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Bumbling Nehru, paranoid Menon, divided Army — stunning tales from India’s military history

Jairam Ramesh’s brilliant new biography tells the story of V.K. Krishna Menon, who is reviled and demonised in the BJP-RSS worldview as the ‘villain of 1962’.

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Much folklore has grown around V.K. Krishna Menon, India’s second-most powerful politician in the 1950-60 decade. He is a reviled and demonised figure, the ‘villain of 1962’, especially in the BJP-RSS worldview. It’s wonderful, therefore, that we now have a brilliantly researched biography of Menon by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.

Was he an angel or demon? Neither, as Ramesh’s research in his aptly named 725-page tome ‘A Chequered Brilliance’ shows. He could be brilliant, as in the UN over Kashmir; eminently skillful, as in persuading Chinese premier Chou En-lai in 1955 to return American Air Force prisoners of the Korean War; and also display the “pettiest and meanest” mind in his dealings with Army generals as India’s most controversial defence minister yet.

That Krishna Menon — a case of extreme vanity, arrogance and insecurity laced with self-pity — became Jawaharlal Nehru’s kindred soul from the 1930s on is well-known.

It is also amazing how much they shared with each other. In 1939, for example, Nehru wrote a long, distraught letter to Menon complaining about his failing physical health. He added, however, that his constitution was strong and he may ride it out. But what worried him much more was the state of his mental health. Ramesh guesses that this must have been around time Indira would have told him she wanted to marry Feroze Gandhi.

However, for us children of the 1960s, the most fascinating, and for today’s generation the newsiest section of the book, is the five years Menon served as defence minister and second-most powerful man in Nehru’s Cabinet (1957-62).

Ramesh’s use of the description “pettiest and meanest” specifically refers to how Menon put up the second senior-most Army officer, Lt Gen. P.N. Thapar, into making allegations against his own chief K.M. Thimayya (13 charges, including leaking classified information, loose talk about the prime minister, and hobnobbing with arms dealers), and another five-point ‘charge-sheet’ on Lt Gen. S.P.P. Thorat, widely seen as Thimayya’s preferred choice as his successor.

In his letters to them, one his boss and the other his equal, Thapar mentioned that he was doing this with the prime minister’s knowledge, and he would greatly appreciate hearing their side of the story too. Ramesh concludes, and I think quite rightly, that Menon, who detested Thimayya, had put Thapar up to it, and also taken Nehru into confidence.

Wheels of fratricidal conspiracies were moving fast. Knowing Menon would veto his choice Thorat, Thimayya wrote his recommendation directly to President Rajendra Prasad as Supreme Commander. He promptly approved it too. The Republic was still settling down, and nobody quite understood the Rashtrapati’s powers. Not even Prasad himself. Nehru and Menon closed ranks to reject it.

If you think this wasn’t already a divided Army in the run-up to a war, more conspiracies emerged. First, Thimayya wrote a letter complaining he had information of some “smell” about another lieutenant general, S.D. Verma. Then, after Verma had been moved out punitively, Thimayya came to Menon to say that he had erred. The only ‘smell’ about Verma was that he wasn’t too popular. Menon recorded this in his notes to Nehru.

Also read: Sam Manekshaw, the general who told Indira when Indian Army wasn’t ready for a war

Next was against another top officer, Sam Manekshaw, then commanding the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu. It was again the charge of ‘loose talk’ and Anglophilia, to the extent that Manekshaw had “hanged portraits of Warren Hastings and Robert Clive” in his office. His career was nearly ruined too as Menon sidelined him and ordered an inquiry. It cleared him subsequently, or the history of 1971 may have been different.

One of the biggest stories of that period has morphed into much folklore as a Thimayya-versus-Nehru, Army-versus-politician saga over the decades, which Narendra Modi referred to in his last Karnataka campaign as Nehru’s humiliation of local hero Thimayya.

Ramesh’s documents throw up three surprises: One, that The Statesman scooped the story of Thimayya’s resignation in 1959. It was under Mahesh Chandra’s byline. Ramesh, however, establishes that Gen. J.N. Chaudhuri (who later became COAS), had moonlighted anonymously as military correspondent for more than a decade for the then-British owned The Statesman. He was on the inside track of this resignation, but could not have written the story himself and passed it on. Think, a serving top general working as a leading paper’s military correspondent incognito.

Second, there are stunning notes from the personal archives of then-British High Commissioner Malcolm MacDonald, detailing how Thimayya was sharing with him all his problems with Menon, Nehru, the resignation plans, and much classified information. Like how Thimayya thought Menon deliberately painted Pakistan as India’s main enemy and threat, and played down China. All of which MacDonald was dutifully reporting back to London.

And third, true to what’s come to be believed later, India would not have lost that war in 1962 if Nehru and Menon had listened to Thimayya. But not because he was so brilliant he would have won. But because he was prescient and insisted — even writing five months after his retirement — that there was no way the Army could protect India from the Chinese. And that this had to be done by politicians and diplomats.

All the stories of a bumbling Nehru led by a paranoid and compulsive conspiracy-theorist Menon are true. The notion that, left to the generals, India would have done much better in that war is shown up as an awful myth. The generals of that period were too busy and too good at fighting each other to have time left for the Chinese. And we haven’t even mentioned a Lt Gen. B.M. Kaul yet.

Also read: Our military history is politicised to suit Generals, that’s why Modi’s facts are mixed up

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  1. The PRINT is a congress party propaganda news outlet, and note this book is by a congress party member, so naturally Nehru and Menon were great leaders. What else do you expect? Nehru was leader of cricumstances, totally unqualified to lead a country that has been liberated with such agony and the Britisih who wanted it to fall into pieces after they left. Not that Muslims contirbuted in large measure. long fractured history. How can someone who wanted to be a white man (The last englishman to rule india – was Nehru’s own words) can lead a country such as India. No, this is not hindsight, this is based on the dirty politics that played out in the 1940’s, not being validated. What kind of leader of a sovereign nation’s leader says that it does nto need an Army to defend itself, a pathetic person indeed Nehru was.

    • It is obvious that you know nothing about Nehru. Nehru never said army was not needed nor did he ever call himself last Englishman to rule India! Army numbers increased by 50% between 1947 and 1960. Jawaharlal Nehru is greatest leader India produced apart from Gandhi himself!

      • Nehru was a very ordinary leader. Congress had enough time to burn the objectionable content post Nehru’s demise since thye were mostly in power post that. But even if they didn’t there is the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report which was never allowed to be published. The report was critical of Nehru’s political leadership as well as our Military structure of the time (war with China). But a bigger sin in my view is the Mixed Economy structure that Nehru brought in to fight the rising influence of Communists. To save his throne, he took country left of Centre and ushered an era of License raj and absolute corruption which we are still living with. The anarchic Labor and Land laws passed are still haunting our manufacturing potential. Nehru was a delusional politician who had no competition and he was allowed to lead a Nation who deserved much better.

        • India is not another Pakistan because of Nehru. Indians are ungrateful! It is BJP government that is refusing to release Henderson Brooks Report! Brooks and Bhagat has no authority to investigate political leaders. Nehru followed Bombay Plan for economy which was sponsored and drafted by all leading industrialists and economists while Nehru was in prison in 1944-45. Please read his books Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History before concluding him “ordinary”

  2. Looks like a paid article pushing Jairam’s book. The cut the clutter episode was an awful presentation of the unverified contents of the book. Where is the Indian press heading with this?

  3. They did the things what they thought better with their limited administration skills. The only mistake they committed during Indo China war that they didn’t let the Generals fought the war. Nehru and Menon took themselves to be supernatural and always underestimated the skills and weaponary of Indian Armed Forces, specially IAF which was not utilised otherwise the result must have been different.
    Anyway, it’s no use of crying over split milk now. The nation must stand united now on certain national issues like J & K, CAA, NRC and dealing terrorism sponsored by Pakistan and China. Unfortunately, the congress is still not ready to learn from its previous mistakes for which the nation is still bleeding.

    • Generals were never stopped from fighting. In fact General Umrao Singh refused to fight. Same result was achieved even without IAF. If IAF was deployed and destroyed like Army, India would lose to Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. You know nothing about Nehru nor Krishna Menon. Don’t spit at the sun. It will fall on your face.

      • You who cannot even write your name know more about Nehru? We know that he was not deserving to be the Indian PM at the time.

      • India did not a single inch to its territory after Nehru with exception of uninhabited and unmilitarized Siachen… that too by his own Congress. Indians are ungrateful

  4. It is disheartening to see how little Jawaharlal Nehru is understood by his party’s Jairam Ramesh, let alone likes of Shekhar Gupta. Jairam seemingly misunderstood Nehru’s commitment to democracy as indecisiveness, “bumbling” or even “decline”!! As Neville Maxwell explained, Nehru bent over back to please the opposition as small as it may be. Maxwell (like Jairam Ramesh) wished Nehru was a dictator like Mao and U Nu who dictated to their people what is good for them! In Glimpses of World History, Nehru wrote to his daughter in 1933 how Parliaments around the world became empty shows under fascist, communist and military dictatorships. Decisions already made are either endorsed or criticized only in vein by Parliament. Nehru did not want Indian Parliament to be a sham and wanted it count! Jairam, whose Congress government to railroaded division of Andhra Pradesh by ignoring the plight of people impacted as well as their MPs, probably cannot appreciate Nehru’s point of view. It is pathetic that the present Congress which claims to commit to democracy cannot even appreciate democracy when it sees one!

  5. VK Krishna Menon is the best defense minister India ever had. His only mistake was to be born a South Indian. All the weapons (MIGs, Gnats, INS Vikrant etc) that won 1965 and 1971 wars were procured by Krishna Menon. India defeated NATO Member Portugal and liberated Goa under Krishna Menon despite warnings from JFK himself! India built ammunition, tanks and supersonic fighters under Krishna Menon! A North Indian like Shekhar Gupta’s obsession to dehumanize Menon is obvious. But a South Indian Jairam Ramesh who enjoys plum posts at mercy of Nehru’s descendants help perpetuate falsities is deplorable. The Nehru-Gandhis don’t seem to understand the harm their own sidekicks like Jairam, Tharoor etc. have done to their own party. Jairam’s findings of generals like Timmayya and Manekshaw being in the pockets western (white) countries are not new. It was Manekshaw’s contempt for black and ugly South Indian which put him under court marshal. To Gupta’s point, fortunately enough Manekshaw learned his lesson and charges were dropped. I suggest Mr. Gupta read Neville Maxwell to understand the pressure on Krishna Menon not just from undisciplined Army but from opposition (like Kriplani) for Menon’s supposed inability to control the indiscipline. Army and Gandhians despised each other while Krishna Menon was caught in the middle. Being a South Indian Menon does not even deserve benefit of doubt while, the only logical conclusion becomes “paranoid and compulsive conspiracy-theorist”. South Indians need to wake up! Our great leaders were trivialized, dehumanized while their contributions are handed over to North Indians like Chavan and Patel wose tall statues are buil with our tax money. Likes of Jairam Ramesh should introspect!

    • Thimayya was a south India too, but was not ungrateful and insecure like VK Menon and Jawahar Lal Nehru. Go read the books!

      • The only reason Timmayya is being praised is to pit him against Nehru and Krishna Menon. Else, would anybody care? YOU should go read “books”. As for Timmayya’s gratefulness, it was Krishna Menon and Nehru who made him the CoAS although he was junior most of the three. Nehru government awarded Timmayya Padma Bhushan. In return, Timmayya betrayed them both.

  6. Timmayya had to recommend 3 names by rules and not just his favorite Thorat. Timmayya himself was not his predecessor’s favourite and would never become CoAS if only one name was proposed. Promotions were decided by Appointment Committee (ACC) which consisted of PM, HM (Shastri) and DM (Menon). Closing ranks by Nehru and Menon is being portrayed as unholy and undesirable while it was required by law. Somehow Shastri closing ranks with Nehru does not come across repugnant since Shastri was North Indian. President Prasad had nothing to do with this appointment. If Timmayya really bypassed ACC, it shows his disrespect for authority and institutions. While this corruption (hobnob with arms dealers), subservience to foreign government and utter lack of regard for institutions and indiscipline on part of army stares in face, calling Menon a paranoid and compulsive conspiracy-theorist” proves how helplessly even smart people like Jairam Ramesh are enslaved by their decades of brainwash.

  7. China never claimed victory not even acknowledges any war ever taking place. Indians insist they were defeated. Nehru stood his ground, pushed back China to prewar position and recovered every inch lost by the army. Calling Nehru “bumbling” is poor taste at best.

  8. BM Kaul had nothing to with the conflict, so there is no point talking about him. The Eastern Commander of LP Sen, to whom Kaul reported for all of 15 days. Kaul was only asked to go when Gen Umrao Singh refused to fight. One needs to talk about Umrao Singh

  9. Jairam had access to declassified information. But he was captive of false/ decades old paradigms., Despite evidence to the contrary, Jairam makes same claims Shekhar Gupta made for decades. Jairam calls Menon worst defense minister while admitting in same breath that nobody before Menon even took that job seriously. In 1947 India lost 1/3 Army to Pakistan. British took all their Navy and Airforce. Nehru and Krishna menon built the 3 forces. Krishna menon annexed Goa just 10 months earlier. Not just Menon but even Timmayya perceived Pakistan as bigger threat. Nobody in right mind would say today after 56 years that they were wrong.

  10. Thimmayya wanting Thorat to be his successor is laughable. Thorat retired before Timmayya. Timmayya was promoted by Krishna Menon over more seniors Thorat and Kulwant Singh. There was no need for Nehru or Menon to hear from Timmayya that Indian Army was no match to China. They knew already, for which Nehru’s boldhead was ridiculed (not even grass can grow) and Menon was branded Communist.

  11. Krishna Menon’s Jeep Scandal should not be forgotten. He got where he was because he was Nehru’s literary agent. – got his books published for handsome royalty. Gen B.M.Kaul states in his book “Untold Story” some utterances of Menon. When a senior naval officer started his sentence “The navy…”, Menon said it should be at the bottom of the sea! When another senior army officer started “I think…” menon said “Soldiers are not paid to think!”. Kaul also states another instance when Menon threw a file at him. Kaul claims that he promptly threw the file out of the nearest window! (Truth of the last point not verified). The fact that Nehru, for all his polish and urbanity made friends with a person like Krishna Menon shows that he was a poor judge of persons.

    • Krishna Menon’s only mistake was to be born a South Indian. BM Kaul and Timmayya were promoted by Krishna Menon to CoGS and CoAS. So much for their gratefulness. However, Kaul never wrote about throwing any file – I read his book. Jeeps were bought for Kashmir War and Hyderabad Invasion – there was nothing improper. Because of the urgency Krishna menon bypassed protocols. Krishna Menon was responsible for Indian Indepence more than Gandhi et al. Krishna menon was a great freedom fighter even before he met Nehru.

    • They did the things what they thought better with their limited administration skills. The only mistake they committed during Indo China war that they didn’t let the Generals fought the war. Nehru and Menon took themselves to be supernatural and always underestimated the skills and weaponary of Indian Armed Forces, specially IAF which was not utilised otherwise the result must have been different.
      Anyway, it’s no use of crying over split milk now. The nation must stand united now on certain national issues like J & K, CAA, NRC and dealing terrorism sponsored by Pakistan and China. Unfortunately, the congress is still not ready to learn from its previous mistakes for which the nation is still bleeding.

      • Indeed I don’t know why Congress leaders like Jairam Ramesh so eagerly sell out Nehru bringing destruction to their own party! I can’t imagine how naive and clueless the Gandhis could be trust these people while they eagerly play into BJP hands. As for fighting, soldiers who were sent to battle abandoned posts and ran away as China advanced

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