VP Menon: an unknown hero of modern India | Opinion – analysis
On a sunny spring day in 1914, a young Malayali entered the summer offices of the Government of India at Gorton Castle (then Simla). No one knew who Vappala Pangunni Menon was then. He was 19 years old and received no more than a letter that recommended him for the typist job in the department of origin. Over the next four decades, VP, as he would be known, would be on the front line of India’s progress toward Independence. He was the main typist of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report. In 1924, he would join the Office of Reforms, a branch of the government of India, which would guide India on the road to self-government. He would remain in the Office of Reforms until 1947.
Today, Vice President Menon is remembered for being Sardar Vallabhbahi Patel’s right hand, for assisting in the integration of princely states into the Indian Union. But, between 1914-1951, VP’s contributions to modern India were immense and immensely underestimated.
In 1930, a trip (his first abroad) as part of the secretariat to London for the First Round Table Conference highlighted to VP the importance of the current
Suffrage movement. Five years later, when he was working on the electoral lists for the next provincial elections of 1937, the vice president would grant women, including those whose marriages had dissolved, the right to vote. It would also provide a space for crowds of uneducated Indians on the voter list, by providing symbols and colored boxes on the ballots and insisting that provincial governments reduce their educational standards for the average voter.
His was the voice that ensured the inclusion of clauses as diverse as the granting of rights to residents of the numerous railway settlements of India and the estimation of representatives of urban and rural areas. He was in his forties, and alone, for the first time, at the helm of constitutional change in the country. It is a contribution that has been lost in the dryness of the technicalities of constitutional semantics, but it deserves to be highlighted.
This was just the beginning.
Exposure to the debates about a federal future for the country gave VP the idea that India would do well as a federation. In fact, it would present three plans for the transfer of power from Raj to an independent India: in 1936, in 1941 and in 1946. Each plan depended on one concept: a unified federal India could be achieved if the Center took up defense, foreign affairs and communications. of the princely states, and left all other powers with the royal houses. It would not mean extreme humiliation for princes, but it would allow the Government of India to exercise general authority. Two different viceroys heard his plan, and each time, the plan was archived. It would be June 1947 before the Menon Plan for Indian Independence finally saw the light of day.
The constant frustration of his ideas never prevented VP from trying to save India from the Partition. He strongly believed in trying to bring all political actors together at the same table to join a coalition. The last desperate stab at this occurred in 1945, when VP pressed the then viceroy, Lord Wavell, to call, what would be known as the Simla Conference. The failure of the conference is generally attributed to the clash of personalities and egos that sat around the table in the Viceregal Lodge in Simla. But it is not known that Vice President Menon was the man who not only presented the conference plan, but insisted that it was Wavell’s duty to try to reach a political consensus on the future of India.
In the summer of 1947, the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, would give his Reform Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor six hours to develop a plan that would placate both Congress and the Muslim League, and potentially change the map of the south from Asia. By nightfall, VP had smoked chain through endless boxes of cigarettes, and did exactly that. He would remember thinking that he read “passably well”, but his main concern was his grammar.
Patel would turn to VP in 1947, insisting that only VP would do so as his secretary in the newly established Ministry of States. For Patel the integration of India has been credited, but it is the signature of Vice President Menon in each Instrument of Accession. It was an invaluable asset for the Sardar. His knowledge of the constitutional tradition of India was intimate and without parallel. He displayed a unique mixture of charm and cruelty when it came to princes. Sarila’s Raja, who looked at the vice president at an assembly in Nowgong in 1948, was surprised at the power that this short, stocky man with his open-toed slippers and his safari outfit was able to exude.
In 1951, after the death of the Sardar, Vappala Pangunni Menon fell into political and professional darkness, where he remained until the end of his days in 1966. Today, it is fair that we rectify this.
Narayani Basu is the author of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India. She is also Menon’s great-granddaughter
The opinions expressed are personal.