History was once told through the exploits of kings. Then it shifted to the story of common people, then to the travails of the working class. If this framework is adopted for narrating the history of the freedom struggle and the building of post-independence India, then first it was about our great national leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, etc, shifting to local and regional struggles waged by the likes of, say, Birsa Munda. Somewhere, what got omitted was the middle layer-the officers who worked both with the British and Indian leaders to put in place a structure on which modern India got built.
It is this vacuum which gets filled with historian Narayani Basu's biography of Vappala Pangunni Menon, popularly remembered as Sardar Patel's right-hand man in the integration of princely states. Sadly, over these years, not much is known about the man. Basu happens to be Menon's great-granddaughter, but this personal connection doesn't lead to a hagiographical account.
Normally when a well-read person comes across an account of a successful bureaucrat during the freedom struggle, it is a given that the person would either be a member of the civil service or belonging to an aristocratic Indian family who got appointed to positions in the government. Those familiar with Menon's name would also have assumed either case. Interestingly, Menon was neither. He came from a very humble family with roots in Kerala and was not a member of ICS or even the provincial civil service. In fact, he was not even a graduate. He left school and home even before he matriculated and worked as a coolie in Kolar gold mines. He later moved to Mumbai, selling towels on the street. It was only a quirk of fate that he reached Delhi and was able to get a job as a typist-clerk in the government on a temporary basis. He made the most of this opportunity and steadily moved up the ladder with hard work and dedication.
Writing biographies of popular, multi-faceted personalities isn’t much of a challenge, but to write the life story of a bureaucrat who led a life mostly buried in files and drafts can be challenging. Basu deals with this challenge very well. The story of Menon is interspersed with the story of India's independence and the period after it, as also the stories of Nehru, Patel, Mountbatten, etc.
Though Menon comes across as a boring person, obsessed only with his work and how to move up the ladder, his personal life has interesting aspects considering the times he lived in. He entered into a live-in relationship with the widowed wife of his senior in service after his marriage failed and his wife disappeared, leaving two sons. His partner, Kanakam, was five years older than him and had a daughter. The two, however, never got married.
Menon worked with several viceroys and even though some ignored him initially, he made a mark and proved his indispensability eventually. Such was his utility, brilliance and efficiency that he went on to head the reforms department and later the states ministry. It was his plan that was eventually used to partition the country when the option of retaining a united country ran out. He worked behind the scenes in the integration of states like Hyderabad, Junagadh and other smaller ones.
Menon's story also brings to light the Nehru-Patel rivalry and the first prime minister's insecurity with his deputy and his not-so-favourable treatment of Patel post-independence. On this count, the book has its fair share of controversy, as it mentions that Nehru's list of India's first cabinet did not include Patel’s name.
When Menon got to know about this, he went to Mountbatten and told him in no uncertain terms that if this happened, there would be a war of succession in the Congress and the party would split. This move led Mountbatten to go to Gandhi, and finally Patel's name was included. The account of Patel's name missing from the first list is also mentioned in the private papers of British official Harry Hodson-who served in India and had close contact with Menon.
Historian Ramachandra Guha has been sharp in attacking this account by producing some letters that show Patel always figured in the list. What Guha misses is that the account mentioned is before a final list-which exists in the public domain today-was drawn up. Guha, who constantly contests Nehru-Patel rivalry with the aid of some documents, should take a lesson from contemporary times. Most people know that Advani-Modi relations took a dive 2013-14 onwards, but no documents to this effect exist, though accounts based on public memory would be several.
The last chapters of the book bring much to light about the Nehru-Patel equation, which show the first prime minister in poor light. It also brings to light that while Nehru might have been good with words and writing eloquent letters to chief ministers, he was not good when it came to strategising and handling matters relating to administration. Had there been no Patel and Menon, perhaps integration of princely states would not have been achieved, and our post-independence history would have been much different than it is today.
Nehru's resentment of Patel began when he became the prime minister and was for the first time officially senior to the latter. This was something with which even Patel failed to come to terms with. The book brings to light how Nehru could never stand on his own and always had an anchor-first his father, Motilal, then Gandhi and, subsequently, Patel.
The book is clear in concluding that the effacing of Patel's legacy from public memory was not by Nehru's successors, chiefly Indira Gandhi, as often narrated by the likes of Guha, but was begun by Nehru himself immediately after Patel's death.
Nehru comes across as a petty person when he directed Menon not to go to Mumbai to attend Patel’s funeral, which Menon disregarded. He chartered a plane and took along all officials who ever worked with the deputy prime minister with him. After Patel's death, Menon was sidelined by Nehru-the states ministry was closed and he was made governor of Odisha, a position he did not hold for long.
An important takeaway is that despite his humble roots and arduous rise to top, Menon never harboured Left leanings and surely if Patel had lived longer, the duo may have halted Nehru from taking the deep socialist plunge he took, which kept the country backward for many years.
Basu's book highlights another fact relating to history that what we read is not about a dead past, but a living one which has connections with the present. The politics within Congress, pre- and post-independence, is not very different from the politics of modern times in political parties.
Basu needs to be applauded for writing a non-ideological account that does not have heroes and villains, but human beings with their strengths and faults.
VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India
Simon & Schuster
Pp 448, Rs799