India was on the cusp of freedom from British rule in 1947 and Vappala Pangunni Menon was completely worn out.
Three decades of working in the grinding imperial bureaucracy had taken its toll on the tenacious 54-year-old civil servant.
Menon was “exhausted, overworked, already coughing ominously”, his biographer Narayani Basu recorded. He had worked as a key official on political and constitutional reforms to successive viceroys and helped in drafting a crucial transfer of power plan. He had not taken leave from work in years.
Menon was looking forward to a quiet retirement once the transfer of power celebrations ended on 15 August, the day India gained independence.
By nature a conservative, he was an ally of the independence hero and Congress party leader Vallabhbhai Patel. Now Patel summoned him again. The doughty leader was the minister in charge of the newly formed States Department to handle the matter of the princely states – and he wanted Menon – or VP, as he was popularly known – as his secretary.
It was another daunting job for the “small, alert and ferociously intelligent” civil servant, as historian Ramachandra Guha described Menon.
The 565-odd princely states covered a third of the land mass of British India and contained two-fifths of the population. Many of them had their own armies, railway, currency and stamps.
Most of the rulers were seen as inept and profligate potentates. Others like the Nizam (king) of Hyderabad ruled over a kingdom whose income and expenditure rivalled Belgium’s and exceeded that of 20 founder-member states of the UN, according to one assessment.
Menon’s task was cut out. He had to get this motley bunch of eccentric rulers to fall in line and integrate with India. This had to be achieved in a climate of deepening distrust and spiralling violence, marked by religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims over the division of the subcontinent. Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress leader – and later India’s first prime minister – told a colleague that it was an administrative situation of “appalling intensity”.
Working with his last viceroy Lord Mountbatten and then with Patel, Menon worked on an Instrument of Accession whereby the States agreed to give up control of defence, foreign affairs and communications to the Congress Government.
For over two years, Menon and Patel engaged in torturous negotiations with the princely rulers and made hundreds of trips to their kingdoms. The rulers questioned them about their future in free India. The giant kingdoms of Hyderabad and Kashmir and the coastal state of Junagadh refused to cooperate. Travancore refused to join either India or Pakistan.
Other rulers mulled separate unions: rulers of Orissa (now Odisha) and Chhattisgarh discussed a union of eastern states. “The process of disintegration loomed. VP pulled against all odds for the transfer of power to India,” notes Basu, author of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India.
The canny Menon, working as Patel’s envoy, fought a carrot-and-stick battle with the rulers. They were offered a privy purse, or a pension in compensation, and were allowed to retain their palaces and titles. But when things become difficult, the stick came in handy.
The army was sent into Hyderabad – the king wanted to remain independent both of India and Pakistan – in September to quell the rebels. Indian troops invaded Junagadh – whose Muslim ruler had chosen to go with Pakistan – and a plebiscite was held, where people overwhelmingly decided to join India. In Kashmir, Menon woke up the sleeping prince to tell him that tribal fighters from Pakistan had raided his kingdom. The maharajah was ready to accede at once, and signed the Instrument of Accession, Menon recalled. In two years, over 500 princely states were dissolved into 14 new states, a remarkable feat. “Patel’s open contempt for the rulers was tempered by VP’s mix of subtlety, gruff charm and ruthlessness,” says Basu.
Menon had become indispensable much before he began unifying India. He worked under an unbelievably punishing deadline in 1947 to put together a plan for transfer of power – proposing that power be transferred to two federal governments in India and Pakistan – on his typewriter.
This became the basis of the settlement under which the British left India three months later.
“He put this together in four hours, something which would change the face of history and South Asia. It was a remarkable achievement,” says Ms Basu.
Menon had surpassed his wildest ambitions. The man, who had not gone to college and begun his life as a worker in a gold mine, had risen to the top of the civil service – his 37-year-long career as a bureaucrat spanned India’s long and arduous journey to freedom.
He did not belong to the elite cadre of civil servants: he had begun his career in the imperial bureaucracy as a typist, stenographer and clerk. It helped that he spent long hours in smoke-filled rooms taking notes and listening to officials and leaders engaged in tough negotiations. Menon credited Edwin Montagu, the Liberal Secretary of State for India, for goading him to think beyond “paper-pushing, draft writing and letter typing”.In his later years, Menon was tasked with odd jobs: he stopped a king of a northern state from inviting two “night club hostesses” from London to Delhi following an outrage in India. He sent “secret telegrams” to a senior minister tasking him to get some priceless art belonging to a dead Indian king from London. He even appeared in the courts as a representative of the government in cases relating to claims to jewels belonging to the Nizam of Hyderabad by members of the royal family.
Yet historians like Basu believe he was forgotten too soon, ignored and sidelined by Nehru after Patel’s death. “He was whitewashed out of the political discourse,” says Ms Basu. When he died, aged 75, leaving behind three children from two marriages, his funeral was “small and private as VP had been in life”.
Bureaucrat, crisis manager, handyman and draftsman of India’s integration, Menon was all this and more. Ms Basu says “being in rooms with different personalities and big egos” taught him about drafting sentences and how to negotiate. “He learnt, absorbed and adapted”.
“You can only learn,” Menon would say, “if you start at the bottom”.
By Soutik Biswas