VK Krishna Menon is unfortunately remembered mostly for being the Defence Minister when India lost the 1962 war against China; and also for his lengthy speech at the UN. But Jairam Ramesh's biography of Menon, a monumental work that it is, gives different insights to a man the world acknowledged even when within the country he remains one who is misunderstood for reasons partly due to his haughtiness and eccentricities.
There have already been biographies of Krishna Menon like the popular one by veteran journalist TJS George. But what makes the latest by Jairam Ramesh important is the portrayal of Menon through letters and speeches and making use of every archive available. It must have been a herculean task for the author to have gone through the archives and select them to give diverse images of not just Menon, but also insights into the pre and post-Independence times.
Known to belong to the intelligentsia in the Congress and one of the most efficient Union Minister of Environment and Forests the country has seen, Jairam Ramesh appears to have successfully made biographies his forte with this third work.
It was with a 'green' aspect of Indira Gandhi with which he began this exercise of biography-writing. While that book did give great insights into Indira Gandhi's efforts to protect the environment and leave Keralites thankful to her for conserving Silent Valley, the second was on the bureaucrat PN Haksar.
This book on Menon, as the author himself has admitted, is just drawing a picture of this complex character and ensuring that no sides are taken. In Jairam Ramesh's words: "This new biography does not intend to eulogise Krishna Menon for his numerous contributions nor to castigate him for his many sins. It is instead meant to be a clinically objective narrative of his chequered life. I narrate a complex tale letting the written materials speak for themselves.”
He leaves it to the reader to judge Menon, the events and the stand he took on different issues, some of which were unfortunately ignored then and for which the country is paying a heavy price now.
The classic case is his stand on relations with China, though unfortunately he remains much-hated for India's unsuccessful war with China in 1962 that also tarnished his image. The book points to Menon's stance for dialogue with China to resolve issues. But this did not go well with the powers-that-be then and remains a sore point even now. This explains why Indira Gandhi said in 1974: "Had the solution which he (Krishna Menon) proposed on behalf of India in the 50s for the India-China situation been accepted, a great deal of hardship, waste and suffering would have been avoided." The price the country pays now for ignoring Krishna Menon is indeed very heavy.
The over 700-page voluminous work with some rare photographs means different things to people with different tastes. For a history enthusiast, from freedom struggle to the Suez issue, the Hungarian crisis or the Vietnam War, there are a number of interesting subjects that Jairam Ramesh has offered. These can be perceived from different angles.
The long exchanges between Pandit Nehru and Menon are classic examples of intelligent discourse. Through picturising Menon, the author has also shed light on Nehru. The two had a lot of things in common, right from being educated in England to being more of diplomats. That also explains why they were so close.
For psychology enthusiasts, Krishna Menon's life as depicted in the book offers several leads to his complex mind. The streak of complexity and eccentricity appears to have run in the family. The letters Menon wrote to his sisters and the replies he got, especially the ones to and from his elder sister VK Chinnammalu Amma as also the one she wrote to Pandit Nehru in 1957 about the proposed land reforms, give clear leads. Her letter to the then Prime Minister says: "I should like to know whether such revolutionary changes are going to take place in Kerala. You as head of the Central govt ought to know Kerala has not been banished from India I hope. Please give me the information." Nehru took time to reply suggesting that she need not be apprehensive.
Another interesting aspect, especially from a researcher's aspect or a journalist's curiosity has been some startling revelations about the Indian Army Chief Gen KS Thimayya who could not get along well with his Defence Minister Menon. The General's decision to resign, his letter to Nehru, the 'Statesman' having it as a scoop the next day and two days later withdrawing the resignation. Jairam explains how the letter was leaked to 'Statesman' through its 'Our Military Correspondent' Gen JN Chaudhari. But astonishing was how Thimayya could 'open up' to the then UK High Commissioner Malcolm Macdonald and even claim that Menon was planning a coup and take over from Nehru! A few days later Menon had to rule out the possibility of a coup.
What remains a mystery is how Thimayya could go scot free despite 'leaking' secrets to the envoy. These are materials that can go into deeper and wider study.
History has been presented based on letters and archives. The book helps in understanding the complex mind of a leader whose contributions in defence research through his establishment of the defence research organisation decades ago when there is now a call for 'Make in India'. Leaders now have much to learn of how such initiatives were made so long ago.
Also, his relations with world leaders are classic case studies in diplomacy. The book indeed helps one start loving a once much-hated or rather much-misunderstood Krishna Menon, who, through this book, stands vindicated on many counts. And here, Jairam Ramesh's efforts are indeed praiseworthy, making one wait to know what is coming next.