CRUSADER EXTRAORDINARY - V. K. KRISHNA MENON
By Advocate Ramdas
“India has been fortunate to have had not only a glorious heritage of culture and civilisation but a succession of great men from the Buddha to Gandhi, from Ashoka to Nehru, from Kautilya to Krishna Menon.” – K R Narayanan
On 13 March 1940, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, former Governor of Punjab was shot dead at a meeting in the Caxton Hall, Westminster. Sir Michael was the Governor of Punjab who supported the Amritsar massacre on 19 April 1919 (massacre at Jallianwala Bagh). The assassin was an Indian patriot named Udham Singh (also known as Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, symbolizing the unification of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism) who lost his brother in the Jhalianwala Bagh massacre. Udham Singh was an activist of the ‘Ghadar party’ and is also believed to be one of the earliest Marxists in India.
Udham Singh was represented at Old Bailey (London’s Central Criminal Court), without payment, by a bushy-haired barrister who was identified as an "important worker in the Indian Revolutionary Movement", by the British secret service (MI5) . The intense and ‘dangerously persuasive’ barrister was none other than V K Krishna Menon. In January 1940, Krishna Menon had published a pamphlet titled ‘Why Must India Fight?’
Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon was born on 3 May1896 at Kozhikode. After graduation from Madras Presidency College, Krishna Menon joined Madras Law College, but abandoned the course to join Annie Besant’s ‘Brothers of Service’ a voluntary organisation for national work. In 1924 Krishna Menon came to England for a conference at Letchworth, Hertfordshire; but remained in England until 1952.
After teaching one year at St. Christopher’s School Letchworth, Krishna Menon joined the London School Of Economics (LSE) to study political science and obtained a BSc in 1927. In 1930 he passed MA (Psychology( from University College London and passed MSc in 1934 from LSE. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1934. For most of his life in England Krishna Menon lived at 57 Camden Square.
This essay is an endeavour to know Krishna Menon’s contribution to the cause of Indians in Britain and to British public life. The more I tried to understand the personality of Krishna Menon, the more complex did it appear to me.
In 1925 Krishna Menon joined the Home Rule for India League (British Auxiliary) founded by Annie Besant in 1916 and was elected joint secretary in 1928 and later secretary. At that time India League was nothing more than debating forum lobbying for Dominion Status for India. Krishna Menon transformed India League into a fighting organisation committed to ‘poorna swaraj’. The headquarters of India League was at 146 The Strand (now renumbered165).
It was a time during which the Indian Empire Society founded in 1930 unleashed propaganda against Indian independence. In one of the meetings of the Indian Empire Society, Winston Churchill declared that, ‘we shall have to crush Gandhi and Congress and all they stand for’. Defying all opposition from the British establishment, people organised under the banner of India League and soon there were branches, among other, in Bournemouth, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Southampton and Wolverhampton.
Under the leadership Krishna Menon India League organised many campaigns and invited leading Indian politicians to address the meetings and seminars. Such meetings brought Nehru and Krishna Menon closer and their friendship caused lot of discontent in the Congress Party. Soon India League grew into a national organisation with a formidable presence in British politics.
While at LSE, under the influence of Professor Harold Laski, Krishna Menon became an ardent socialist and joined the Labour Party. From 1934 to 1947 he was the councilor in the Borough of St. Pancras (now London Borough of Camden). When he was the chairman of the Education and Public Library Committee, the library was extended throughout the borough. He used to say, ‘we must have as many public libraries here as pubs’. He started a traveling library, a Book Week and in 1944 established the St. Pancras Arts and Civic Council and founded the St. Pancras Arts Festival the forerunner of Camden Arts Festival. During World War II Krishna Menon was the Air Raid Warden of St. Pancras Council(1940-1944).
In 1955 the St. Pancras council honoured him by making him a ‘Freeman of the Borough’, for his ‘eminent services. He was the second person to be honoured with the Freedom of the Borough; the first one was George Bernard Shaw. Though elected to be the prospective Labour Party candidate for the Parliament from Dundee, his selection was cancelled by the executive of the Dundee Trades and Labour Council, for identifying himself with, ‘the Communist Party attitude in regard to Finland and with activities of Peace Councils whose views are not of the Labour Party’. Krishna Menon denied these charges.
While fighting for the Indian cause Krishna Menon remained an internationalist and supported anti-imperialist and anti-fascist movements all around the world. He supported the liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Because of his internationalism, people like Peter Abrahams (South Africa) and Paul Robeson (the black American singer) addressed India League meetings. Krishna Menon was in the forefront of fighting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Krishna Menon campaigned against the role of British forces in Indonesia and Vietnam (then Indo-China) and Myanmar (then Burma).
In 1947, Krishna Menon became India’s first High Commissioner to Britain. As High Commissioner also he continued the modest life he was known for. He used a small corner room in the High Commission. He had no interest in money or luxury, yet he ordered two Rolls Royce’s for the High Commission and was criticised for such extravagansa. He justified the deal, ‘I can scarcely hire a bullock-cart to call on 10 Downing Street’. As High Commissioner he drew only Re 1/- as salary every month.
Though trained as a barrister Krishna Menon did not make a living out of it. He made much work for poor Indian lascars (sailors) and workers without taking any payment. Much of his advocacy skills were used as a negotiator for the Indian cause before and after independence. Krishna Menon was the head of the Indian delegation to the United Nations from 1952 to 1962. On 23 January 1957, he made a speech at the UN Security Council defending India’s position on Kashmir.
The speech lasted for 7 hours and 48 minutes and is the longest filibuster in the history of UN. At the end of the speech he collapsed on the floor of the Security Council. After this speech Krishna Menon was hailed as the ‘Hero of Kashmir’ and the Time magazine of 29 April 1957 dubbed him as the potential successor to Nehru’s throne. As a diplomat, Krishna Menon took active role in resolving the Suez Canal crisis and the Korean War.
In 1957 Krishna Menon became the Minister of Defence. As a minister his legacy is incomparable. He made India self-reliant in national defence and modernised the armed forces. It was he who started, among other, Sainik Schools and compulsory NCC, the Ordnance factory, Heavy Vehicles factory at Avadi, Bharat Electronics, Hindustan Aeronautical Limited at Bangalore, Armed forces Medical College, hovercraft production, Avro production at kanpur, SLR- semi automatic rifles production, Shaktiman truck production, Leander frigate development at Bombay, DRDO at Bangalore, ADE at Bangalore, Misile (SWDT) development at SDL New Delhi.
In the words of Lt. Gen. KP Candeth, “..He was undoubtedly the ablest Defence Minister the army ever had-- we owe him a tremendous debt, because but for him we would not have had a defence industry. He had vision and enormous drive. He could get things done. But his manner of doing things was what antagonised the army. Because we are an organisation where respect, honour, and tradition holds a great deal of importance. And we have to command people and we can't do it if someone denigrates you.” R Venkataraman, former defence Minister and President of India to praise Krishna Menon, “…Krishna Menon was the first to acknowledge that the defence production base, in the ultimate analysis, could not be divorced from the economic and industrial infrastructure of the country. Thanks to his great foresight and vision, we have now established the necessary infrastructure and expertise in various areas of interest.”
It was Krishna Menon who liberated Goa from the Portuguese rule. According to him the liberation of Goa was part of the unfinished task of liberating India’. And sent troops to liberate Goa in 1961.
Krishna Menon was well known for his sharp intelligence and acid tongue. The clashes between him and Acharya JB Kripalani are legendary. One occasion Kripalani was grilling Krishna Menon for not sharing enough information on a defence deal. Krishna Menon replied, ‘I can give the respected member all the information he needs, nut I am sorry, I cannot give him the intelligence to understand the issue’.
Krishna Menon’s relationship with Nehru was very subtle. According to Sir Isaiah Berlin, their relationship was a mixture of political and personal compulsions and that Krishna Menon served Nehru as a kind of alter-ego which was like, “T.S. Eliot’s to Ezra Pound, the same beliefs at much lower tension, milder, more compatible with respectable life, but deriving from the same constellation of values; gently, firmly, tolerant, decently anti-western”.
Nehru always showed great respect to Krishna Menon’s intelligence; “….There are some people in this country and some people in other countries too whose job in life appears to be to run down Mr. Krishna Menon because he is cleverer than these people and because his record of service for Indian freedom is far longer than theirs and because he has worn himself out in the service of India. We do not run away from criticism. Mr. Krishna Menon's handling of the Kashmir case in the Security Council and the line he took there fully reflect our views on the subject. Mr. Menon has done his work brilliantly and most effectively.”
Krishna Menon was a passionate advocate of the non-aligned movement and this invited the wrath of the UK and USA, particularly when he voted against a U.N. resolution calling for withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Krishna Menon became the scapegoat for India’s defeat in the War against China in 1962 and resigned from the cabinet. It is believed that, it was the American manoeuvring lead by JK Galbraith, the then US Ambassador to India, that ended the political career of Krishna Menon.
Krishna Menon was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madras Legislative Council (1953-1957). He was elected to the Lok Sabha from North Bombay (1957-1967), Midnapore (West Bengal, 1969-1971) and Thiruvananthapuram (1971-1974).
I am not sure how accurate would it be to depict Krishna Menon as a son of Kerala. He was against State re-organisation on linguistic basis. He believed that such balkanisation would not be in the best interest of India. It would be interesting to go through the exchanges between Nehru and Krishna Menon before the State re-organisation. In a note sent to Nehru on 28 September 1955 Krishna Menon wrote, “..I am more than ever convinced that it would be a short-term political view not to give this matter the consideration that its grave implications warrant'. He suggested the creation of `a Southern State, a Dakshin Pradesh, as a corollary to Uttar Pradesh, which could include the present Tamil Nadu, Travancore, Cochin, Malabar and possibly Kanara up to Kasaragode”.
On 14 October 1955 Nehru wrote back to Krishna Menon, “Nobody here likes the proposal for a Kerala State as suggested. We do not think that the Communists will get a majority there. That is possible, but I think not likely. Anyway, if they get it, we have to face the risk. But, this apart, I am sure that it will be bad for Kerala and for its neighbouring States. But what are we to do? No other neighbouring State agrees to have Kerala; Kamaraj Nadar and the Madras Cabinet absolutely refuse to have anything to do with it. So do the Karnataka people.” Nehru wrote again on 9 November 1955, “I circulated your note to a number of my colleagues in the Cabinet. Many of them agreed with you. But I am afraid you do not quite appreciate the kind of forces we have to contend against in India at the present moment. When you suggest that States should become merely administrative divisions and far greater power should be concentrated in the Centre, you say something which is utterly beyond anyone's capacity to do at the present moment... It is almost impossible to have a Southern Province, much as we would like it. We have tried our best and failed.”
Krishna Menon along with Alan Lane founded the Penguin and Pelican Books. He was the editor of the Bodley Head, Twentieth Century Library and the Penguin and Pelican books. On May 5th, 1950, V K Krishna Menon, laid the foundation stone for the new premises in Fitzroy Square YMCA’s Indian Student Hostel.
In England, Krishna Menon had a succession of love affairs. One of his lovers Marie Seton described him as “strikingly unlike any Indian……thinner by far and extraordinarily angular. It was hard to decide if he was a very handsome man in a hacked out sculptural manner, or if he was distinctly devilish to look at…… When focused, his almond-shaped eyes resembled those of a hawk”. He never married.
Krishna Menon died on 6 October 1974 at New Delhi. In 1979 a bust of Krishna Menon was erected at Fitzroy Square gardens by the sculptor Fredda Brilliant. The bust was stolen in 1981 and a new bust was erected in 1984 which was also stolen, in 1985. The third bust is now kept in the Camden Centre. However a repeated requests to place a blue plaque at 57 Camden Square, has not been considered by the English Heritage.
Once when Krishna Menon was in the USA he was interviewed by an extreme right wing radio host. The host made a lengthy lecture and asked if it was true that Krishna Menon was a communist. Menon returned the lecture and asked the host, “But tell me, is it true that you are a bastard?”.