Why was Krishna Menon the foul guy of '62?
by Atul Bhardwaj on 22 Dec 2011 13 Comments

[A new insight into the events of those tumultuous times – editor]

Three guilty men of India-China war are Mao, Menon, and Nehru - the dominant discourse in India imbues the trio with various shades of red - and tends to filter the 1962 war debate through the anti-communist prism - conveniently ignoring the role that the Indian conservatives and socialists played in making the war inevitable. Both the rightists and the centrists within and outside the Congress party were the first generation of Indian cold warriors, who were as paranoid about communism as McCarthy was in America.

Much before India had become a republic – one of the tallest leaders of Indian politics, Sardar Patel wrote to Nehru on 07 November 1950 - spelling out his concerns about communist China, “Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include important parts of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also…While our Western and North-Western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the North and North-East. Thus for the first time after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate on two fronts simultaneously.”

In hindsight, one could say that Patel was a visionary. However, one wonders as to what were the main drivers of Patel’s belief in Chinese imperialist intentions. Unlike Nehru and Menon, Patel was a conservative, closer to Vivekanand’s nationalist point of view. It is therefore difficult to understand Patel’s reliance on British maps and geopolitical threat analysis to shape his territorial perception on India-China territorial dispute. The Indian independence was in its infancy, no rational actor at that juncture would have considered opening up a second front, then why was Patel so keen about it in 1950. The answer is simple - it was communism and not China that posed a threat.

A dispassionate look at Patel’s statement would reveal that the seeds of India- China war had been sown immediately after Mao drove out Chiang Kai-shek from mainland China in 1948. Lt Gen Nathu Singh Thakur (one of the senior most Indian military officers at the time of independence) on 24 October 1950 wrote to Army Headquarters, “Communist China’s complete success over the Kumintang… their declared policy towards liberation of Tibet… clearly indicate the writing on the wall. The Communist menace is gradually spreading towards the borders of India.” This was also the time when communist led Telangana rebellion against feudal lords and Nizam of Hyderabad was at its peak.

The entry of Tibet factor into Sino-India equation and the formation of a strong lobby within India that took up cudgels on behalf of the Tibetans and the CIA involvement in using the Indian territory at Mcleodgunj in Himachal Pradesh to build alternative power structures for control of Tibet is now well documented. The Americans could easily garner support within India for their cause to contain China because prior to leaving India the British had ensured that the Indian elite class had enough anti-communists with its fold. Rajagopalachari the first Indian Governor General of India, on taking over as the Chief Minister of Madras in 1952 openly declared, “I am here to save my country from the traps and dangers of the communist party. That is my policy from A to Z. I am placing my cards on the table. I am your enemy number one and may I say you are my enemy number one. This is my policy.”

The early Indian strategic thought and security considerations were embedded in the international political economy than the classical geopolitics that considers geography to be the main determinant of the inter-state conflict. The main plank on which the foundation of future India-China conflict was erected was the fear generated by the arrival of communism in Asia and the prospects of ensuing red revolution in India. Many of the Indian political elite and also the British-bred Indian military leaders were determined to build fences to prevent the communist onslaught from halting India’s capitalist growth path. The problem was that both Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon did not want to fall prey to the anti-communist paranoia gripping the elite in the 1950s.

Driven by the realities of leading an infant state, Nehru felt that the best bulwark against communism was cooperation and not confrontation with China. The overarching presence of Nehru on India’s foreign policy till of course, 1957 ensured that the Indian elite kept their China related fears to themselves. An article in the Time on the 1962 war says, “Even the Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1951 had rung no alarm bells in New Delhi—and therein lie the real beginnings of the present war.”

To the West disappearance of fear from the Indian minds and the growing Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai chants did not portend well. The two most populous countries could not be allowed to form a third pole on the global stage. The prospects of the two most progressive nations combining was equally unpalatable to the Soviet Union that could not see its position of pre-eminence among the left oriented nations coming under any stress. While the Soviet Union betrayed their communist friends in China, the Americans played a similar game in India to ensure that the two Asian nations remain distant from each other.

America sacrificed India to gain China’s friendship. The Soviets too allowed China to flow into the US fold because they knew that ideological constraints would naturally limit the scope of Sino-US relations. Therefore, despite Nehru’s non-alignment - much like rest of the world - Asia too was divided between the two competing blocks. This tacit understanding between the two super powers may have been reached primarily because the Russians were confident of the ideological purity of the Chinese leadership and the Americans too were confident about the Indian leadership barring of course, Krishna Menon to keep communism at bay.

Krishna Menon was a rising star in Indian politics – his growing mass appeal both within and outside the country was causing consternation in Washington. Menon’s unflinching faith in Non-Aligned Movement - his deep understanding of the ongoing imperial mechanizations in the post-colonial era had made his opponents brand him as ‘crypto communist’. Menon was steering a dangerous course. For a leader of a newly independent, cash strapped nation with miniscule military muscle - to openly take on - a diehard anti-communist like John Foster Dulles, the US  secretary of state - was asking for direct access into the CIA’s hit list. He could have been easily eliminated but that could have led to the surge in strength of the forces that the USA wanted to curtail.

Therefore, Menon was given the proverbial ‘long rope to hang’. The crushing defeat in a war with communist China not only nipped Menon in the bud but also ensured that in Indian perception the communists became traitors. Perhaps, it is the realization of this objective that made YB Chavan see victory in defeat, when he said “The first casualties of the unashamed aggression of the Chinese on India are Marxism and Leninism.” Chavan was correct because the Chinese war decimated not only Nehru but also politically eliminated Krishna Menon who was considered more dangerous than Nehru to the continuation of capitalism in India.

All the President’s men

American confidence was based on the fact that they had die-hard anti-communists in key positions in India. Vinod Mehta’s book, Lucknow Boy: A Memoir - takes us back to early 1980’s when a bizarre controversy erupted and the presence of a “CIA mole became headline news in India. While his/her presence was never in doubt—that cabinet decisions taken in 1971 were being leaked to the Americans was conceded in official quarters—the identity of the spy remained a mystery, (Mr (Seymour) Hersh, the American investigative journalist) in his book (The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House) claimed to solve it. He identified the spy, courtesy his unnamed sources in the White House and CIA, as Morarji Desai.”

Along with Morarji Desai another name connected to the CIA conspiracy is Y.B. Chavan, who became the defence minister replacing Krishna Menon in 1962. Much like Desai, Chavan too had been the Chief Minister of Bombay, the business capital of India, and as the Time 1962 article put it, “Though a socialist and a one time disciple of Nehru, Chavan is cast in a different mold.”

While Morarji’s dubious role as a mole has become folklore, but what has largely gone unnoticed is his performance as the finance minster from 1958 leading up to the 1962 war with China – ignoring the crucial role that finance ministry played in delaying the proposals for defence modernization put forth by the ministry of defence then under the leadership of Krishna Menon. Before the arrival of Morarji in the finance ministry, Menon had ensured that “the allocations to defense rose from Rs. 2,130 million in 1956-1957 (1.8% of the GNP) to Rs. 2,800 million in 1957-1958 (2.4% of the GNP)” (IDSA Journal 1972). The defence allocations began plumetting after 1957 is something that needs to be studied in greater detail.

Morarji’s closeness to Washington and the related events during that period also throw light on the role that America played in fomenting the 1962 conflict. The gross neglect of these linkages in the study of 1962 war has led to history being subverted and blame for the 1962 defeat laid squarely on the shoulders of one the most intelligent strategist of independent India- VK Krishna Menon. Menon and Morarji were both a part of the Nehru’s cabinet that was announced on 17 April 1957. While Krishna Menon had bagged the Defence portfolio, Morarji Desai had got Commerce and Industry ministry – and T.T. Krishnamachari was the Finance minister.

1957, was an important year in India’s post independence history. The year had begun well with Krishna Menon valiantly defending India’s stand on the Kashmir issue at the United Nations – his seven hours and forty eight minutes long speech - where he articulated India’s right under the International Law of self defence to throw out Pakistani infiltrators from Kashmir - won him friends and admirers both within and outside the country. He had won a landslide electoral victory from North Bombay in the general elections. Commenting on the popularity of Krishna Menon during the 1957 election campaign, The Hindu reported, “Huge crowds surged forward, blocking the streets, while Menon was drowned by the surrounding uproar, his umbrella knocked away by the ceaseless bombardment of flowers and bouquets.”


The Congress had won the elections with 60 million votes; the communists were the runners up bagging 12 million votes – replacing the Praja Socialist Party as the second largest political group in Parliament. The political outfit of the Sangh Parivar had yet to register itself as a serious political contender. The rise of communist clout in Indian politics – Krishna Menon’s surging popularity - his leftist leanings coupled with his anti-Americanism was causing concern in domestic as well as international capitalist circles. After having lost China to Mao, the West could not afford to lose India to Communism. The 1957 communist victory in Kerala Assembly elections was difficult to digest for all those who had envisioned a future for India based on free market economy. This was also the time when the tensions between the central bank (The Reserve Bank of India) and the government had begun to surface. The open spat between the then RBI governor, B. Rama Rau and the then finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari over the issue of degree of autonomy that the RBI could enjoy in independent India.

Towards the fag end of 1956, Sir C.D. Deshmukh, India’s finance minister since 1950 resigned from Nehru’s cabinet, ostensibly on the question of Nehru’s disagreement over Bombay’s right to be a part of a separate Marathi-speaking State of Maharashtra. Till the time Deshmukh was leading the department of finance and Sir Benegal Rama Rau was the governor of RBI things were smooth. Both the financial luminaries had belonged to the same school of thought and had read the same text books to reach the commanding heights in their profession. Both had been appointed as CIE (Companion of the order of the Indian Empire).

Deshmukh, an ICS officer had been with the RBI since 1939 as its liaison officer to the Government, then as the Bank’s Secretary, Deputy Governor (1941–43), and Governor (1943–50). Deshmukh was also India’s representative at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference that led to the formation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). Sir Benegal Rama Rau was a thoroughbred British bureaucrat - his most prestigious appointment was as Financial Adviser to the infamous Simons Commission (1928–1930). He was also Deputy High Commissioner for India in London (1934–1938), High Commissioner for India in South Africa (1938–1941) - Ambassador to Japan from 1947 to 1948, and to the United States for one year prior to taking over as the Governor. With the Deshmukh – Rao combination at the helm of independent India’s economy and monetary policies, the British and their American friends had ensured that India would not change tack towards communism and would follow the policy prescriptions from the Bretton Wood twins.

Till the time the economic front was well secured the Americans were happy with Nehru and gave him the space to indulge in his fantasies of being a being a leader of the third world and non-aligned movement. This smug satisfaction and the confidence that India will continue to maintain the course despite the obvious Russian tilt was based on the western orientation of key leaders in India. A telegram by the US embassy in India dated November 25, 1955 to their state department reiterates the point, “Embassy’s preliminary evaluation of effect of Bulganin, Khrushchev visit on India and on US security is that it will represent a gain for Russians despite determination of Indian leaders to keep India independent and despite Indian leaders basic orientation toward Western Democracies.”

However, America’s problem was Menon who as the defence minister, was attempting to carve a people’s army from the ‘Raj’ military handed over to him. He started Sainik schools to make the officer cadre more inclusive. He could not stand the likes of Field Marshal Cariappa and General K.S. Thimayya whom he saw representing a particular class and interest group rather than the nation. It is perhaps these ideological differences that were at the root of Thimayya’s resignation in 1959 rather than any disagreement over promotion of senior army officers. As Srinath Raghavan posits, “the archival evidence now available shows that the reasons for the resignation ran deeper. Just a few weeks before the affair, Indian and Chinese forces had clashed along the eastern frontiers. To counter the growing threat from China, Thimayya wanted the political leadership to consider seriously the proposal mooted by President Ayub Khan for joint defence arrangements between India and Pakistan.” This was an idea that came straight from Washington and was designed to use both India and Pakistan to launch a war on China. Field Marshal Cariappa’s sympathies became obvious when he joined the Swatantra Party and came out on the streets urging India to go out and take on China.

1957 was also the year when India’s second five year plan was jeopardized by paucity of funds. According to the now released CIA reports from that period, Nehru was the weakest at this juncture and was more inclined toward the US because he was desperate for US aid. However, Krishna Menon was least affected by the money crunch in the country and continued to follow his anti-American agenda. Washington was palpably worried, as Menon’s political boat began gathering wind, the Americans knew, it was time to pull back. By now, it appears that Nehru too was beginning to understand the game. The process of purging began with easing of CD Deshmukh and replacing him with T.T. Krishnamachari (TTK). Krishnamachari ensured that Benegal Rama Rau too was removed from the RBI.

But perhaps, both Nehru and Menon were unaware of the powers that the American central bank and its cohorts were capable of exerting. Soon after Rama Rao’s exit a Calcutta-based Marwari businessman named Haridas Mundhra’s dubious share transactions with the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) amounting to Rs. 1.25 crores were revealed by the media. Feorze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law added fuel to the fire by disclosing the confidential correspondence between the then Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari and his principal finance secretary, and raised a question in Parliament on the sale of ‘fraudulent’ shares to LIC.

The second big corruption scandal of independent India that was christened ‘Mundhra scandal’ ended with the scalp of TT Krishnamachari, who was replaced as finance minister by Moraji Desai. If Seymour Hersh’s disclosures about Morarji’s CIA connections are to be believed and if one is to assume that Morarji had been inclined towards his American mentors since as early as 1950s, then one can safely infer that America had been successful in ensuring that they continued to mentor the Indian economy by removing one of the close confidants of Nehru in the Cabinet in 1957.

Krishnamachari’s outster from the cabinet was followed by removal of the EMS Namoodripad’s communist government in Kerala in 1959. This was also the year when Dalai Lama was brought on
horseback and made to settle down in India and a pressure group including C Rajagopalachari, Minoo Massani, N G Ranga, VP Menon, KM Munshi, Homi Baba and a few other prominent erstwhile socialists, free market proponents, Princes and Maharaja’s had come to form a new political outfit called the Swatantra party. Apart form opposing the Congress party’s 1959 Nagpur resolution that proposed joint cooperative farming and ceiling on land holdings, the party led by Rajaji was a staunch opponent of China’s Tibet policy.

Many members of this party were openly accused of being CIA agents by Congressmen. Whether they were paid by CIA or not, the fact is that their sympathies clearly tilted in the direction of America and its policies. Khasa Suba Rau, the well known editor of Swatantra party mouth piece was clearly of the opinion that India was ready to follow America, and even Nehru may give up his policy of neutrality, if only the US could persuade the Europeans to give up the colonies in Afro-Asian countries.

Despite the victories that the USA had been able to achieve in India, Nehru’s closest confidant, Krishna Menon was still giving sleepless nights to US policy makers. In December 1961, Menon once again thwarted Western designs by making sure that the Portuguese were driven out of Goa. This enhanced his reputation further making him a natural successor to Nehru. This was neither good news for free market followers in India nor for American foreign policy.

The arrival of 1962 general elections and Krishna Menon’s resounding victory against Acharya JB Kripalani from North Bombay constituency had convinced Nehru’s detractors that Krishna Menon had to be nipped in the bud. These elections were hyped up as a clash between “socialism and reaction” by the left and according to Kripalani as the fight between “Gandhism and Marxism”. The Times of India, Indian Express and all other mainstream newspapers launched a scathing attack on Menon. The elections had acquired international dimensions with the Time magazine putting Menon on its cover page, openly declaring that “America have an important stake in this outside elections”.

The Time article that derided India’s “Dhoti Democracy”, “played up India’s appeasement on China issue.” Menon’s victory sounded the death knell for right wing politics in New Delhi. Exactly eight months after the election, India -China war broke out and as Norman D Palmer an American journalist who covered the 1962 North Bombay elections says, “What his critics in India and United States had failed to accomplish, his Chinese “friends” brought about with amazing suddeness.” And the rest, as they say is history.

The author is a retd. Naval officer; he edits the quarterly magazine Purple Beret 

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