On 6 October 1974, V K Krishna Menon died in Delhi aged 78. He was India’s Defence Minister in the Nehru government and an astute defender of India and her cause in the international community.
Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon was born in Thalassery, Kerala to a wealthy and influential family in 1896. His father was an advocate. His great-grandfather was the Dewan of Travancore.
He was educated at the Zamorin’s College, Kozhikode and Presidency College, Chennai from where he got a bachelor’s degree in history and economics. He also studied at the Madras Law College. During this time, he became associated with the Home Rule Movement and theosophy.
Menon continued his education at the University College, London and the London School of Economics. He was described by his teacher, British economist Harold Laski as ‘the best student he had ever had’. He completed his post-graduation with degrees in psychology and political science. He also studied law and became a barrister.
Menon was also a co-founder and editor of Penguin Books.
While in the UK, he joined the Labour Party and was elected to be the borough councillor for St Pancras, London. He became a journalist for and the secretary of the India League (1929 – 1947) and became a champion of India’s freedom in London.
There he became a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. He also had close relations with political and intellectual heavyweights like Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, J.B.S. Haldane, etc.
While in the India League, he actively worked for creating British popular support for Indian independence.
He was known for his wit and sharp retorts; as well as his dislike for western imperialism and capitalism.
After the country acquired independence, Menon became the Indian High Commissioner to the UK till 1952. He also led the Indian delegation to the UN till 1962. During this time, he became known as a brilliant diplomat. He was responsible for masterminding solutions to complex international issues such as a peace plan for Korea, Indochina ceasefire, and the French pulling out from the UN over Algeria.
Menon was also responsible for India’s innovative foreign policy called the Non-alignment Movement (NAM) in which India took a middle approach rather than ally with the then superpowers USA and the USSR. But Menon was more critical of the USA than the USSR, whose policies he favoured.
Krishna Menon is most remembered in India for his speech in the United Nations espousing India’s position on the Kashmir issue vis-à-vis Pakistan. In January 1957, he gave a nearly 8-hour-long speech (the longest ever in the UN) where he passionately defended Indian sovereignty in Kashmir. For this, the Indian press gave him the title, ‘The Hero of Kashmir’.
He became India’s Defence Minister in April 1957 after his election to the Lok Sabha from the North Mumbai seat. He was previously a Cabinet Minister without Portfolio.
Menon replaced the seniority system in the army with a merit-based system. He had differences with the then Chief of the Army Staff, General K.S. Thimayya, who resigned. Menon also started forming a domestic military industrial complex to arm the Indian military with weapons.
In 1961, when the Indian government annexed Goa from the Portuguese, Menon vehemently defended India’s use of force in the international community. At that time, India’s resort to violence was criticised by the USA and several other western countries. Menon in his trademark style dismissed them as “vestige(s) of Western imperialism”.
In 1962 the Chinese affront on Indian Territory and the subsequent war and loss in the war led to the resignation of Menon from the post of the Defence Minister. He was blamed for India’s unpreparedness in the war.
Menon’s name did crop up in the jeep scandal case in 1948, but he was known for his frugality in certain matters. He took a token monthly salary of Re.1 as high commissioner and lived in a single room in the Indian High Commission.
Menon was admired by many for his brilliance in diplomatic matters and for his intelligence. He was highly critical of western imperialistic policies and was quite vocal about his opinions. He is said to have ‘taught the white man his place’. In diplomatic circles in the USA and the UK, he was regarded as a ‘menace’ and as ‘Nehru’s evil genius.’ He was also dubbed ‘India’s Rasputin’ by the western media. His oratorical skills were exemplary and his arrogance and frankness to the point of being rude often gave him enemies.
He was considered the second most powerful man in India after Nehru.
Krishna Menon died in Delhi aged 74. On his death, Indira Gandhi remarked that a volcano has become extinct.
Menon’s legacy might be considered controversial by some. But there can be no doubt that he was unapologetic in his defence of India in the international community and will always be remembered as a forceful champion of India’s cause before and after independence.
Krishna Menon’s retorts:
On being asked whether India would prefer to be ruled by the British or the Nazis:
“Might as well ask a fish if it prefers to be fried in butter or margarine.”
On an English novelist’s surprise at his good English:
“My English is better than yours. You merely picked it up: I learnt it.”
Excerpt from his Kashmir speech in the UN:
“Why is it that we have never heard voices in connection with the freedom of people under the suppression and tyranny of Pakistani authorities on the other side of the cease-fire line? Why is it that we have not heard here that in ten years these people have not seen a ballot paper? With what voice can either the Security Council or anyone coming before it demand a plebiscite for the people on our side who exercise franchise, who have freedom of speech, who function under a hundred local bodies?”