It is seldom that a considerably junior member of any family, a grandchild (or great grandchild) might take up the task of writing about an illustrious ancestor.
As it happens, readers in India and abroad are now getting to see a full-length biography of Rao Bahadur Vappala Pangunni (V.P.) Menon, CSI, CIE, undeniably a key figure of the last phase of the British Raj and the early years of independent India.
His humble beginnings, early struggles and incredibly meteoric rise are at the heart of the fascinating story of his life.
Lately, Menon’s great grand-daughter, Narayani Basu, historian and foreign policy analyst, has placed in our hands a commendably researched book on the man specifically selected as Secretary of the newly-created Ministry of States (Indian side) by Sardar Patel in July 1947.
The corresponding portfolio for Pakistan was held by Abdur Rab Nishtar hailing from the NWFP and M. Ikramullah, ICS.
V.P. Menon (1893-1965) had, by then, distinguished himself as the last and only Indian Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Adviser to successive Viceroys—Linlithgow, Wavell and Mountbatten. His appointment to the post was recommended by the previous incumbent, H.V. Hodson. But a knighthood, usually earned by very senior civil servants, eluded him. The reason might well have been that he had come up through the ranks by dint of sheer merit and industry and did not have his roots in the elite ICS.
In Nehru’s India, he did not qualify for so much as a Padma award.
A 14-year old in the late 1950s, I had a fleeting glimpse of him in Bhopal, where he was a guest of Nawab Hamidullah Khan (the last ruler of the 19-gun salute State) with whom he had negotiated an Instrument of Accession a decade earlier.
Post-1947, a glowing reference to V.P. Menon occurred in Leonard Mosley’s 1961 narrative: The Last Days of the British Raj. The relevant chapter titled as “The Men Who Mattered” also recognised the role of Chaudhri Muhammad Ali of the Audit & Accounts Service, who rose to be Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1955-56. In later years, Muhammad Ali authored his own history of Independence and Partition—The Emergence of Pakistan—in which he wrote about his interactions with Menon, saying that “…great credit is due to Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon for the firmness and skill with which they handled the Princes…”
Both these books figure in Narayani Basu’s comprehensive bibliography.
Her work is based on wide-ranging study and archival material. It succeeds, by and large, in projecting an objective assessment of her subject’s personality and achievement. It is rich in insights, anecdotes and lesser-known incidents (such as Menon’s contact with M.A. Jinnah much before the latter was anointed Quaid-e-Azam) that should arouse fresh interest in the events surrounding the emergence of a modern India to which stalwarts like V.P. Menon have contributed so hugely.
It should also help to bridge a gap in the exposure and understanding of young Indians to men of Menon’s calibre and commitment. For the coming generations, Narayani Basu’s important book can be especially relevant.
An index of names may be provided in subsequent editions.
No biography of a person of Menon’s stature can be captive to the vicissitudes and complexities of Nehru-Patel relations or to clashes of ego within the Congress Party and outside. A little knowledge can be dangerous for anyone wanting to wade into issues of such sensitivity, which ought not to be dragged into mindless controversies.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were good friends at the best of times and the worst of times.
Menon’s “golden period” in the government ended with Sardar Patel’s demise in December 1950. He would have faded into obscurity but for his monumental writings on the “Transfer of Power in India” and the “Integration of the Princely States” which are the most authoritative analyses on the subject and have kept his legacy alive.
In the ultimate analysis, V.P. Menon was Patel’s most trusted confidant who enjoyed the Sardar’s confidence on a scale matched (perhaps, not surpassed) by political associates like Dr Rajendra Prasad and P.D. Tandon and civil servants like H.M. Patel, ICS and V. Shankar, ICS.
Between the two of them, the Iron Man and the Ministry’s Secretary brought the territories of over 550 princes, including Hyderabad, Travancore and Indore, under the governance of the Indian Union.
Sardar Patel immensely valued his Secretary’s ability, integrity and sincerity that were alike unchallengeable.
In sum and in my own view, it is V.P. Menon who is “the Menon” in a galaxy of politicians, diplomats, artists and scientists—the Menon clan—who have, each in his own way, added lustre to India’s name.
Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS.