V.K. Krishna Menon continues to command our attention not just because he was Jawaharlal Nehru's confidant and soulmate but also for many of his own political and literary accomplishments. A relentless crusader for Indian independence in the UK in the 1930s and 1940s, he was a global star at the United Nations in the 1950s before he was forced to resign as defense minister in the wake of the India-China war of 1962. Meticulously researched and based entirely on new archival material, Jairam Ramesh’s biography, A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon, reveals Menon in all his capabilities and contradictions.
Carnegie India hosted Jairam Ramesh for a discussion on the tumultuous times in which Krishna Menon lived and which he did so much to shape. This discussion was moderated by Srinath Raghavan.
- Indian Independence Movement: Participants stated that there is immense research, writing, and debate on V.K. Krishna Menon’s role following Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent, as a union minister and advisor to Prime Minister Nehru. However, they noted that there is a dearth of analysis regarding his role during the independence movement. Participants highlighted that Krishna Menon played an integral and consequential role in advocating for India’s freedom in the UK. He was pivotal in the almost decade-long negotiations between the Indian National Congress and the Labor Party, leading up to India’s independence, they noted. Participants emphasized that Krishna Menon along with Subhash Chandra Bose and Pandit Nehru were the only ones who saw the international significance of India’s independence movement. Participants also declared that to study India’s contemporary political history, it is essential to study Nehru and to understand Nehru we must study Menon, both pre- and post-partition. Participants further explained that the increased access to archival material on Krishna Menon, specifically after 2008, including his personal papers, has enabled greater research on Krishna Menon and his role prior to partition.
- Political Ideology: Participants elaborated on Krishna Menon’s political ideology, describing him as a socialist, more accurately as a Fabian socialist, inspired by the teachings of Harold Laski from the London School of Economics (LSE). Participants further explained that Krishna Menon was also a theosophist, a lesser known fact about him. They also examined why many attribute Krishna Menon’s political leanings with that of communism. Participants noted that the recently declassified Scotland Yard archives stated that in the 1930s, only the British Communist Party was advocating for India’s freedom in the UK. Therefore, in order to further India’s cause, Krishna Menon started to associate with the communist party in the UK and used their forums to campaign for Indian independence, despite not being a communist.
- Contribution to the Indian Constitution: Participants also discussed Krishna Menon’s role in the formation of the Indian constituent assembly and constitution. They highlighted that Harold Laski, Krishna Menon’s mentor, was the first to believe that India needed a constituent assembly. Consequently, from 1933 Krishna Menon began advocating for a constituent assembly to Pandit Nehru and the Indian National Congress. Participants further explained that Krishna Menon wrote the first draft of the preamble to the constitution, which came into being with very slight adjustments. In essence, participants stated that prior to 1947, one of Krishna Menon’s most vital contributions was his advocacy for an Indian constituent assembly, the preamble, and the constitution.
- Post-Independence: Participants illustrated that after independence Krishna Menon was appointed as High Commissioner of India to the UK from 1947 to 1952 and effectively lobbied for India to retain its commonwealth membership. Consequently, participants highlighted that Krishna Menon became Nehru’s global envoy and was the chairman of the Indian delegation to the United Nations. Participants added that from 1952 to 1957, Menon played a central role in India’s international relations, including in the Korean crisis, the Geneva conference on Indo-China, the Suez Canal Crisis, and India’s talks with U.S. President Eisenhower and U.S. Secretary of State Dulles. Participants then elaborated on Krishna Menon’s role as the union minister for defense. As defense minister, he advocated for a strong Indian defense industrial complex, set up the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), and also procured the aircraft carrier ‘INS Vikrant’ for India from Russia. Participants stated that due to complicated internal and structural issues with the defense establishment Krishna Menon resigned as defense minister in 1962.
This event summary was prepared by Suchet Vir Singh, a research intern at Carnegie India.
Jairam Ramesh is a member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha, representing Karnataka. As a member of the Indian National Congress, Ramesh held several ministerial portfolios during the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) decade-long government—leading the ministries for Rural Development (2011-2014), Drinking Water and Sanitation (2011-2013), Environment and Forests (2009-2011, Union Minister of State – Independent Charge), Commerce and Power (2008-09, Union Minister of State), and Commerce (2006-2009, Union Minister of State). Currently, he serves as chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests, and Climate Change.
Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at Carnegie India. He is also a professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University. His primary research focus is on the contemporary and historical aspects of India’s foreign and security policies.