Nehru, Sardar Patel and the man in the middle
A new biography of statesman V.P. Menon sparks questions of historical memory and the danger of appropriating the past for political reasons
It is a sad reflection of our divisive time that when V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect Of Modern India, Narayani Basu’s biography of her great-grandfather, was published earlier this year, it attracted attention because of a melodramatic “revelation"—whether Jawaharlal Nehru wanted Vallabhbhai Patel in his cabinet or not. That Nehru and Patel were both giants of the freedom struggle is disputed only by the ignorant. That they had differences of opinion is known. Yet foreign minister S. Jaishankar, who was an effective diplomat, cast aside the niceties of his earlier profession and said he “learned" about Nehru’s plan from the book. When historian Ramachandra Guha challenged him, Jaishankar, now a party politician, stuck to his guns.
Basu’s account of Vappala Pangunni Menon’s life draws on two important sources. The first is Menon’s own writing, which cannot be accused of being confessional. Menon wrote three books; two of them, The Story Of The Integration Of Indian States, published in 1956, and The Transfer Of Power In India, published a year later, are crucial in our understanding of the making of the Indian nation.
But to understand his life better, she also draws hugely on the papers of Harry Hodson, who was India’s reforms commissioner (and to whom Menon reported), and the many hours of interviews Hodson did with Menon, which undoubtedly helped shape Hodson’s book, The Great Divide: Britain—India—Pakistan (of her nearly 900 footnotes, close to a quarter cite Hodson’s papers or books as a source).
In those conversations, Menon recalled that Nehru initially did not want to include Patel in the cabinet. Hodson later checked with Lord Mountbatten, then India’s viceroy, who too seemed to remember it. Mountbatten had a clear view of how history should judge him. He told Hodson that he naturally advised Nehru that not including Patel would be a foolish move. Basu’s account suggests it was Menon who asked Mountbatten to restrain the impetuous Nehru. Like all successful bureaucrats, Menon knew that to achieve an objective, it is best to whisper a good idea in the ear of the vain politician and let him claim credit, lest he implement a stupid idea of his own.
What is one to make of this revelation? There is the letter, to which historians and other experts refer, in which Nehru invites Patel to join his cabinet. There is nothing in any paper trail to suggest that Nehru intended to slight Patel by ignoring him. Even if Mohandas Gandhi’s views were no longer paramount, it stretches credulity to believe that Gandhi would have approved of Patel’s absence from such a cabinet.
Anyone who has read Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom At Midnight, the vastly entertaining but not most accurate account of India’s independence, would know of the disproportionate influence Mountbatten had in the way the Partition narrative was written. Alan Campbell-Johnson, who was Mountbatten’s press attaché in India and wrote Mission With Mountbatten in 1951, had told me in 1985 (I interviewed him in New York when the international paperback edition of the book was published) that Nehru and Patel had worked together well and had tried their best to keep India together, but Partition was inevitable.
Nothing controversial about that but hold that thought for a moment: I have recalled Campbell-Johnson telling me something more than 35 years ago, in the pre-internet era. It would be fiendishly difficult for someone to dig out that article and find out if Campbell-Johnson did indeed say that to me, and if Campbell-Johnson’s recollection was accurate. Here’s the fact: I did meet Campbell-Johnson; I did interview him about his book; he did say kind things about Nehru, Patel and Gandhi. He knew he was speaking to an Indian publication, so he did not say very nice things about Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Yet he was a witness to history. How reliable is his account? How reliable is mine?
We accept unreliable narrators easily in fiction—Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye, Pi in Life Of Pi, Humbert Humbert in Lolita or Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children—because in reading those novels we are willing to suspend disbelief. What should we do when we read non-fiction? Is it enough to rely only on the paperwork, the filed documents, the archival records, as Nehru’s supporters suggest? But then what if original historical records are destroyed and the documentation we see has been typed up subsequently, even with authentic signatures, to support a particular line of reasoning?
And if documents are not to be trusted, what should a historian rely on? Memory? Whose memory? Memory can be selective; it can be motivated; it can play tricks—it may surface unexpectedly, it may be repressed, it can reinforce what you think ought to have happened, and not what did happen. It can be intentionally deceptive or a genuinely honest mistake. There is no right answer. Where does that leave the historian?
Writing the history of a painful period of the past at a time when that past is being exhumed, re-examined, recast and rewritten by a new establishment to suit its own narrative is not easy. Being faithful to the evidence gathered, and not letting it get hijacked by those temporarily in power, is an onerous responsibility. The amusing part about Jaishankar using Basu’s book to score political points today is that taken as a whole, Basu’s book doesn’t make Nehru the villain and Patel the hero; rather, it presents Menon as the real hero. That makes the book intriguing and interesting. Not surprisingly, supporters of the government today thought they had a hero in Basu but started unfollowing her on social media the moment they found she had spoken out against the violence unleashed against students in Delhi earlier this year.
The Patel versus Nehru controversy, which Jaishankar stoked, is driven by current political compulsions, not with a view to understand the past better, because Menon’s personal story is fascinating on its own. A young boy gets angry with his schoolteacher, burns down his school and feels shame and remorse. He then escapes from his home in Kothakurussi, a tiny hamlet near Ottapalam in present-day Kerala, goes to the Kolar Gold Fields, applies for a job even though he has no paper qualifications, gets hired by a manager who says paper qualifications are meaningless, gets sacked, travels to Delhi looking for work, ends up in Simla, where the capital has shifted for the summer, has his wallet stolen, meets a fellow-Malayali benefactor who helps him find a footing as a lowly clerk in the civil service, and marries the woman his parents choose. She disappears from his life inexplicably and he marries the widow of his Malayali benefactor. Nothing is spoken of his first wife.
Menon then builds his reputation in the bureaucracy by becoming a meticulous record-keeper, is trusted by the British, Jinnah and the Congress leaders, writes memos and redrafts tedious, technical clauses and sub-clauses about the minutiae of imperial administration, reaches a high position, earns the trust of Patel enough to be the crucial dealmaker between the intended Indian union and recalcitrant princes, and helps knit India. It is an astonishingly rich story and Basu has written it as a critical admirer (Menon’s foibles, reticence and abrasiveness are apparent in the text) who discovered only in her 20s that she was related to him.
Reconstructing the past is not easy, even if it is drawn from living memories. The job of the writer is to look at all possible available sources, check the motives of the people presenting specific points of view, join the dots and present a picture that is an interpretation of the reality. No magic bullet has all the answers.
This, we know: If Patel felt slighted by Nehru, he did not show it; if Nehru did not trust Patel, he would not have relied on Patel for the exceptionally delicate task of linking the unruly strands of princely states into a well-designed tapestry in 1947. Basu’s book may seem like a weapon to the shadow boxers of our time but a closer reading would reveal that the hero in the book is Menon, not Patel.
So what do we make of Menon? Reading Basu’s book,you admire his shrewdness, tact, skills, perseverance and survival instinct. He deserves much credit for the integration of Indian states. This is not the first book to say so but if it leads a new generation of readers to explore more of that turbulent era, so be it.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.