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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 14, New Delhi, March 20, 2021

V.P. Menon: A Long Forgotten Hero | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 19 March 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


by M R Narayan Swamy

V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India
by Narayani Basu

Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Pages: 440; Price: Rs 799

There could not have a more unacknowledged and forgotten hero of a modern nation like V.P. Menon, and there could not have been a more gripping and readable biography. Imagine a rags-to-riches story, a man who rose from being a coolie and a street hawker to a top post in the Raj, an architect of modern India, a right hand of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and more. A man who Jawaharlal Nehru dumped soon after the Sardar passed away. A man who died virtually forgotten in the India whose foundation he helped lay.

History can be quite cruel to its makers. Vappala Pangunni Menon (V.P. Menon) had run away from his school and home and worked as a coolie at the Kolar gold mines before hawking towels on the streets of Bombay. His next destination was Delhi where he took up a temporary job as a lowly placed clerk in the Home Department. Hard work helped him go up the ladder until he became the most important Indian in the heart of the colonial government when freedom dawned.

Historian and foreign policy analyst Narayani Basu, his great grand-daughter, has come up with this exhaustive study after extensive interviews and by digging up buried archival material. “Deafening silence envelops the man who was responsible for nearly every major document that paved India’s path to independence,” she says.

Menon did whatever was needed to be in the Home Department, earning the reputation of being a steady worker. It was in his trait to ignore prejudice from British and Indian ICS officers. His major break came when he joined the Emergency Branch, set up to deal with the paperwork the upcoming visit to India by new Secretary of State Edwin Montagu. It helped VP enter the world of Indian political and constitutional reforms. He would be at it till he retired.

Earning 120 rupees a month, VP learnt how to perform under pressure, how to go around a problem and how to come up with contingency situations. He always had a backup plan. Unending praise over his ability to put in long hours of work earned him a place in the Reforms Branch where a British officer, Sir William Hawthorne Lewis, became his friend and admirer. VP would no longer just type or dispatch telegrams. He became outspoken over constitutional reforms, earning resentment and respect from colleagues, both Indian and British.

VP’s maiden visit abroad — to London to assist in the First Round Table Conference called by Viceroy Lord Irwin — gave him a fantastic insight into the happenings behind the scenes at such meetings. Back in India, Lewis delegated more and more work to the Indian.

VP oversaw the 1937 elections, which lay the foundation of Indian’s constitutional history. He worked on an electoral roll and recommended franchise to all adult women — one of his most unsung achievements. By then, VP has become the Superintendent, a milestone for one who was a rank outsider.

VP worked on a draft Instrument of Accession. His marriage having failed, he gave his everything into working for political progress and the withdrawal of the Empire. After the 1937 elections, which saw him buried under mountains of paperwork, reports and tedious telegrams, VP virtually headed the Reforms Branch as Lewis fell ill.

VP called for local governments’ involvement in the process of counting their own electorate. He backed symbols on ballot papers to help the illiterate. From his vantage point, VP saw the start of a major rift between the Congress and Muslim League, whose leaders including Mohammed Ali Jinnah he counted as friends.

VP became Joint Secretary in the Reforms Branch at an attractive salary. By now, he had been at the frontlines of constitutional reform for some 20 years. In 1939, VP and Lewis were given told to draft a tabular and exceedingly complex statement of the constitutional and administrative reforms that had taken place thus far in the Princely States.

VP handled most files and cables coming from Whitehall once the Viceroy’s office was done with them. Once London decided that the time had come to hand over power smoothly to Indians after WWII, Harry Vincent Hodson was picked to offer the best ideas to the Viceroy. He took an immediate liking to the “competent little madrassi”.
With Hodson away from Simla for months, the Reforms Secretariat was run by VP. Hodson acknowledged that VP was more competent to deal with constitutional and political issues and gave him the freedom to decide matters as he saw fit without waiting for approval.

VP gave Linlithgow a plan to stitch a federation on the path to independence and partition. It was based on the transfer of power on the basis of Dominion Status. Linlithgow ignored it but VP resurrected in 1947. Promptly, Lord Mounbatten tried to pass it off as his own plan!

In February 1942, Hodson and VP worked on a lengthy first draft of a 12-point proposal for the advancement of India towards Dominion Status. Stafford Cripps respected both men. VP’s expanding contacts in the Congress and Muslim League fetched him invaluable inside information.

Before he left India, Hodson strongly recommended VP, catapulting the Indian to the position of Constitutional Advisor. VP got the job and, Basu says, surpassed everyone’s expectations.

During the 1943 Bengal famine, VP told Viceroy Lord Wavell to use the military to distribute rations, fuel and medicines. When Wavell had to take on Mahatma Gandhi, he asked VP to draft a reply. Amid a political deadlock, it was VP who suggested a conference in Simla. A time came when even English advisors sounded VP for ideas before meeting the Viceroy.

As both Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor, VP was playing an integral role and was involved with political back-channel talks. Amid various proposals from the Raj on India’s independence, VP maintained initially that everything must be done to avoid partition. By the summer of 1946, VP waded through endless, circular discussions. He hardly slept. It was the year when he met Sardar Patel in a professional capacity for the first time. VP admired Patel’s style of work. Both became friends.

When it became clear that partition cannot be avoided, VP advocated that the Congress must take charge of the government without insisting on a formal transfer of power with Dominion Status. Once an interim government was formed, everyone began to see VP as Sardar’s right hand man. And Patel trusted VP like no one else. VP thought that Patel was better suited to be independent India’s Prime Minister.

When Mountbatten came out with an independence plan in which provinces will have the right to determine their own future and certain other fanciful ideas, VP refused to back it. Frustrated that he was being ignored because he was a Hindu, VP quit. Edwina Mountbatten intervened and spoke to her husband. “Had VP followed through with his resignation, and had it been accepted by the mercurial Viceroy, the summer of 1947 would have played out in a very different way.”

VP drew up another plan to demit power as opposed to Mountbatten’s. He told the Viceroy: “Sir, you have never listened to me before, but I beg of you to please listen to me now.” VP said a partition of India could no more be avoided. However, while Mountbatten’s plan would break up the country into many units, his would retain India’s essential unity. VP was quickly told to produce a draft to determine India’s future. Mountbatten embraced it. Patel and Nehru were happy too. “The Menon plan now became the Mountbatten plan.”

VP also worked on an elaborate document on the administrative consequences of partition. He served on nearly every committee or council set up to oversee independence/partition. Basu says nearly every document from this stage bears his signature, his draftsmanship or his supervision and often all three. All documents now went to VP for final approval. As Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor, VP was in charge of what would become the Indian Independence Act of 1947.

VP quietly told Mountbatten to intervene when Nehru decided not to have Patel — his potential rival — in his government after independence.

By August 1947, Patel offered VP the post of Secretary to the newly formed States Ministry. Although he had not taken a day’s leave in decades, he agreed. When Patel wondered how 565 princely states could be persuaded to sign on the dotted line in a short time, VP argued that the shortness of time would be an advantage.

VP and Patel used arm twisting and veiled threats to pull off the impossible. Having been in charge of India’s transfer of power, his new task was integration. VP drafted what became the Instrument of Accession.

Simultaneously, VP travelled with Patel to Amritsar in October 1947 amid communal mayhem to plead with Sikhs to allow Muslims to go over to Pakistan. When Junagadh decided to merge with Pakistan, VP — with Patel’s backing — ordered a military encirclement that brought the state back to India. Even as Nehru argued against a military push in Hyderabad, VP kept a showdown plan ready — and it was eventually used with perfect result.

One day, Nehru shouted at VP. For the second time in his career, he resigned. VP argued that even Viceroys had not raised their voice at him. Nehru meekly apologized to him. By 1949, the Sardar was too ill to conduct most of his visits to the States. VP continued his trips across India, threatening, cajoling and coaxing rulers to signs sheets of papers that would bring them within the Indian fold.

“Today, the integration of India is credited solely to Sardar Patel, with V.P. Menon staying largely in the wings... (VP) was the man behind the legendary tales of Kashmir, Juagadh and Hyderabad... It is VP’s signature you see on the Instrument of Accession.”
VP felt Sardar died a very bitter and sad man. “Panditji should never have treated him the way he did.” Nehru had never liked VP. In April 1951, the States Ministry was shut down. He was named Governor of Orissa but he quit after a year. He was then put in the Finance Commission but he resigned again after barely a year.

VP teamed up with N.G. Ranga, Minoo Masani and K.M. Munshi to form the Swatantra Party. In 1960, he fell seriously ill. Eight years later, he passed away. By then, the man had been forgotten by most Indians. Mountbatten said in his tribute: “I wonder how many Indians, particularly of the rising generation, have any idea of the debt which they owe V.P. Menon.” This is a great read.

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