In 1947, as the struggle for India’s freedom was raging on, the Indian National Congress and the Government of India declared one objective—to politically integrate the country.
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To accomplish this, the Department of States was established in June 1947 with two important men at the helm. One was the fearless leader who also moved on to become the first Deputy Prime Minister of India—Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Yet, the person who continues to remain unsung was Patel’s right-hand man, VP Menon.
Although it was Patel who created the initial framework to influence the Indian princes to accede, it was Menon who did the actual groundwork of coaxing them.
He travelled from court to court, having endless eye-to-eye discussions and negotiations. While his wit and diplomacy were able to win over several of them, the task was arduous. To the extent where he had a close shave with death when an angered maharaja sprung out a gun and threatened to shoot him point-blank.
Menon’s adventures and experiences are narrated in his book — The Story of the Integration of the Indian States—considered to be one of the most detailed works on the political integration of India.
Monday was his 126th birth anniversary, and this is a good time to remember the man who played an instrumental role in ensuring that over 500 princely states seamlessly joined the Union of India and get a glimpse into his incredible story.
Vappala Pangunni Menon was born in the small village of Panamanna in Ottapalam close to the banks of Bharathapuzha on September 30, 1893.
He was the oldest among a dozen kids to a school headmaster. With a family as large as that, finances were always tight.
When he was young, Menon once overheard his father, lamenting the lack of resources, and his inability to give his children the life they deserved.
Moved by his father’s struggle to make ends meet, the young boy who was only a matriculate, decided to trade education for a string of menial jobs. He left his home in search of a job, intending to shoulder the financial responsibility of the large family and help his father.
The Shimla Years
From being a construction worker to a coal miner, factory hand, a coolie-grade stoker and even an unsuccessful cotton broker—he did it all.
Despite the odd jobs, he did not limit himself. He was an ambitious man, and soon took up the job of a clerk-typist in a Bangalore-based tobacco company. He had a flair for the English language and the ability to analyse issues and find solutions.
The next thing he knew, he was travelling to Shimla in the hope of earning a government job.
Once he arrived, Menon was able to earn the position of a clerk-and-typist in the home department in 1929. His speedy and flawless typing made him an asset to the British officials.
Transferred to the Sensitive Reforms Department, he became a confidante of Lord Linlithgow, the longest-serving Viceroy of India. Not only was Menon trusted with classified information but also became a consultant for various reform decisions.
He also tagged along with Linlithgow to England on most official trips, thus making him the only local civil servant in his time to attend the Roundtable Conference in England.
He was later appointed the deputy to Sir Hawthorne Lewis, the Reforms Commissioner. From Lewis to Lord Wavell, most Viceroys that he worked with, were astonished by Menon’s comprehensive knowledge of all Indian situations.
In 1946, Menon was appointed the Political Reforms Commissioner to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. The independence struggle was at its peak, and the British had agreed to grant India independence.
The onus of laying down strategies for the transfer of power was entrusted to Menon.
Historians Collins and Lapierre, highlight this extent of Menon’s work and influence in Freedom at Midnight.
“What followed was probably the most meteoric rise in that administration’s history. By 1947, Menon rose to one of the most-senior posts on the Viceroy’s staff, where he had quickly won viceroy Mountbatten’s confidence and later affection.”
The Menon Plan and the Integration of Indian states
Narayani Basu, Menon’s great-granddaughter in her article for The Wire writes how the Menon plan, gave birth to an independent India, thus changing the map of the subcontinent – and the world – forever.
“Mountbatten’s original plan envisaged not the cleavage of the Indian subcontinent into two countries, but its vivisection into over a dozen. Each province would have the right to secede; each princely state would have the right to become independent, if it so chose. Confronted by Nehru’s incandescent rage at the prospect of “fragmentation, conflict and disorder”, Mountbatten had had no choice but to call in his constitutional advisor. Menon typed up his alternative plan in the room of his modest guesthouse, in six hours flat…”
In 1947, Menon became the secretary of the Ministry of the States, headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It was only a matter of time until his political genius and work ethic made him Patel’s close associate.
Menon worked closely with Patel over the integration of over 500+ princely states into the union of India.
One of the incidents which illustrate the complexity of the accession task was his attempt to negotiate with the young Maharaja of Jodhpur.
Menon, who had travelled to the court with Lord Mountbatten, was given the job of getting the ruler to sign a provisional agreement of accession to the Indian Republic.
Lord Mountbatten had stepped out leaving Menon with the Maharaja, who whipped out a fountain pen to sign the document.
To his utter shock, Menon realised that the pen wasn’t just a pen.
“After signing the text, he unscrewed its cap and revealed a miniature 0.22 pistol which he pointed at Menon’s head. I’m not giving in to your threats, he shouted. Mountbatten, on hearing the noise, returned and confiscated the pistol,” write Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
Menon used his tact and diplomacy to coax and cajole reluctant princes into acceding to India and also advised Patel and Nehru over military action in hostile states of Junagadh and Hyderabad, relations with Pakistan and the Kashmir conflict.
Forever in the shadows
The death of the Iron Man of India in 1950, saw an eventual decline in Menon’s fame as well. In an independent India, his position was reduced to that of an acting governor of the then largely tribal state of Orissa (now Odisha).
In 1966, he also became one of the founding fathers of the free-market-oriented Swatantra Party, which boasted of other big names amongst its memberships such as Maharani Gayatri Devi and Rajmata Scindia.
With old age, came numerous health issues. Basu writes how the end of the legend was similar to his beginnings, in obscurity. On December 31, 1966, in his home in Cooke Town, Bangalore, at the age of 72.
Even as I read about his life, I cannot help but mull over how the man who played an important role in the unification of India, whose signature lies on the Instruments of Accession, remains unsung.
Basu reiterates exactly this, as she writes, “Yet, the man (Menon) remains a mystery, a blurry thumbnail on his Wikipedia page. The Sardar’s statue towers over the landscape of Gujarat, but no narrative of India’s unification is complete without acknowledging the contributions of VP Menon.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)