaps the best is to leave all this to guesswork. Don’t we admire the night sky and the constellations of stars without exactly knowing who created them?
“Blighty” is – at least used to be – a popular slang term for Britain. Actually, it is a corrupted derivation of the Persian word vilayat and Arabic term wilayah, literally a territorial part equivalent to what today would be called “province”.
In India the term vilayati came to be known as an adjective meaning European, and specifically English or even Britishers stationed in India. I don’t know how Vilayat got adopted as a common name like Vilayati Ram and Vilayat Khan.
H V Hodson a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford was a member of the Economic Advisory Council and Editor of The Round Table from 1934-1939. He was Director of the Empire Division of the Ministry of Information from 1939 to 1941. Thereafter he became Reforms Commissioner of the Government of India. In 1942 he returned to England.
At the end of the Second World War, he returned to journalism, becoming assistant editor of The Sunday Times, and was editor from 1950 until 1961. He was editor of The Annual Register from 1973 until his retirement in 1988. He died on 26 March 1999.
Hodson knew VP intimately when he was Reforms Commissioner of the Government of India. Even after leaving India he maintained his contact with VP and visited him at Bangalore.
Continued to “Paid Back Several Times Over”
Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):