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V K Krishna Menon
V K Krishna Menon

By Professor Suhash Chakravarty

Called the old snake charmer, he spoke of India in the context of a world order. But the China debacle undid him.  


During the height of the cold war, the very news that V.K. Krishna Menon was scheduled to speak in the General Assembly was good enough to cause a stir in the United Nations and a minor stampede in its galleries. Nobody in that 81-nation body could have been trusted to put up a presentation as ingeniously as this adept emissary of Jawaharlal Nehru.

It was amazing to watch how Menon could go on developing the subtleties of his brief for hours without consulting notes. His five-hour speech on Kashmir followed by another two hours and 48 minutes the next day set up an all-time record in any international locution or UN declamation. He could be charming and conciliatory but if required he could move on to a prolonged vituperation against imperial hubris and great-power chauvinism and then switch over to an erudite philosophical and legalistic discourse.

Lean and intense, Menon was endowed with a remarkable presence. He was always draped in a modest but decent suit. His eyes piercing and forehead broad merging into the silvery, dishevelled lock of hair. His hawked nose, sensuous lips, heavy voice and tapering fingers always busy explaining ideas and moods supplemented his extraordinary mind. His intensity was occasionally relieved by his sardonic sense of humour, his homme d'esprit and a mischievous smile.

Menon was a formidable logician, an irresistible speaker endowed with a biting sarcasm;his tactlessness in dealing with individuals was compensated by his alert instinct, his discriminating sense of history, his finely tuned fund of principles and his hunger for knowledge and self-improvement -- all marinated by a childlike simplicity.

In the UN delegate's lounge, he was a steady subject of conversation. He surpassed every one in providing international formulae for peace. He taught the developing societies the way the UN could be used as an instrument of change. His peace plan for Korea, his contributions to the ceasefire in Indo-China, his sensitive handling of the Suez crisis, his intermediary role during the deadlock in the disarmament talks, his face-saving formula allowing France to return to the UN having walked out of it over Algeria being a few instances.

Menon dedicated all his energy to impress upon the western powers the importance of non-alignment. The vision of a world order, fashioned by Nehru and Menon, constituted a significant paradigm of international politics.

Enthusiastically disliked by western diplomats in the UN for his perspicacity and comprehension, his mastery of diplomatic nuances and his commitment to the cause of the Third World, Menon was dubbed as "Mephistopheles in a Saville row suit", "the devil's incarnate", "the bad fairy of the UN", the "old snake charmer" and also as a diabolical combination of all "three witches of Macbeth". At times, western public opinion concluded that a divergence of opinion persisted between a suave and good-humoured Nehru and a destructive Menon.

It was against such a grim backdrop that the American public was called upon to assess the role of Menon in the then strife-ridden world. The critics watched with a mixed feeling of gloom and dismay, Menon's consistent advocacy for the admission of China in the UN, his proposal for the ban on hydrogen tests, his assault on the inadequacies of western democracies and in contrast, his alleged soft-pedaling of the wickedness and inhumanity of communist regimes and his so-called blatant bias in Korea, Indo-China and Egypt.

More rational observers were constrained to conclude that Menon was a crafty fellow-traveller and, hence, a possible threat to the US aspirations. Others felt that probably Nehru had been somewhat indulgent to this petulant crusader because he sought to use him as his sounding board and as a releaser of his trial balloons. Little did they realise that right from their first meeting at the office of the India League in London they were unwavering comrades within the ambit of complete confidence. Over the years Menon spoke for Nehru. Over the years they thought remarkably alike.

The role of the League encompassed a range of political activity. It continued to persuade the British public opinion to respond positively to the Indian cause; it developed the most effective Indian lobby in the British Parliament; it established an affinity with a section of the Labour and Communist parties.The voice of India's freedom was carried to the very heart of a mighty empire, at once haughty, subtle and imperious.

Some made hatred of Menon the passion of their lives. But Menon had decided to throw his mind and energy into the ring of life. Often he bled with it, he suffered and pined, saw the moments of his greatness flicker, witnessed new hopes in the rising sun of life and his trice of ecstasy synchronised with the hour of Independence.

A man of paradoxes, Menon remained an enigma. He attracted as well as repelled. His political career came to an abrupt end with China's military operations against India in 1962. He was held responsible for the debacle. For nearly 30 years he remained the most trusted lieutenant of Nehru and it was the Congress that ultimately denied him a ticket for Parliament. But paradoxically, his contributions to India's defence production laid the foundation for its military preparedness.

He was mistrusted by the power-elite of the capitalist world. Yet he was loved by Afro-Asians and Latin Americans and by those who lived below the thin upper crust of the capitalist societies. Menon lived and died amidst controversies. But he regaled himself with all his critical faculties, his wit and his sense of social obligation even though he became increasingly lonely in his splendid isolation.

Professor Suhash Chakravarty is the author of Khyber to Oxus, Anatomy of the Raj, The Raj Syndrome, Raj Charit Manas, V.K. Krishna Menon and the Indian League, 2 volumes.

 

 

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