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Would V. K. Krishna Menon’s Legacy Be As Controversial If He Were A North-Indian?

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May 3rd is the birth anniversary of Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon- a notable freedom fighter, diplomat, defence minister, and one of the most important founding fathers of modern India. Yet, it would be too much to expect any honourable mention of him on that day, even from Rahul Gandhi who is a member of the Parliament from Menon’s home state of Kerala.

It is ironic that many Britishers have it in their hearts to admire a great man like Krishna Menon, although he spent a good portion of his life dismantling their empire in India.  The Indians for whom Menon toiled all his life, discarding any personal goals, treat him like a demon and continue to invent ways to demean him.

Everyone Seems To Enjoy Kicking Menon!

Even casual mentions are made in derogatory and demeaning ways such as “the controversial defence minister” or “Nehru’s friend”. Was Mahatma Gandhi himself not controversial?  Would Subhas Chandra Bose be referred to as “Nehru’s friend”, even though he named one of his INA Brigades after Nehru?  The intent of these references is to strip Menon of his identity and to dehumanize him so that it becomes easy to hate him.

I have written extensively on the hollowness and irrationality of the accusations that are habitually made against Menon.  The casualness in dismissing his contributions and placing blame often reminds me of the song Raaste Kaa Patthar. Would the opinion of him be different if Menon was not a South Indian?  What if his name was Krishna Patel, Krishna Bose, or Krishna Singh?

V.K. Krishna Menon with Jawaharlal Nehru in London, 1949. Image Credit: Getty Images.

A Convenient Villain

Jawaharlal Nehru is often blamed even by Congress leaders for appointing Menon as the defence minister.  Yet, as stated by President R. Venkataraman, a former defence minister himself, Krishna Menon is the “best defence minister India ever had”.

Alarmed by Menon’s repeated successes liberating Goa, building the military-industrial complex, frustrating Pakistan’s attempts in the United Nations over the issue of Kashmir, his towering presence as a world leader, and his re-election from North Bombay in early 1962, Menon’s political opponents have only hyped the border crisis with China.

Menon’s efforts to deescalate the crisis were portrayed as treason and sympathy for China, while in fact, Menon knew that India did not stand any chance in such direct military confrontation. By precipitating border war against China in 1962, Menon’s enemies had cornered Nehru into accepting Menon’s exit from the cabinet.

In my opinion, had Menon been a North Indian, the narrative would be completely different from what we hear today. Nehru would instead be accused of being ill-advised and wronging Menon despite the latter’s unprecedented and unparalleled contributions to the Indian military establishment.

Historians would be pointing out that the border crisis could have been resolved forever and peacefully, had Nehru listened to Krishna Menon.  Today, many indeed blame Nehru for escalating tensions against China, despite knowing the military superiority of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).  However, they all carefully avoid crediting Menon’s vision and efforts to deescalate.

There is much excitement correcting the supposed injustices to Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose, and Bhagat Singh.  In the process, Krishna Menon along with other South Indians is demonized more and more.  Nobody stops to question the shabby treatment meted out to Krishna Menon by the successive governments, the Congress Party, and historians.

How Identical Events Are Spun Into Different Narratives

Neither the Congress, nor the opposition, nor the President of India at the time (S. Radhakrishnan) would allow Nehru focus on the war if Menon continued in the cabinet. With China still in possession of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), or modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, in October 1962, the Indian Parliament was more interested in ousting Menon than ousting the Chinese.

The resignation of Menon at that point however did not have to end his career.  We know that the then Railway Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned in late 1956 after a series of train accidents.  Today, Shastri’s resignation is hailed as a great sacrifice, although he returned to the cabinet within a couple of months as the Minister for Transportation.

Today, nobody refers to Shastri as “controversial railway minister” or “villain of train accidents” while such references are commonplace for Menon. But if Shastri were South Indian, would history be so kind?

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