VP MENON - The Man who Saved India

  • By M R Narayan Swamy
  • June 28 2021
  • Life and Contributions of V P Menon. VP was the man behind Sardar Patel & the legendary tales of Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad. He recommended franchise to adult women in 1937.

There could not have been a man with a more unlikely career graph. He played an unforgettable role in the building of modern India, both before and after 1947. Unfortunately few Indians today know V.P. Menon. Although Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is widely credited for the merger of the numerous Princely states, it was VP who made it happen, often from behind the scenes. After Patel died in 1950, it was VP all the way.


Vappala Pangunni Menon led a dramatic life, fleeing from his school and home in Kerala. He worked for two annas a day in the Kolar gold mines and, five years later, hawked towels in Bombay before fate took him to Delhi to take up a temporary job in the Home Department. Hard work kept pushing him up the ladder, helping him to become the most important Indian in the government by 1947. Later, he went on to become Patel’s right hand. 


After extensive interviews and digging up buried archival material, historian and foreign policy analyst Narayani Basu has put together a fascinating biography. “Deafening silence envelops the man who was responsible for nearly every major document that paved India’s path to independence,” says Basu in “V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India” (Simon & Schuster). 


VP quickly came to be seen as a steady worker. His first break came in the Emergency Branch, set up to deal with the paperwork ahead of the India visit of new Secretary of State, Edwin Montagu. It marked VP’s entry into the world of Indian political and constitutional reforms where he continued till he retired. 


Earning 120 rupees a month and 2 rupees as travelling allowance, VP learnt how to work under pressure, think around a problem, work on contingency situations and always have a backup plan. Praise for his ability to put in long hours at work earned him a place in the Reforms Branch where his life was changed by a British officer - Sir William Hawthorne Lewis.


VP would no longer merely type or dispatch telegrams. Prodded by Lewis, he became outspoken, even blunt, on constitutional reforms, earning both resentment and respect from colleagues. His visit to London to assist in the First Round Table Conference called by Lord Irwin gave him a keen insight into happenings behind the scenes. In India, Lewis delegated more and more work to the Malayalee.


VP oversaw the 1937 elections, battling endless paperwork, reports and tedious telegrams. He worked on an electoral roll and recommended franchise to all adult women - one of his most unsung achievements. By then, he had been promoted as Superintendent, a milestone for a man who was not from ICS.


VP worked on a draft Instrument of Accession. His personal life in shambles, he put his heart and mind in the eventual withdrawal of the Empire within a constitutional framework. But the new Viceroy, the Marquess of Linlithgow, disliked VP. Nevertheless, after the 1937 elections, he virtually headed the Reforms Branch as Lewis was unwell.


VP did monumental work. He suggested that local governments be involved in the process of counting their own electorate. He pushed for symbols in ballot papers to help the illiterate. VP saw the humiliation of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whom he knew personally, in the sweeping Congress win in 1937 as the start of a serious rift between the Muslim League and Congress that would lead to the birth of Pakistan.


VP got posted to a temporary post of Joint Secretary in the Reforms Branch. By now, he had been at the frontlines of constitutional reform for nearly 20 years. In June 1939, VP and Lewis were told to draft a tabular and exceedingly complex statement of constitutional and administrative reforms that had taken place till then in the States.


It was VP who handled most files and cables from Whitehall once the Viceroy’s office was done with them. When London decided it was time to hand over power smoothly to Indians, Harry Vincent Hodson was picked to offer the best ideas to the Viceroy. Hodson too took a liking to his deputy - the “competent little madrassi” (no contempt was meant). With Hodson away from Simla, the Reforms Secretariat was run by VP. Hodson admitted that VP was more competent to deal with constitutional and political issues. 


VP presented Linlithgow a plan for stitching a federation on the path to independence. It was based on transfer of power on the basis of Dominion Status. But the Viceroy dumped the plan, which gathered dust until 1947 when VP resurrected it. Promptly, Lord Mounbatten claimed it was his own!


In February 1942, Hodson and VP stayed up all day and night, drafting a 12-point proposal to push India towards Dominion Status. When Stafford Cripps came with a different plan of action, VP warned it would play havoc with India’s future. Fortunately, Cripps began to respect Hodson and VP. VP’s growing contacts within the Congress and Muslim League fetched him invaluable inside information, making him a key member of the highest circles. 


For the three weeks the Quit India movement lasted, the Reforms Office was manned entirely by VP. When Hodson decided to leave India, he strongly recommended VP, catapulting the Indian as the Constitutional Advisor. Linlithgow too hailed VP for ‘great knowledge’. 


During the 1943 Bengal famine, VP told Viceroy Lord Wavell to use the military to distribute rations, fuel and medicines. When Wavell took on Mahatma Gandhi, he asked VP to draft a reply. Amid a political deadlock, it was VP who conceived the idea of a Simla conference. A time had come when even English advisors sounded VP for suggestions before taking them to the Viceroy.


As both Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor, VP played a crucial role, prickly problems being resolved through political back-channel talks. VP maintained that everything must be done to prevent partition. In the hectic summer of 1946, VP got little sleep due to unending work. It was also in 1946 that VP moved close to Sardar Patel, admiring his work style.


By the time VP realised that partition was inevitable, developments moved rapidly. He was firm that the Congress must take charge of the interim government without insisting on a formal transfer of power with Dominion Status.


Once an interim government was formed, everyone began to see VP as Sardar’s right hand man. Patel did trust VP. According to Basu, VP thought Patel was better suited to be free India’s Prime Minister. Lord Mountbatten knew that VP was the only reliable conduit to Patel, the real power behind the Congress. 


When Mountbatten unveiled an independence plan in which provinces would have the right to determine their own future, VP refused to back it. Frustrated over being ignored as he was a Hindu, VP quit. Edwina Mountbatten fortunately intervened.


In the end, VP drew up another plan to demit power. VP told Mountbatten: “Sir, you have never listened to me before, but I beg of you to please listen to me now.” He argued that a partition of India could no more be avoided. But while Mountbatten’s plan would break up the country into several units, his own would retain India’s essential unity. VP was told to quickly produce a draft compelling and comprehensive enough to determine India’s future. Mountbatten liked it and embraced it. Patel and Nehru were happy too. “The Menon plan now became the Mountbatten plan.”


VP teamed up with two others to work on an elaborate document on the administrative consequences of partition. He served on nearly every committee or council set up to oversee independence and partition. According to Basu, nearly every document from this stage bears his signature, his draftsmanship or his supervision and often all three. All documents now went to VP for final approval. As Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor, VP was in charge of what became the Indian Independence Act of 1947.


Not only did VP play a key role in ensuring that strategically placed Ferozepur stayed with India, he told Mountbatten to intervene when Nehru decided not to have Patel in his government. Just before independence, Patel offered VP the post of Secretary in the newly formed States Department. Although VP was exhausted, not having taken a day’s leave in decades, he soldiered on. When Patel wondered how 565 princely states could be persuaded to sign on the dotted line so quickly, VP reasoned that the shortness of time itself was an advantage. 


VP and Patel used arm twisting and veiled threats to pull off the impossible. After having been in charge of India’s transfer of power, his new task was integration. VP drafted the Instrument of Accession. 


Simultaneously, VP travelled with Patel to Amritsar in October 1947 amid communal mayhem to plead with Sikhs to allow Muslims to go to Pakistan. VP played major roles in the integration of Junagadh and Hyderabad. By 1949, the Sardar was too ill. VP continued his trips across India, threatening, cajoling and coaxing rulers to sign papers that would bring them within the Indian fold.


“Today, the integration of India is credited solely to Sardar Patel, with V.P. Menon staying largely in the wings… (VP) was the man behind the legendary tales of Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad… It is VP’s signature you see on the Instrument of Accession,” says Basu. 


One day, Nehru shouted at VP. For the second time in his career, he resigned. So did Patel. VP argued that even Viceroys had not raised their voice at him. Nehru apologised. VP realised Nehru had not shouted at him; “he was addressing the Sardar through me.” 


VP suffered a blow when Patel died on December 14, 1950. “Sardar died a very, very bitter and sad man…,” VP would say later. In April 1951, the States Ministry was shut down, leaving VP jobless. He was named Governor of Orissa but he resigned after a year. He was then made a member of the Finance Commission but again quit after barely a year.


VP was then involved with stalwarts like N.G. Ranga, Minoo Masani and K.M. Munshi in forming the Swatantra Party. In 1960, VP fell ill, passing away eight years later. By then, both he and his stellar role before and after 1947 had been forgotten by most Indians. Mountbatten sent the most apt tribute: “I wonder how many Indians, particularly of the rising generation, have any idea of the debt which they owe V.P. Menon.” 


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 30 April 2021 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share.


Also read

1. Who was responsible for Partition

2. Life Story of Sardar Patel

3. Why India must remember Sardar Patel  

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